Joan Bakewell: What is Kylie Minogue doing at the V&A?

The arts themselves are seen as part of the self-regarding picture of vanity and conceit
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The Independent Online

We are seeing something reckless going on. Perhaps in these dying days of Tony Blair's premiership there's a sense of decadence about the country that's showing itself in what we look at and enjoy. The arts are said to reflect society back to itself. But do we always recognise it? And do we like what we see?

There's no doubt that the new National Theatre production of George Etherege's Restoration comedy The Man of Mode is hitting the button fair and square. It is not so much in modern-dress as in the fashions and styles of next week. It is so modish the paint's not dry on this picture of dissolute young people, hell bent on seduction with style, careering through trendy London settings - a restaurant à la Philippe Starck, a lingerie shop à la Agent Provocateur - in a torrent of self-regard and obsessive narcissism.

Sadly the torrent applies to the language, too. This rattling-fast dialogue does no service to the original text, but mirrors the frantic exchanges one sometimes overhears in bars and clubs. The play's plot twists to accommodate our multi-ethnicity. The 17th century play had a rich young city gentleman wooing a rich girl likely to inherit a country estate. Nicholas Hytner's production makes the country family Asians from Yorkshire, eager to share the spoils of London. Neat.

In an incestuous mockery of other arts, there's even a scene in an art gallery where the work on show is a confection of gilded chairs and and performance art featuring a strange group of androgynous dancers. It might easily be an arcane offering from Tate Modern or Hoxton's White Cube Gallery. The arts themselves are seen as part of the self-regarding picture of vanity and conceit.

The same reflective art is going on at Tate Britain where a mighty Hogarth exhibition has just opened, with not a little suggestion that Hogarth's debased and corrupt antics are relevant today. Here again we see ourselves through the critical eye of a great satirist - the Gin Lane where mothers are too drunk to care for children, the local election where bribery and deceit have won the votes. Staring back at us from the gallery walls are tales of betrayal, veniality and self-loathing that ring contemporary bells. Even the glorious portrait of Thomas Coram is attended by the knowledge that he was a friend to Hogarth because of their joint venture in creating the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children. Hogarth had seen depravity at first hand. And so do we.

Meanwhile, in benign rather than satiric mood, the Victoria & Albert Museum has just opened Kylie: The Exhibition, to record-breaking ticket bookings (the show is free). Here in the hallowed halls where William Morris once set the tone, an exhibition of not only her extravagant showgirl costumes, but also the dungarees she wore on Neighbours is drawing crowds, among them peacocking fashionistas who are awaiting the day their cast-offs make it to the rostrum. The V & A's remit is to celebrate the finest of arts and crafts, and on that criteria these flimsy and outrageous costumes just about make it.

What is lamentable is the tone of the exhibition's website where you are invited to "share your memories of Kylie", follow the Kylie timeline, Kylie links and even a Kylie reading list. The memories, to date, comprise eight pages of unctuous fawning and maudlin' fan mail: "You have always been close to me, Kylie... there for me, Kylie... transforming my life, Kylie..." The sentiments are often laced with lines of kisses.

We're back to Diana-dependency. This is not worthy of the V & A, who rightly seek to serve all the public whose taxes finance it, but whose intention must surely be to engage everyone in some semblance of standards. Kylie has been a world star for many, many years. She is dazzlingly pretty, hugely popular, unaffected in her personality and recently fought bravely against cancer. All this commends her. She also works extremely hard to make her shows the very best. The V & A should do the same.

But ideally, of course, Kylie: The Exhibition belongs in a theatre museum. How great it would have been to see the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden drawing the thousands who are about to descend on South Kensington. The site and its youthful surroundings of cafés and shops would have been altogether more appropriate. The swarms of eager fans could have reinvigorated a place fallen out of fashion. Instead, the Theatre Museum - which housed costumes, set designs, props and posters associated with great performers and productions - closed its doors to the public only last month. After desultory attempts to rescue it, all involving money that wasn't forthcoming, the V & A has developed plans to put its own theatre archives on more permanent show. I can't help feeling that a great chance has been missed.

Meanwhile, the whirligig that is London's cultural life goes on. And we are all becoming part of the great parade. Fashion and self-conscious style are now so much a part of daily life that walking the streets is itself like attending a performance in which we are all players. This is great for what government calls the "creative industries" - a sector that is predicted to grow rapidly, creating jobs and exports.

That's fine, just as long as we don't delude ourselves into thinking that here lie values and standards rigorous enough to underpin civilised life.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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