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22 November 1999

The Simpsons – Better than a Booker any time

The nineties - High art is no good, but a popular cartoon has originality, wit, truth and t

By George Walden

Researching on dandyism, I came across this characterisation of the early Victorian era by the French author Barbey d’Aurevilly, writing in praise of England’s Age of Elegance: “The liberality of ideas, which had shone forth from its greatest men like a beam of intelligence on this country of arrogant pharisaism, of glacial and mendacious convention, shone only for a moment. The mummy of religious sentiment and formality still reigns in the depths of its whitened sepulchre.”

Well, the mendacious convention and religiosity are still there in the arts, in democratic guise. In a discussion about elitism organised by a cultural magazine some months ago the participants were declaiming swooningly about the miracle-working powers of art, when the only performer on the panel – an American concert pianist – said that most art was rubbish. His declaration of the obvious resounded like blasphemy in a Victorian drawing-room.

Religiosity is no guarantee of virtue, and the more pietistic we are about art, the new religion, the less of it there seems to be about. It depends on what you mean. The only definition that comes to mind – something “inspiring awe and true delight” – still sounds vaguely ecclesiastical, and could apply to Pele and Gazza as much as to Michelangelo and Degas, but I can think of nothing better.

So what awe and true delight have I experienced in the nineties? Let me see. Off the top of my head, some superb performances at the Barbican (all old stuff), a smallish pile of contemporary novels (all American), a clutch of films and sitcoms (American too), snatches of Rory Bremner, and The Simpsons.

Which of these were evidence of a living culture of a consistently high level of originality, wit, truthfulness and technical brilliance, as well as giving a convincing portrait of the times? In previous periods it might have been plays, poetry or novels, but in the nineties it is surely The Simpsons.

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To praise a popular art form in Britain raises suspicions of cultural slumming, or of that superior brand of quirkiness we use to catch people out. The assumption is that we are nailed down in our boxes, like mental coffins, so as a sop to the boxy-minded let me add that the overwhelming majority of popular culture, British or American, strikes me as poisoned dross concocted by commercial and egalitarian interests to be shovelled into the yawning maw of the mass society. On the other hand, much of the “high” culture in the nineties seems to me little more than a better class of dross, more flavoursomely poisoned, and concocted to feed the illusions of literary or artistic claques or cliques.

Assuming a choice of boxes is necessary, which I don’t, and that such judgements are meaningful, which I doubt, the best of the popular wins, not just on aesthetic merit, but because of its vitality and lack of pretension. Ultimately it is the Confucius test of things being themselves. The best popular art of the decade was good art that is popular, whereas the “high” art almost never lived up to its name. The Confucius test, applied to sport, is revealing about art. One of the reasons for our new fascination with games is, I suspect, that the skill cannot be counterfeited, and needs no talking up in arty or populist blather. The same is true of The Simpsons. At last, something that is simply itself; at last, something real!

If the choice is between The Simpsons, and a contemporary art exhibition exhuming a horse ridden into the ground by Duchamp et al some 80 years ago; or a play about marital mores, art or politics; or a novel burbling on in a mumsy, moralising way about personal relationships and man’s lamentable inhumanity to man (or more often woman) – then nine times out of ten, you will enjoy a more uplifting aesthetic experience with The Simpsons.

To say (as enthusiasts tend to) that they are the contemporary Donne, Shakespeare, Dickens, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky wrapped into one betrays our obsession with status. The Simpsons does not need analogies to exist, but in Britain the question of art invariably comes down to status: the status of the “consumer”, the status accorded to the art, the status of the message it is assumed to bear, and its status in the market.

The question is rarely “what exactly does he/she see in it, and why?”, but whether it qualifies as high or low art, and where he/she is “coming from” socially, and therefore morally. Other cultures can suffer from the same disease, but few to the same extent, which may help to explain why there has been no world-class English novelist or artist this decade, or for that matter this century.

It most definitely explains why we could never have produced The Simpsons, a show whose high/low status is indeterminate and irrelevant, whose message is apparent only to the cultural decoder, and whose morality is undiscernible. In other words, a show that is true to life. You can say whether or not you “agree” with this or that absurdly overpraised English novel, such as Amsterdam. But there is no “agreeing” or “disagreeing” with The Simpsons, any more than with life. It has come to something when the sensibilities of a cartoon can be finer than those of a Booker-winning novel, the language richer, the comedy deeper and wiser – but there we are.

