'I am surprised that intelligent writers and artists expect politicians to have any taste at all'

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The Independent Online

David Hockney joined a distinguished club last week. Its existing members include John Tusa, John Drummond, Vidia Naipaul and Doris Lessing, who all think the Blair government is philistine, and have rebuked our leaders for their allegedly low-brow taste in the arts. I have always been surprised that intelligent writers and artists expect politicians to have any taste whatsoever. Isn't it a plus to discover that in Chris Smith we have the first Minister for the Arts in decades who actually goes to the theatre and art exhibitions of his own free will? Astonishingly, Mr Smith read books and did all this before he was appointed to the job (he managed a PhD in English literature as well).

David Hockney joined a distinguished club last week. Its existing members include John Tusa, John Drummond, Vidia Naipaul and Doris Lessing, who all think the Blair government is philistine, and have rebuked our leaders for their allegedly low-brow taste in the arts. I have always been surprised that intelligent writers and artists expect politicians to have any taste whatsoever. Isn't it a plus to discover that in Chris Smith we have the first Minister for the Arts in decades who actually goes to the theatre and art exhibitions of his own free will? Astonishingly, Mr Smith read books and did all this before he was appointed to the job (he managed a PhD in English literature as well).

Leaving aside David Hockney's whinge about our PM behaving "like a school prefect", does this distinguished crowd of cultural crumblies have a point? The fact is we get the politicians we deserve - and politicians are no more or less "cultured" than the people who elect them. It is naïve and hopelessly optimistic to expect that as a group they should provide cultural leadership. Do we really care if Tony Blair reads Dick Francis or Proust? Does it matter if he listens to Oasis in preference to Schnittke? Should he be setting an example by taking his kids to the Globe instead of to Alton Towers? Gordon Brown was on the radio yesterday reiterating that his primary function is to "listen" to his public. Let's not forget that means listening to a public with taste often far more philistine than that of the ascetic Mr Brown. Seven and a half million of them bothered to telephone a television company on Friday to register an opinion about who should win a mindless TV series. What does that tell us about popular taste?

At the opening night of Car Man, Matthew Bourne's latest dance extravaganza at the Old Vic, I ran into Peter Mandelson and offered him a glass of champagne. He refused and stuck to mineral water, spending 20 minutes on his mobile phone. No doubt Mr Hockney would have been unimpressed that a senior government minister could find time during a national crisis to attend the theatre. He would have been carping that Mandelson should have been at something more challenging, Don Giovanni perhaps. The next evening a new play by David Hare opened at the Royal Court. Again, it was not particularly challenging, more concerned with unpicking society's obsession with addiction than making any real observations about our current government. But Car Man and My Zinc Bed do not symbolise some decline in the arts merely because they are popular and accessible. What is happening is that there is simply more choice than ever, and we are lucky to be living through a cultural explosion.

The only conclusion to draw from the utterances of Hockney and his fellow cultural tsars is that something happens to your perception of reality as you get older. Call it the Victor Meldrew syndrome if you like. At 53, I wake each day and check to make sure that I have not exhibited any signs of premature prejudice. The symptoms include claiming that the music on Radio 1 is rubbish; claiming that the music on Radio 2 should be on Radio 1; claiming that the music on Radio 3 should be on Classic FM; claiming that the presenters on Radio 4 interrupt too much; claiming that BBC arts programmes have disappeared; claiming that Tracey Emin's work is facile and that Peter Blake deserves a slot in Tate Modern.

Of course, the real Victor Meldrew, Richard Wilson, is a man of high culture and an open mind, light years away from his on-screen persona. He directs new plays and constantly seeks out challenging work. He also supports the Labour Party. To Hockney, Drummond and Tusa, I say there is no cause for concern. Britain is not on some inexorable cultural slide. It's just your vision that's narrowed.

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