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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

But is it Art?

There is a kind of TV writer you sometimes come across, usually an ex-schoolteacher with a beard, who after one pintalways says, 'if Shakespeare was alive today, he'd be writing soap opera'. I can just imagine Shakespeare on the Street: 'OK, now this is the bit where Rita wakes up and Ted is next to her in the bed with his head chopped off and at first she doesn't notice that his head is missing, right, she just talks to herself for about a page, and then Ted's identical twin comes in and he sees the body and quickly swaps places with it, right, but just as he does that, a bear comes in....'

The next thing the beard says is, 'of course, I could have done a David Hare but I wanted to get my message across to working class people' (exactly what the message is, he never says). David Hare here stands for 'Art' as opposed to 'popular culture'. So it is interesting that it is Hare who has reopened the debate about the relative merits of these two worlds by posing the question (on The Late Show), 'is Dylan better than Keats?'.

It's a GCSE General Studies kind of a question (the answer is, Dylan is better than Keats to precisely the same extent that Juventus is better than the Ballets Russes) but its subtext is interesting. Given what I've just said about Hare, it could be translated - aren't I (David Hare) better than, say, Coronation Street? It's a question posed by a writer pleading for recognition. But beyond that, it is a question posed by a whole culture suddenly stroppy about its own worth and identity.

It is interesting that Hare chose a social worker's favourite like Dylan, as opposed to a more populist figure like McCartney. He is interested not in the opposition between mass and high culture, but in the moral state of middle class culture. The real question is - has the bourgeoisie been slumming it for too long?

For 30-odd years now, the intelligentsia has been flirting with mass culture. It's usually an embarrassing sight, like the decrepit young Mr Grace pawing some mini-skirted 'dolly bird'. There was the case of the Times journalist who called The Beatles 'the greatest songwriters since Schubert'; Christopher Ricks, the Keats scholar, has an inexplicable enthusiasm for Dylan's lyrics; and most recently, Martin Jacques said that 'Lennon was more important than Lenin', just as the Lennon Memorial Concert had finally proved that Lennon was not only a nasty little sociopath but also a deeply talentless songwriter. So it is interesting that this love affair now seems to be coming to a close.

I have often thought that the affair seemed to arise from a lack of confidence in the intelligentsia itself, a pathetic middle-aged groping after relevance ('What's this, son? It's got a good beat!'). In university humanities departments, it took the form of a move away from evaluative, prescriptive criticism towards interpretative criticism; away from questions like 'Why is Keats so morally uplifting?' towards questions like 'What is the true significance of the Blind Date?'.

So does the move back to Keats signify an attempt to reconstitute and assert the superiority of an unashamedly elitist High Culture? Well, The Late Show would be the place to launch such a project. Despite a decent slot straight after the prestigious Newsnight, it rarely gets more than half a million viewers. Presumably these are all very superior. Interestingly, the Keats versus Dylan edition was followed a week or so later by a programme devoted to another exam question - Has history ended? (the answer is, ask an Islamic fundamentalist). This took its lead from Francis Fukuyama's triumphalist account of the 'victory' of liberal democracy as an ideal, ie, of the victory of the bourgeois intelligentsia, and presumably of Keats.

But how deep is this new self-confidence? Indeed how confident can anyone be with fewer viewers than Pobol Y Cym (there is talk of The Late Show being slashed back to two episodes a week)? It is important to note that in the debate about high versus popular art, the Keats faction had to choose its ammunition from the past. Looking for modern practitioners of the high art values, they ended up with AS Byatt - a Booker novelist who whatever her merits, is surely as disposable as Milli Vanilli.

I have no idea what David Hare's work is like, because like most intelligent people these days I haven't been to see a play in the theatre since I was old enough to say no. When The Late Show did approach a genuinely elitist subject - the conceptual art show at the Hayward Gallery - it did so in a jittery, jokey manner - sending the cynical Howard Jacobson along with the arty Waldemar Januszczak. Despite their big intellectual credentials, the two soon fell into the most banal kind of musing with Jacobson saying one installation could not be Art because it was not skilful and Januszczak replying that a lot of work had gone into it (apparently unaware that a lot of work goes into Pot Noodle).

They seemed to want some sort of assurance that they were getting their money's worth. The Art itself seemed similarly contradictory. It was austerely cerebral and lacking in entertainment value, but at the same time over-friendly, full of comics and soft toys, as if crying out, 'love me, love me'. It's interesting to note that the most popular modern artists - Richard Long (who makes sculptures out of long walks), and Cindy Sherman (who takes photos of herself in disguise)--are engaged in big existential projects. The fact that these artists are patently suffering in some way (by walking all the time, or spending hours in heavy make-up) makes up for the fact that what they are giving us appears to be nothing more than some footprints, or a snap.

The fact is that most of what we think of as Art was produced as a by-product by people who were not interested in Art. Most Art in every area of the world was produced to be functional - to be useful in religious or ceremonial contexts. Most 'great' writers did their best work for money, or out of vindictiveness or lust. If you aim to produce Art, all you get is AS Byatt, or worse, Channel 4's pricey nobs and knockers saga The Camomile Lawn.

The term Art, as it operates on The Late Show, is a marketing pitch, a way of selling product to an uptight bourgeoisie who simply don't know how to have a good time. It is cultural healthy eating. If you tell them something is good for them, they'll lap it up. The crudest possible example is Morse. One slap of cultural varnish in the shape of a Readers' Digest selection of classical music, and they'll sit and look at it all day. The long flirtation with popular culture can be explained in the same way - the apparently interpretative criticism was effectively evaluative, in that it gave them something intelligent to say about, say, Blind Date and so permitted them to enjoy it. Behind the retreat into Keats and crowing about the victory of liberalism, there seems to be a deep anxiety, a feeling that this is no time to party.

The advantage of this is that Take Your Pick (ITV, Mondays) will - presumably - not get the cult status accorded to Blind Date. So keep to yourselves the fact that it is the most profound dramatisation of Schadenfreude since Coriolanus. The show is introduced by Des O'Connor. Contestants have to decide whether to 'take the money or open the box', while Des shovels tenners into their hands.

The audience always shouts 'open the box!', baying the contestants towards their hubris, willing them to throw away hundreds of pounds for a bog brush. The baying noticeably does not diminish in the case of box 13--when the audience knows what is in the box (this week a blank video tape while the contestant was being offered £500). There is no solidarity here. Unless, that is, the contestant comes out on top (the blank video tape turned out to be packaged with £1500 worth of video equipment), when they cheer sycophantically, grovelling masochistically at the feet of Success. It is a chilling spectacle, better than David Hare any day. In fact, if Shakespeare were alive today, I think he'd be making up game shows.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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