30 July 2007

"Iconoclasm" ... by decree

Literature should be political and ... should unmask the rottenness of bourgeois culture.

How do you know when a society's culture has stopped being genuinely challenging and iconoclastic?
When a government minister insists that "challenge" and "iconoclasm" are essential components of culture.

Culture Minister James Purnell on the functions of culture:
There is something ... that should be taken for granted: that the arts matter in themselves. Of course, the arts, like sport, are some of the most effective ways of reaching disaffected teenagers, of helping people to think about mental health, of regenerating inner cities or coastal towns. But the arts would still matter ... even if they did none of those things. ...

In other words, the arts help us be who we are — and they help create Britain. It’s not just the old cliché that our public face to Thailand is Man United, to America Harry Potter, to Germany Simon Rattle. It’s that an open, iconoclastic culture is a precondition to being a modernising, tolerant country ...

Targets were probably necessary in 1997, to force a change of direction in some parts of the arts world. But now, ten years later, we risk idolising them. Without change, we risk treating culture like it’s an old fashioned, unresponsive public service — not a modern, complex network of activity, with plurality of funding, with a sophisticated and complex relationship with its global audience. Without change, we’ll create an overly technocratic approach when we should want a transformational one, where we give you the power to take risks and be the best. ...

The question we should ask ourselves now is what is necessary on top of ... self-regulation. In the past, we’ve chosen a small part of the picture to look at — the Department’s current targets for culture refer to attendance by priority groups. Access will continue to be vital, and there is still more to do. But it’s not all I’m interested in. I’m interested in what people have access to. If any part of our cultural sector is substandard, doesn’t take risks, doesn’t
push barriers, ducks difficult questions, it’s not worth subsidising. [emphasis mine]
A mediocracy has ersatz versions of everything related to intellectual or artistic independence: questioning, analysis, scepticism, radicalism, and so on. No real questioning or radicalism is involved, since that would be too dangerous.

There are two reasons for a culture of pseudo-iconoclasm. First, having a replacement version is safer than trying to eliminate openly. The latter would make it too obvious that something was being suppressed. By suitable redefinition, it becomes impossible to complain that an activity (e.g. real challenge) is in fact absent.

Second, the energies of those who might in other circumstances be doing the real questioning, challenging etc. need to be safely absorbed by being directed towards attacking the enemies of mediocracy.