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Culture wars

On the first weekend in March, more than a thousand people came in and out of the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith to debate standards in contemporary culture with around 150 eminent commentators from the arts, education, science and the media. 'Culture Wars: Dumbing Down, Wising Up?', organised by LM, aimed to provide a forum for a fresh take on some of the hotly contested issues in culture today.

But even before the first session opened, a major debate took off in the media about the conference itself.

'Will this be the dinner party from hell?' asked Richard Morrison in the Times on Friday 5 March, the day LM's 'Culture Wars' conference began. To an arts critic such as Morrison, it seems a forum which engaged large numbers of key figures in a broad-sweeping discussion about standards in culture could only be 'of such pretentious irrelevance to the lives of the British population that it could well win next year's Turner Prize'.

Journalism professor John Hartley thought 'Culture Wars' anything but irrelevant. In an article published in the New Statesman and the Guardian on 5 March, Hartley drew readers' attention to how he saw the importance of the conference. Those speakers and attendees who thought they were going to engage in a critical, intelligent debate were clearly kidding themselves. Not only was it a 'sinister event', the conference was to be a 'showtrial', at which 'standing in the dock...was democracy itself.'

Strong words. So what was 'Culture Wars' all about?

When Mark Ryan and myself conceived of the event a year ago, it was because we recognised that the discussion about declining standards in the arts, education and the media was badly one-sided. On the one hand, concern about the current state of culture was aired in an old-fashioned, stuffy and snobbish way, where any new innovation was greeted as evidence of 'dumbing down', and where people were blamed for being stupid. On the other, work that is boring, banal or just plain bad is promoted and justified as an example of the 'democratisation' of culture, and anybody who complains is accused of 'elitism'.

LM's aim was to encourage a debate that cut through these caricatures, to defend the principle of the best for everybody. And although those who wrote about the conference before the event may still be stuck in tired old caricatures, those who actually attended 'Culture Wars' found something very different.

'Culture Wars' was always intended to be a conference with attitude. It would be more than an industry event or an academic symposium, and would seek to put received opinion to question. It succeeded. Speakers attempted to move the debate forward, avoiding platitudes and trying to grasp what was new. Every shade of opinion and all ages were represented. This was not a debate confined to the concerned, tweed-suited from Hemel Hempstead - although she was there. I saw her involved in a very animated argument with a cultural studies student in the bar. The audience contained commissioning editors, publishers, literary agents, academics, artists, novelists, students, filmmakers and journalists. All participated in lively discussions about both their specific fields and more general questions.

The impact of the debate went way beyond the buzz at the weekend itself. In the week previous to 'Culture Wars', the Independent ran a series of major articles addressing the question of 'dumbing down', marking one of the most thoughtful media discussions of the issue to date. This theme, so 'irrelevant' to some and so 'sinister' to others, has promoted lively debates throughout the news and radio networks, which will not end just because the conference is over.

Through the debate inspired by 'Culture Wars', LM hopes to create a forum for a truly open discussion about standards in contemporary culture and society, where insults and clichés are replaced by considered, intelligent criticism. We hope that all those engaged by the conference and all that surrounded it will continue to bring new ideas to the debate.

Claire Fox Co-publisher, LM
Co-director, 'Culture Wars'

The debate continues in LM

From next month's issue, we will be running a regular 'Culture Wars' section in LM, pursuing many of the issues and themes raised at the conference. It will be an open forum for debate on everything from relativism to rock'n'roll, from contemporary art to children's literature, from docusoaps to Darwin. If you want to keep up with the frontline of the culture war, don't miss it.

In May's 'Culture Wars' section, Harold Bloom discusses Shakespeare and the birth of the modern age.

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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