Why art can never be democratic


The celebrated arts advocate, Sir John Tusa, once caused a splendid furore around culture and governments when he published an essay titled ”I´m worried about Tony” – Tony Blair then being the UK Prime Minister. Blair, Tusa worried, was signalling that ’ Take That were as important as opera; that chat shows were as important as novels; that reality TV shows were as important as live theatre – and so on. The impact of the essay was cathartic – Blair reacted as though drenched suddenly in icy water, and a seminar on the arts and their value was arranged where 20 of the UK´s great-and-good culture leaders were invited to make their case to the Prime minister and an appropriately genuflecting chorus of government officials.

But the conversation, inevitably then swerved into the usual cliches about the arts being elite, and how the real need was art that ”did people good”. What was perhaps, chilling, in all this well-intentioned burbling, was the lack of defense of artistic excellence. The pursuit of superb performance, yet again, emerged as something to be questioned for its value and forced to defend itself unless it wrapped itself in a veneer of social or vaguely therapeutic outreach work, where it was fulfilling some sort of moral purpose in developing a race of better, more smiling, more healthily expressive people.

As Norway approaches an election, and newspapers buzz with indignant statements about the value – or not – of culture, and why minority interests (f.ek opera and contemporary music) should have any slice at all of government subsidy, perhaps we need to keep clear eyes and ears on why the arts are different. Great art is not about mass audiences and should not be confused with mass entertainment – although both, of course, can be highly enjoyable. Great art is not about how many people participate (conversely, an important aim for a community project) but about evolution and revolution, about individual and unique talents, and how these combine to transform us, and to force us to question the present world.

No one in their right mind would question the value of engaging children, the wider community, the elderly and the fragile in creative activities, in multi-cultural projects and in every type of participation which might lead to a long-term enjoyment of, and involvement in culture.

But there is a confusion, which lingers like the mist on Bergen´s Ulricken, and it is one which governments must dare to address. Norwegian democracy is a great and remarkable achievement, rightly admired across the globe. Scotland, on the brink of independence, looks with shining eyes across to Norway, and whispers its own dreams of free education for all, gender equality, just childcare and proportional representation.

Art, though, can never be democratic. Leif Ove Andsnes is not a great pianist by election, but because he plays the piano better than most people in the world. As a child, and a reasonably gifted violinist, I fantasised about playing the Brahms violin concerto in Carnegie Hall. There was a reason why I wasn´t asked. The Dronning Sonja Singing Competition, just past, picked a soprano (who happened to be Russian)as winner. No matter how much the audience yelled for the young Norwegion finalist, she wasn´t the best. Not fair to choose a winner? No, just not democratic.

So: message to government:- funding robust, exciting and innovative creative programmes all over Norway´s wide and diverse communities is critical for a future whole society. But great artists and the institutions who nurture them and give a platform to their unique gifts link us to the greatness of the past and throw open doors to an unimagined future. They offer beauty and compell us to confront the fact of ugliness. Our best art needs funding, support and advocacy, plus an understanding that risk is part of its price.

A nation that has ceased to recognise art of true quality is a nation which has stopped talking to itself and lost touch with its dreams. Surely that´s too worrying to contemplate.

(Published in Aftenposten, 2nd September 2013. http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/debatt/Udemokratisk-kunst-7297612.html#.UiSCi7z39FR)

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