Culture Wars: Put art back in its proper place
The 'cultural industries' are booming, there are art centres everywhere, yet our society's obsession with culture is not as healthy as it might seem, suggests Mark Ryan
Many people are concerned about the 'cultural meltdown' which Charles Rosen, the American pianist and critic, described in the June issue of LM. Yet how do we square the evidence of 'dumbing down' in the arts, education and media with the current obsession with culture across society? Bookshops and museums are packed. The recent Monet exhibition at the Royal Academy stayed open 24 hours a day to accommodate the numbers. It appears that, far from turning our back on the arts, we are turning into culture vultures.
Although many in the arts criticise the spending priorities of New Labour, accusations of gross under-funding are becoming more difficult to sustain. There has never been so much money sloshing around - last year the government poured an extra £300 million into the arts. Even that increase fails to register the importance of the arts in the economy as a whole. What are now called 'cultural industries' are deemed the most exciting sector of the economy, acclaimed rightly or wrongly as the instruments of urban regeneration and regional growth. When people talk of the rebirth of north-east England, it is not so much the Nissan plant at Sunderland they are thinking of as the scores of art centres, museums and galleries which have been spawned in the region through government subsidy. Nissan may come and go, seems to be the reasoning, but the Angel of the North is here to stay.
The East End of London is undergoing a similar transformation, with an arts network ranging from the well-established Barbican Centre to the Whitechapel Gallery to The Vibe Bar, and incorporating new 'cool' areas such as Spitalfields and Hoxton with their self-styled communities of artists, designers and djs. And this is not just a British phenomenon. The brilliant new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was acclaimed not just for its daring form but also for what it will do for a city which is languishing in the doldrums. Bilbao, it would seem, is now built around the Guggenheim. The sense of unreality is heightened by the alien appearance of the building. A city which has lived and traded for hundreds of years now owes its reality to a shimmering silver building which looks like it was beamed down from outer space, slotted between the rusting docks and the green hills.
Museums and art centres are no longer buildings whose primary purpose it is to exhibit great works of art. They are complexes whose boundaries lack clear definition. The Louvre in Paris is now a whole economy of its own, a cultural industry, which seems to swallow up more of Paris every year. The new Royal Opera House complex in Covent Garden is similar in that it breaks down the distinction between the Opera House itself and the surrounding area, which is, like most thriving urban centres, a shopping mall. No doubt the finished product will be very attractive, but a cross between an opera house and a shopping mall is going to be a weird mutant in which the original activities - opera and ballet - are no more than part of a bigger spectacle.
The art centre of today is very different from the museum of the past. It was the perception that civilisation was something over and above the day-to-day life of the city which prompted the founders of the great museums and galleries to build monuments which stood apart from their environment. When you passed through the doors you entered a different world where most of what you saw would be unfamiliar and unconnected with everyday life. While such institutions always worked to a limited budget, the budget went towards funding the institution's designated activity. Nobody thought for a moment that their primary purpose was to stimulate the local economy or to serve the surrounding communities. The institution had a universal purpose which was to refine the senses and ennoble the mind.
Unlike the museum, in the typical art centre, art is not at the centre. All sorts of other anxieties and concerns motivate the new administrators - urban regeneration, 'reaching out' to the local community, even health and fitness promotion. The director of a recent exhibition on art and HIV at the Walsall Museum boasted that, as a result of the exhibition, there had been a 30 percent increase in HIV tests at a local clinic. This marriage of neo-Stalinism and hypochondria might have made the directors feel better, but it suggests little concern for art.
In his announcement of a big increase in funding to museums and galleries, the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, declared that the function of museums now was to 'fight social exclusion'. If you didn't know better you might think that museums and galleries are guarded by flunkeys in powdered wigs turning away all riffraff. Of course, no such restrictions exist, nor have they ever existed. Even in price terms, a seat at the Royal Opera House, about the most expensive of 'elite' art, could be had for roughly the price of a ticket to a London premier league football match. But for New Labour, fighting social exclusion does not just mean making art more accessible. In the words of David Fleming, Tyne and Wear arts director, it also means 'getting out there into the community' and stopping such ghastly practices as curators 'inflicting their object fetishism on others'. The absurdity of it - a senior figure in the new arts establishment accusing curators of 'object fetishism'. It is like attacking a scientist for being obsessed with science.
The proliferation of cultural industries and their use in the fight against 'social exclusion', demands for more 'relevance' and accessibility, ethnic quotas, disabled quotas, children's quotas, etc; none of these demands is motivated by a concern for art. They are about using art for the purposes of social engineering.
To break down the division between art and life has often been a minority concern among artists. To do it for artistic reasons may be a daring if impossible enterprise. But to do it for political and economic reasons is unpardonable. This really is cultural meltdown. Culture is melted into everyday life. The promiscuity with which the word 'culture' is used reflects this dissolution. Everything from work to play has become a cultural activity. Art is everywhere and nowhere. The only consequence of such an enterprise is to distort reality and corrupt art.
Our whole society has developed an unhealthy obsession with culture. In his contribution to the 'dumbing down' debate earlier this year, Frank Furedi suggested that those thronging the bookshops were drawn by the burgeoning self-help sections. But maybe the entire bookshop has become a self-help clinic, with one on nearly every street corner. Our attachment to reading has become feverish and obsessive. And like every neurotic anxiety today, it is nourished by the government with its national reading weeks and constant harping on about education. The sad thing is that reading, going to galleries, and so on, do not in themselves make anybody more cultured. As Montaigne observed, excessive reading only dulls the imagination. There is no substitute for intelligent conversation and the clash of ideas between lively people. Without that, all the rest just becomes a dead weight, compounding the problem which it is trying to remedy.
We should put art back in its proper place. Art is separate from life. Instead of using it as a crutch for all our other problems, we should leave it alone, stop promoting it, banging on endlessly about its usefulness and insinuating it into the everyday. Make it available by all means, but stop acting as if those who are not reading and going to galleries are in some way morally deficient. Art, whether in its creation or apprehension, is ultimately about the individual imagination. If the individual is so motivated he will find his way to it without a government policy. As for the benighted cultural industries, they should be decommissioned with all haste. All those useless art centres mushrooming around the country should be closed down or put to some proper use.
And if after all that we find that far from living in the most cultured and sophisticated nation that has ever existed, we are in fact in a cultural desert, so be it. At least then we'll be dealing with reality.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999