Thursday, 6 March 2008

New Labour and the Proms

How reassuring that Margaret Hodges, so-called Minister of Culture, has come in for a huge amount of criticism following her attack on the Proms. There's a particular good letter from the cellist Steven Isserlis in The Guardian today, which about sums it up:

Amongst other things, Hodges said: “All too often our sectors are not at their best when embodying common belongings themselves. The audiences for many of our greatest cultural events - I’m thinking in particular of the Proms - is still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease with this.”

Now, I think the Proms as a whole is a fantastic festival. As regards the Last Night, well, it's a bit of fun and (in my nostalgic old age) I don't object to Patriotism as much as I used to, as long as it doesn't slide into crude Nationalism.

But the idea that Art might be there just to be enjoyed "as a bit of fun" is anathema to New Labour. Art is there to promote New Labour thinking - a certain kind of British integration posited on authoritarian inclusiveness.

This, to my mind, demonstrates a typical New Labour attitude towards culture. Culture, for this government, is there for the following reasons:

1. to stop people stealing cars

2. to stop poor white people stealing cars

3. to stop poor minority ethnic people stealing cars.

Government policies on the Arts are all founded on these three central tenets. Music exists in order to stop people stealing cars. Literature exists to express the consequences of stealing cars. Plays should all feature someone stealing a car and facing the consequences. If said plays can also feature the consequences of gun crime and knife crime, all the better.

This is the utilitarian, gradgrindist world of New Labour Arts Strategy: the Arts are there to make people more amenable New Labour subjects, who will not steal cars, fire guns or stab people. More or less every single Arts and Culture-funding body in the country now has a form which you have to fill in to show how your music / literature / stage play will help poor, misguided people from doing wrong.

This is about as far from an Aestheticist or "Arts for Art's Sake" attitude as it is possible to get. It's also a long way from what the Arts are really about. Gosh, imagine telling all this to Richard Wagner - "Yes, Herr Wagner, 'The Ring of the Nibelung' is all very well, but at times it seems to promote knife crime (when Siegfried stabs Fafner), teenage rebellion (in Brunnhilde's misguided attitude towards her father, and Siegfried's attitude to Mime), and even stealing (in Siegfried's appropriation of the ring). Can't you write something, well, a bit more socially responsible next time? Otherwise, Herr Wagner, you're going to have your Arts Council funding cut, and be given an ASBO."

Real art, real culture can be violent, anti-social, apocalyptic, dangerous, subversive. Real art and culture might, in some contexts, promote the stealing of cars rather than the other way around. Real art and culture doesn't obey the programme of any ruling class - be that ruling class bourgeois, Conservative, New Labour, Communistic or Fascist. No signed-up, single-minded, hood-winked flunky of any political party will ever be able to accept this. Real art is anarchistic in the widest possible sense - it escapes being pinned down to one meaning, one role, one policy, and flies dangerously free of fixed political agendas - even those of the creator him or herself.

To retutn to the Last Night of the Proms and one of its famous moments, what ignorant New Labour flunkies don't and can't understand is that Elgar's famous Pomp and Circumstance March no.1 isn't just jingoistic tub-thumping - it's also other things as well. It's also aspiration towards a utopian vision of England that's never been realised; it's also a pastoral and nostalgic memory of an England that never was in the first piece; and, as many people have recognised, the dying fall at the end of the famous march rather subverts the jubilation of the words which have been imposed upon the music.

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