Thursday Book: On high art and middlebrows

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The Independent Culture


BY JOHN TUSA, METHUEN, pounds 12.99

A FEW years ago, a Conservative grandee serving a stint as an arts minister before complete retirement was speaking at a conference. He began most sentences with the words: "Because the arts are important..." Eventually, an irreverent questioner bowled a googly by asking: "Why are they important?" The unfortunate minister was lost for words.

I had some sympathy. The virtues of the arts are not easy to quantify. If you don't define them in terms of economic productivity (a habit now thankfully out of fashion), you are left floundering with visceral descriptions which can sound hyperbolic.

John Tusa, in his collection of essays, spends a lot of time explaining why the arts are important.

"Art," he declares, "is about searching and sometimes finding; it defines pain and sorrow and sometimes softens them; it is about exploring confusion and defining disorder; it is about sharing the private and listening in silence; it is lasting but not immediate; it is valuable but priceless; it is based in the past but reaches for the future; it is free to anybody but may not be used by everybody; it is universal though it may be attacked as exclusive; it is diverse and not homogenised; it resists categories and makes connections across them. Art is all the things that the rest of life is not."

It sounds not unlike the Barbican Centre, which Tusa now runs, not least the bit about exploring confusion. To be fair, in his own concrete-and- glass patch, Tusa is also making sense of disorder, re-programming the Barbican with coherence and vision - as the recent American season showed.

Tusa is becoming a forcible advocate for the arts and for changes in government policy to improve them. Not all of his arguments pass muster. One recent attack, not included in this book, was on arts journalists for being over-critical. He went a little quiet after it was pointed out that if journalists had not been so vociferously critical of his Barbican predecessor, Baroness O'Cathain, he would probably not have his present job.

But generally Tusa, an experienced broadcaster and former head of the BBC World Service, is an incisive and knowledgeable commentator. He recently took on the post of vice-chair in the self-styled Shadow Arts Council, a deliberate thorn in the Government's side.

His essay "I'm Worried About Tony" is a withering critique of the PM's attitude to the arts, which, he claims, seems to begin and end with parties for pop stars.

"Does Blair really enjoy talking to Noel Gallagher more than he might, say, to John Tomlinson, the greatest Wagnerian bass in the world?" asks Tusa incredulously.

Blair, he says, is "a true son of Margaret Thatcher" because he backs the arts that pay rather than the arts that cost. The reason, says Tusa, is embedded in Blair's psyche: "The arts do not matter to him because they are a marginal and thinly-rooted side of his own experience."

And there's the poor PM thinking that singing in a student pop group had gained him street cred. Whether Tusa's analysis of Blair is correct - and there's certainly reason to doubt that he feels at ease with the arts - what is more significant is that Tusa is unafraid to make distinctions between low and high arts. Thus he sets himself apart not just from the Secretary of State for Culture and the Government, but from nearly the whole of the arts world, where such distinctions dare not speak their name.

Multiplexes, claims Tusa, do not mean more art: "Most films watched by us most of the time are not even straying into artistic territory."

The most fascinating part of the book concerns a practical rather than ideological issue - the future of the classical music concert. Tusa clearly despairs of the concert formula, in which you pay good money to see a conductor's back and do not know the name of a single member of the orchestra, nor see their faces clearly.

He advocates, in the style of jazz concerts he has put on, that the principal players should arrive on stage with announcements of the instruments they play, an intro-ductory talk, a 10-minute film promo about the orchestra, a camera fixed on the conductor throughout the concert with the image relayed on a screen, and on-stage screens picking out the soloists.

Tusa may not have much influence with Tony Blair, but he heads one of the country's leading classical music venues. He only has to say the word to make his "concert of the future" a reality, and have a dramatic effect on the arts in Britain.