The NS Essay - A culture of pretence

The British, far from enjoying a renaissance, are living a second childhood. George Walden thinks we

Julie Burchill says she is a Stalinist. Tony Blair says he is a socialist. William Hague says he is a Thatcherite leader of the Tory party. The Lords Saatchi and Palumbo say that British contemporary art is new and exciting. Margaret Thatcher is said to have brought down the Berlin wall. Salman Rushdie believes that pop music had more to do with bringing down the wall. Critics say that English novels, art and films are flourishing as never before. Scots say that Scotland is undergoing a cultural efflorescence. Which is logical since, as of last week, Scotland remains in the United Kingdom, and everyone says the British are enjoying a renaissance in the arts.

What these claims have in common is that none of them is true. Everyone in Britain appears to be playing some kind of game, and our culture of pretence is not confined to right or left. The British Party of National Make-believe is open to all comers. Meetings to be followed by refreshments, English wines served. Sometimes our patriotic pretenders are sincere, though the problem with sincerity is that it is impervious to truth. We are like a nation of method actors, who have convinced ourselves that we are someone else. And if our Great Pretenders are playing on the gullibility of the people they can't think much of them. Which makes them a curious sort of patriot.

Totalitarian regimes go in for absolute lies. Democracies fool themselves too, though not always consciously, and not all the time. The danger of half-truths is that they seep into our consciousness and rigidify, like water into porous rock. Few people in Soviet Russia thought that they were eating well, but a lot of people in Britain have persuaded themselves that, culturally speaking, they are feasting with the gods.

There used to be a Soviet joke: Radio listener: "Comrade Khrushchev said on the radio that the shops are groaning with food, but there's nothing in my fridge."

Radio presenter: "Try plugging your fridge into the radio."

In Britain, all the culturally famished need do is plug into a speech by one of our Great Pretenders in the arts. "I believe strongly that enhancing the cultural and creative life of the nation is a key function of government," said Chris Smith recently. "And this is not just by boosting investment, but also by giving strategic direction and encouraging progress towards clear objectives."

Progress in the arts by clear objectives. Enhancing our creative life by act of government. A new generation of Miltons, Prousts and Picassos to be procured by investment. This is the language of the five-year plan. Whatever the targets, they will invariably be met or exceeded, and our renaissance proclaimed a success. Already you can hear the celebratory speeches, in which London will be dubbed our Florence, Tyneside our Umbria, Edinburgh our Venice and Manchester our Siena.

Our society sees it as desirable that the arts should progress, like pensions or child benefit, in line with GDP. The assumption is that all of us have an untapped fund of talent which only more resources will release. We operate on a kind of democratised version of the mute, inglorious Milton principle: the notion that there are as many creators as citizens, whose Paradise Losts, if only they had the leisure to write them, would be a clear improvement on Milton's, not least because they would be accessible to a wider public.

Talk of our cultural ascendancy has imperial overtones. Is our supremacy and the consequent inferiority of the foreigner racial, or acquired? And if our culture is in the throes of rebirth, when did it die? Of what did it expire? How dead was it, or was it just a bit comatose, so that when a tremor rippled through the body - a new pop group here, a fashion designer there, a goodish novel, a mildly amusing film - we were so relieved to see signs of life we declared that the Brits were once again standing tall?

A familiar phrase. To understand our self-aggrandisement in the arts we must glance at politics. For a long time they have been trapped in a left/right time warp, with their hoary rituals, stagey confrontations and phoney wars. Politics are a part of culture, and it would be strange if a similar charade were not played out in the arts. And sure enough, there too we find the mimings and gesturings, the phoney adversarialism, the invention of dragons to slay, the passing off of the old in the guise of the new and, above all, the endless self-celebration of the system.

Our current renaissance is not the first we have endured. That came in the eighties, in economics. Now we are reborn culturally, too. These multiple rebirths have become fatiguing, but our double renaissance shares a common paternity. In culture as in economics, a new energy and confidence are certainly apparent. But, as with Thatcherism, there is a negative side: the bombast, the complacency and insularity, the money-grubbing philistinism, the cheap populism.

