Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.
– Oscar Wilde
Having been unfortunate enough (as a country boy: defined by choice, and by inclination, rather than by birth) to live in the outer reaches of London, for a few years, I was fortunate enough to attend concerts regularly at both Wigmore Hall and the Barbican – a continuation of a practical and involved love of music (most genres; as well as most forms of art) either bred into me, or inculcated from a very early age.
Sitting in the audience – especially at the Wigmore – it becomes readily apparent that its members are, shall we say, biased towards the greyer end of the age spectrum; and it seems that, the older the style of music (classifying ‘classical’ under a very large umbrella indeed: that encompasses everything from Palestrina to Panufnik), the older its core fan-base. (This is no relationship of direct proportion, though: as most jazz, rock and soul music events prove, it is extremely logarithmic.) I have therefore been worried, for quite some time, about the future viability of such creative ‘industry’ – but only from the perspective of those who paid to listen and view (the objectifiers, not the objects, as it were…). Why did these people not bring their children, their grandchildren?
Of course, there have always been accusations of élitism thrown at any art-form that, apparently, requires education to understand – although if a baby smiles at the complex cross-rhythms and frequent atonality of Bitches Brew (as my son did); or a toddler boogies to, and wants to hear more of, the pulsing, evolving repetitions of Shaker Loops (ditto): then either he, too, had it “bred into” him, or was “inculcated”, as a result of a very unusual childhood in a very unusual household (personally: I think he just digs music with emphatic beat and vigorous bass (his favourite instrument)) – or, perhaps, as my dad would say, he simply “knows what he likes”. However, this complaint about exclusivity – a form of anti-snobbery (why is pop music not such an “art-form”? Discuss…) – always seemed aimed, again, at those who enjoy (or simply pay for their) listening and viewing.
Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.
– George Bernard Shaw
Having a working-class upbringing (albeit with such supposedly ‘higher’ tastes; and therefore, possibly, aspiring to middle-class discernment), in an industrial northern town – among obvious dark (although maybe not quite Satanic) mills – where all forms of music were not just available at home, but from primary school (and its compulsory, distuned and overblown recorders) onwards – and being surrounded by ‘Art’ all my life – I had assumed that (whilst being aware, from the sidelines, of rumblings afoot regarding declining arts education) it was mainly the audience that was the ‘problem’. However, it is rapidly becoming obvious that, in some circles – particularly lower down the economic spectrum – music, its teaching, its learning, and especially its performance, is not the egalitarian subject (nor something spiritual that transcended class) it once was. (Perhaps it never really was; and I was lucky, in that my grubby knees did not preclude me from membership of the local cathedral choir – where not all probationary choristers could read music; but had angelic voices… – nor from having parents who were willing to make sacrifices to encourage whatever talents – and/or whims – their children wished to develop.)
I believe that much of this current predicament – a large-scale loss of opportunity – lies with this Government’s bizarre, and restricted, view of what actually constitutes education – but its parallel confining establishment views and opportunities also seem to be raising their ugly heads in drama, in stagecraft: where performance, too, is becoming limited by wealth, and, therefore, class.
I am not sure if my beloved RSC propagates this – perhaps it has no option, if those less fortunate never even get a chance to tread its boards? I do know, though, that its £16-per-ticket accessibility programme – “whenever you visit or wherever you choose to sit” – and its Key scheme for 16-25 year-olds – £5 tickets “for any of our shows” – both go a long way towards making theatre more affordable, as well as more approachable, for all. There is no apparent élitism front of house – not here, anyway; not deliberately.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
– John F Kennedy
Coincidentally, perhaps, matters – especially those regarding the availability of musical instruments for children to learn on; or discover a hither-to unsuspected ability – may already be a wee bit better ‘north of the border’. Perhaps this is a reflection of the presumption that ‘Scottishness’ (and its attached culture – both society and customs) is more well-defined than whatever ‘Englishness’ may be (although it would be a mighty stramash that erupted trying to establish whether the folksiness of Vaughan Williams et al trumps the outstanding heritage encompassed in MacCunn or that Sassenach Maxwell Davies). Or maybe it is just the more ‘social’ (both political and affable) character of those with “a tiny blue-and-white cell” hidden deep within their brains; allied with their innate awareness of how any art-form (“many art-forms”?) can extirpate class boundaries.
