Adapted from an article by Blake Morrison which appeared in the Independent
T.S Eliot wrote in 1948 "that our own period is one of decline and that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago... I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even have to anticipate a period of no culture."
recent years British culture has become Bland with a capital B.
Not inoffensive FAD's wallpaper blandness, no this is something
more shrill and self congratualatory. A relentlessly cheerful, blanket
of good taste.
London theatre, for instance. A report at the end of last year from the Theatre Trust warned that, unless attitudes and funding priorities change, the West End will soon offer only American musical imports, and pantomimes with ageing soap stars. A look at the listings - Chicago, Cats, Starlight Express, Saturday Night Fever, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Whistle down the Wind, The Phantom of the Opera - suggests that the future has already arrived.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a good night out watching 'Mc Culture' entertainment. Like warm baths or Sunday lunches, we all need them once in a while. But what if you want more? Suppose you're looking for theatre that braces or unsettles you, challenges your thinking, teaches you things you didn't know. A recent survey of intellectuals found that most rarely went to the West End. No surprises there. What would there be for them to see? That is in London, However in Cardiff and in the welsh regions, there is a serious lack of any art that makes the hair on your neck stand on end or your stomach churn. This is not the fault of the regional theatres and production companies. Money provided for the arts, from government and lottery sources hardly crosses the invisible north south divide, it washes into London where it is spent on the safely consumable. This is Britain Dome-ing down.
isn't just a crisis in theatre. Insiders in British art, opera,
publishing, film and TV have similar stories - of funding crises,
failures of nerve, and accountants taking over artistic management.
In Cool Britannia, the talk is of prioritising art forms that are
fun, accessible, open to all.
Looking for scapegoats, John Drummond, chairman of the Theatre Trust, points the finger at New Labour, he finds it hard to credit how "a few years of well intentioned but unthinking populism can be allowed to destroy a tradition that has played a key role in the European mind for 2000 years". All these mission statements about British "x" (film, visual art, popular music - fill in the gap) being "y" (exciting/ where it's at/ the envy of the world) are nonsense. The truth is sadder - and blander. They were the Nice Nineties, and these aren't the naughty noughts, we are so far in the numbing noughts. Teeth 'n' smiles publicists spread the word that art is fun. Clean and wholesome too. And nothing to be scared of. Which true art can never be.
The irony is that we've been conditioned to think our culture is daring. Damien's sheep, Tracey's bed, Chris Ofili's elephant dung madonna, Sensation! The odd thing is easily assimilated their shocks are. When Mayor Giuliani fumed at the Sensation exhibition in New York, we smiled indulgently at his naivety. How uncool! How Mary Whitehouse of him. Shrug it off Mayor! Time you got real!
But art that's genuinely new can't be so easily assimilated. It doesn't draw huge crowds, or let its audience forget it five minutes later. It used to involve its makers in years of struggle, semi-poverty and sometimes persecution. This isn't to say the Tracy Emin, say, lacks intellectual substance. The questions she raises about the cult of celebrity, and about the relation of art to abuse, will be the stuff of theses for years to come. But thats not why people queued to see her. We go because we've read the hype. "Prepare to be disgusted!" is the challenge, and we want to see if we can take it - the rumpled sheets, the knickers, the skidmarks. And hey, we can. It's ok, see: art isn't so shocking after all.
But that doesn't mean that art has lost the power to shock. Neither have we as an audience lost the capacity to be shocked. We are so busy reasuring ourselves how broadminded we are that we forget how many taboos still exist. The use of "real people" or sensational public crimes in art work. And on British Television many aspects of sex. Compared to the late night viewing in many other European nations, Britian is prudish, forbidden from even showing an erect penis.
The national portrait gallery is considering issuing an adults only warning notice on it's first ever nude - a full length self portrait by Gilbert and George entitled 'In the Piss'. This painting isn't in the least bit shocking, children are more likely to see shocking scenes of Daddy in the bath but the gallery director is wary of "unpredictable public reaction". Rodin's 'The Kiss', was given to the East Sussex town of Lewes as a gift in 1914 but was banned in 1917 after a campaign by a local headmistress who thought it pornography. We've come along way from then and the sixties when nudity on stage led to prosecution, the three ton sculpture was returned last year, but as the 'In the Piss' controvisy highlights we still have hang ups about the naked human form. No harm in that maybe, but the idea that all taboos have been broken is clearly absurd.
of the tricks of our culture is the way it's swallowed the counter
culture, taken it into the mainstream, processed it, paid it off.
Until recently, boldness didn't mean providing surface shocks, but
probing below the surface - as the experimental artists the Boyle
Family literally did in 1966 when they extracted bodily fluids and
projected them onto a screen. At another Sixties performance event,
the carcass of a lamb was ritually paraded, nailed, hit, manhandled,
and it's entrailed offered to the audience. Damien's sheep may be
a homage to such experiment, but it is milder and much more tasteful.
You can't push back the frontiers when there's already a main road.