Bombast in the arts takes the form of puffed-up moralism and eye-swelling sentimentalism. And just as Thatcher persuaded us that every semi was worth the price of a castle, so every British "artwork" is inflated to the skies. The complacent insularity is there even when the art is locally assembled from imported parts. Our rockers sing in a bastard Americanese. Our novelists are full of wistful Atlantic echoes. Our artists speak in borrowed tongues - a phrase from Duchamp, a quote from Dada, a quip from Warhol. And the best of the TV that we are assured is the best in the world turns out to be bought in from America.

As for money-grubbing, the market-making for contemporary art was done by a partner in the PR firm that managed Thatcher's campaigns. And what of the multi-billion-pound pop industry, backed up by government subsidy? Theatre directors and classical musicians could find a better use for the subsidies, but are reluctant to complain, for fear of having the brand of elitism burned into their quivering, half-starved backs. As for the quality of the rockers, consider this: "As long as Thatcher was in power they kept themselves latently political. But Blair has finished that off. Youth culture is no longer feared by the establishment. The rock era has come and gone, along with political polarisation and the generation gap." So wrote Simon Napier Bell, ex-manager of the Yardbirds, T-Rex, Japan and Wham!.

Our lead guitarists are as much in the business of bringing society to its knees as our leading artists. If it were otherwise the rock stars would not be invited to No 10 or the artists presented with prizes by gushing ministers at black-tie functions at the Tate. These are Mammonites who go through the motions of bringing down the house of Mammon. The truth is they like it so much they are thinking of buying the lease. In the potlatch of principle, who is winning? Art or politics?

As for populism, it is rumoured that a leading contender for the job of director-general of the BBC is a man who once created a puppet. I hope he wins, if only to hear that inaugural speech gravely informing us of his intention to marry Reithian values with those of Roland Rat. Meanwhile the director of Sadler's Wells was informed that if he wanted more subsidies he should avoid over-stretching his audiences' abilities. On the same logic one could finance schools in inverse proportion to their results. That way we would get full houses for the kind of Sadler's Wells our five-year planners want.

To say that nothing is being achieved in the arts would be as absurd as to say that nothing useful was done under Thatcher. It is not the achievements that I am denying, it is the claims made for them. There are good things in British culture, particularly our musical and theatre performances, and occasionally our satire. But I do not see how you build a cultural renaissance on performances. Where we can be outstanding is in the applied arts - fashion, design, architecture - but from there to a renaissance is quite a trip. Design and decoration flourished in the dark ages.

So why do we exalt ourselves, so un-Britishly? Because in our thirst for instant renewal, for Britain to "stand tall again", we have become what we once accused the Americans of being: a nation in a hurry. Our culture of self-celebration is a cheapjack, shoddy thing, its booster-talk reminiscent of patriotic war cries. "Celebrate!" has become not so much a slogan, more a command, recalling the famous Kitchener call-up poster, or the lugubrious junketings of totalitarian regimes in honour of their "Day of Culture". One can almost see the banners in Whitehall - "Long Live the Cultural Supremacy of the British People" - in bold red capitals for the only haltingly literate, or the turgid encomiums in the press, based on handouts from the ministry stressing the importance of the creative process for the financial future of the motherland.

Exports we all favour, but what kind of cultural patriot is it who derives a rush of national euphoria from the export of bone-tired pop? You might as well go into patriotic raptures at the news that Mars bars are now to be found in Tashkent, or that ingenious salesmen have found outlets abroad for obsolescent surface-to-air missiles. The same people who deplored Thatcher's vulgar commercialisation of society now hail the spread of our low-grade, quick-buck culture throughout the world.

