These days society's elites have so little respect for their own culture, says James Heartfield, that they are no longer confident that it is worth showing, broadcasting or teaching to the rest of us
Who's dumbing down?
Are we in danger of dumbing down? Playwright Alan Ayckbourn seems to think so. He and other panel members of the Arts Council have resigned in a snub to the culture secretary Chris Smith and his new appointee as Arts Council chair. The resigners allege that the Council is being run on business lines and that the government is more interested in hob-nobbing with pop stars than it is in the high arts. In turn, Chris Smith has accused director-general John Birt of dumbing down the BBC. Selling scratchcards on the National Lottery show and voyeuristic fly-on-the-wall documentaries are cited as evidence that the BBC has failed in its duty as a public service broadcaster. But the government does not get off the hook that lightly: Stephen Bayley, 'creative director' of the Millennium Dome, resigned early in the year, accusing 'Dome secretary' Peter Mandelson of prostituting art before the shrine of Walt Disney.
It is important to be sceptical whenever you are confronted with a tale of decline. Myths of a passing 'golden age' - whether it is in broadcasting or artistic patronage or public celebration - are always doubtful. For some people, every democratic change implies a vulgarisation. No doubt to certain members of the landed gentry it seems like a backward step that scullery maids have got the vote.
Seen in the round it is clear that doom-laden tales of what Saul Bellow called a 'moronic inferno' of popular culture are unfounded. Literacy rates continue to rise and fewer people leave school without qualifications. Listening to some commentators you get the impression that it was a better thing when people were not able to read the Sun; at least then we would not have been confronted with its shortcomings.
There is without doubt a degree of snobbery in the idea that Britain is dumbing down. The flamboyant retreat of the Arts Council members and the Dome's creative director are largely pique.
The members of the Arts Council panels have been complaining about government support for the arts for as long as there has been an Arts Council - and rarely with less justification than today. For all the wining and dining of pop stars at Number 10, the high arts are booming, and have been for more than a decade. The art market is awash with cash, with the money that business has been failing to invest in new industry, in fact. Instead of trying to innovate in new technology, many firms prefer to buy a Patrick Hughes for the lobby. Higher dividends for shareholders and business prizes and other kinds of sponsorship have fuelled a boom in the art world. The number of artists working in Britain increased from 32 700 to 55 900 in the decade from 1981-1991. In 1996 the art and antiques market in Britain had a turnover of £2.2 billion. What most upsets the cosseted dignitaries of the Arts Council is that the rationale for their own status as patrons is being swept aside. Nowadays only the notoriously uneconomic performing arts are dependent upon Arts Council subsidy.
The complaints of Stephen Bayley are equally difficult to fathom. Bayley was, after all, in charge of the contents of the Dome. If he failed to make something out of the job, whose fault was that? Bayley's complaints about 'scruffy mockneys' and the 'Disneyfication' of the Dome usefully excuse him of any responsibility for the venture. One gets the impression that Bayley is happier outside the tent, pissing in. It is the outlook of the beautiful soul, whose conscience is just too sublime to compromise it with worldly affairs.
But for all the snobbery there is a very real problem that is motivating these critics. When they say 'dumbing down' we know what they mean. Of course for most of us it is just a good laugh when the Labour cabinet tries to hang out with the stars of Britpop. Like the oldest swinger in town, Tony Blair tries hard to impress the world's leaders at Birmingham by being seen with All Saints, but the girls barely know who he is. None the less, there is a real problem when a society's leaders feel that they have to court the latest music fashion in an attempt to seem relevant.
In his new book, Chris Smith writes that the distinction between 'High Culture' and 'low culture' is misleading at the best of times, and that 'George Benjamin and Noel Gallagher are both musicians of the first rank' (Creative Britain, p3). Whatever the particulars might be, the sentiment behind Smith's point is wrong. Pop music is all right for kids, but when you become a man you should put away childish things - or at least put them in some perspective. It is no good saying that excellence in all things is important. Pop music is not supposed to be excellent, but ephemeral and trashy. None of us really believes that Smith listens to Oasis anyway (even if Tony Blair probably does), so why does he feel it necessary to flatter pop stars?
The government feels a need to identify itself with popular success because of its own uncertain grip on public opinion. It seems strange to talk about New Labour trying to be populist when only a year ago it won a landslide victory in the general election. Compared to the doleful performance of the opposition New Labour still looks pretty good. But in other respects its grasp on the popular consciousness is fleeting. Disappointing turn-outs in the referendums on the London mayor and the Welsh assembly indicate that Labour's popularity has not reversed the process of popular disenchantment with politics. Having dismantled the old Labour networks of trade unions and local government, New Labour is looking around for any point of contact with the people.
It is Labour's insecurity about the depth of its support that draws it to the stars of pop, TV and film. Not surprisingly, New Labour's awkward attempts to be popular have provoked derision and hostility from the intelligentsia.
When senior politicians start talking about pop music as an art form you know that they are talking down to you. Labour thinks that it is being popular when it lauds Britpop or revels in sentiment. In a way it is. But it is appealing to the most passive and under-ambitious side of the popular mood. When New Labour talks down to people it is giving up on the goal of betterment and advance. Political leadership should not be about flattering people, but about appealing to the best in them, and encouraging them to raise their sights. Instead New Labour is happy to make any point of contact, however base. In its heart of hearts the government knows that it has not got anything inspirational to say to people, so it prefers just to hang out.
