Ditchley Foundation Lecture XXXVI

Who Needs Art?

Delivered by: 

Sir Richard Eyre.

Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre 1988-97. Governor of the BBC since 1995.

Last year this lecture was given by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, on the subject of “Intervention”. I can’t imagine a more significant subject or speaker, and one line at least of his speech flutters like a sad battered pennant in the wind: “the most effective interventions,” he said, “are not military.” I wish, standing here talking about art with a war only a few weeks ago, I could escape the feeling of bathos — a descent from the elevated to the commonplace, from the centre to the margins, from war to activities that can only be experienced in tranquillity. “Art,” said Flaubert, “needs white hands”. The United Nations is concerned with everything that people really — food, freedom, water, homes, peace, work, money... Who needs art?

Like most of those engaged in the arts I seem to spend as much of my time evangelising for my art as producing it. If there is one demonstrable axiom about the arts world it is that whenever two or three of us gather together, the talk will invariably turn not to art but to matters of funding, or of politics or — to use the all- pervasive jargon of sociology—to the culture of culture.

Fifty years ago we could have been certain what we meant by “culture”, and if we agreed with T.S.Eliot we would have been certain of its decline: “I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture.” Could anyone today — even those who accuse RADIO 3 of dumbing down for failing to announce the Kirchel numbers before playing a piece of Mozart — actually claim that we have arrived at a state where there is “no culture”?

Ah but — as President Clinton might say — it all depends what you mean by “culture”. Are we talking about advertising, television sitcoms, body-piercing jewellery, Hollywood movies, Polaroid photography, Jilly Cooper’s novels, pop music - punk, hip hop, house, rap, acid — or are we talking about the culture that Kenneth Clark — the art historian and father of the diarist — meant when he presented his massively popular TV series on Western Art called Civilisation? “Popular taste,” said Kenneth Clark, “is bad taste, as any honest man with experience will agree”. There may be many today who would still agree but few, I think, who would dare to utter it in public.

It’s no longer possible to pretend that “civilisation” means what it meant to a “man of culture” — and it was almost invariably a man. Culture is about what we think, what we do, what we buy, how we behave, how we entertain ourselves, our “lifestyle” — if we must use that dreadful expression. Culture is by definition an inclusive concept. Art, however, is not. The word “art” is not neutral. To talk of “art” is to imply a sense of values, a sense of taste, of standards, and in this country the word is inevitably shadowed by the spectre of class.

Eighteen months ago, I conducted an Inquiry for the Government on the future of opera and ballet in London: and if I had received a flyer for everyone who told me that if Britain thought of itself as a civilised country, then it couldn’t do without an international opera house, then I would be a very rich man today. But no one added the postscript that in order to be called “civilised” we should also house the homeless people who sleep on the pavements not many yards away from the doors of the Royal Opera House — those people that a Tory Housing Minister once described as ‘the sort of people you step on when you come out of the opera...”

It’s unreasonable to judge an art by the company it keeps, but opera is elitist — it’s elitist in that it can be performed by only a very few, very gifted, very skilful people to a live audience limited by the number of people who can sit in an opera house at any one time. It’s fair to use ‘elitism’ as a pejorative only if the opera house repels a prospective audience through excessively high prices or through a selectively exclusive attitude to the public. And all things being equal, the choice of going to the opera or ballet or theatre or gallery or bookshop is a free one, open to everyone.

But all things aren’t equal: the “choice” of going to the theatre or the opera or to an art gallery is a choice that simply doesn’t exist for vast numbers of people in this country, who, if they feel anything at all about art, feel disenfranchised. A sense of apartheid exists in this country between those who benefit from the arts and those who feel excluded from them. But more of that later.

This lecture asks the question: who needs art? You may have spotted that the answer is very slow in coming. What’s more, the larger question embraces smaller ones: What art? What does art do for us? Why should the taxpayer pay for it?

