Grave new world: There's a sombre new mood in the arts world

The 'South Bank Show' with Melvyn Bragg may be ending, but across the arts there is suddenly a hunger for serious fare, says David Lister

A recession can do strange things to the artistic sensibility. It can drive audiences, TV viewers, readers of novels, rapidly and relentlessly upmarket. The hottest tickets this summer, predicted the National theatre's Nichoals Hytner this week, would be for Racine's Phèdre, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

This was, admittedly, not the whole story, as those three challenging plays are not exactly without the crowd-pulling star quotient. He might have added that it was Phèdre with Helen Mirren, Hamlet with Jude Law, Chekhov from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes.

But Hytner is not alone in claiming audiences want meatier fare. The theatre producer Carole Winter, one of the new breed of impresarios bringing serious plays to Shaftesbury Avenue, says: "In a week when the Labour government has received little praise, I want to suggest that their investment in the subsidised sector over the last 12 years is reaping rewards as commercial producers like me are more confident that serious drama, often born in the subsidised sector, can sustain a West End run. So the sense of excitement generated from regional theatres has also wakened the West End taste buds."

Certainly, her production of Six Characters in Search of an Author was testament to this. A teaming up of West End producers and subsidised regional companies brought to Shaftesbury Avenue an extraordinary re-imagining of Pirandello's classic play. Its inventive staging and post-modern questioning of the 'self' was not what many traditional West End audiences would expect to find, but its critical reception and presentation alongside a landscape of film-to-theatre adaptations and musicals contributed to a change afoot in the West End.

It's not just theatre audiences who are embracing complexity, darkness and challenge at a time when one might have expected the craving to be for simpler entertainment. As Hytner points out, another feature of the public's aesthetic response to the current economic woes has been the embrace of history, with, he says, the most illuminating insights into the crisis coming from Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money. "Serious," he concludes, "is what the public wants."

And if the public "wants serious" in the theatre, it wants it in other art forms too. The English National Opera has always had a challenging strand in its repertory, but for years it has seen its main revenue earners as revivals of classic Mozart or familiar Italian operas. But just this week the company found it had on its hands its hottest ticket for some time with David Alden's dark, complex and provocative production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. I was among the audience that cheered to the rafters this piece showing, often in grotesque and chilling shape, the dark underside of English village life.

It may sound like stretching a point too far to say that even in pop there is a search for deeper meaning. But if one takes one of the bands of the moment, Fleet Foxes from Seattle, British critics and public alike have been entranced not just by their exquisite harmonies but by the spirituality, yearning and even melancholy in their music.

Cinema, of course, continues to thrive on escapist entertainment and Hollywood fare. But there are straws in the wind even at the multiplex. It's certainly interesting that young hunk Robert Pattinson's Hollywood vampire film Twilight has not had the same critical or word of mouth acclaim as Let the Right One In, the new art house vampire film from Sweden, a dark brooding study of childhood loneliness. Audiences wanted the more thoughtful, darker treatment.

Straws in the wind? Well there seem to be plenty of them at present across the arts. Three days ago the Sony Radio Academy made BBC Radio 3 its Station of the Year for the first time. The judges highlighted the broadcasting of the complete works of Chopin and Milton's Paradise Lost, names one doesn't often hear read out from the podium at an awards ceremony. And after some difficult years, Radio 3's listening figures are increasing.

Roger Wright, who runs both Radio 3 and the Proms, says: "I've certainly noticed recently a new thirst for classical music and serious programming. Record audiences at BBC Proms, increased listening figures for Radio 3, sold out concerts and lots of media interest in orchestras. The fascination with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and then the National Youth Orchestra, are good examples. Places like the Wigmore Hall have been having renewed success, and new classical superstars such as Lang Lang are making real connections with the general public."

At the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, the director, has set his face against high-profile blockbusters with the associated razzmatazz, in favour of smaller, more contemplative exhibitions. The poignant political paintings of poverty in 19th-century Italy by the little-known Italian "Divisionist" painters, working at the same time as the French Impressionists, in the Radical Light exhibition was a memorable example. His current Picasso: Challenging the Past is full every day, and visitor numbers at the gallery are up. Mr Penny sees this as not only testament to the works on show, but also to the recession effect. He says: "The National Gallery's permanent collection is of course free of charge, and at times of financial difficulty, the Gallery offers the opportunity for us all to continue to enjoy astounding works by such artists as Rembrandt, Titian, Cézanne and Van Gogh."

There's an element here of "he would say that, wouldn't he?", but then there is also an element of National Gallery visitor numbers rising alongside the more challenging exhibitions and free admission for the permanent collection. As evidence goes of a new seriousness linked to the recession, this purely economic motive for partaking of serious art is worthy of consideration. But one senses more metaphysical reasons too.

Certainly, as far as theatre goes, Nicholas Hytner sees the new seriousness as an exasperated response to the one dimensional and immediate nature of YouTube and related technology, and perhaps not least Reality TV.