The problems of New Labour are only a microcosm of the more general problem faced by all kinds of institutions. An anxiety about connecting with people drives the powers-that-be to talk down, seeking out the lowest common denominator. A deep insecurity pervades the establishment. That insecurity prevents its representatives from forcefully asserting their authority in the traditional way. Instead the elite is on the defensive, always apologising for being elitist. When criticised for spending more money in London than in the provinces, it is rare that anybody will make the point that it is after all the capital city. Instead, the authorities apologise profusely and promise more grants for the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.
The privileges of power that once were taken for granted are today a source of embarrassment. The 'over-funding' of Oxbridge colleges and the 'over-representation' of their graduates in the corridors of power was once a source of pride, but now it is seen as a problem. Instead of promoting themselves as elite institutions and centres of excellence, those colleges are now trying to demonstrate their commitment to egalitarianism, promising to do something about their intake of students from state schools.
When first appointed director-general at the BBC, John Birt struck people as pretty pompous for claiming that public service broadcasting was not just entertainment, but had a 'mission to explain'. If only Birt was that arrogant. In practice, BBC programming has been dumbed down by the programme makers' own fear that they have no mission to explain and nothing worthwhile to impart. Instead of missionary zeal, the corporation has been wracked by doubts about its supposed 'lack of relevance'. The pursuit of relevance goes from 'minority programming' pillar to 'regional programming' post. The final destination is game shows and minutely observed fly-on-the-wall documentaries.
These observational documentaries are so common now that they are the subject of jokes and comments upon the 'trend'. In style they concentrate ever more closely on the mundane and the particular. A little slice of real life is the ideal, no matter how banal. The belief is that the more like real life they are, the more that real people will like them. One director told me that he dreaded another series of his popular observational documentary, for its exploitative and voyeuristic nature - a point confirmed after he got a tip-off from the emergency services that Saturday night would be especially good for filming accidents. But, the broadcasters respond, the public likes them. When Michael Jackson was still at the BBC he fended off criticisms of a dumbed down documentary schedule by saying that the public did not like foreign stories, and that the more human scale of the flagship programmes was a great advance.
The 'mission to explain' is of little account because the programme planners lack confidence in their ability to communicate a distinctive message, still less to stretch and elevate an audience. All television now is plagued by the introspective debate about relevance that used to be restricted to 'youth' programming. The BBC's defensiveness is expressed in its (false) belief that it has an 'elitist' image. Reacting to charges of being London-centric, and dominated by middle-aged white men, the Beeb engages in a phoney campaign of regional and multicultural programming. Of course none of this means that much, except that the corporation is uncomfortable with its image. What the broadcasters do not realise is that their own lowered horizons are the source of the problem. It is convenient to say that the public is to blame, but they are too rarely willing to challenge the public.
What has happened to broadcasting has happened on a more local scale to schools and colleges. Even more than broadcasters, educators live in perennial fear of appearing to be irrelevant or out of date to their students. The virtual displacement of English literature by media studies is a sign of the dumbing down that is taking place in schools and colleges. Teachers fear that Elizabethan English or poetry will make them a laughing stock with their students. Their fear is wholly justified, as every schoolboy knows. But then it always was the teachers' job to challenge the petulant philistines. Teachers still do expose children to ideas and insights they would never find on their own. But when schools dumb down education in the pursuit of relevance they betray that basic mission.
The real problem is that the elites have so little respect for their own culture that they are no longer confident that it is worth transmitting, broadcasting or teaching. Lacking the belief in their own culture, they are afraid that they have nothing to offer, and so seek to flatter the public instead of challenging it.
When the Arts Council was formed as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) during the Second World War, it was designed to protect the high arts against the onward march of mass civilisation, especially the cinema and the radio. When CEMA put on Shakespeare for the South Wales miners, the luvvies called it missionary work. Snobbery was at the heart of the Arts Council. The difference between then and now is that for all their snobbery, those actors felt confident that their art was worth an evening of anybody's time.
And the truth was that the wartime concerts and plays put on by CEMA were immensely popular. Actors and musicians were shocked at the intelligent and sympathetic hearing they got from the common folk. But once the war was over, the new Arts Council under Lord Keynes forgot the missionary work among the working class and put on art for the elites, as a kind of subsidy for an effete culture that could never survive the harsh judgement of the market.
What is called snobbery can be a good thing, if it means a celebration of all that is excellent. But believing in the superiority of high art ought to mean that it is worth sharing with the majority of people. If it really is excellent then everybody ought to be able to see that it is so. But that is not the Arts Council's view today. They think that the arts have to be defended against the degrading influence of ordinary people.
By contrast, the broadcasters, the politicians and the schools think that you have to talk down to people to make yourself relevant - a view summed up by the proposal to introduce Shakespeare to rave crowds in 10-minute gobbets. The populists who think up patronising schemes like that are the mirror image of the snobs at the Arts Council. Both sides of the debate think that ordinary people and demanding ideas cannot mix. But the truth is that the audience is being deployed here as an excuse for the elite's own insecurity that it has nothing to say.
An elitism you could respect would be one that had the confidence in what it had to put before the public. A populism you could respect would be one that did not just flatter people's lazy side, but demanded the best of them. Instead we have the choice between broadcasters, educators and politicians talking down to us on the one hand, and the snobs refusing to talk to anybody but their own small circle of friends on the other. And that is no choice at all.
James Heartfield's Need and Desire in the Post-Material Economy is published in July
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998