What is art? Perhaps in this gathering — a gathering of highly distinguished, highly educated, middle-class men and women — there would be a broad consensus. We’d try to provide precise definitions but they’d end up as articles of faith — no more or less demonstrable to the sceptic than the ideology of the free market. We’d say that art is a pursuit of excellence, a pursuit of meaning, a way of trying to make sense of the world. We’d say the arts are part of our life, our language, our way of seeing. The arts tell us truths about ourselves and about each other and our society that reach parts of us that politics and journalism don’t. Art is passionate, ambiguous, complex, mysterious and thrilling. It helps us to fit the disparate pieces of the world together; it helps us to try and make form out of chaos.

From all this we wouldn’t dissent. And perhaps we could agree on a hierarchy: a pantheon — Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Mahier, Matisse, Dickens, Beckett, Picasso, Stravinsky, Auden, Ted Hughes, the films of Renoir and Fellini, films of Orson Welles — and so on, all dead, all tested by time, all enduringly popular.

But what about the art of our own times? And what about our — largely white, largely European, largely middle class, and in our case largely middle-aged — perceptions. We’d all say that Shakespeare is an inviolably great figure, the great figure in world literature, but what do we say to the schoolboy in Soweto who said to me: “To us Shakespeare is dust”?

This is just to remind ourselves that our definitions are not fixed. There is no inviolable canon — even if we think so. And while I may assert - and I think rightly - that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright ever — how do I reconcile my belief with the fact that a very large number of people in this country — including my father — would agree with the boy from Soweto, and would argue that the novels of, say, Jeffrey Archer are more accessible and enjoyable, and who am Ito say that they aren’t?

The answer you may say is self-evident. To us perhaps it is. But when we look at the art of our own times we can so easily get caught between complimenting the Emperor on his new clothes, and sounding like Ruskin saying of a painting of Whistler’s that it was like “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Just because art doesn’t look or sound like we expect it to, it may be precisely why we need it — because it’s original, because it makes us look at the world differently, because it uncovers new meanings. But, of course, it may just all be tosh.

Do we believe that if something is popular it can’t be art? Or do we believe its corollary: that unpopularity is a measure of artistic worth? What is the difference between art and entertainment? Why is Peter Grimes art and not Phantom of the Opera? Why is Picasso a challenging and subversive painter and Andy Warhol merely a phenomenon of the market? And is Bob Dylan a better poet than Keats?

These days we float in a muddy pool of relativism where everything in our culture is seen as having as much weight as everything else. So the early works of the Andrews Sisters are as legitimate an object of study and veneration as the later works of Beethoven, and Keats is said to be just as good a poet as Bob Dylan. I think that this is sentimental thinking; it’s pointless egalitarianism which irritates all parties — the curators of low culture despise the intellectuals for sucking up to them, and the mandarins of high art are infuriated by the invasion of the barbarians. Anyway, the aims and ambitions — and achievements — are utterly different. The comparisons are meaningless: if we want to make comparisons we should be asking if Keats is better than Shelley and Bob Dylan better than Paul Simon.

Popular culture is full of fakery — it’s sentimental, bombastic and flatulent. “Faked feelings!” said D.H.Lawrence, “The world is all gummy with them. They are better than real feelings, because you can spit them out when you brush your teeth; and then tomorrow you can fake them afresh.”

But who am I to legislate about whether people’s feelings are real or not? When I see thousands of people, wracked with grief, mourning for Princess Diana, why do I assume that the grief is fake? The tears are real enough. DIANA, FAIRY GODMOTHER OF THE NEEDY COLOMBIANS IN MOURNING, said one placard I saw. I only ask: if you’re grieving like this for someone you’ve never met, what do you reserve for your own family?

But who am I to say, when someone says that they’ve been deeply moved by Les Miserables and deeply bored by King Lear, that they are foolish or insensitive? I believe that King Lear is more complex, more profound, incomparably better, but that’s only through the prism of y sensibility. I know it to be so, I can argue that it is so, but I cannot prove it to the person who doesn’t experience it, any more than I can prove the existence of God. There are no absolutes. Art is not universal; it doesn’t mean the same to everyone. And it is not necessarily better if it is universal — just think of the film Titanic.

Today we live in a cultural supermarket — you take your pick off the shelves as you wheel your trolley down the aisle marked “culture” or “lifestyle” or “entertainment” and you find a small corner - just by the cat food or the fine wines — marked “art”. Accessibility and fun is obligatory, irony is essential. Celebrity is the currency. Rebellion is publicity.

