But is that what we are really like? True, the French and Germans traditionally spend more on arts. But the munificence of the lottery will soon change that. The fundamental difference has not been among the British people, but among the politicians. For their nefarious political ends both left and right have deliberately misrepresented the arts to the people.
Booming out its old-fashioned populist nostrums, the right tends to see the arts as a left-wing conspiracy of a perverted elite, while the left mocks most art grants as subsidising rich men's pleasures. Both sides in our destructively class-based political system mistake the central part that art plays in civic and national life.
Our monarchy, moreover, draws us back to a romanticised feudal history, a military pageant with the Royal Family usurping the place in our heritage that rightfully belongs to great architects, writers and artists. By contrast, politicians in countries with a republican tradition have used their national culture as a binding force to create a sense of nationhood, in which literature, painting, theatre and architecture become symbols of pride for the citizenry, whether or not they participate.
In Australia, the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, preparing the way for a new republic, is using the arts to create a new sense of Australian identity. His Creative Nation Programme is setting up national arts academies, orchestras and galleries, believing that art and culture form the real life of a nation (and perhaps trying to live down Les Patterson, legendary Australian Cultural Attache).
Now, apparently, Tony Blair is thinking of using the arts as a key part of his communitarian vision. In his party conference speech he mentioned literature, poetry and philosophy as part of what makes a nation and binds communities. But his commitment still looks absent-minded. Too many in Labour remain tempted by the sirens of cheap populism.
Yet back in Labour's early roots there was a deep respect for the arts. Culture was not regarded as elitist, but a joy denied to too many. The Workers' Educational Association, Ruskin College and countless early artistic groups thought making art and literature available to the people as important as bringing them health and education. Leading up to the 1964 election, a plethora of writers, painters and thinkers, urged on by Jenny Lee, who became minister for the arts, supported Labour, mingling closely with the politicians, adding idealistic lustre and philosophical calibre.
But by the Seventies Labour had lost that vision of high art for everyone. Instead, a mindless lefty view of art-for-the-people often delivered bad art to tiny coteries of other lefties in small and dismal venues shunned by sensible people in favour of Hollywood movies in comfortable cinemas. Good art was for toffs, a self-fulfilling dictum.
The Tories have never much liked the arts. The grandees only like it if they can buy it at Sotheby's, entertain the Japanese with it in boxes, or drink champagne in its intervals. Most of the non-grandees hate it all. Certainly a taste for the avant garde is not a Conservative value. Like most politicians, Mrs Thatcher was profoundly uninterested, either as a personal pleasure or as a part of national life. She saw the arts purely instrumentally, a useful tool to bring in the tourists (pounds 2bn a year now).
In the past few years high art and mass culture have intertwined themselves in surprising ways, breaking down barriers: the three tenors singing at a World Cup concert, Kiri Te Kanawa serenading rugby fans, mass opera in rock stadiums, or Torville and Dean dancing to Ravel. There is no longer such a chasm between art and popular culture, and Classic FM's success proves it.
All the evidence is that the anti-art loud-mouths are out of touch, and not only among the young. Outside the Commons on Monday angry pensioners lobbied their MPs to protest about the closure of Bart's hospital in London. One of them, from Chris Smith's Islington constituency, shouted out, on spotting him, a jubilant celebration of the Sadler's Wells grant, and added indignantly, "How dare they say it's just for toffs!"
The politicians are not solely to blame, however. In the past the cultured classes have contributed toBritain's apparent art-phobia. After the First World War the Bloomsbury group, led by Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, set the tone for a frighteningly aloof and rebarbative arts establishment. Despising bourgeois values, their cultural snobbery damagingly encouraged middle England's view of itself as a sensible art-free zone. It wasn't what the Bloomsbury set actually wrote or painted, but the arrogant tilt of their noses that encouraged lesser mortals to think art was not for them, an attitude that lasted far too long.
The cobwebs of Bloomsbury began to be blown away in the Sixties, when pop culture mingled with other arts, and youth culture tore down the ivory towers. The lottery windfall comes at a time when local authorities at last have caught on to the popular mood and begun to appreciate the civic value of the arts. A random list: Birmingham's new civic centre is enlivened with fountains and sculptures; Gateshead finds its mighty Claes Oldenberg bottle sculpture drawing people from all over Europe; Birmingham's hugely popular new concert hall is to be followed by another for Manchester. Recently the Tate Gallery had to close its doors on two ordinary Sundays, as so many people were trying to get in. The Tate's new South Bank development, the regeneration of the old South Bank Festival Hall complex, a major performing arts complex for Salford and an opera house for Cardiff will follow shortly, and all will be hugely popular.
The national curriculum now obliges schools to teach art and music not only as low-level kindergarten activities, but as a serious appreciation of the great works, too. The explosion of jobs in the arts and media is prodding the young towards the arts. Lottery money is creating projects for our best architects, many of whom have had to do most of their finest work abroad until now, building other people's great national monuments. We have some of the best regarded young artists in Europe (including Damien Hirst). New York's Vanity Fair carries a 50-page feature celebrating British theatre this month.
So why this grudging spirit? If our engineers or manufacturers were as successful as our arts we would be trumpeting it across the world. And great artistic venues and monuments are things that bind cities and nations together in a national pride worth a lot more than Trooping the Colour.Reuse content