PASSING BY... How the elite stole the arts
Antony Thorncroft wonders how our culture ceased to be popular - at our expense
It was around a 100 years ago that the western world changed, and democracy, and the acknowledgement that governments must safeguard the interests of working people, became generally accepted. And what was the reaction of the arts and artists, then, as now, dominated by progressive thought, to this seminal shift? Did they rejoice in the revolution? Did they hell. Instead there was a wholesale move in the arts towards elitism, a seeming consensus that they at least would not be subject to the will of the people.
In opera, instead of tuneful Verdi and Puccini came Berg and Stravinsky; in classical music the Second Viennese school acted as a challenging successor to the melodic First; in art the decorative works of the Impressionist and Post- Impressionists were overtaken by Cubism, Supremacism, Vorticism and more; in literature readers brought up on George Eliot and Joseph Conrad were confronted by James Joyce and Ulysses, while the poems of Swinburne and Houseman were discarded in favour of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Later it was the turn of the architects, who studiously ignored the wishes of the growingly prosperous lower middle and working classes for semi-detached suburban houses built in the Tudor style for the stark idealism of Le Corbusier and homes in the sky. In sculpture, adherents of Rodin were mocked by the solid shapes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. It was almost as if artists said “So you think you are in charge now, and so clever – well, see if you can get your minds around this”.
The early decades of the 20th century found all established art forms move away from popular taste with an almost perverse relish. While the great artists of the 19th century had widespread appeal - anyone could sing-along-a-Verdi or enjoy a charming Pre-Raphaelite painting - their successors seemed to revel in the ugly, the challenging, and the obscure.
The arts, like nature, abhors a vacuum so the people, aided by developments in marketing and science, quickly embraced new art forms, notably the cinema in the first half of the century and popular music, jazz and television in the second. In time some of the arts establishment realised its mistake and attempted to adopt these creative activities into the wider arts family, and soon French philosophers were finding the hidden depths in a Hitchcock thriller and English professors the Keats-like profundities in Bob Dylan. You could say that the people won. But did they?
It seems to me that the establishment is still determined to preserve much of the arts for itself and to keep the wider public at a distance.
Of course art forms must develop and the best of the new and the experimental should be welcomed, but there must also be some relationship to the past and an attempt to bring on board popular taste. In that rather uncomfortable hybrid, contemporary classical music, and what was once called fine art
in particular, the link between creators and consumers seems to have been broken to the detriment of all.
The atonality and serialism of Schoenberg and others, and the post-1945 peculiarities of the Paris School, had no appeal at all to the man in the street, at the time or since, and they were little more than the philosophical experimentations of a group of intellectuals, playing with noise. Classical music, which had enriched lives in the 19th century, became the province of a small elite.
This happened at a time when the state started to subsidise the arts and unfortunately those charged with handing out the money seemed in thrall to the experimentalists. It would be very interesting to know how many of the commissions to composers financed by the Arts Council in the past 50 years have enjoyed a second (or even a first) public performance. You only need to look at the current repertoire of orchestras, large and small, to realise the pathetic contribution of the 20th century, and especially the late 20th century, to the music enjoyed by concert goers. The greatest musical innovation of recent decades has been the re-discovery of early music and the baroque.
It is the same with contemporary art, which to all intents and purposes has divorced itself from the public, at least as potential owners. Perhaps a handful of millionaires have the space and inclination to possess an artwork created by a Turner Prize winner or a favourite of the Venice Biennale but no ordinary home owner. The most reviewed art is of a size and pretension which makes museum curators the only possible market and it is ironic that even then few museums have the space to put it on permanent display.
Has there ever been a more anti- human art form that conceptualism: what percentage of the population would regard Duchamp’s notorious urinal, Fountain, as art. It was an attempt to epater la bourgeoisie at the dawn of the age of the common man. But conceptualism still raises its pretentious head: who could own and enjoy any of the exhibits on display at the current show of British conceptual art at the Tate. Any work that needs the ramblings, however incoherent, of a curator to explain what it is about should be viewed with the greatest suspicion.
If composers and artists want to despise popular taste that is up to them, but it becomes questionable when they are financed with taxpayers’ money. I am all in favour of government support for the arts but it could often be better spent helping young people in school learn to play a musical instrument, how to draw and design, how to write and appreciate literature. Money should also flow into art schools, conservatoires and creative writing classes, as long as the students know that very few will ever earn a living from their chosen art form and that it will be the public, as consumers, that has the final say. There are signs that opinion in the 21st century has seen through the emperors’ lack of clothing and is responding more to the will of the people. It is about time.