Singing butlers and the paradox of popularity

The snobbery is partly why I favour sport over any branch of the arts
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The Independent Online

Fourteen paintings by the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano were yesterday auctioned by Sotheby's, at Hopetoun House near Edinburgh. Among them was The Singing Butler, which was expected to sell for up to £200,000.

The painting - in which a couple of servants, bowed against the elements, hold umbrellas over a straight-backed pair of bright young things in evening-wear dancing on a wet beach - will be familiar to anyone who has so much as wandered past the window of a shop selling prints and posters.

There are more than a million reproductions of that one painting, which statistic alone would have stopped me from scratching my nose at Hopetoun House yesterday: if I had that sort of money to spend on a painting, I wouldn't particularly want people telling me I had the same picture on my wall as their dentist, their osteopath, and their auntie Mabel. Mind you, there's a flip side to that situation. My grandmother dragged me round the Rijksmuseum when I was five, and by all accounts there was much respectful nudging and pointing from our fellow visitors when I stood in front of an on-loan Vermeer, a print of which my father had in his office, and trilled, "Look grandma, there's daddy's picture."

It seems unlikely that Vettriano will ever join Vermeer on the walls of the Rijksmuseum; indeed, despite being Britain's most popular contemporary artist, he has not even made it onto the walls of the Tate. The art establishment derides his work for being populist and unchallenging, while those who collect it, among them the lyricist Sir Tim Rice, cry cultural snobbery.

Rice, of course, knows all about cultural snobbery. He has endured it himself, largely by association with his long-time musical collaborator Andrew Lloyd Webber. The very success of the shows they conceived together has unleashed an avalanche of sneers. If that many people like it, goes the reasoning of many self-styled sophisticates, it must be crap. Besides, all those Lloyd-Webber tunes sound the same, don't they? With the help of people like Rice and Cameron Mackintosh, the man is responsible for the dumbing down of West End theatre, and bugger the fact that he has earned Britain a fortune, he has earned himself a fortune, too, so let's not lionise him as some sort of commercial hero.

This snobbery is partly why, much as I adore good books and films, I favour sport over any branch of the arts. Sport does not suffer from the paradox that the more popular something is, the more devalued it becomes. Sport might be subject to petty partisanship, but not, on the whole, to crashing élitism. If it's done well, be it Brian Lara scoring 400 runs in a Test match, or Zinedine Zidane producing a blur of miraculous footwork, or Jonny Wilkinson executing a perfect drop-kick with several large men rapidly bearing down on him, everyone applauds.

Like the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jack Vettriano, these are things that none of the rest of us can do. If we could, we surely would. Yet the global acclaim for sporting stars is never ascribed, unlike the popularity of Cats, and Evita, and The Singing Butler, to the undiscerning taste of the lowest common denominator. Nobody says that appreciation of Zidane is for people who don't understand football, as Lloyd Webber is supposed to be for those who don't really get music, and Vettriano for folk who aren't too hot on art.

Some would say that this is precisely the beauty of music and art, and for that matter theatre, literature, cinema and even television; that they are about subjectivity, in a way, perhaps, that sport is not. Some would also say, and by e-mail doubtless will, "no, but look, Lloyd Webber's stuff really is crap, and this is why", or "Vettriano really isn't a good painter, let me explain".

That's fair enough, and I look forward to being educated. What I object to, though, is the assumption that popularity, in certain branches of human endeavour, is synonymous with rubbish. Editors of broadsheet newspapers never dismiss The Sun as rubbish; they know that it is peerless at what it does. Even the novels of Jeffrey Archer have merit, if only the merit that people buy them.

Some years ago, Benny Hill fell foul of a particularly ferocious form of cultural snobbery, the kind fuelled by political correctness. That he was enormously popular was part of his crime, and a new wave of comedians led by Ben Elton - the same Ben Elton who later collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber - despised him for it. Yet it was reported yesterday that Sir John Mortimer, indisputedly a cultural heavyweight, has written a television play about Benny Hill, who will be played by Matt Lucas, star of the cult TV comedy Little Britain. And this on the day that Vettriano's paintings went under the hammer at Sothebys. Truly, it was a disorientating day for the cultural snob.

In the end, the arts are in the eyes and ears of the beholder. A generation after I was taken to the Rijksmuseum, my own son, then aged seven, was taken on a school trip to the National Gallery. After more an hour of obediently trooping round, listening to a guide, the children were assembled in front of a seaside scene and asked to write in one word what it made them feel. Happy, perhaps? Or summery? My son wrote "tired".