A review of art in the UK media: Dumbing down or opening up?

The question of whether society gets the art it deserves, or merely what it is prepared to tolerate


“He is like a pirate at the head of a socialist revolution that is destroying the idea of civilisation in this country”: John Humphrys, on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, was quoting from the attack on Tony Blair made by the writer V. S. Naipaul. In the August issue of the Tatler Sir Vidia accused the government of destroying “the very idea of high culture by championing an aggressively plebeian culture that celebrates itself for being plebeian.”

This tirade against cultural vandalism and the dumbing down of British cultural life sparked an item on Today in which Doris Lessing supported Naipaul’s despairing view, while the Arts Minister, Alan Howarth, emphatically denied any “anti-elitism”. Howarth repeated the government’s commitment “to create opportunities, to widen access to the widest range of people to enjoy cultural excellence”. At “the most important cultural event of the millennium”, the Dome, high art was represented by the sculpture of Tony Cragg, Anish Kapoor, and others, the Minister said, ignoring the minimal intellectual content of the Dome’s educational offering.

But surely, these distinguished people—Naipaul, Lessing, Peter Hall etc—can not all be wrong? asked Humphrys in a rather small protesting voice. The Minister was not prepared to yield ground. Where Naipaul perceived cultural and intellectual decadence, Howarth’s rosy picture was of “a very remarkable cultural flourishing occurring in this country”.

Allocated time ran out on an argument that went nowhere because it failed to examine the criticism, to define what each side meant by dumbing down, and to identify the line between the deep and the shallow end of the cultural swimming pool. Artistic and cultural debate is rarely given the serious analytical attention which Today accords political issues.

Fudging the issues

Chairing The Moral Maze on “The role and responsibility of today’s broadcasters”, John Humphrys again missed an opportunity to press for a definition of terms and thus to sharpen the discussion. The debate turned mainly on the public service ethic. In the view of Andrew Neill of The Scotsman, the producer was paid to make judgements and to ensure public service broadcasting “which is unique and distinctive”, a quality product which does “what the market either does not do, or does not do very well, or is frightened to do”.

With a later witness, Stephen Barnett, Senior Lecturer in Communications, University of Westminster, the questioning touched on the issue of dumbing down of which the BBC stands strongly accused. Insisting on the need for the BBC to provide a benchmark for “equality”, Barnett, a programme-maker himself and in his academic role said to “have done a lot of work on dumbing down”, limited his argument to news coverage. In the last four or five years there had been a decline in “broad-sheet” coverage. But could he define what he meant by dumbing down? In answer Barnett contrasted a “more accessible, more populist, more democratic approach to news” as opposed to “something more tabloid and therefore something more dumbed down”.

We were getting nearer, when the next witness, Peter Bazalguette, a producer and Creative Director of an independent production company, threw the argument back into the fog by saying said that “it is the audience that defines quality in the sense that it decides what it does and does not like”. He rejected the possibility of a yardstick for assessing high quality. And yet without any objective criteria how do Bazalguette and his colleagues set standards of excellence for themselves, let alone judge them in the ideas they promote?

Would we have advanced further in the argument had Michael Buerck taken his usual place at the helm of The Moral Maze? Undoubtedly, to judge by the ground he covered in BBC1’s Soul of Britain in an edition that addressed the current state of the arts today and artists’ responsibility for the effect their work has on their audience. The guests agreed that art was being driven by popular culture. “The kind of things they are being fed are the equivalent of a Macdonald’s hamburger, mesmerising, but profoundly unsatisfying”, said Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, correspondent for The Independent, citing a popular Channel 5 game show in which men were asked to match breasts to bodies. But as Philip Hoare pointed out, once you have established a market for popular culture, you have to play to it. Who is to blame for this state of affairs and what is to be done?

Perhaps society gets the art it deserves and is prepared to tolerate, Buerck suggested. Yes, it is our own fault, concluded the Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams. We have created the social and economic conditions. We have licensed the immense flowering of the mass-media. The currency inevitably is lowered. Brian Sewell, as always bemoaning the loss of fixed values and of Christian or Classical examples, proposed, as he did when he looked at his garden, that it was “about time someone did some weeding.”

Stupid or clever?

A Channel 4 documentary on the first of a triennial series on New British Art at Tate Britain gave us the opportunity to assess for ourselves whether today’s art really is “kitsch, trash and rubbish.” The exhibition is provocatively marketed under the title “Intelligence”. Was it, in Rowan Williams’s words on the BBC1 programme, “simply about bringing to birth what it is in you and putting it out there”, or did it offer a transcendent and uplifting experience that helped us make sense of our own lives? If, as Sewell contends, “art and society have lost their way” and traditional values no longer provide a yardstick, where does that leave the artist?

For Michael Craig-Martin, an exhibitor in “Intelligence” and contributor to the television programme, art is, indeed, “some kind of exploration of the individual.” In today’s aesthetic climate “the most important thing that you do is to make your own decisions.” Praiseworthily, this programme gave unhurried space to artists to express fluently, inarticulately or hesitantly, their values and intentions in front of their work. Popular culture was represented beside the conceptual work of Susan Hiller in a conjunction that even Naipaul might have approved of. Sarah Lucas, a smoker, commented on her addiction in a sculpture composed of two burnt-out cars immaculately covered or lined with “clean, sexy-looking, new, appealing cigarettes... It really is a bit like there are two lungs, like two kind of chambers and they are completely burnt out. I imagine it is happening to your lungs when you smoke.”

Martin Creed’s work is “about making things.” “I like things a lot” are the sole five words of one of his songs, which is part of his “attempt to make something extra for the world.” “I want to say ‘Hello’.” His Work No. 70 in the Tate exhibition is a “little cube made from masking tape cut into squares and piled up and stuck to the wall.”

