Philip Hensher: This phoney vision of cultural renaissance

Thursday 14 February 2008 01:00

This government doesn't seem to understand that there are some things which, frankly, are none of its business. One of these, supremely, is culture. If the realities of economics mean that very few cultural enterprises can be carried on without public funding, and without the dead hand of public subsidy choking original or amusing thought, that is not to say that anyone sensible actually welcomes it.

If, realistically, a museum-keeper, the intendant of an opera house, the creative director of a theatre could survive on ticket receipts, then they certainly would. Nobody wants the man from the ministry asking if something is a good use of public money, or, even worse, if there is any aspect of outreach or education in the work being carried out.

Gordon Brown's latest proposal is that every schoolchild in the country be subjected to five hours a week of culture. Visits to the opera, the theatre, to galleries, and so on. Much of this is, clearly, intended to create adult audiences, but another aspect of it is intended to reinvigorate the culture of the amateur; children are to be given, much more widely, the opportunity to act, to learn a musical instrument.

This vision of England as a hub of creativity, everyone beavering away at their music appreciation or their scales, until, mirabile dictu, half the country is performing Brahms 3 to the other half, is a charming, almost pastoral one. I think it totally implausible, and for the simple reason that Brown has no personal understanding of, or feeling for excellence.

In a radio interview at the weekend, Brown said that he approved of the television programmes which find and unlock talent. He particularly cited the ITV show, Britain's Got Talent, which discovered the operatic tenor, Paul Potts. Now, this is absolute nonsense. No opera house anywhere in Europe would employ someone like Mr Potts to sing a major role from beginning to end. Anyone who knows about opera singing knows that Mr Potts is not the real deal.

Call that view snobbish if you like, but the fact remains that most of the people who propelled Mr Potts to success, and who maintain his career, know and care absolutely nothing about the art he is supposed to represent. That would not be a healthy situation, whether we were talking about watercolour painting, rock bands, or stand-up comedy. A profession which was not allowed to be run by expert and experienced people would not last for five minutes. If our only operatic tenors came from TV talent shows, we would never see a live performance of any opera ever again.

And we ought to object to Brown's proposals for another, more fundamental reason. The resources of culture in this country are substantial, but not infinite. If every child in this country is to go to the opera even once a year, what room is to be left for the rest of us? Spare capacity, of galleries, theatre, the whole lot, will disappear.

In effect, this will mean that state-funded organisations will play exclusively to state-funded juvenile audiences. That is just a really bad idea from any point of view. If their clients are children, too, that means that projects will be scrutinised for what appeal to the young they hold. It doesn't need a cynic to realise where the pressure to develop will fall.

Unfortunately, much great art is difficult, and adult, and not at all suitable for children. Very few children are ever going to find Raphael, or Wagner, or Jacques Rivette, or Racine anything but extremely tiresome and boring and stupid. In the wonderful new world of Mr Brown, that is going to mean that none of the rest of us is going to be allowed to see it, or will have to put up with it through the catcalls of a hundred rightly disgruntled pubescents.

And if most great art is not really meant for the amusement of 21st-century children, an incredible amount of it is frankly anti-democratic. There is no point in pretending that all art is suitable for the young, or available for the enjoyment of the uneducated. A lot of it is determined to be difficult, only to be enjoyed by idle connoisseurs, and it's not difficult to imagine what is going to happen to it in the Brownite vision. The Art of Fugue on steel drums, or it won't be permitted at all.

The idea that grown-ups might sit in silence for an hour, listening to a Beethoven string quartet; the idea that you might actually have the right to sit and look at a great Stubbs without being constantly interrupted by bored children running back and forth with clipboards; these are things which have no place in these new plans.

Art has the right to be grown-up, to be frivolous, to be difficult, to be expert, to be not at all concerned with moral improvement. Above all, it is really nothing to do with government. They should hand over the sadly necessary money, and go away to teach children how to read instead.

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