In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.
– Ernst Fischer
It seems, therefore, that we have – despite individual institutions’ efforts – reached a point where you need to have wealth to have taste; or at least to participate (from either side of the curtain). Creativity has become commoditized – but at the rarefied (and unattainable for most) level of diamond or platinum trading – and the arts no longer “matter because they are about business, central to civilised living”; but have become business. As if to confirm this, we now have someone who “used to be a banker” as culture secretary. Strangely, though, on his ascendance to the throne, after stating that “culture is for everyone” (which I would agree with entirely, of course), he then seemed to blame it not being so on those producing it – his plea to them being that “I want you to make what you do accessible to everyone” – as if reducing what he termed being “culturally disenfranchised” to its lowest common denominator would somehow overcome issues of cost. (I wonder if it ever occurred to him that there were parallels with the electorate’s current disenfranchisement with power…?)
For a bus driver’s son…, the idea of popping along to the Donmar Warehouse – or even the Bristol Old Vic – to take in a cutting-edge new production was simply not on the agenda. It wasn’t what people like me, people from my background, did.
Nor did they, typically, become members of the Cabinet. (What a feeble excuse; and playing with stereotypes, too….) However, this cleaner’s son took in many such productions (and lots of Shakespeare!) – at Manchester’s Exchange and then Leeds Playhouse; as well as countless premières of works by the likes of Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Tippett, and William Mathias – although this, typically, “wasn’t what people like me, people from my background, did” either. It didn’t exclude me from doing so, though. Maybe – as I posited above – it would, now, though…?
Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.
– Groucho Marx
If you do “need to have wealth to have taste”: then – just to digress for a moment – why does it appear that those with money – old or new – have very little unique taste themselves? Even when they believe they are trendsetting: most of their money simply buys ostentatious objects with shallow reputation and meaning, and very short expiry dates; ‘old masters’ whose investment potential is equal to, or greater than, other forms of property; or something that is considered ‘safe’ – both monetarily and tastefully neutral. All things that someone has told them is art. They invest in the fine arts mainly for self-aggrandizement (rather than self-expression); and should therefore not be the arbiters – either through purchase or selective philanthropy – of what is deemed to be tasteful or acceptable to and for the rest of us.
We therefore need a view of arts that is not universal, nor money-led, nor imposed: but one that is sincere, and built from the bottom up – with almost the same public perspective that is supposed to be attained through those buzzwords ‘localism’ and ‘big society’. According to the RSA:
[The arts] matter, individually and collectively, because of what they are and what they do, which is to carry out a sustained, detailed and varied exploration of human motivation and behaviour…
…whilst, I would add, bringing a great deal of richness and emotional energy and meaning to people’s lives. (They can, also, of course – as demonstrated by the huge local tourist economy centred on a single playwright and poet – bring monetary wealth: but the generation of that should be secondary to their core purpose.) The production of the visual; the dramatic; the verbal; the digital, even… are all experienced as a modern ‘need’ as fundamental, in these modern times, as transport, food and water, health, education.
I believe, therefore, that the Arts Council should increase its funding to include much earlier interventions in our lives – i.e. not just in introducing all of our children to creativity, in all its forms, through isolated programmes, as they do now (sporadically); but in educating them continually, and adding depth to their appreciation; and then training those with a predilection for a career in the arts: so that they can demonstrate their artistry to everyone else. That way, even the “country boy” and the “bus driver’s son” can have constant opportunities to experience – view and create – whatever art is available; whatever art they like.
What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing. You wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.
– David Hockney