A strange blimpishness is infesting the arts. In the mouths of our arts patriots "our country, right or wrong" becomes "our culture, good, poor or mediocre". It is as intolerable to the left to imply that our contemporary art or literature are in any way wanting as it is to the right to suggest that we may have got things not quite right at Suez or in the Falklands. The pietism is repellent, and there is a curious affinity between our sermons on Mount Art and the kind of homilies delivered on Thought for the Day. Just as the homilies tell us more about the speakers' social than their religious conscience, so speeches about culture that are brimful of concerns about funding and social inclusion tell us much about the state of the arts. If it is true that the arts are the religion of our time, perhaps it is because the arts have less and less to do with aesthetics and religion less and less to do with belief.

Official hypocrisy reaches its nadir in simultaneous praise for the heritage and for its subverters. Napoleon III was a regular at the Salon, but he did not claim he was equally enthralled by the anti-Salonards. No previous generation of officialdom has had the effrontery, or intellectual vacuity, to say how delighted they were that the culture of their era was maintaining and undermining the heritage at one and the same time. Our Great Pretenders are happy to sell a simulacrum of the past (costume drama) along with simulated modernism, frequently to the same audience. Postmodern irony would be their only excuse, yet they appear wholly in earnest on all sides of every aesthetic question. The truth is that they (and we) live in a cultural no-man's land, where nothing has either the solidity of the antique or the dangerous zest of the modern.

Anguishing about the highs and lows of art is another form of philistinism. What matters is quality. The truth is that when "high art" is at something of a low, the peaks of popular culture stand out silver-tipped above the clouds. In their intelligence, artistry, technical brilliance, wit and originality, the best films, cartoons and sit-coms can often be greatly superior to the allegedly high art of a poor, pretentious play. Similarly the best advertising is superior to the witless japes and nihilistic posturing of contemporary art.

Art in Britain is a station where pretty well every train arrives late. Which makes the excitement when it eventually comes all the greater. Our flag-waving celebration of avant-gardism, our national liberation in art, is curiously suggestive of our late discovery of sex. There, too, it took us time to catch on, though now we are so enthralled by our new-found libertinage we can't stop talking about it. As with sex our exuberance at the final arrival on our shores of what passes for futuristic art is merely a measure of the fustiness and inhibitions that went before. And like sex, to listen to our populist patricians expiring in praise of contemporary art you would have thought that no one had ever done it before.

As for writing, not a few of our allegedly literary works are inferior to the best popular authors, such as Elmore Leonard or George V Higgins. What they do they do supremely well; the literary authors do it, all too frequently, in mediocre style. If one is authentic and the other not, it is because our literature (J G Ballard, Martin Amis and one or two others excepted) is concerned more with the social and the humanitarian than with the true and the human. In art as in politics, oppositional stances are worn like regimental ties, for radicalism has its bufferdom, too: its tediously admonitory writers, its exhausted avant-garde, its crinkly, superannuated rockers. Nations change slowly, their illusions even slower. Where once we ruled militarily and economically, now we rule culturally - effortlessly as always and with a languid, ironic hand. The style, if not the illusions, is remorselessly up to date: a flip, postmodern insouciance that blends easily with old assumptions of easy superiority.

Our Great Pretenders in the arts are reactionaries in disguise, their impossible dream to combine Victorian grandeur with the spirit of the sixties. Already the young are tiring of the frenzied enthusiasms characteristic of the tremulously ageing. In that sense, the future is auspicious. The perceptions of 30 year olds are less skewed by pretend politics or by obsessions about the highs and lows of art - two forms of anti-culture that belong together. They have more serenity and more energy. They do not wrap their minds in a plastic Union Jack, to smother in nationalist self-contentment. Many will work abroad, and become impatient with the national blarney.

They will be less conformist, not in the conventional sense of defying convention - what is left to defy? - but because they will feel less compulsion to join in the national game of pretence. In a word, they will be free. Maybe this is just my irrepressible optimism shining through, but it seems to me that a nation living its second childhood could one day achieve a second maturation.

George Walden's "Lucky George"(Allen Lane, £17.99) is reviewed in this week's NS. This article is based on his Peter Fuller Memorial Lecture at University College London on 13 May

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence