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From Cool Britannia to a New Renaissance?

A UK cabinet minister says that Britain is on the verge of a “new Renaissance,” at least if plans go forward to shift arts funding from pork barrel to pursuit of excellence. According to the Culture Secretary, and a report prepared for him, “the society we now live in is arguably the most exciting it has ever been,” and the arts “have never been so needed to understand the deep complexities of Britain today.” The need and opportunity are there, and if state funding can facilitate “the reclamation of excellence from its historic elitist undertones” then the result may well be “the greatest art yet created.”

I agree that in cultural matters quality is better than pork, and I recognize that politicians say extreme things to push forward their favorite causes. Still, nonsense is nonsense, and it pays to think seriously about the real situation and likely effects of proposed measures. Here are some thoughts that come to mind:

  • What’s exciting about Britain today? Superficial flash, money and sordidness aren’t exciting, at least not for long. And isn’t the thought that excitement is the basis of artistic achievement already a problem?
  • There’s nothing “deeply complex” about a commercialized and bureaucratized hodgepodge. A beautiful building is “deeply complex.” A shopping mall is more complicated in a sense, since it has more shapes, colors and things, but the complications don’t add up so you don’t describe it as deeply anything. Britain today is more like a shopping mall than a beautiful building.
  • Excellence can be found in the banjo-picking of an illiterate sharecropper. Still, an attempt to institutionalize excellence, for example by organizing government support for it. is necessarily elitist. Who but an elite will decide what’s excellent?
  • Bureaucratic patronage can’t reflect particular taste. That’s just how bureaucracies work. Whatever art they support will in effect be academic art because it will have to measure up to official canons that can be stated explicitly and applied in a publicly defensible way. Why think that’s going to give us a creative renaissance?
  • If the makings of a renaissance were there, and all that was needed was a little money to move things forward, wouldn’t we be seeing the signs already? What are those signs? The former director of the Edinburgh International Festival may say they’re there, but why should we believe him?
  • Is it realistic to think ethnic etc. pork can be abolished? Men dominate the highest levels of excellence in all fields. Is the Labour government going to cut women out of the cultural picture? Do they really expect artistic achievement to be equally distributed by ethnic and class background and by region? What happens when black female scuptors complain they aren’t getting any of the action? Will Mr. Purnell tell them they’re inferior and should just suck it up? And are some artistic traditions, like European art music, going to be treated as better than others?

Mr. Purnell should face reality. The official art in a big-government society that takes economic prosperity and security and bureaucratically-enforced equality as its final standards is always going to be oppressive sludge. The more government tries to do in the arts the more destructive it’s likely to be. Maybe something modest can be done when the higher-ups aren’t looking, if we’re lucky, but grandiose goals put things on the wrong footing.

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