Luckily we have excellent cultural critics, such as Bryan Appleyard or Gilbert Adair, to point these things out. Those to avoid are the flauntingly open-minded. What they are saying is “I am not as other men are, my mind is wide open to contemporary work of every genre, and so awfully much of it is splendid, don’t you know?” More British smuggery, more democratic snobbery. No one in their right mind keeps an open one. The point about an open mind is that it lets everything in – and who wants a mind clogged with more or less subtly poisoned dross?

I am as open-minded about Britart as I am about the Front Nationale. I believe I have got the point about Le Pen and his gang, just as I have about Tracey Emin and hers. Only when I hear on reliable authority that Le Pen is no longer a racist reactionary, and that the Emin lot have read and digested Sir Ernst Gombrich, Robert Hughes and Clement Greenberg, and drawn the necessary conclusions about the reactionary nature of contemporary British art (in the dictionary sense of “a desire to return to a previous condition of affairs” – namely the avant-gardism of nearly a century ago) shall I open my mind to the possibility that they have anything new or interesting to say. (Poor Emin, she is the English Basquiat, a Fauve from the north, exploited at every turn, a prey to the cultural establishment, to Old Etonian dealers and pushers, a prey to a gawking public, to patronage of every sort. So undemocratic.)

A filtering mechanism is vital if our mental kettle is not to get furred up by modish ephemera, be it ever so hotly recommended by cultural officialdom: the neo-conformists of the Arts Council, or conscience-smitten ministers. There is less invention, imagination and technical skill in the average highly acclaimed play or novel, and in the entire corpus of Britart, than in an off-week of The Simpsons. Who has the time to fill their minds with such stuff? Think of the opportunity cost. As the lavatory sage wrote on his mural, while you are looking at this you are pissing on your shoes.

The chronically open-minded are by definition closed to discrimination. Why not open and close our minds according to whether the breeze smells fresh or fetid, instead of letting them swing like barn doors in a gale?

“High” and “fine” art today consist in the main of recycled air. Tony Blair was right, conservatism is a killer, though not in the sense meant by whichever intellectual wide-boy drafted his speech. Cultural conservatism no longer signifies a solemn veneration for the old. It consists of the solemn pretence that the old is new.

If it has taken us decades to admit that Bloomsbury art was cack-handed provincial pastiche, how long before we realise that Britart and Bloomsbury are interchangeable? And how long to admit that sentimentalism and social preachiness in our plays and novels are an outmoded 19th-century thing, some of it fine in its time but dodo-dead today?

Shena Mackay has said that all six of this year’s shortlisted Booker novels would be read in 50 years’ time. I don’t believe it, and nor can she. So why say it? For the same reason that politicians drone on about the NHS being free at the point of delivery, when it isn’t and never can be. In art, as in politics, it is the democratic pieties that matter, and the public has as much right to enduring literary creativity as they have to a free NHS.

Conservatism (in its worst sense) goes with patronage, and the key to any understanding of culture in Britain is condescension. Always and everywhere someone is playing down to someone else, normally from an assumed height. The Simpsons, from an elevated height, plays down to no one.

At the Booker dinner I heard Gerald Kaufman say in his speech that the novels by black writers were especially good. Did Ben Okri, also at the dinner, beam in gratitude? Or did he react as an Indian acquaintance did, when he told me that he thought talk like that had gone out 30 years ago?

Kaufman named an Indian woman writer as his personal second choice. (Was this a choice informed by a lifetime’s reading and reflection, or a crumb to feminists and his constituency? With Kaufman, you have to ask.) As cadenza to this little symphony of insinuation, he said that detective novels should feature in the Booker. (Had he seen the sales figures, he would have thrown in Harry Potter.) In a couple of sentences he had done his best to smarm and smirk himself into the literary affections of Africa, half of Asia, women, and the middlebrow readership of the entire Commonwealth.

Only when it becomes impossible to make the speech he did without half the audience jeering and the other half walking out will we have outgrown our culture of condescension. And if we want to extend this English-language prize, why not bring in the Americans?

I think I know the answer. It is not as easy to patronise the Yanks as the Commonwealth: try making a speech saying there are some frightfully good black American writers.

On the popular front, the same parochialism is there. What do we have instead of the universalist Simpsons? Dinner Ladies, The Royle Family, Hippies, or Merchant Ivory nostalgia. Same old North/Southery, same old sixties, same old “character acting”, same old characters. All as funny and sexy as an ingrown toenail. Talk about conservatism.

Even politicians (Livingstone, Benn and their Tory counterparts excepted) are beginning to understand that the old game is over. Think of Homer Simpson as both the hero and anti-hero of the times and suddenly you see how hopelessly behind the times we are.

George Walden’s next book, “The New Elites: making a career in the masses”, is published by Penguin next spring

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