Who wants to be governed by cultured people?

'It's strangely reassuring to know that Mr Prescott, not some trembling aesthete, is at the helm'
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The Independent Online

One's soft spot for John Prescott was in no way hardened by the revelation of his views on Henry Moore. In the course of a trip to China, he was obliged to have a look at some of the great man's sculpture, thought deeply, and offered the comment that Moore obviously didn't much like doing heads. Cue shock all round as a government minister reveals, to everyone's pretended amazement, that he doesn't much like contemporary art, and doesn't really see why he should pretend to.

One's soft spot for John Prescott was in no way hardened by the revelation of his views on Henry Moore. In the course of a trip to China, he was obliged to have a look at some of the great man's sculpture, thought deeply, and offered the comment that Moore obviously didn't much like doing heads. Cue shock all round as a government minister reveals, to everyone's pretended amazement, that he doesn't much like contemporary art, and doesn't really see why he should pretend to.

You can imagine how these things arise. In the course of a busy day, the embassy thinks it would be a jolly good idea to promote the idea of Britain as not just a great political and trading power, but the source of great culture. What better way to convey this message, some bright spark thinks, than to ask a visiting bigshot to walk briskly through a Henry Moore show and get some photographs in the local press?

In nine out of 10 cases, politicians do their duty and play the game, and never think for a moment of saying what they actually think. Which is odd, because one of the things that governments don't have to take a line on is whether Henry Moore is any good or not. Anyway, no doubt rather bored and mischievous, John Prescott responded and let rip with his private opinions, to everyone's unconcealed delight. Not very Cool Britannia at all.

Possibly Prescott was saying this in the firm knowledge that most of Britain is quietly behind him, and is firmly of the opinion that Picasso and Henry Moore are charlatans of the worst possible stamp. He didn't actually say that a child of five could do that, but you could see that the thought was not far from his mind. It may even be, of course, that he was giving voice to these wonderfully philistine sentiments simply to court a bit of popularity; the government has a fairly firm Damien Hirst sort of image, and it wouldn't do any harm, in a small way, to suggest that deep down, at least one of its leading lights thinks that it's all been downhill since Landseer.

But Prescott's outburst had the ring of conviction, and I'm rather reassured by it. Do we really want to be governed by deeply cultured people? Do we want our view of politicians coloured by the knowledge that they are passionate about Josquin's masses or Klee's engravings? Would we be reassured if we knew that a minister liked to relax, after a hard day tussling with the public sector borrowing requirement, with Rilke?

On the whole, I think not. Of course, there is an end to be served by making our political masters go through the motions in public, wheeling them through the latest atrocity by one of the most brilliant of our younger artists, or forcing them - if necessary at gunpoint - to sit through some ghastly new play. That kind of expression of support for national art is something they ought to do, to show solidarity and confidence in a national industry, in much the same way that they ought occasionally to visit factories.

But I don't think we want them actually to like the stuff, or develop much of an interest in it. The Queen is a past master of this, cheerfully going to all sorts of bilge by Birtwistle in the national interest, when we all know that she quietly prefers a military band playing selections from South Pacific. Most politicians, like William Hague with his execrable taste in pictures, are appallingly philistine, but some are very cultured people - it was said that half of John Major's Cabinet went to the opera in their spare time, and the other went birdwatching.

Most of the aesthetes, however, have the sense to keep quiet about it. Chris Smith knows Wordsworth backwards; Alan Clark had a noble, instinctive, genetic sort of eye; Michael Portillo goes to Bayreuth; John Major, by all accounts, was quietly interested not just in opera but in new art - the best art in No 10 was apparently installed during his period of office.

When it gets a little noisier, one starts to feel suspicious. David Mellor was certainly a very cultivated man, with his interest in Glazunov and colossal CD collection. But was it altogether helpful to have someone in charge of government policy towards culture who might have very strong aesthetic views on the merits of one orchestra rather than another? Is that altogether the job of the Government? Should, in short, public expenditure on the arts be decided by someone who might have been swayed by a superlative account the night before of the Damnation de Faust, or would it not be better to have someone who admits frankly that his competence stops at questions of funding and policy?

Amusing as John Prescott's comments on Henry Moore undoubtedly were, there's a strange sense of reassurance in the knowledge that he, and not some trembling aesthete, is at the helm.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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