We are assaulted by advertising and public relations, and in response to some areas of artistic activity — the visual arts and modem music — the defence is to become increasingly obscure and self-referential, and to address an audience which defines itself by its exclusivity and equates comprehensibility with populism. I recently heard a contemporary sculptor derided by a respected commentator on contemporary art for his “outdated humanism”. We are made to feel like peasants locked out by the abbots, peering through the windows of a monastery at monks transcribing illuminated manuscripts in a scriptorium.

In the face of these extremes, and glutted with all these levels of culture, if you ask me how I distinguish between the bad, the bogus and the good, I can only offer you a personal catechism. For me a work of art has to have ambition beyond wanting to please the audience or appease fashion. It has to have ambition to examine the world — people or nature or society — and make it look or sound or seem new. “Artists have to see spirits, then afterwards everyone sees them”, said Goethe. A work of art should introduce to the world something that didn’t exist before.

The word “excellence” is waved around in the arts world like a ceremonial sword. Art has always to struggle against mediocrity, but it’s nothing if excellence alone is its ambition. There has to be an element in all art of exceptional skill, of something being done with awesome craftsmanship. But an artist who is only a craftsman is only a craftsman. Art must have form, it must have shape — like science, art is a way of knowing the world, of giving form and meaning to a society that often seems formless. There has to be a complexity about art but that’s not the same as simple obscurity. There must be mystery, a sense of unknowability in a work of art - as there is in every human being. In art reality must be given the chance to be mysterious, and fantasy must be given the chance to be commonplace.

The DNA of art is metaphor; that’s the genetic cell without which nothing can be mutated by craft into art. Art strives towards the mythic — seeing heaven in a grain of sand. Art is unquestionably a form of magic, conjuring something from nothing — sounds from the air on a musical instrument, a human being in paint on a stretch of canvas, a world with a pen on a page of paper. Art must be serious about itself. That doesn’t mean it can’t be funny, but it means it can’t be trivial. But seriousness alone — any more than sincerity alone - isn’t enough in itself. There can be few people more serious, or more sincere, than, say, the performers in the Eurovision Song Contest, but that doesn’t make them artists.

There has to be an element of pleasure in art, of sensual enjoyment — be it a combination of sounds, of words, of textures, of images. Art has to ravish the senses but not gy do that. There has to be a moral sense. You have to be able to sense that the artist has a view that human beings possess a moral sensibility. That’s not the same as the artist being a moralist — or the artist being a “good” person. The artist may be saying “This is how you should live your life”, but it must be inferred not preached. Art is not polemic.

Art reflects, expresses, invokes, and describes the ambiguity of humanity. Whatever the form of art, however realistic or however fantastical, it offers up a commentary on being alive, on the infinite messiness of humanity. In Matthew Arnold’s phrase, art is “a criticism of life”. And there must be passion in art. Passion gives us a sense of life lived more intensely, with more meaning — more joy, more sorrow. “We are all under sentence of death, but with a sort of indefinite reprieve”, said Victor Hugo. We can spend our period of reprieve in a state of listlessness, or we can fill the period of our death sentence with experience — lived experience or the experience we gain from art.

However we define art, its existence begs the child’s question: what’s it for?

We’re ingenious and assiduous in inventing arguments that art is good for us. Why? Because we want someone to pay for it. We want to convince its patrons — government or private — to subsidise the making of art and the showing of it. So we fall into a trap, becoming like a nineteenth-century curate’s wife distributing pamphlets to the deserving poor, and we argue for the social usefulness of art: we say, for instance, that music makes school children better at maths or that drama makes our society more tolerant. These things may be true — and I hope they are — but this utilitarianism takes away from art the very thing that makes it so alluring: its mystery and its joy, its irresponsibility, if you like. Make art as accessible, both physically and intellectually as television or popular music, but don’t rob it of its chance to enchant; don’t exchange the robe of the wizard for the coat of the social engineer.

So what is art for? I suppose the simplest answer is from the two tramps in Waiting for Godot: “That passed the time,” says Vladimir. “It would have passed in any case,” says Estragon. “Yes,” says Vladimir, “but not so rapidly.”

