Melvyn Bragg Misses the Art of the Matter

Thirty years ago I recall watching a wonderful episode of The South Bank Show about Benjamin Britten. Called “A Time There Was” and hosted, as usual, by Melvyn Bragg, it was made by Tony Palmer, the hugely respected director of films about music and musicians. It was on the ITV network and shown at prime time. The programme did exactly what the best arts documentaries are meant to do: it provided an effective introduction for those who (like me at the time) knew little about the subject, and for the more knowledgeable, it offered further illumination.

Here we are, three decades later. The South Bank Show is no longer on ITV. Instead it can be found on the niche subscription channel of Sky Arts. The same goes for its annual awards show, which at least has not suffered the fate of the Olivier theatre awards in disappearing completely from the airwaves (one can easily imagine modern TV executives flinching at the inaccessibility of the very word “Olivier”). 

Back in the Nineties, and making my freelance way through television, I worked at The South Bank Show, on and off, for the best part of a decade. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t enjoy it. To a boy from the suburbs who had a suspicion he might like the arts,  The South Bank Show was one of television’s higher callings. Actually to get to work on it was a source of genuine pride. It seemed to me then (and still does) that Bragg was a genuine Reithian who believed that television had a possibly unique role in bringing the arts to a wider audience.   

But now it is quite inconceivable to imagine such a mainstream arts series taking root on ITV. For younger people especially, used only to Simon Cowell and the various mutations of reality and talent show the channel currently offers, it must be hard to believe that such a show ever even existed. Today, Tony Palmer’s film would probably just about make it on to BBC4, another niche channel.   

You might logically conclude from this that there has been a definite change in our cultural priorities, and that it has been for the worst. But if you watched Bragg’s recent three-part TV series Class and Culture, you would have gathered that you were wrong. For culture now, it was claimed, has never been healthier, more ubiquitous or more accessible. It has become such a mass pursuit it has even managed to bypass, if not make obsolete, the British class system.

We now define ourselves just as much by what we do in our leisure time, wrote Bragg in the Daily Telegraph at the start of the series. “How would you really describe yourself?” he asked. “I suggest it might be through the type of music you like, the sport you follow, the radio station you listen to, the authors you read, the ballet or opera you go to, the soaps or galleries—or a mix of all. The old snakeskin of class falls away when we look at what we really do, or are given half the chance to be as we really want to be.”

This all sounds very nice; to disagree or demur immediately makes one a mean-spirited pessimist. But such a conclusion seriously misinterprets the circumstances as they exist in Britain now.

On the face of it, the visibility of the arts, certainly when treated as a branch of the entertainment industry, appears great. You only have to consider the wall of print that comes at you from Thursday onwards every week: the listings, the supplements, the mounds and mounds of fearlessly uncritical coverage. Despite their practitioners’ regular complaints about being ignored or unvalued, the arts are treated with a level of media sycophancy which a politician or a royal could only dream of. Those who cover them have essentially become their promoters; there is no criticism, only approval. The greatly increased dominance of the media by the metropolitan branch of the middle class has also led to an unchallenged assumption that everybody is in thrall to The Wire, or knows who Carlos Acosta is.

Alongside this the arts community has become adept at playing the economic game, piggy-backing on to social issues and presenting itself as dynamic and at the root of all prosperity. So the presence of public art is claimed as being integral to the regeneration of rundown urban areas, although there’s no real evidence for this. They are pressed into the services of greater social cohesion, and are claimed to be vital in the enhancement of individual self-esteem (again, with little to back up such assertions). Rigorous intellectual assessment of their individual merits, at least in the public arena, has been replaced by what can only be described as a warm, fluffy approach which demands that anything deemed “creative” is good and therefore beyond criticism.    

But behind all the surface glitter, the worrying truth is that the general stock of knowledge about culture—in the educative, artistic and indeed historical sense of the word—is at a low ebb. People might go to Tate Britain in their hundreds of thousands but that doesn’t mean that they know or care much about what they’re seeing (the building, arguably, is what the tourists come to see in this particular case). And on a more fundamental level, an aspiration to knowledge and learning, and to a belief that the acquisition of culture is something good in and of itself, has, I suggest, diminished sharply in Britain. 

For large sections of society, it is now possible to live a life in which one simply never comes across the arts or what we might call high culture in general. The proliferation of television channels has had an enormous effect here. In the days of my Benjamin Britten programme, it was still possible to stumble over something in the schedule which sparked a hitherto undiscovered interest, simply because there was nowhere else to look. But the gradual hiving off of “specialist” subject matter on to the niche channels has meant that such happy chances are now very rare, if not extinct.   

