The arts are what made this nation great

From the Royal Society of Arts lecture given by the chairman of the British Museum Development Trust, Claus Moser


25 October 2000

25 October 2000

As I was thinking about this lecture, my mind kept going back to childhood in Berlin. In the Twenties and pre-Hitler Thirties, there was probably no other country as culture-rich as Germany. Berlin's musical life was exciting beyond belief, and any child with the slightest interest in great music had a wonderful time.

I speak with a passionate belief in the enriching force of the arts in the life of each one of us and of society as a whole. For this audience, the case need not be argued. But there are philistines in the wings of today's society, some in high places, who fail to appreciate what the arts bring to a civilised society, to our quality of life. The arts are not marginal, as was well put years ago by President Kennedy: "The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction in the life of the nation, is very close to the centre of a nation's purpose, and is a test of a nation's civilisation."

We are a long way from realising that vision. I have a nagging concern about the future. Unless we achieve a change of climate, many of today's children will be at risk in joining the ranks of the philistines.

As I look back over the post-war years, I see two major organisational forces that deserve gratitude. One is the Arts Council. It was its creation by Lord Keynes in 1946 that put government subsidy on the map. There is no doubt that, over the years, the council has helped the arts to flourish. Like the two Johns - Drummond and Tusa - I believe that, to put it mildly, complacency is out of place.

Happily, at least in my view, we are committed to the arts being a matter for public subsidy. But the standstill, beginning in the Thatcher years, caused severe problems from which recovery is gradual. What is rarely appreciated is that high standards may take years to reach, but that a severe cut can destroy them overnight. But one can never be certain - after years of tough experience - that the arts are a secure government priority. Too much depends on political attitudes of the day, and on feelings in Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street. What musical activities, indeed all arts, need is well-grounded - not luxurious - adequacy of funding, and stability.

It is not only a question of money. The media are crucial. We could do with more newspaper coverage for pieces about music and the other arts. The role of broadcasting, radio and TV, cannot be exaggerated.

There are too many who regard the arts as relatively unimportant, which was surely at the back of Benjamin Britten's mind when he said: "The average Briton thought, and still thinks, of the arts as suspect and expensive luxuries." Such attitudes are deep-seated. One can't avoid noting a certain suspicion of intellectuals, of creativity, of abstract ideas. I do not wish to overstate the importance of philistines in today's society. But their influence remains, and helps to shape attitudes. At the worst they fail to realise that a civilised society demands fine culture at its core.

It will be obvious that my remarks relate to classical music rather than popular, world music, rock or jazz. Popular music deserves its name, and will always give pleasure to millions, far more than even the finest classics. Like many others, I think that great classical music has a deeper, more lasting and more totally involving enrichment of one's life than other kinds of music. But that is a matter of taste. My worry is simply that the forces backing popular culture may come to marginalise the less popular. All music is important, exciting and deserving of encouragement. All types of music have things in common, and one kind can often open the door to others. I just want to ensure that the doors to classical music are kept widely ajar.

One can't say often enough that the arts, not least music, are central to a truly civilised society. They are what makes a nation great, and what remains in the historic mind long after industries, economic ups and downs, even governments, are forgotten.

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