Freeloading and Snobbery
April 14, 2009
Over the holiday weekend I somehow missed the Guardian’s latest musings on Thatcher and the arts. The writer Hanif Kureishi offers this:
[I]n the longer term, her effect has been disastrous. Thatcher, like the Queen, is basically vulgar, and has little cultural sophistication or understanding. But unlike the Queen, she actively hated culture, as she recognised that it was a form of dissent.
Ah yes, “dissent.” That’s up there with Polly Toynbee’s conviction that subsidised literary festivals are not only “hot new debating arenas” and “as good a measure of well-being as any,” but also, crucially, make up for “the nation’s democratic deficit.” Naturally, this is advanced as a basis for additional taxpayer subsidy of the art forms Polly happens to like, and in which she has a platform. (There is, sadly, no public subsidy of my CD collection or Battlestar Galactica box sets, for which I expect to pay full price. But then if I want some political edge to my entertainment, I’m more likely to turn to, say, South Park than the woolly blatherings of DBC Pierre or the plays of David Hare. No doubt that makes me a hater of culture.) Toynbee devotees may also recall her enthusiasm for the idea that “disruptive 16-year-old boys” should be taken out of class to spend a term being taught the finer points of dance, resulting in a “transformation in the whole year group.”
But on the subject of dissent, one might wonder whether publicly subsidised art and theatre will tend to favour a political outlook in which the subsidy on which it depends is most vigorously endorsed, thus leading to uniformity, inhibition and a political comfort zone. Which raises the question of what “dissent” actually means when the status quo in London’s dramatic circles is, as we’ve seen, overwhelmingly leftwing. It seems to me the nature of arts and theatrical funding has at least some bearing on the political tenor of artistic establishments and much of the work that’s produced. In the case of museums and orchestras this may not be particularly relevant. But there’s no shortage of overtly politicised “art” that peddles an ideological message or badmouths the terribly bourgeois values of the terrible bourgeois people who are nonetheless expected to pay for it with their taxes. In such cases, objections are easy to understand. If people wish to use art to propagate a leftwing political message, perhaps they should find a suitably likeminded sponsor, or do it on their own dime.
But back to Mr Kureishi and his claims of cultural autism. Actually, I don’t recall Thatcher having much to say about the arts and culture generally, so I’m not sure what exactly the charge of being “basically vulgar” and “actively hating culture” is based on. Not being keen on unending public subsidy for a fairly narrow range of politically loaded theatre isn’t the same thing as philistinism, and I’m pretty sure one of Thatcher’s earliest speeches argued that the economic fallout of socialism had placed the arts under threat, along with a great deal else. Unfortunately, Kureishi doesn’t pause to elaborate on his claim; instead he presents us with the following fusion of telepathy and non sequitur:
She didn’t understand altruism, solidarity and identification with others as a basic part of human nature. Her failure to understand this helped give rise to mass forms of saccharine sentimentality such as that which surrounded the demise of Princess Diana.
Hm. Even if one assumes that Thatcher actually had such profound inadequacies, it still isn’t obvious how this personal shortcoming would lead to “saccharine sentimentality” in others on a sociological scale.
It’s ironic that we are discussing all this today because the enterprise culture that she so valued has finally exploded, bringing down with it the greedy bankers she so adored. It seems to me that at last we’ve probably come to the end of Thatcherism. I’m glad she’s still alive to see the whole thing collapse.
Where would Guardian contributors be without recourse to Schadenfreude? But wait. Without an enterprise culture and the tax revenue it generates, who will be paying for all of the commercially unviable art that Mr Kureishi thinks defines sophistication? The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington doesn’t say, but he does offer this:
Was the 1980s an unacknowledged golden age? In theatrical terms, absolutely not. Talent, of course, can never be entirely suppressed.
Note the word “suppressed.” Like “dissent,” it’s a tad grandiose. I’m not convinced that the reduction of taxpayer subsidy for loss-making plays qualifies as “suppression.” And reluctant taxpayers please take note: Despite all the years of providing handouts, you’re now on the side of the oppressor. That’s gratitude for you. Actually, one might argue that not making work of sufficient interest to put bums on seats is largely a failure of the artist. Not that Mr Billington has much time for productions that do put bums on seats, which the elevated socialist waves aside as “harmless pleasure.” Instead, he too sees the long shadow of Thatcher, on whom he blames,
a prevailing media assumption that a hyped-up West End extravaganza such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is somehow more “important” than, say, a new Royal Court play by Polly Stenham; that in itself is a direct legacy of a decade in which “bums on seats” became a more significant criterion of judgment than “ideas in heads.”
There’s something deeply amusing about egalitarian snobbery and its assorted conceits. The functions of the welfare state apparently include saving unprofitable drama productions from an uninterested public. Mere commercial forces and popular appetite must not impede work of such tremendous cultural importance that no bugger wants to see it. There’s an inescapable arrogance in the assumption that a given artistic or theatrical effort should somehow circumvent the preferences of its supposed audience and be maintained indefinitely, at public expense, despite audience disinterest or outright disapproval. And when that same indifferent public forks out its cash voluntarily for something it wants to see, this is something to be sneered at and blamed on former Prime Ministers. Marx would be proud. I’m not at all sure that the opinions above, which are fairly typical of the piece, tell us much about Thatcher’s view of culture, or her alleged philistinism, or her impact on the arts generally. But it does, I think, tell us quite a bit about the presumptions of the commenters and their intended readership.