The Week in Arts: So where is the real art of provocation?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The redoubtable left-wing playwright David Edgar this week made a clarion call. Provocation and outrage must again become central to the arts.

Speaking at a conference organised by the National Campaign for the Arts, Edgar said that the arts in Britain had been at their most successful when the spirit of provocation had been most alive, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Edgar added that art should question national identity, "disrupting rather than confirming how we see the world".

I suspect David Edgar is not displeased with some of the shows on this weekend. Tomorrow Corin and Vanessa Redgrave have helped to put on an opera at London's Tricycle theatre about Guantanamo Bay. A few miles away, at the New Ambassadors theatre, the excellent play Guantanamo looks at the same political issue.

Outrage and provocation? Not in my book. Those who run theatre, and the arts in general, have well-defined parameters for outrage and provocation. They are, as David Edgar helpfully stated, the parameters that existed in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Then, the outrage and provocation in the arts came overwhelmingly from the left of centre, aimed at a traditional, easily targeted political establishment. The issues from Vietnam to sexual freedom also lent themselves to outrage and provocation, usually with a youthful left-of-centre protest movement on one side and an older, more conservative establishment on the other.

For the theatre world little seems to have changed. Outrage and provocation are defined in the same terms and come from the same side of the political spectrum as in the Sixties, and frankly I wonder how outraged and provoked audiences feel. The Guantanamo shows will be preaching to the converted. They will confirm strongly held opinions, not outrage audiences into new ones.

Mr Edgar may not like to hear it, but outrage and provocation in the arts can now best come from the other side of the political spectrum. But where are the plays provocatively arguing for Guantanamo? Where are the new works, outrageously questioning the debates about sexual freedom, feminism, asylum-seekers, abortion, a thousand other things we only ever see discussed on stage from one perspective?

If art is to provoke and outrage once again, then it has to provoke and outrage from the right as well as the left. Is Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre commissioning such works? I doubt it. Would David Edgar delight in such provocation and outrage? I doubt that too.

Don't hang the DJ - sack the committee

It was wrong that Tony Blackburn was briefly suspended by his radio station for playing too many Cliff Richard songs. He should have been garrotted. But that diverting dispute does bring into focus one of the great myths of music radio: a myth that has endured for nigh on 40 years.

It is that DJs, presenters, call them what you will, bring their own musical taste to bear on the records they play. With the possible exception of John Peel, they don't. As Blackburn's station Classic Gold has gauchely, but truthfully, made crystal clear, the playlists are decided by committee high up in the bureaucracy, and the programme presenter might be allowed to pick and choose within, and only within, what the committee decides.

The policy is as true of Radio 1 and the most hip stations as it is of the golden oldies stations. It makes a mockery of the "relationships" millions of listeners feel they have with their favourite presenters, and the touching belief that they share the same musical tastes.

¿ The magazine Modern Painters appears to have signed up a new visual arts reviewer. This critic's writing certainly adds a new dimension to the magazine. It is full of contemplation and has a markedly more spiritual bent than the work of the other reviewers in the summer edition of the journal. Reviewing the exhibition of portraits by Celia Paul, he writes: "The whole point of Celia Paul's work is to break down the polarity between self-contemplation and the contemplation of the other - an other that opens out to that final otherness which religious people know as God."

In some reviewers that thought might seem over-reaching, but with this art critic it seems perfectly proper, as he is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.