So much time has been spent in recent years on arguing about art and business, that it is easy to forget an earlier debate about art and the state. Visiting the Mall Galleries in London this month, one wonders what the Foreign Office thinks it is doing by financing and organising an exhibition of contemporary photographs of eastern Europe. Isn't that sort of thing the job of Baroness (Helena) Kennedy and the British Council? The short answer is that this is low-grade cultural propaganda by the state, what used in the old days to be called agitprop. What is on show are photographs, shot through the lenses of prestigious Magnum photographers, of what Peter Hain, the minister for Europe and the man responsible, calls "the expansion countries", those sadly rather neglected supplicants for membership of the European Union.
Maybe you thought that state-sponsored agitprop had gone out with Margaret Thatcher. Wrong. It's still flourishing under new Labour. The Foreign Office, of course, is a special case, as a heritage relic of the imperial era that exists purely to justify its own existence, still creaming off clever scholars who would be better employed in more crucial parts of the public sector. Nothing is more important for the FO than to be seen to be doing something, and if that "something" is in the cultural sphere, so much the better.
The idea behind this imaginative yet pointless exhibition is to draw attention to the fact that a bunch of second-world (that is to say, former communist) countries, some of them operating under what used to be called third-world conditions, are about to join the European Union. The photographs, it was hoped when the photographers were commissioned, would challenge preconceptions and stereotypes, and give us a fresh vision of the people and countries we are about to embrace in an ever-wider Europe.
Before seeing the show, to remind myself of my own preconceptions, I jotted down some memories of life under "actually existing socialism". I remembered Bulgaria, with its expensive Japanese hotels, its countryside full of commercial rose gardens and its well-raked beaches of grey sand; and Poland, with its wistful, ill-paid musicians; and Romania, with its prosperous peasants who rarely washed; and Hungary, with its chess-playing musicians in the baths at the Hotel Gellert and its blue movies in the hotel's bedrooms.
Sure enough, the old cliches are still on display, in spite of Peter Hain's claim that these countries have "rapidly transformed over the last decade". Here is a romanticised photo of an empty beach in Bulgaria (by Donovan Wylie), with a girl in a blue bikini on a multicoloured towel, lying beside a shopping bag proclaiming "paolo botticelli". Cliche or what? The posed picture has been taken as the shadows lengthen, and nearly everyone but the photographer's model has left the beach. You can almost detect the goose pimples, and you can certainly see the rubbish in the grey sand. The people seem to have given up raking the beaches in New Bulgaria. It must be lowering its standards before joining Europe, in line with Britain.
Here, too, is the dear old Hotel Gellert in Budapest, with a collection of bathers still playing chess in the baths. Nothing new here, except that they all look perfectly pleasant - a rarity, considering that they are captured through Martin Parr's customarily jaundiced lens. No sign of the blue movies, either.
The truth is that these photographs have very little to do with the "new Europe", and much to do with the old. Few of them could not have been taken in the 1980s. Some of the pictures are about travel - a railway carriage, an airport cafe, a bus station - perhaps hinting that international travel is now more possible than it used to be. Yet in the 1980s, young people in eastern Europe were constantly on the move, travelling from country to country, the trains and buses invariably overbooked. Only travel to the west was difficult and expensive.
Almost everyone photographed is in the youthful uniform of T-shirt and jeans, marked with trademark names and Nike ticks, and some of them stand in front of drab and old-fashioned shop windows. These images, too, are familiar from the 1980s. These people don't want to join Europe, they want to join America. They have some way to go yet, for they are lean and hungry and attractive, not fat and ugly like so many Americans, nor overweight and whey-faced like most Britons.
Presumably, Magnum accepted the commission from the Foreign Office and pocketed a decent cheque. But why should this be a Foreign Office operation? It would have been far more sensible for the British Council to have given money to fewer photographers, and to have covered fewer countries. Only two photographers come out of this exhibition with any credit. The veteran Ian Berry clearly enjoyed himself for a few days in the Baltic countries, and came up with some striking images from Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. I particularly liked the image of a young man, inevitably in blue jeans and a T-shirt, sitting one rainy day on a brand-new mountain bike under an umbrella, and dialling a number on his mobile phone. Such a picture could yet grace a City boardroom.
Strong images come also from the more youthful Donovan Wylie, whose speciality is in-your-face colour portraits. They are too posed for my liking, but they have the considerable power of non-socialist realism. You can choose their meaning for yourself. One (from Turkey) shows a glum man in the inevitable T-shirt clutching a baby in a child-carrier. His veiled wife beside him carries an expensive new camera, and he is clearly saying, "I come from an old-fashioned country and I am marching unhappily towards an uncertain future."
One super-irritating aspect of this exhibition is that there is no signage, no labels, and not a trace of an indication of where the picture has been taken or who the photographer is. (Eventually, you can find a crib, tacked to a back wall. But why not print it and hand it out at the entrance?) This - and what bureaucratic mind could have come up with such a bright idea? - is done on purpose, so that you can admire the new Europe in a haze of uncertainty. Possibly, this might have been justified if the show had been just about the former communist Europe, but the 13 "expansion countries" also include such familiar territories as Cyprus, Malta and Turkey, which makes the guesswork rather harder, and yet more pointless. Not all the pictures are contemporary. Those from Poland (yes, of wistful musicians) date back to 1994.
Looking at these photographs, it is all too easy to make mistakes about their location. One splendid shot (by Harry Gruyaert) has a man, obviously a communist apparatchik of yesteryear, striding across the marbled entrance hall of some faceless modern building. Surely, this must be my Sofia hotel? But no. It is somewhere in Istanbul. Then I turned to watch and listen while Peter Hain was being interviewed, standing in front of a large microphone proudly labelled BBC, and I thought of how Lord Reith might have imagined "the institutions of the nation speaking peace unto the institutions of the nation". Then I found myself thinking that the closest thing that we have to the old eastern European apparatchik is Hain himself, with his heavyweight dark suit, his oleaginous manner, his emollient smile, and his ready command of vacuous burble. He would have gone unnoticed in the cabinet of Todor Zhivkov. How suitable, then, that he should be in charge of welcoming these new members to the European club in the name of state-funded art.
Coming out of the Mall Galleries and walking up Lower Regent Street, I passed one of those large hollow cows, repulsive and immobile, that currently litter the streets of London, this one dressed up as a beefeater. Recalling the old eastern European penchant for public art, I realised indeed that England is growing ever closer to the countries of the new Europe - an insight due in no small measure to the efforts of Peter Hain.
"Images of a New Europe" is at the Mall Galleries, 17 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1 (020 7930 6844)