The silence of the arts

Why have the arts not strained at the bonds laid upon them in the way earthier pursuits and pleasures have?

Editorial

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Since the pandemic struck, and the government struck back, London’s Royal Court Theatre has lain empty. The home of John
Osborne’s The Entertainer and Sarah Kane’s Blasted hasn’t entertained. “Alongside a livestream of the uninhabited stage, witty, playful and supportive audio messages will intermittently be broadcast,” the RCT’s website tells us of their durational installation, Caretaker. “More often, there will be silence. No productivity is demanded. Nothing needs to happen and nothing is expected of you.” Less self-consciously, but much more tellingly, the blasting has also been absent.

Where have the arts been during lockdown and why have they so plainly failed by their own lights?

Too much can be expected of art. The cliché that art has become a substitute — or even actual — religion for too many civilised people is a commonplace for a reason: they have mistaken what art is there to do. Which, more often than not, is to decorate life, not fulfil it. Art serves purposes, it doesn’t provide them.

Like Soviet regional tractor plant managers, BBC journalists trotted out the party line instead of the news

So where has art been during this last half year of our lives? Afflicted, at first, by the physical fears which grasped so many at the start of the Covid crisis, but unlike other more vital activities, which have pushed and hungered to return to their usual places, the arts have not. They have in their own way been as bad as the actual churches, sheltering themselves away from fears they seemingly neither understand nor are able to offer comfort.

The agitprop of half a century, of straining at every legal leash, from the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil to the obscenity laws, has led to this empty, wordless stage. Why such conformity? Why have the arts not strained at the bonds laid upon them in the way earthier pursuits and pleasures have?

We have some football but few plays, pubs but little music. Restaurants strain at capacity while those museums and galleries that have reopened severely limit the numbers who can attend. Such timidity speaks to a husk of a culture whose reality is very far from its antique self-conceit. There was more lockdowned rebellion to be found in a public park from teenage children than there was in what must now be seen as “Legacy Art”.

As we have observed before, even in this lifeless state, there is certainly still a culture war, but it is the “progressive” side that is waging it. The scale of their success means most fighting amounts to their bayoneting such enemy survivors as they can find. Occasionally they manage to stick it up themselves too.

The BBC’s spectacular act of self-harm over the Last Night of the Proms happened suspiciously conveniently as outgoing director-general Tony Hall left Broadcasting House. In came his successor Tim Davie to put everything right in a superbly executed manoeuvre that did not impress the sceptics.

Wordlessly “Rule, Britannia!” was everything the BBC, our foremost national artistic promoter, amounts to: it needlessly damaged itself to spite what it clearly sees as the other side. Its handpicked conductor ignorantly, childishly deemed the eighteenth-century folk song to be currently racist; the white, male suits at the corporation, rightly afraid for their careers, panicked at the charge, and everything followed from that.

Like Soviet regional tractor plant managers, BBC journalists trotted out the party line instead of the news. Media and arts correspondent David Sillito explained to us when the words were abandoned: “The number of musicians and singers will be reduced and dispersed around the hall because of social distancing.” Then, when the words were readopted, the BBC press office announced, “Both pieces will now include a select group of BBC Singers”— the virus had seen sense! — “This means the words will be sung in the Hall, and as we have always made clear, audiences will be free to sing along at home.”

Such timidity speaks to a husk of a culture whose reality is very far from its antique self-conceit

This last indulgence, as to what you were always free to do in your own home when you heard the tune of “Rule, Britannia!”, was particularly inspiring. But as ever with the BBC, its real triumph lies in being shamelessly self-obsessed whilst noticing nothing about itself. One moment, no words, because science, the next moment, words, just because. And never an explanation offered for the change.

BBC journalists on Twitter are freer with the truth. Songs of Praise producer Catriona Lewis raged about “those Brits who believe it’s ok to sing an 18th Century song about never being enslaved, written when the UK was enslaving and killing millions of innocents? … I believe slavery was Britain’s holocaust … we should not sing in a gloating way that Britons will never be enslaved, when we were responsible for enslaving so many.”

This is the difficulty in dealing with imbecility. The Guardian happily reported Grange Park Opera founder Wasfi Kani as finding “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” problematic, “as it suggests other people can be slaves”. What can anyone say to that without first being crippled by embarrassment?

Maybe there won’t after all be the Novels and Plays and Operas “of the pandemic” that cynics so feared early in lockdown. The arts have spoken to no one because they have nothing to say.

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