Sir Richard Eyre has weighed in again about his notions of “cultural apartheid” in Britain. This time it’s in response to an announcement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, James Purnell, that the British government “will work towards a position where no matter where they live, or what their background, all children and young people have the opportunities to get involved in top-quality cultural activities in and out of school.”
While Eyre admits to some skepticism over the idea that government can effectively address the problem of decreasingly public interest and involvement in the arts, he also welcomes the effort, any effort, to deal with the increasingly cultural antipathy of the masses. He is particularly concerned with creating a culturally classist society:
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 an art gallery doesn’t exist for vast numbers of people in this country, who, if they feel anything at all about art, feel disenfranchised. This distinction - between those who enjoy the arts and those who feel excluded from them - amounts to an absolute divide. It seems like apartheid to me.
No one can be blamed for such “apartheid,” of course. The government of Britain, like the U.S. government, is not at fault. No one is plotting, as a matter of policy, the decline of art. The problem is individual choice. The public has too many choices for how it can spend its time. There are too many competing cultural factions, and now that the Internet has put access to all of these factions within reach of every 6th grader, people gravitate more and more toward lowest-common-denominator bread-and-circuses, and less and less toward difficult or challenging culture and art. (Note: This is not a new phenomenon, as Eyre points out; after all, T.S. Eliot spoke fifty years ago of the decline of cultural discourse: “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.” The problem now is that such decline has only been accelerated by tools of media and Internet we have shackled ourselves with.)
In the face of the diminishing returns of widening cultural self-choice, a solution seems unlikely. If no one is at fault, then no one can affect a change. Or rather, if everyone is at fault—everyone is responsible for their own cultural backwardness—then everyone equally has to affect the change. In the end, says Eyre:
Any government has a hard job justifying expenditure on the arts - it is easier to subsidise weapons of destruction than weapons of happiness. The benefits are hard to quantify and it is awkward but necessary to recognise that failure is an essential part of artistic creation; bad art will always exist beside the good. But it seems no more than logic to acknowledge - as James Purnell has - that the corollary of investing taxpayers’ money in the arts must be to evolve a strategy that embraces the departments of both culture and education to invest in the performers and the audiences of the future. It will enfranchise the victims of apartheid.