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The tyranny of 'relevance'

Mark Ryan surveys the degradation of art and culture

When the government announced in December that it was going to reorganise the funding of the arts, it did so with the sort of bureaucratic threats that even Stalin's minister for culture might have blanched at. New Labour would not just be handing out money, the minister announced, 'we are going to set targets and chase them'. I can only speculate as to what these targets might be. Perhaps London's orchestras should speed up their performances with a view to maximising customer throughput. Maybe the minister thinks that one performance a night is too relaxed a schedule, especially since conductors and orchestras know all the tunes so well.

While old Labour felt a paternalistic duty to bring high culture to the masses, New Labour sucks up to the entertainment industry at every opportunity while issuing targets and threats to what it sees as elitist culture. Cabinet minister Mo Mowlam's suggestion that Paul McCartney should succeed the late Ted Hughes as poet laureate captured this government's cultural values.

Fifty years ago governments and elites, not just in Britain but throughout the Western world, feared for the preservation of high culture and set about building the ramparts which they thought would preserve that culture from the encroachments of the masses. The Arts Council, Radio 3 and the South Bank are all, to some extent, the product of this cultural fear. In the event the fears were misguided. With few exceptions, good art and culture will always attract new audiences without the help of government preservation orders.

Today, by contrast, the New Labour government and the new elites it represents seem set on undermining many treasured cultural achievements. All this is done in the name of hostility to elitism, empowering minorities and giving 'the People' what they want. The current expressions of concern about dumbing down are a confused recognition of this cultural suicide of the elite.

Student-centred learning, fly-on-the-wall television, museums making exhibits accessible and fun; all these developments and more are promoted as a long-awaited concession to the popular will. The new mantra is that education and culture must be made more 'relevant' to everyday life. But the pressure for this change does not really come from below. It is coming from above, from those in authority, who flatter the public with the illusion that it is they, the public, who are making all the decisions.

But who decides what is relevant to 'ordinary people'? And who enforces the new standards on public life?

Earlier this year the BBC conducted a viewer consultation into what sort of news programmes the public wanted. The vast majority said they did not want their news to be dumbed down, but that they did want news reports to explain why reported events were important and relevant to their lives.

When it comes to the news I suspect I am no different from most people - I like it straightforward, interesting and unbiased. Put me in a focus group, however, and ask me 'how do you really like your news?', I could well imagine myself saying some rather silly things. If the facilitator (implicator would be a better word for this new eminence grise) asked me 'do you want news to be more relevant to your everyday life?', I could imagine myself saying 'yes, not a bad idea', rather than barking back that I only like my news when it is totally irrelevant.

But what is relevant news? Most of the newsworthy events which take place in the world have no immediate bearing on our daily lives. Generally it is only in times of war or of very grave crisis that individuals are directly touched by political events from afar. The only way most news stories can be made relevant is to short circuit the troublesome process of understanding and appeal directly to the emotions of the viewer. But that is what the BBC and other news organisations are doing anyway. Foreign news especially has become a series of interchangeable reports on the effects of war, famine, ethnic conflict, etc on 'the victims' in general and 'the children' in particular. Such reports have substituted ersatz emotion for real understanding.

The consultation process which concluded that the news should be made more relevant was a rubber stamp for what the BBC is already delivering. Thanks to the bogus consultation, those who object to the new emphasis on emotional news will be told 'but this is what the punters want, they asked for it'.

Consultation bodies, focus groups, and the vast network of customer awareness campaigns that proliferate in our society like mutant cells, are upheld as an overdue awakening to other voices and a settling of scores with elitism. But this fraud masks something very different - a profound disdain at the top of society for the capacities of the average man and woman to go beyond their limited experience and grapple with what is difficult and challenging. A new set of virtues has come into being which narrows the scope for man's creativity more surely than any censor. From children's literature to grand opera, the new principle of judgement is no longer whether something provokes the imagination and intellect, but whether it is relevant, accessible and inclusive.

I am convinced that something dies in the brain whenever these words are uttered. It is as if no further explanation is needed: if something is deemed relevant, accessible and inclusive, then it is good by definition. Yet it is quite possible to argue that the opposite is the case. If we really were to take the virtue of 'relevance' seriously as the standard by which culture must be judged, we would die of boredom and inertia.

Almost anything worthwhile in the development of man's higher faculties has seemed at first irrelevant, inaccessible and exclusive. Any serious idea or work of art involves a struggle with our immediate sensation and received wisdom. If it was otherwise, human culture would not have developed. It seems slightly absurd to have to assert such obvious truths. But at a time when nearly every past triumph of genius and insight is being rubbished by armies of academics and cultural commentators, such assertions are necessary.

Look at the current crisis at the Royal Opera House (ROH), as its management recoils in terror from the charge of elitism. By its nature opera takes a leap of the imagination which many people find unacceptable. This is ultimately a matter of taste. Tolstoy loathed opera for its outrageous violation of realism, but this at least was an artistic judgement. Judge it, however, by the criteria of relevance, accessibility and inclusiveness, and it can only stand guilty as charged.

The result is that one of the best opera houses in the world stands at the brink of collapse. The ROH may always be in a state of financial crisis - opera is a desperately expensive business - but now it has an existential crisis to cap it all. The dark demands from the culture secretary, Chris 'Zhdanov' Smith, for a People's Opera House, together with the Eyre report damning the ROH for its elitism (provoking a debate of mind-crunching idiocy over whether those who go to the opera wearing trainers and string vests should be made to feel uncomfortable), would sap the will of most institutions. It is not too surprising that Bernard Haitink, one of the world's finest conductors, has threatened to resign and that the House is closed until further notice.

The accusation of elitism today seems motivated less by a spirit of egalitarianism than by contempt for human achievement in the past and human striving in the present. It is an attempt to put us all in our little boxes where we never have to go beyond our own limitations and rise to what is challenging and ennobling. Once the challenges of comprehending the real world are removed, in the name of relevance, the only problem that remains is to raise the self-esteem of the box people and to persuade them that in fact they are really marvellous as they are, and should not trouble themselves about anything outside the box. The extent to which education is turning away from acquiring bodies of knowledge and towards the development of self-awareness, self-esteem and self-confidence shows how snugly a culture of narcissism sits with philistinism.

Are we entering a new dark age? Perhaps not, but the gains of civilisation are not vouchsafed to each generation. The higher faculties will only remain high if they are exercised and developed. Mourning for a bygone 'golden age' or retiring into the living room in the hope of creating an oasis of authentic being separate from a cold world outside offer no solution. Defending the achievements of civilisation means fighting the tyranny of relevance.

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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