Beethoven? Pompous. Hepworth? Depressing. Let's slaughter the sacred cows of culture

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The Independent Online
WHEN CHRIS SMITH said the other day that he did not consider Dylan necessarily inferior to Keats, he was, whether he knew it or not, offending at least three sets of people.

One was the Welsh, who automatically assume that the name Dylan can only mean Dylan Thomas, whom they take to be superior to everyone. The second was people who can't stand Bob Dylan. The third was people who have never read Keats and who feel either offended or browbeaten at being expected to have an opinion about him.

I would also like to set the ball rolling for a fourth set of offended people, to which I would like to belong, namely those who feel tired at the thought of having to pay lip-service to anyone, be it Keats or Bob Dylan. When Tony Palmer made headlines in the 1960s by saying that the Beatles were the greatest songwriters since Schubert, we assume that people were either shocked or pleased, but there must have been a lot of people who were left unmoved precisely because they didn't have very strong feelings about either. It would be nice to speak up for them.

We are all guilty of assuming this lip-service duty from time to time. I remember an occasion on which my first wife and I decided that we would do something we had never done before and buy seats for a concert at the Albert Hall, and we took along our friends Terry and Alison. It was a safe enough programme, full of Beethoven, mostly, and it wasn't till much later that Terry told me how much he had been bored by the evening.

"I like most classical music, but I can't stand Beethoven," he said. "Never could. Bombastic, pompous constructor of public works ... Pain in the ass."

I can see what he meant. I could also see why he didn't go round talking about it. It's not one of the things you're meant to say. There are certain things we are meant to treat as Western icons, and woe betide us if we opt out of too many of them. The Bible and Shakespeare are two of them, which is why they are dished out to guests on Desert Island Discs like sea-sickness pills. But Mozart and/or Wagner ... football ... Magritte ... opera ... Stravinsky ... Picasso ... the Rolling Stones ... Princess Diana ... Oscar Wilde ... these are all pin-ups of the times, and you must be very careful of your ground before you cast aspersions at such holy cows.

Well, I wonder if there are many more like me with severe doubts in the field of modern art, especially modern sculpture. I first realised that I had troubles here when I failed, after years of trying, to derive any enjoyment at all from Henry Moore. This distressed my friend and colleague at Punch, the assistant art editor Geoffrey Dickinson, who actually dragged me along to a big Moore exhibition at the Tate to convert me. It was useless. I still saw nothing in Moore. So I was rather glad that Geoff was not around when I went, some years back, to the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and wandered round a Barbara Hepworth show in the open air. This was different from the Moore experience. Moore left me cold. Hepworth I actively disliked. Her shapes seemed sullen and heavy, and depressing. They dragged down the fresh greenness of the gardens, and slowed the dance of nature to a halt. Most unpleasant.

But you always have to make sure you're not making a fool of yourself, so when, earlier this year, my wife and I went to Cornwall for an out- of-season experience we did the right thing by visiting Barbara Hepworth's garden and the Tate Gallery, both at St Ives. I tried, I really tried, but I had the same experience in both. Liked the garden, loved the gallery, couldn't take the art seriously in either. Most of the contents of the Tate was, I think, modish rubbish, but the Hepworth not only seemed as heavy and as lifeless as I remembered it from Edinburgh, it also seemed terribly dated - it reminded me of a lot of the mannered stuff washing around in the 1950s which made it such a good decade to get out of.

I take no particular pleasure in taking no pleasure in Hepworth, though it does save valuable time, and I take no particular pleasure in parading my prejudice today, except that if it encourages anyone else to be brave enough to admit to their blind spots and get it over with, it might have been worthwhile. Oh, and of course, you might feel like doing the opposite, which requires equal amounts of bravery, i.e. admitting to admiration for the aunt Sallies of our time - Mrs Thatcher, Georgette Heyer, Prince Charles, Jacques Santer, Paul Daniels, Esther Rantzen ... add your own names.

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