Don’t be afraid: if art is rub­bish, we must say so!

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Film - Si­mon Hef­fer

In or­der to as­sess the value of any art, we re­quire a crit­i­cal fac­ulty. This is not just a means of sort­ing the wheat from the chaff; it also en­ables us to ex­tract the max­i­mum plea­sure from the best, by un­der­stand­ing why a pic­ture, build­ing, poem, novel, sym­phony or film has merit. What’s more, it can help us dis­cern when ap­par­ently bad things are ac­tu­ally good. Much mu­sic now widely re­garded as sub­lime was, when first heard, dis­missed as aw­ful: Ravel, now recog­nised as a true ge­nius of 20th cen­tury mu­sic, was of­ten mis­judged at first.

But how do we ac­quire a crit­i­cal fac­ulty? And how do we learn to apply it? These are among the ques­tions raised by a re­cent book provoca­tively ti­tled What is Wrong with Us? The sub­ti­tle, Es­says in Cul­tural Pathol­ogy, gives a fore­taste of the as­sault on mod­ern cul­ture con­tained within the es­says. The book is edited by Eric Coombes, a re­tired teacher of art his­tory and aes­thet­ics, and Theodore Dal­rym­ple, a for­mer prison doctor and psy­chi­a­trist – and a pro­lific cul­tural colum­nist. “Can any of us,” they ask, “en­tirely ban­ish from our hearts and minds grave mis­giv­ings about the con­di­tion of the cul­ture we now in­habit?” They claim, with jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, that those mis­giv­ings are rarely ex­pressed in pub­lic fo­rums or the me­dia, and are dis­missed “by state-sup­ported bu­reau­cra­cies and com­mer­cial vested in­ter­ests”. The Arts Coun­cil is sav­aged.

The theme is that the “ed­u­cated non-spe­cial­ist” who might shape opin­ions about cul­ture has an un­der-de­vel­oped crit­i­cal fac­ulty. He or she is ripe for learn­ing about gen­uine aes­thet­ics, in or­der to join with oth­ers to change the cli­mate of ap­pre­ci­a­tion about mod­ern cul­tural fig­ures and their work.

“Tracey Emin is im­por­tant not as an ‘artist’, but as a kind of celebrity,” Coombes writes in his in­tro­duc­tion. It is a use­ful distinc­tion. His judg­ment – his de­ploy­ment of his crit­i­cal fac­ulty – is that Emin’s work is poor, but the gen­eral as­sess­ment that she adds to the gai­ety of na­tions means most take an un­crit­i­cal view of it. The phrase “con­fi­dence trick” is not used, but we get the idea.

Coombes is not talk­ing about mod­ern-day Ravels, if there are any, but peo­ple pro­duc­ing cul­ture that is ob­jec­tively rub­bish, and will still seem ob­jec­tively rub­bish in 100 years’ time. Dal­rym­ple, in his es­say Built to De­stroy: The Ni­hilism of Mod­ern Ar­chi­tec­ture, writes of the sheer ug­li­ness and of­fen­sive­ness of much con­tem­po­rary build­ing, quot­ing Le Cor­bus­ier’s line from 1941 that “we speak these days about rev­o­lu­tion, and we are mak­ing it with pride”. He re­flects not just on how much build­ing since the Sec­ond World War has re­placed well-de­signed, hu­mane struc­tures that were part of our her­itage, but also on how many of these mod­ern build­ings clash vi­o­lently with what re­mains from the past.

Most of the es­says deal with vis­ual arts: but there are also dis­cus­sions about how the de­base­ment of the English lan­guage has helped un­der­mine the crit­i­cal fac­ulty, and how a de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­stroy na­tional iden­tity in this country has made us care­less of pro­tect­ing our her­itage, or even em­bar­rassed about do­ing so, in case it should con­flict with the great mul­ti­cul­tural project. But the main theme is that of the im­po­tence of the “ed­u­cated non­spe­cial­ist” to take on those who now lead the pro­fes­sion of ar­chi­tec­ture, or those who are our most cel­e­brated living artists, and to tell them that their self-in­dul­gent work is ob­jec­tion­able to the gen­eral pub­lic who, in the case of a build­ing, have to live with it (or, even worse, in it) for decades after. Beauty is no longer a con­sid­er­a­tion; ar­chi­tec­ture es­pe­cially is used to pro­mote po­lit­i­cal points rather than to ap­peal to a sense of the aes­thetic, to wipe out the past.

Our ed­u­ca­tors are not good at de­vel­op­ing the crit­i­cal fac­ulty; they must im­prove. A sense of the truly ex­cel­lent in all gen­res, and an un­der­stand­ing that ar­chi­tec­ture should har­monise with and not con­front other build­ings, should be fea­si­ble. Per­haps there is hope. The re­cent crit­i­cal as­sault on the ab­surd Covent Gar­den pro­duc­tion of

Meistersinger, of which I wrote here last week, showed that in mu­sic some of us have had enough. The next step is for con­cert au­di­ences to boo vig­or­ously the ca­cophonous, form­less ef­flu­ent that passes for much new mu­sic – and which sel­dom gets a sec­ond pub­lic per­for­mance – and for spon­sors to cut off the money for such drivel. “What is wrong with us” is that we don’t com­plain be­cause we are afraid to. That cow­ardice must end.

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