Art doesn’t improve our behaviour; it doesn’t civilise us. We have only to remember the stories of the commandants in the camps listening to Schubert while smoke rose from the gas ovens to feel shy of that argument. But that contradiction is part of what art is about - as the philosopher George Santayana said: “Music is useless, only as life is.”

It’s precisely our awareness of the “uselessness” of life that make us want to struggle to give it purpose, and to give that purpose meaning. And art provides not only meaning but consolation; in Russia and Eastern Europe, for instance, it made the unbearable bearable for many people during the years of Communism. When the corrosive effect of tyranny leaked into every area of public and private life, the theatre became the sole medium of expression where thoughts could be publicly spoken, ideas publicly asserted, and passions voiced through allegory and metaphor; and poetry became the subversive intravenous drip which kept hope alive, the antidote to political evil.

Some people talk of art as a religion. Our century is the first age in history that asserts that we’re capable of knowing everything and doing anything, and the more we want to control the world the more despairing we feel when we find we are unable to control anything outside our homes, let alone within them. In this context art can become our means of redemption, even our substitute for religion.

The danger, of course, is that all religions have a theology and a priesthood. So we can find ourselves being castigated for liking the wrong things in art, or the right things for the wrong reasons, and submitting to a critical orthodoxy which seeks to prescribe our feelings rather than to liberate them. This is particularly true in the world of the visual arts where our access to the work is mediated through gallery owners, museum curators and critics. But much more pernicious than thinking of art as a religion is to think of it — and treat it — as a commodity, as a “product” to be subjected to the rhetoric of the marketplace and the iron whims of the fashion industry.

The world of the arts is an alluring paradigm for the believer in the theocracy of the free market. It’s a Darwinian world, where creatures are governed by the law of survival of the fittest: talent, skill, vision and willpower are the currencies of the world of the arts, and they regulate its fortunes ruthlessly. It is tempting therefore to think that funding the arts should operate on the same principle. And in literature and painting — which have low labour and production costs — it does.

But the performing arts are dependent on subsidy — private or public. The performance of a romantic symphony requires upwards of 80 people, an opera sometimes twice that number, and while it may be cost- effective to leave out the double basses in a performance of a Mahler symphony, it will be music only to the accountant’s ears. For better or worse orchestras, opera and theatre companies have always relied on royal, state, civic, corporate and private patrons. They have also relied on the patronage of the public; those who live to please have to please to live.

If we want performing arts that take artistic risks, sustain the best of tradition, develop new talent, feed the commercial sector, and do all this at seat prices which don’t exclude all but the very rich, then there is no alternative but to seek state support - or corporate and private patronage. But we in Britain are a nation that, apart from a few outstanding contributors, has no tradition of private giving, and governments have done little to encourage private giving through tax legislation — unlike the US where the Treasury foregoes collecting tax in order to allow that money to be distributed to the arts. Looked at through that perspective, and I know this is a piece of sophistry, one would have to observe that the arts in the USA are subsidised on a per capita basis at a much higher rate than in Britain.

Of course, you can always argue for subsidy on the grounds of cost-effectiveness, or as a tourist enticement, or as a visible or invisible export, or even on the grounds that there is a good return on the original investment in VAT, tax and saving in unemployment benefit. But if you justify subsidies on economic grounds alone, then you are inviting politicians to consider the arts as merely another industry to be privatised.

Politicians are naturally wary of art because it’s wayward and because it’s ambiguous, and because it deals with feelings rather than facts. Lenin confessed that he was afraid to listen to Beethoven because when he did he felt like caressing people’s heads when it was necessary to beat them. Most politicians in this country are much more interested in having their own heads caressed, and they respond in wounded bewilderment when they discover that the artists they’ve allowed to flourish through their patronage wish to retain the right to criticise and to mock them.

It must be irritating to have to endure the often noisy dissent of an arrogant and self-interested claque, but then it’s always been hard for rulers to licence the jester as well as the judge, and to recognise poets — in Shelley’s words — as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”. One of those unacknowledged legislators, William Blake, said: “Let it no more be said that States encourage Arts, for it is the Arts that encourage States”. That was probably as ill received in the early nineteenth century as it would be by today’s politicians.

