Football? I'd rather be at Sadler's Wells

Here we go again: lottery money is awarded to an arts institution (shock!), it is a lot of money (horror!), and the beneficiary is a dance company (elitist!). Here Kenan Malik despairs of knee-jerk reactions to the funding of high arts, while Scott Hughes solicits opinion from leading players in the dance world
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's not often that the trendy Blairite Tony Banks signs common cause with Tory backwoodsman Terry Dicks. But both have been turned apoplectic by the award of National Lottery funding first to the Royal Opera House and now to Sadler's Wells, which is to get up to pounds 30m. Opera and ballet, apparently, are elitist arts that are of interest only to toffs who can afford to pay for their own entertainment. Lottery money should go to things that are of genuine interest to ordinary punters - such as bingo halls, according to Dicks. But what could be more elitist than the argument that high art and ordinary people don't mix, and that working-class people would prefer bingo halls to opera houses?

Earlier this year the Sun, after a night at the opera, decided it was nothing more than an "expensive earache". "Opera? I'd rather be at West Ham," claimed one of its readers-turned-critic, giving vent to the notion that working-class people prefer more down-to-earth pursuits. Yet more people attended the Royal Opera House last year than Upton Park. The idea that ordinary people do not appreciate high art is a middle-class myth. You only have to look at the queues that form outside major art exhibitions - such as the recent Post-Impressionist showings in London or the current Cezanne blockbuster in Paris - to realise that working-class people are not quite as philistine as Banks, Dicks and the Sun would have us believe.

Even opera is not as elitist as it is made out to be, as even a cursory glance at its history reveals. In 19th-century Italy, the great arias of Verdi's operas became popular tunes within hours of their first performances, embodying as they did the mass yearning for political unity and freedom. The novels of James Joyce reveal well how opera was woven into the lives and sensibilities of ordinary Dubliners at the turn of the century. Caruso and Callas were singers whose lives and music touched millions across the world. The adulation given to the like of Pavarotti today shows the extent to which, even in Britain with its philistine traditions, such music can have meaning for ordinary people.

If there is popular ridicule of opera and ballet, it is largely because ignorant populists like Dicks and Banks have helped fuel it. Their arguments demean both the value of art in our lives and the sensibilities of the ordinary people whom they claim to represent.

Opera, ballet and theatre, it is true, are expensive forms of entertainment. Such art forms are too intimately wedded to a human relationship with their audience to allow for the economies of scale that operate at a Wembley gig by Madonna or Take That. Yet a performance at Covent Garden or Sadler's Wells need cost no more than a ticket to a premiership football match. Try telling a supporter outside Anfield or Old Trafford on a Saturday afternoon that they are being extravagant and you would probably be given a Cantona-style response. Just as I would like to see premiership ticket prices come down, so I would like to see admission prices at Covent Garden or Sadler's Wells plummet too, to make them more accessible to more people. And if lottery money can help do that, so much the better.