The Week In Arts: The art of outrage needs to find new targets

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The Independent Online

There's a rather illuminating series running on Radio 4 at the moment. The Cultural State is a history of attitudes towards the arts in Britain, and is presented by the station's estimable arts reporter John Wilson. John is the son of the former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, a fact of no cultural relevance whatsoever, unless one counts some of Wilson senior's more cultured saves.

There's a rather illuminating series running on Radio 4 at the moment. The Cultural State is a history of attitudes towards the arts in Britain, and is presented by the station's estimable arts reporter John Wilson. John is the son of the former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, a fact of no cultural relevance whatsoever, unless one counts some of Wilson senior's more cultured saves.

This week's programme revisited an intriguing episode of outrage in the arts. It was the great Catfish furore of 1970. It concerned an installation at London's Hayward Gallery by the artist Newton Harrison. The installation was of a catfish which at the end of the evening was killed and served up to exhibition goers. In more ways than one, it didn't go down well. Spike Milligan brought a hammer to the private view and attempted to break the glass encircling the catfish. The press was appalled. The Arts Council met in emergency session to discuss it.

The arts establishment was undaunted. The then not yet knighted Peter Hall said the catfish illustrated the cycle of life and death. A junior member of the Arts Council, Lady Antonia Fraser, also defended the installation saying it was wrong to be upset as every housewife in the country fried fish of an evening. Lord Goodman, the Arts Council chairman, apparently responded to her: "Don't tell me that those fair hands have fried fish." How different from exchanges in the Arts Council of today, where Lord Goodman would probably be threatened with an employment tribunal.

Anyway, a compromise was reached whereby the exhibition continued, but the RSPCA was brought in to kill the catfish humanely. Somewhere in the past 35 years, the RSPCA has lost its cultural involvement. What fees they could have earned being on duty at the Royal Academy, the Saatchi Gallery, Tate Britain and elsewhere during Damien Hirst's dissected animal and trapped butterfly installations.

But little else has changed. Outrage, we are reminded, if we didn't know it already, isn't new. It was there in 1970. What is shocking is that it was there in remarkably similar form to now - a conceptualist installation, the roar of "Is it art?", even the same sideline in alleged cruelty to animals.

The arts have always sought moments of outrage. But isn't it time for outrage to move on? We need new ways of being culturally outrageous, new methods of being both shocking and provocative. What about a play at the National Theatre defending the Iraq war, or a Turner Prize list that consisted of figurative painting? Now there's shock appeal.

Theatre owners: behave yourselves

Kevin Spacey, no slouch at getting publicity for his first Old Vic season, has issued a public warning to audiences. If they can't keep their mobile phones turned off, and if they can't desist from rustling sweet wrappers, then they should stay away. As he puts it: "You have to respect the fact that there is some degree of behaviour we expect in the theatre, and we're going to demand it at the Old Vic."

I agree with him. A mobile phone going off is actually pretty rare in my experience. But the often unending process of unwrapping sweets and chocolates can drive one mad. And, now that Kevin Spacey, left, is a spokesman for theatre behaviour, I feel sure he won't want to stop at mobile phones and sweet wrappings.

I trust that he will nail his colours to the mast on those loathed booking fees and "handling charges", things that irritate audiences much more than phones and noisy eaters, to judge from my mailbag. So, over to you Kevin. After all, there is some degree of behaviour we audiences expect in the theatre.

* Flower arranging was officially sanctioned as an art form this week with an exhibition at the Design Museum on Constance Spry, the high priestess of flower decoration. The late Ms Spry, a household name in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, said that with a little imagination people could beautify their homes with flowers plucked from hedgerows and scraps of wasteland and put in containers such as gravy boats and baking tins.

But, if Alan Bennett is to be believed, the exhibition would be even stronger if it gave a flavour of the fierce rivalries inherent in the art form. As the vicar's wife played by Maggie Smith in one of Bennett's TV monologues said: "Those who think squash is a competitive sport should try flower arranging."

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