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22 May 1998

New Labour v Old Snobs

As the Arts Council is hit by resignations, James Heartfield explains the background to the latest row between New Labour and the intelligentsia

Three members of the Performance Arts panel of the Arts Council have resigned, accusing the new Director of being a Blair-appointee and business-minded philistine. Commentators have blamed the culture minister Chris Smith for the rift with the custodians of the 'high arts'. Smith's new book Creative Britain is said to be indicative of New Labour's preference for pop culture over high art. In turn Smith's off-hand reaction to the resignations is taken by some as an indication that the government is pleased to be sweeping out the Augean Stables at the Arts Council, by shedding a few bureaucrats.

New Labour has had trouble negotiating its relationship with the more cultivated classes. When Stephen Bayley resigned as Creative Director of the Millennium Dome he lost no time in denouncing minister in charge Peter Mandelson's Disneyfied plans nor the 'scruffy mockney' Ben Evans who replaced him. New Labour has often been criticised for its appeal to base sentiments and emotions, from the Prime Minister's mawkish Diana-fest to the Brit-pop parties at his residence.

Tony Blair rejected those criticisms, denouncing the critics as snobs. Chris Smith agreed:

'Heightened emotion can indeed sometimes play a part, and properly so - as it did, for example at the time of Live Aid, or in the weeks immediately following the death of John Smith, or in the outpouring of genuine emotion following the death of the Princess of Wales.'

It is not surprising that New Labour will brook no criticism of sentimentalism. New Labour has ridden the politics of sentiment since John Smith's one great career move reversed the party's standing in the polls. In office Tony Blair's beatification of the People's Princess helped cement his own papal infallibility in the eyes of the media.

But the truth is that New Labour's grip on the popular mood is far from secure. Blair's appeal depends on some pretty negative emotions. A sense of loss and bereavement is not the strongest platform for a government. Disappointing turn-outs in the voting for 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. Booking All Saints to sing at the Birmingham G8 summit was Tony Blair's way of associating himself with success. Not surprisingly New Labour's awkward attempts to be popular have provoked derision and hostility from the intelligentsia.

So when Chris Smith writes that 'high' and 'low' culture are misleading distinctions and that 'George Benjamin and Noel Gallagher are both musicians of the highest rank' it is bound to provoke the snobs.

Smith is wrong to put high and low cultures on a par. In its place it is fine, but pop music is for kids. 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 Brit-pop, 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 appealing to the best in them, and encouraging them to go forward. 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 unique to say to people, so it prefers just to hang out.

The cultural snobs at the Arts Council have made a different mistake. They think that excellence and popularity cannot mix. They demand that the government defends them against the levelling-down effect of the market. When they hear Smith laud Brit-pop, they fear that he is selling them out to popular culture.

The Arts Council was formed as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts during the Second World War. It was designed to protect the high arts against the onward march of mass-civilisation, especially cinema and radio. When CEMA put on Shakespeare for the South Wales miners, the luvvies called it 'missionary work'. Snobbery is at the heart of the Arts Council.

But the truth is that the war-time concerts and plays put on by CEMA were immensely popular with ordinary people. 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' amongst 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.

The irony is that today it is not just the popular cultural industries like the music and film businesses that are doing well. High art is booming too, though for very different reasons. The turnover of the art and antiques market in 1996 was UKP2.2 billion. The number of working artists increased by 71 per cent from 32,700 to 55,900 between 1981 and 1991. The art market is awash with the money that its capitalist patrons have declined to invest in industry in recent years. Culture minister Smith says proudly that employment in the arts has increased while all other industries are in recession. He does not seem to realise that it is because of the recession that more funds are being redirected from industry to luxury consumption.

The Arts Council has looked on jealously while the fine art market has boomed. They distrust the economic and popular success of artists like Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Sarah Lucas. They prefer the arts to be unsuccessful, so that they can patronise them. Arts Council funding has gravitated towards performance arts which are notoriously un-economic (due to high costs relative to market size). It itself there is nothing wrong with that. A society ought to cultivate the best in art and culture. But the prejudice that everything popular is bad only indicates the underdog sentiment that lies at the heart of the Arts Council.

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. They think that the arts have to be defended against the degrading influence of ordinary people.

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, but demanded the best of them. Instead we have the choice between New Labour talking down to us and the snobs refusing to talk to anyone but their own small circle of friends. And that is no choice at all.

James Heartfield's Essay on the myths and realities of Cultural Britain, Need and Desire in the Post-material Economy is published next month. To order a copy, mail James@heartfield.demon.co.uk

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