Two thousand people turn up, not to see Britney Spears make an appearance at a record store in Oxford Street, but at an art gallery in east London in the hope of seeing a living artist - Damien Hirst - turn up at his latest exhibition. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is presented as a modern set of fables, not on BBC2 or Radio 4, but bang in the middle of the evening in a prime slot on BBC1. I'd say that the public's appetite for the arts at the moment
is reassuringly strong. Every time I read that popular taste is crashing through the floor, I laugh. Consuming the arts has become something you don't have to be middle class or white to enjoy. The National Theatre has just enjoyed one of its most popular summers ever, thanks to sponsorship that reduced most of the tickets in a special season to £10. People flocked to see Shakespeare's Henry V, starring Adrian Lester, and Kenneth Branagh in David Mamet's Edmond - neither exactly soft, cultural options. People hunger for experiences that they can re-live with their friends, talk over in the office and at the pub - and Hirst has never failed to deliver on that score.
Strangely, in the case of Hirst, many critics seem to almost resent the fact that he is so popular with ordinary members of the public who have never set foot in an art gallery. In their reviews of his new show last week, they moaned that he was "boring", doing the "same thing over and over again", becoming "repetitive". Of course, there are enthusiasts - Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph was bowled over, claiming that Hirst's installation of cows' heads, inspired by the 12 apostles, "had all the immediacy of high baroque art". Our own Charles Darwent says it is "brave" for Hirst to stand up and be counted as a Christian, something extremely unfashionable in trendy Hoxton. I don't agree. Hirst isn't interested in being "brave", just as he's not at all interested in what critics think of his iconography. Like all artists, he is driven by his creative spirit.
Did we expect Roy Lichtenstein to stop painting pictures with comic strip boxes and dots when he turned 50, or Andy Warhol to stop using photographs as the basis for his paintings after three decades? I visited the Warhol show in Monte Carlo in August. It was held in a huge exhibition centre, an anonymous box normally home to car and boat shows. Room after room was filled with massive paintings, flogging one or two themes over and over again. The first Campbell soup can from the Sixties is just as zinging and bold as subsequent versions 20 years later, from collaborations with Basquiat to renditions of camouflage.
Did Joseph Beuys stop doing installations and start painting oils after 30 years? Of course not. Why is it OK for Monet to paint the same view hundreds of times, but a contemporary artist is supposed to "evolve" in some mysterious way? The public, by the way, couldn't give a stuff. But then they don't earn their living trying to dissect and diminish every aspect of contemporary culture.
You can never underestimate public taste, but I like to think that most of us are receptive to more challenging stuff than we are ever offered. So I'm pleased that the BBC adapted The Canterbury Tales, and the first episode, adapted from "The Miller's Tale", starring Billie Piper as the sexy wife, did not disappoint. Now Raymond Gubbay has decided opera, too, can reach a wider audience. After staging his spectaculars at the Royal Albert Hall, he plans to start a new opera company at the Savoy Theatre. Gubbay wasn't the first person to treat opera like a rock concert - in the early Nineties Harvey Goldsmith staged Carmen and Aida at Earls Court. But Gubbay will be offering us more choice with his new venture.
When it comes to museums, you'd think this surge of interest in culture would cause them to set their sights higher, and respond with more challenging exhibitions. Sadly, this is not the case - next month the Royal Academy is to open its extension (formerly the Museum of Mankind) with a retrospective of the dress designer Giorgio Armani. Leaving aside the fact that Armani trained as a lawyer, and is about as innovative a clothing designer as Prince Charles, this is a rum choice for the Academy. Armani represents a triumph of marketing - perhaps they are planning to open a shop selling his diffusion line instead of postcards. In the history of 20th century fashion, Armani will be a footnote, whereas Yves St Laurent and Vivienne Westwood (to have a retrospective at the V&A) will be revered as masters.
These museum shows have toured elsewhere or are marketing exercises. Take the appalling Titanic exhibition at the Science Museum, which is now followed by one based on The Lord of the Rings. You may not like Damien Hirst, but for my money he's offering us more stimulation than the curators at most public museums and galleries.
Last week the shortlist for the Stirling Prize for architecture was announced. Pardon my lack of enthusiasm, but if a ferry shelter costing £16,000 in a remote part of Scotland wins, then I shall be thoroughly depressed. Isn't it about time that this prize was focused on the one area we do so appallingly badly in this country: housing for low- and middle-income earners? The ecologically conscious, quirky BedZED housing in Wallington, south London, is one of the finalists, but should a dance centre, a museum courtyard or a dreary office block really represent the best that architects could come up with in the UK in the past year? Designing a one-off cultural centre isn't hard - in fact, it's an architect's dream job. Coming up with stylish housing is something no-one seems capable of achieving, despite John Prescott's ambitious plans to cover the South-east with the stuff.
I've just returned from my holidays. For the second time in recent years, I've ended up in the centre of a national disaster. The first occurred when I rented a house in Provence. On day two I awoke to find the river had flooded, killing over 20 people, and the surrounding vineyards were awash with mud. This time I arrived in Corsica, and the first news bulletin I tuned in to showed my villa was sited in the centre of an eco-disaster, the worst forest fire in years. I spent a week dusting ash off the sun loungers with my nose streaming as am allergic to smoke. Helicopters patrolled the valley as planes bombed the hills with water. Next year, I'll issue a bulletin regarding my whereabouts, and you can all avoid the area.Reuse content