But it was not just about technological change. Nor was it the fault of the triumph of the marketplace under Thatcherism, with its supposed belief in the supremacy of “bums on seats”. Far more important than both of these was the fact that, in the postwar years, the gatekeepers of what used to be called high culture lost confidence in what they were supposed to be guarding. Often loaded with liberal guilt and self-criticism, they lived in fear of accusations of elitism and the concurrent charge of “inaccessibility”. It was not their place to attempt to impose their “bourgeois” taste on the masses. Cultural relativism waged a war which transformed attitudes to art and the appreciation of it. There would be no value judgments made, no order of merit. The pop group Slade could stand on the podium alongside Stravinsky and few, if any, onlookers (regardless of their private thoughts) would dare suggest that perhaps one was of the greater value than the other. If this seems like an exaggeration, then it is worth pondering now whether one could imagine hearing a case put that the work of Beethoven and Mozart are intrinsically superior to, say, African tribal music. 

This approach affected how culture was covered by television, where the pressure to concentrate on popular subjects grew much stronger. This was the case even at the BBC, which as a publicly-funded broadcaster had absolutely no excuse to fear accusations of elitism or for that matter, low ratings. Art and history virtually disappeared from its schedules at one point, and although the situation has    undoubtedly improved, there is now the assumption that the audience has to be led through such subject matter by a reassuringly familiar celebrity face.         

Our state education system too gave way to the onslaught of cultural relativism. So, for example, if it was not considered to be within the culture of children from a particular social or ethnic group to like or value Mozart, they would not be able to relate to it, and nor should they be expected to. Hip-hop, perhaps, would be the thing instead. Children would be encouraged towards the less taxing creative pastimes. Mamma Mia! should be treated as being as worthwhile as Mozart. Well, you might agree that it is, but to do so you first surely need to know about both. And in higher education the preference for the less rigorously factual subjects, in which subjectivity and individual viewpoint are allowed to play much more of a part, and the creation of degrees for which the required expertise can only ever be superficial (such as the notorious media studies) have again drawn the emphasis away from cultural, historical and philosophical knowledge.  

This approach is now being seriously questioned, and for the first time in years there is a Secretary of State for Education who genuinely understands what is at stake. But a huge amount of damage has been done. The most basic knowledge of the arts—or for that matter history, or even general knowledge—is something which has effectively disappeared from sections of our society. My parents, both from working-class backgrounds, had certainly heard of Maria Callas and Rudolf Nureyev, even though they had never been to an opera or ballet. (According to one recent poll, a fifth of young people believe Churchill is a fictional character. What hope for Margot Fonteyn?) And along with this, the desire to want to appear cultured—something which is easily mocked, especially when exhibited by the socially aspirant—has given way to an aggressive hostility to all signs of “pretension”.

Not for nothing has the theatre and film director Sir Richard Eyre spoken of a growing cultural apartheid in our country. “One of the bizarre things about the way the arts are treated is that they aren’t treated like sport,” he told me during a recent interview. “There’s participatory sport that is encouraged, but actually what people admire is really gifted people doing something quite extraordinary, something the rest of us can’t do. And that element, I think, should be encouraged in art. Now that’s a view that is often completely mistakenly described as elitist. What’s elitist about it?”

The collapse in confidence so far as cultural judgment is concerned has been cynically used by a new elite which, while modishly condemning the so-called paternalism of Lord Reith, behaves with outrageous condescension towards the “masses”. They ape their supposed tastes, and suck up to them with talk about football and characters from television soap operas; a contemporary prime minister who celebrated his passion for opera or ballet in public is now pretty much inconceivable. This demotic populism certainly gives the impression of any easygoing classlessness, a society in which sharp delineations are a thing of the past. But that is all it is—an impression.    

And there is another problem: if you define culture widely enough, then of course we are going to appear drenched in it. If you include football, or soaps, or (as the broadsheets obsessively do) comedy and the ever expanding roster of stand-ups, then yes, we are living with an embarrassment of riches, every day. But judged on this basis, we always have been—it’s just that people didn’t classify these things in the same way. When my grandmother laughed at Max Miller, or my mother religiously tuned in to Coronation Street, they didn’t consider that they were taking part in a cultural act. Skateboarding requires skill but this doesn’t make it a creative activity (although it certainly is to the more ingratiating of culture bureaucrats). Bragg’s thesis might have worked much better if the series had been called Class and Leisure; but then the conclusion might have been that things had changed remarkably little.    

Class has not been redefined by culture. The industry I have spent much time working in, the broadcast media, used to be considered quite classless in a modern way, booming and expanding as it did after the 1960s. The dramatic halt in social mobility has put paid to that. Now most of the people I meet in the green room I can expect to be privately educated. The same is true of journalism, which used to be one of the traditional routes out of the provinces for bright young state-educated people. The professions have once again become the province of the public school-educated elite. And on a purely social level, there is less and less mixing between classes, although this is obscured by the superficial similarities of dress, speech and leisure pursuits. Class has not gone away, as Bragg himself agrees. But rather than its importance being diminished or changed by cultural activities, it is once again harshly defined by one’s knowledge and one’s prospects. 

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