Michael Craig-Martin’s “Store Room”, also about things, makes visitors aware of “how complex their lives have become in what is demanded of them. Just to get through an ordinary day is a very complex thing in the modern world”. Things become clearer when they are presented in an art gallery: “You can see yourself thinking.” Camera shots of some of the artists making their pieces in the gallery were timely reminders of the 99% labour and commitment that go into creating works that a critic may write off with one word, “crap”. Critics’ voices were kept in the wings of this programme, which was essentially an artists’ forum.

Informed criticism was usefully offered on Night Waves by Deanna Petherbridge, Professor of Drawing in the Royal College of Art. A noted artist, teacher and curator, her comments, not all favourable, were sharp, informed and reasoned.

What does it all mean?

The same cannot be said about the trite treatment of visual arts topics frequently encountered on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review. The programme’s contributors are selected too often from a literary stable, in the apparent belief that anyone who can write well is qualified to pass judgement on art. There are a number of able broadcasters around with expertise in both disciplines. Why not choose one of them? William Feaver, for example, appears frequently on Front Row and Night Waves and was, after all, a long-time and very able contributor to Radio 3’s Critics Forum which this programme seems to be emulating in its Radio 4 transformation.

A discussion of the first major exhibition of the architectural designer Zaha Hadid at the ICA was a case in point. The panel consisted of a writer, a poet and the Director of Battersea Arts Centre, whose particular expertise was not mentioned. This literary team vied with one another to find vivid verbal analogies for “difficult” visual material, a solution helpful to the listener only if accompanied by reasoned assessment. From Tom Sutcliffe’s introduction to Hadid’s show we had some inkling of an exceptionally creative mind at work He described her architectural drawings as bearing as little relation to a conventional plan and elevation “as a Charlie Parker improvisation does to a Bach cantata”. Her winning entry for the Peak Club in Hong Kong was described as “a wildly inventive design that looked like a freeze frame of an explosion”. But writer Michael Hadditi, selected to lead on this item, was cut short after failing to make sense of Hadid and reaching a “vertiginous video installation showing I don’t know what”. Tom Morris added that there was “one little bit where we see some sort of representation of a ski jump she designed in Innsbruck which looked like a cross between a rising cobra and a home video camera.” The exhibition was “scandalously badly presented”, Morris said. Hadid’s work is “about the socialisation of space which we cannot begin to understand”.

Zaha Hadid is an important architect, selected to represent Britain at this year’s architectural Biennale in Venice. She deserves more considered appraisal. This was an occasion, if ever, for inviting a contributor who understands the exploratory and experimental nature of Hadid’s approach to city architecture, and who can communicate the core of her ideas without belittling them and without leaving listeners as bewildered as the reviewers.

Architecture with intelligence

There is no better interpreter than an intelligent practitioner with an independent, critical mind. Uden Productions, under its enlightened editor Patrick Uden, auditioned many would-be presenters for its six-part Channel 5 series on Modern British Architects and commissioned Charlie Luxton, an MA student at the Royal College of Art, to present it. Luxton brought to the series all the raw excitement of a young architect introducing his heroes. If, for a moment, I found his delivery and gesturing overemphatic, I was quickly caught up in his infectious and unpatronising enthusiasm. Friendly and relaxed, Luxton brought out the best in his interviewees. As the BBC seems to have renounced serious examination of architecture, this introductory appreciation of leading British architects was welcome, and a model of its kind.

Intelligently directed, the visually beautiful, often witty, shots, were sympathetic to the script, and the gimmickry—speeded-up movement and visual larks—added touches of humour to Luxton’s narrative. He gave us just enough technical detail to keep the uninitiated with him, sometimes making a quick explanatory drawing on the spot, and once standing on the roof of Nicholas Grimshaw’s Sainsbury store in Camden Town to demonstrate, with superimposed graphics, the engineering feat which holds the enormous unsupported roof in place.

Praise and criticism were meted out with inoffensive charm, not least to his favourite architect, Sir Michael Hopkins, whose elegant, but draughty, glass home was pronounced too expensive in heating bills for Luxton to choose to live in. The new Parliamentary Offices in Portcullis House, likened by some detractors to a Transylvanian Castle, promised to grow old gracefully, Luxton judged. But others have harsher words to say about it.

Simon Hoggart, for example, hates “every single thing about it.” He recently joined a guided tour of the building for “political hacks”, and enlarged on his hates in his “Diary of the Parliamentary Week”, It’s a Funny Old World, on Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour. “I hate the fourteen huge black incinerator chimneys, as though you expect to see a herd of mad cows being ushered inside.” The senseless port holes looked “as if trapped mariners were about to signal for help. The whole thing is incredibly expensive [£230 million to house 210 MPs], but it still looks incredibly cheap. Only a committee of MPs could have agreed to fork out the money for such a monstrosity.”

The inside clearly upsets him even more. Here to his horror the hated exterior intrudes on the even less-loved interior: “It is dominated by this huge glass-covered atrium full of ugly, needless decoration: steel girders from the Titanic engine room there, polished concrete arches like Grand Central Station here, gigantic wooden pencils sticking up, random panels of reflectors. There is nowhere peaceful or unfussy for the eye to rest. It is as if a small boy had been given a box of Lego, a box of Meccano, and a lump of Plasticine and told to build something using the lot.”

More seriously the rooms were so “pokey” that there was no room for secretaries “even to put a filing cabinet.” Whether or not we agree with Hoggart, no-one could accuse him of blind hatred. He did produce standards of comparison: the Palace of Westminster, a “gorgeous triumph of style and decoration”, and the London Eye whose beauty derived from “pure functionality.”