But then art is all the things that politics isn’t. “Politics is the great generaliser and literature the great particulariser,” wrote Philip Roth in his last novel, “and not only are they in inverse relation to each other — they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and really oughtn’t to be. Why? Because the particularising influence literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? How can you be a politician and fl the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify...Allow for the chaos, let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party...then stupid propaganda for life itself— for life as it might be preferred to be publicised.”

Art is about the “I” in life not about the “we”, it’s about private life rather than public life. Nevertheless, a public life that doesn’t acknowledge the private is a life not worth having. The arts add to the sum of human understanding and happiness. But should governments be in the business of subsidising weapons of happiness?

Only, say the funders, if it’s “EXCELLENT” and “ACCESSIBLE”. But although we have to discriminate between good and bad art we must also have the courage to allow bad art to exist — and even to pay for it. Failure is an essential part of creation. The making of a work of art is itself a political act, because as long as people make art — even if it’s not always “excellent”, even if it only appeals to a handful of people — it reminds governments of something that governments need to be reminded of: that we are all individuals, we are not an anonymous mass.

We’ve heard a lot from this government about making the arts accessible. No one in the arts world has ever dissented from that aim, but in the end, the power to engender çi access can’t be achieved by the efforts of the arts organisations alone. I referred earlier to that sense of apartheid that exists between those who benefit from subsidy to the arts and those who feel excluded from the arts. If that apartheid exists it can be eliminated in only one way: education, education, education. Why does this sound familiar?

A real change in education — well, a revolution actually — could change the economy, and employment, and attitudes to class, attitudes to the state, to each other, to ourselves. Our corrosive class divisions could be made to dissolve, crime among young men could be curbed, unemployment could be eased. Our political immaturity could be cured, our insular attitudes towards Europe and our paranoia about our national identity could be dispelled. We would put an end to our ignorance and suspicion of science, and to our diffidence about learning — and we could abolish that division between those who enjoy the arts and those who feel excluded from them.

Utopian of course, but I’ve always felt depressed by people who aren’t at all stirred by Oscar Wilde’s epigram: “A map of the world that does not contain Utopia is not even worth glancing at.” Wilde also said that “Art never expresses anything but itself”, and that’s the problem with the question of funding the arts — and with the question of who needs art: any utilitarian argument for art will fail or succeed only in diminishing the thing it’s arguing for.

What do we need to live? We need food to eat, air to breathe, sex to reproduce, but art? We can survive without it. But you could say that we can survive without our eyes or without our hands, or without our legs. Our bodies contain a soul and a spirit no less than they contain eyes and hands and legs, heart and lungs. Art is part of the human equipment, and as any anthropologist will confirm there is no society that doesn’t engage in the ostensibly useless activity of making art: it’s a universal instinct — it’s a way of reminding ourselves that we’re human.

In this century war has acquired a cosmic barbarity, economies have become bulimic, sex has become public wallpaper, and tyranny has been the best-rehearsed political system. The virus of sloganry and demagoguery has infected every cell of our minds, and mass has distorted proportion by eliminating human scale in entertainment, buildings, industry, weapons, armies, death, poverty and disease. Giants stalk the globe — corporations, political leaders, showbiz icons — and we frail humans crawl dwarfed beneath them, surrounded by a Babel of communication. In the age of the computer knowledge is everything, nothing is destroyed. Our date of birth, our nationality, our health, our schooling, our home, our work, our money, our tastes, our crimes, our deaths are recorded in binary digits, invisible and inextinguishable as God. We swim in oceans of information, surrounded by continents of recorded images and sounds. We barely breathe above the ever-deepening incoming tide.

In this context what we hold in our heads — our memory, our feelings, our own sense of our own history — becomes more to be valued, more to be cherished: it’s the sum of our humanity. Art is an expression of that humanity. To be human is to carry what King Lear called the “smell of mortality”; art redeems mortality by giving us a glimpse of eternity.

You find it in Blake’s Song of Innocence. It’s called The Divine Image, but what he’s talking about is man, not God:

For mercy has a human heart;
Pity, a human face;
And love, the human form divine;
And peace, the human dress.
Then every man of every clime
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine -
Love, mercy, pity, peace.

© The Ditchley Foundation, 1999.  All rights reserved.  Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.