George Kent calls for traditionalists and true conservatives to reclaim the art galleries and concert-halls of this country.
When our Eton and Oxford educated Prime Minister appeared on BBC Radio 4’s famous Desert Island Discs programme, his choice of music betrayed a great deal about the state of mind of many politicians – and of Conservative politicians in particular. In his choice of a song by the 1970s’ comedian, Benny Hill, along with various rock melodies, it was clear that Cameron’s gold-plated education did not include very much classical music, or art appreciation. When Dave later appeared on an American talk show, and was asked such questions as “who composed Rule, Britannia?”, and “what do the words Magna Carta mean?” – the great man of Number 10 was stumped. Now, of course, just to single out one man, and to make a statement that all Conservatives are philistines is rather wide of the mark. But Cameron’s indifference to the arts, and the general impression of a Conservative Party that has little understanding of any culture, let alone British, is hard to escape.
On the Labour side, the situation seems more hopeful. Paul Boateng, for example, once associated with a strident egalitarianism and something of a grudge-based approach to certain political issues (such as race and immigration) is an active supporter of English National Opera. Neil and Glenys Kinnock have been seen at the Proms, and David Blunkett attended the Last Night – commenting later on how much he enjoyed the experience. In 1998, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of the completed sketches of Elgar’s “lost” Third Symphony (a major musical event for this country), Jack Straw was in the audience – clearly concentrating, and moved. I should know: I was sitting just a few feet away from him. Again, I am being unfair, as it has to be said that Douglas Hurd, John Gummer and Sir John Stanley have all been seen at the annual Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948 by the great British composer, Benjamin Britten. One cannot generalise too much!
So – what is my argument? It is this: the arts are generally seen by some in our political class as, vaguely, worthwhile and something to attend, but an activity that is – perhaps – not as important as the conduct of the NHS, or league tables in schools. Most Conservatives, I would suspect, feel that the art and music should “pay for itself” – that it should have some sort of market relevance. No! – screams the world of arts administrators and practitioners: this debases our culture… a true statement, were it not from a group of people who associate the name of J.M.W. Turner with galleries devoted to pickled cows, unmade beds and piles of bricks. (Even the Victoria and Albert Museum has, above its entrance, a piece of modern “art” made up of upside-down traffic cones.)
The politicians’ overall lack of artistic concern, and the Tories’ combination of free-market obsession and philistinism, have allowed the running of Britain’s arts to fall into the hands of (what might generally be termed) the professional, concerned, Toynbee-ish liberal-left. It is a pattern that has occurred everywhere else – affecting the school curriculum and higher education and the content of public libraries, and the way teachers are trained, or senior policemen appointed. Newspapers such as The Guardian and Independent – both left-wing – regularly devote (unlike the Telegraph) much time and space to the coverage of books, opera, classical music; offering opinions – not just about how good the London Symphony Orchestra sounded last night at the Barbican, but on the presentation of music, and how it relates to “society”. Great discussions are then held within the arts world on “exclusivity” and “outreach”; and radical figures – such as the modernist composer, the late Steve Martland – provide a deconstructionist discourse on why white-tie-and-tails “puts audiences off”, and why there need to be more ethnic minorities in the “centres of excellence”. Gradually, arts organisations begin to question their own right to existence – with some musicians feeling that they have to adopt informal dress, or take part in concerts with rap artists! (One late-night evening at the Proms, this year, was devoted to such an experiment.)
Fortunately, the BBC Symphony Orchestra defied the grunge-egalitarians, by performing at the Last Night of the Proms this year in white tie, although the feminist lobby loudly proclaimed the presence on the podium of the Last Night’s first woman conductor, the excellent Marin Alsop (conductor of the Baltimore Symphony in America). Once again, the left-leaning media discussed and dissected why it has taken so long for women conductors to be recognised – conveniently ignoring the fact that female baton-wielders have long been a feature of the Proms. For example, the lady-conductor, Cuban-born Odaline de la Martinez directed the Proms performance in 1994 of The Wreckers – an opera by the British composer (and suffragette!) Dame Ethel Smyth; Susanna Mallki (a Finnish musician) has also appeared at The Royal Albert Hall, as has the Chinese female conductor, Xian Zhang; and our own, very versatile Jane Glover (exponent of Handel, Mozart – and Gilbert and Sullivan!)
Arts coverage, arts criticism, arts administration – all tend to be in the hands of the “great and the good”. But now is the time to question this liberal hegemony. The arts are as much of the Right as they are of the Left – as much a forum for a traditionalist landscape painter such as Brian Yale, as they are for a Tracey Emin and her unmade bed. Modernist experimentation is a healthy thing, but as Professor Roger Scruton has pointed out, the old and tried-and-tested must exist – for how else can we judge what is original or daring? And why should it be, for example, that in this, the centenary year of Benjamin Britten’s birth, practically every biographer of the composer is (broadly) “of the left”? Britten, it is true, was a pacifist – but the composer of the coronation opera Gloriana, and a man who expressed a profound affinity with his home-soil of Suffolk and the folk-song of Saxon-Anglican-rooted England – could one not make out a case for him, in some senses, as a composer “of the Right”? Why must everything be interpreted their way – the Left’s way?
It is time to turn our attention to the composers, poets, artists, writers, folk and popular musicians of this country; to reclaim our arts, and to challenge and decrease the depressing influence which The Guardian-Radio 4-Independent axis now exerts over our hearts and minds.