A week in the arts

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It takes something pretty extraordinary to have one coming out in sympathy for the Royal Opera House. But then Gerald Kaufman's performance at the Culture Select Committee on Wednesday was pretty extraordinary. I've watched this Committee through most of its life, and it has achievements to its credit. Sadly, now it is in danger of overreaching itself. Certainly its chairman is.

In Mr Kaufman the Committee has a cultured chairman with a wide experience of the arts. I hesitate to use the old joke, "I know this because he told me so himself," but it's true that Kaufman misses few opportunities to drop the name of an opera or two, a film or three, or a CD that he bought in some American town for half the price it costs in the UK. The delicious phrase, "When I was in Hollywood" that he would use when quizzing film industry executives seemed to give a tantalising hint of a previous life in movies. In fact, it simply referred to a few days' fact-finding trip. Never mind. He chairs the Committee with elan and perspicacity; his breadth of artistic knowledge lends the committee respect and influence; and its original report on the Royal Opera House caused heads to roll and the Government finally to get a grip.

This week he returned rather eagerly to the fray, but now the backbench politician has begun to sound worryingly like an artistic director manque. Kaufman said there was a case for curtailing or cancelling the Royal Opera's current season after the shocking reviews for the new Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro. He even read out part of one stinker that Figaro had received.

This is dangerous stuff, both aesthetically and politically. As it happens, the Barber also got some very good reviews. But even if both productions had been roundly slated, audiences at both, perhaps lacking Mr Kaufman's record collection, thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The critics are an important element in the reaction to a production, but they are not the sole element, and no company should allow their views to dictate its policy. Far less should any arts company let the fear of a tongue-lashing in the Commons dictate its artistic policy. The potential for experimentation simply to disappear if companies have to anticipate a public select committee rebuke is deeply worrying. The Committee's remit is to investigate and protest about how public money is being spent, not to call for closure on the basis of selective reviews.

As someone with a rich historical perspective on the arts, Kaufman must know that critics can get it wrong. And not only in opera. I can recall a film critic slating Four Weddings and a Funeral, a movie that actually did rather well around the globe. The name of that maverick reviewer? Gerald Kaufman.

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