`We can assert with some confidence," T S Eliot wrote in 1948, "that our own period is one of decline [and] that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago ... I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even have to anticipate a period [of] no culture." Gloomy old Tom is a much-derided figure these days. And since he uttered his defeatist prophecy, a whole battalion of politicians, agents, PR consultants and arts adminstrators have been created to talk up our culture - to sloganise the excitements of British art, Scottish painting, Irish drama, Welsh rock bands and so on.
But perhaps Old Possum had a point. If diversity and innovation are indices of health, then our culture has begun to look tired and wan. It's not that we've got no culture. But something almost as bad is infecting the patient: Blandness, capital B. Not just the quiet, inoffensive kind. No, something more shrill and happy-clappy. A relentlessly cheerful, end-of- millennium, let's-make-everyone-feel-comfortable blanket of good taste.
London theatre, for instance. A report last week from the Theatre Trust warned that, unless attitudes and funding priorities change, the West End will soon offer only American musical imports, two-handers in pubs, and pantomimes with ageing soap stars. A look at the listings - Chicago, Cats, Starlight Express, Saturday Night Fever, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Whistle Down the Wind, The Phantom of the Opera - suggests that that future has already arrived. McCulture? Certainly Cameron Mackintosh looms large. Plays with two men in a pub? Conor McPherson's The Weir (four men and a woman) isn't much more.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a good night out in the West End. Like warm baths or Sunday lunches, we all need them once in a while. But what if you want more? Suppose you're looking for theatre that braces or unsettles you, challenges your thinking, teaches you stuff you didn't know. Then the current choice is very limited. Michael Frayn's excellent Copenhagen, perhaps. Art or Anna Weiss. The revival of Stoppard's The Real Thing. There's not much else, except at the National, which - for all that it's a state institution - has become the only safe place to go for theatre that takes a few risks. A recent survey of intellectuals found that most rarely went to the West End. No surprises there. What would there be for them to see?
Go out from the West End and there are some bright spots - the Almeida, the Lyric Hammersmith and the Riverside Studios, for instance. But where I live, in the shadow of the Dome, in a much-enriched borough, Greenwich Theatre has been dark for over a year (and now Lewisham Council wants to close our branch libraries, too). Nor is the situation happier in the regions. Art that makes the hair on your neck stand up or your stomach churn? You won't find it. Lottery money may have provided grants to renovate provincial theatres or build new ones, but in general it has squeezed rather than eased annual funding, and thus stifled innovation. Try telling theatre companies in Halifax or Newcastle that there isn't a North-South divide. They can hear the money jangling in a small metropolitan pocket. And what they see is it being spent on the safely consumable and the tamely chic. Dome-ing Down. Blandness Rules UK.
This isn't just a crisis in theatre. Insiders in British art, opera, publishing, film and TV have similar stories - of funding crises, failures of nerve, and accountants taking over artistic management. In the clamour for sales or viewing figures, the temptation is to pander to Joe Public, the man on the Clapham Omnibus, the lowest common denominator. No one uses such language any more. It's derogatory and elitist. In Cool Britannia, the talk is of prioritising art forms that are fun, accessible, open to all.
Looking for scapegoats, John Drummond, chairman of the Theatre Trust, points the finger at New Labour, and - striking an apocalyptic, Eliotic note - finds it hard to credit how "a few years of well-intentioned but unthinking populism can be allowed to destroy a tradition that has played a key role in the European mind for 2,000 years". The Government is a target. You can't blame Tony Blair for the West End, or Chris Smith for British culture - or if you do, you also have to give credit where due: it's under him that the Royal Opera House has reopened, which with its renovated building, increased user-friendliness and high artistic standards is worth all the money spent on it.
Still, two and a half years on, it's clear we've been sold a pup. All these mission statements about British "x" (film, visual art, popular music - fill in the gap) being "y" (exciting/buzzy/where it's at/the envy of the world - ditto) are self-congratulatory nonsense. The truth is sadder - and blander. These are the Nice Nineties. Teeth'n'smiles publicists spread the word that art is fun. Clean and wholesome too. And nothing to be scared of. Which true art can never be.
The irony is that we've been conditioned to think our recent culture daring - and even dirty. Damien's sheep! Tracey's bed! Chris Ofili's elephant- dung madonna! Sensation! Claims have also been made for the radicalism of British theatre - the plays of the late Sarah Kane , Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and F---ing and so on. But the odd thing about these shocking productions is how easily assimilated their shocks are. Desecration and buggery - so what? When Mayor Giuliani fumed at the Sensation exhibition, we smiled indulgently at his naivety. How uncool! How Mary Whitehouse of him. Shrug it off, Mayor! Time you got real!
But art that's genuinely new can't be so easily assimilated. It doesn't draw huge crowds at the Tate, or let its audience forget it five minutes later. It used to involve its makers in years of struggle, semi-poverty and (sometimes) prosecution. And it still requires its audience to take time and trouble - to question, to concentrate, and to hear, read or look more than once. This isn't to say that Tracey Emin, say, lacks intellectual substance. The questions she raises about the cult of celebrity, and about the relation of art to abuse, will be the stuff of theses for years to come. But that's not why we queue up to see her. We go because we've read the hype. "Prepare to be disgusted!" is the challenge, and we want to see if we can take it - the rumpled sheets, the knickers, the skidmarks. And hey, we can - even, just about, the skidmarks. It's okay, see: art isn't so shocking after all.
Does that mean that art has lost the power to shock? Not at all. Have we as audiences lost the capacity to be shocked? Not that, either. But we're so busy reassuring ourselves how broad-minded we are that we forget how many taboos still exist. The depiction of death with verisimilitude, for instance. The use of "real people" or sensational public crimes in art-works. And - on British television at least - many aspects of sex. On a recent trip to Spain, button-punching through the few channels available after midnight, I happened on a smiley pornographic movie involving erect penises, ejaculation, and simultaneous vaginal and anal intercourse. That's sex in a Catholic country for you. Here we like our porn to be the softer Channel 5 kind. No harm in that maybe. And we've come a long way from the 1960s, when nudity on stage led to prosecution. But the idea that all taboos have been broken is clearly absurd.
One of the tricks of our culture is the way it's swallowed the counter- culture, taken it into the mainstream, processed it, paid it off. To be nostalgic for the avant-garde sounds like a contradiction in terms. But in the absence of anything genuinely resembling one, those of us with memories more than 20 years old can sometimes be heard muttering wistfully. The Roundhouse. Soft Machine. Andy Warhol. Oz. John Cage. 7:84. R D Laing. The Wednesday Play. B S Johnson. Cathy Come Home. Dennis Potter. The Romans in Britain.
Until recently, boldness didn't mean providing surface shocks, but probing below the skin - as the experimental artists the Boyle Family literally did in 1966 when they extracted bodily fluids and projected them on to a screen. At another Sixties performance event, the carcass of a lamb was ritually paraded, nailed, hit, manhandled, and its entrails offered to the audience. Damien's sheep may be a homage to such experiment, but is milder and much more tasteful - just as Oasis are when they play at being the Beatles. That was the Shock of the New. This is the Ripple. You can't push back the frontiers when there's already a main road.
The really bold thing in British art now might be to work on canvas rather than video - to learn from Lucian Freud and Paula Rego rather than to abandon figurative painting. The really bold thing for a West End theatre to do might be to offer its space to a director such as Robert Lepage. But there are few signs it's going to happen. When the lights go down on this millennium, the same old tunes will be playing. And bland Britannia will applaud itself and go on whistling in the dark.
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