Theatre can certainly offer several other dimensions to what he describes as "this binary comic strip of triumph and disaster." But so can the live arts as a whole. Peter Grimes is a protagonist, abusive yet vulnerable, who might simply be too puzzling for present day TV controllers as he defies that simple definition of hero or villain.

Notions of a new seriousness in the arts are not helped by the treatment of culture on TV. This is the month in which ITV decided to axe The South Bank Show, its only lauded cultural strand. The almost total lack of our great playwrights on BBC, ITV and Channel 4 remains a disgrace. You would not know that Stoppard or Pinter existed, you would not know that Shakespeare was the national playwright, if you relied on BBC and ITV for drama. And in the sphere of ideas, the Horizon strand, which used to be a benchmark of TV seriousness, is now almost entirely given over to pop science, presented by stand-up comedians or lads-mag journalists. The increasingly impressive programming of Sky Arts ought to be giving the terrestrial channels food for thought.

Seriousness exists on TV, but it is all too often on the margins, on BBC4 or More4, as if seriousness is a minority interest. Nevertheless, there are straws in the wind even on terrestrial television. Janice Hadlow, the newish controller of BBC2, has been emphasising in recent speeches that the channel must be the "intellectual engine room" of the corporation. The BBC has set up an arts board, is putting more resources into its arts department, and even a cursory look at current output shows a poetry season and a history of British classical music. It's not enough, but it is to be hoped that it is a statement of intent.

Looking at the literary landscape is certainly heartening. Boyd Tonkin, the Independent's literary editor believes that theree are encouraging signs. Publishers of serious non- fiction say that their sales are holding up well, driven by a widespread need to try to understand these turbulent times. From books directly addressing the current crunch, such as Vince Cable's The Storm and Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold, to books that revive an interest in critical analysis of our system – such as Tristram Hunt's biography of Friedrich Engels – serious writing that gives a wider perspective on a period of crisis is definitely in fashion.

With fiction, the signals seem more mixed. The standard blockbusters are performing as strongly as ever while publishers despair of the ever-shrinking market for "literary fiction". However, this week's sales figures for hardback fiction show no fewer than four books from the spring glut of new works by leading "literary" novelists – Kazuo Ishiguro, A S Byatt, Hilary Mantel and Colm Toibin – in the Top 10.

And look harder at the nature of some of those leading popular bestsellers as well. Victoria Hislop's chart-topping The Return, for instance, outsold the next bestselling title by two-to-one in its first week as a paperback. Yet it deals with the Spanish Civil War and shows a deep concern for getting the political history of the time right rather than simply painting a picturesque backdrop.

The three blockbusters in translation that have reached the fiction top 10 in Britain during the first quarter of 2009: Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire; Roberto Bolano's 2666, and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. All are epic novels from abroad that ask a lot of their readers, but each comes with a big story – about the author, the setting or the theme – that turns publication into a memorable event. The lesson seems to be, in Tonkin's experience, that the new seriousness can indeed sell in abundance, but it needs to snare the attention of its audience just like the old frivolity.

The straws in the wind are there. It is, of course, wrong to isolate certain productions, certain exhibitions, certain novels, and draw far-reaching conclusions from them about the state of our culture. What we are seeing is a culmination of several different factors. New arts leaders with different approaches to their institutions, such as NicholasPenny at the National Gallery. Fruit being borne from public subsidy of regional theatre, which is now enabling West End producers to put on challenging plays in the heart of the West End.

One could cite other factors which invisibly contribute to cultural change. But all of those factors put together do not explain why audiences seem to be craving more serious fare. To explain that we do have to make reference to the time we live in.

Linking the art that affects us and that we seek out to the economic recession is a dangerous science. In reality, such links can amount to little more than instinct and deduction. And yet... Do fears of financial meltdown, fears of redundancy, fears of a breakdown in society make us more contemplative? Contemplative of our own security, our own place in the world? Contemplative of our relationships with our fellow human beings? Contemplative of our mortality? The answer is surely yes.

I became even more certain of it this week, when I sat in a full house at Waiting for Godot. This best double act in English literature, with their music hall allusions, will always get laughs. But I could not fail to notice how the audience, more than in previous productions I have seen, seemed to feel the pain of the two tramps, seemed to ponder Beckett's existential parable. The laughter was muted; the contemplation on the purposelessness of life almost audible.

Great art can and should reflect the times we live in, as great art has something to say about all times. But the times we live in can also determine the art we seek out. In this particular time of recession, financial and political instability, with the integrity of our most notable institutions questioned as never before, we seek out art that has real questions to ask. We seek out art that tries to make sense of the senselessness of existence. We seek out art that is full of ambiguity. We seek out art that helps us strive to understand.

If the silver lining of the recession is a hunger for more serious art, it is a silver lining unlikely to be mentioned in Parliament or in financial reports. But cultural history will not understate its sign.