Thursday, 16 April 2009
Freeloading and snobbery

There’s no snob like a Socialist snob. A Tory snob believes in elitism and hierarchy, and if he is intelligent, in meritocracy. A Socialist snob likes the proles to keep in their place, where they can be patronised. Socialist snobs hate Jews – clever upstarts who have risen on their own merits – and love Muslims. Socialist snobs hate grammar schools – we can’t have their thick children pushed out of the good universities by upstart grocers’ daughters from Grantham. Above all, Socialist snobs like to tell the common people what to like, and what to pay for. David Thompson, whose use of the cliché “up there with” I will forgive on this occasion, writes of the absurd sense of entitlement of the progressive “artist”:

Over the holiday weekend I somehow missed the Guardian’s latest musings on Thatcher and the arts. The writer Hanif Kureishi offers this:

[I]n the longer term, her effect has been disastrous. Thatcher, like the Queen, is basically vulgar, and has little cultural sophistication or understanding. But unlike the Queen, she actively hated culture, as she recognised that it was a form of dissent.

Ah yes, “dissent.” That’s up there with Polly Toynbee’s conviction that subsidised literary festivals are not only “hot new debating arenas” and “as good a measure of well-being as any,” but also, crucially, make up for “the nation’s democratic deficit.” Naturally, this is advanced as a basis for additional taxpayer subsidy of the art forms Polly happens to like, and in which she has a platform. (There is, sadly, no public subsidy of my CD collection or Battlestar Galactica box sets, for which I expect to pay full price….)


Without an enterprise culture and the tax revenue it generates, who will be paying for all of the commercially unviable art that Mr Kureishi thinks defines sophistication? The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington doesn’t say, but he does offer this:

Was the 1980s an unacknowledged golden age? In theatrical terms, absolutely not. Talent, of course, can never be entirely suppressed.

Note the word “suppressed.” Like “dissent,” it’s a tad grandiose. I’m not convinced that the reduction of taxpayer subsidy for loss-making plays qualifies as “suppression.” And reluctant taxpayers please take note: Despite all the years of providing handouts, you’re now on the side of the oppressor. That’s gratitude for you. Actually, one might argue that not making work of sufficient interest to put bums on seats is largely a failure of the artist. Not that Mr Billington has much time for productions that do put bums on seats, which the elevated socialist waves aside as “harmless pleasure.” Instead, he too sees the long shadow of Thatcher, on whom he blames,

a prevailing media assumption that a hyped-up West End extravaganza such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is somehow more “important” than, say, a new Royal Court play by Polly Stenham; that in itself is a direct legacy of a decade in which “bums on seats” became a more significant criterion of judgment than “ideas in heads.”

There’s something deeply amusing about egalitarian snobbery and its assorted conceits. The functions of the welfare state apparently include saving unprofitable drama productions from a disinterested public. Mere commercial forces and popular appetite must not impede work of such tremendous cultural importance that no bugger wants to see it. There’s an inescapable arrogance in the assumption that a given artistic or theatrical effort should somehow circumvent the preferences of its supposed audience and be maintained indefinitely, at public expense, despite audience disinterest or outright disapproval. And when that same disinterested public forks out its cash voluntarily for something it wants to see, this is something to be sneered at and blamed on former Prime Ministers. Marx would be proud. I’m not at all sure that the opinions above, which are fairly typical of the piece, tell us much about Thatcher’s view of culture, or her alleged philistinism, or her impact on the arts generally. But it does, I think, tell us quite a bit about the presumptions of the commenters and their intended readership.

I saw Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about which Kureishi is so snooty, and it was fantabuloso. The audience was nearly all women and gay men. The Diversity Police will need to pay Kureishi a visit, especially as My Son the Fanatic came dangerously close to “Islamophobia”.

Posted on 04/16/2009 2:39 PM by Mary Jackson
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