At Last, a Government That Isn't Shy of Talking about Culture. but Can Chris Smith's Task Force Raise the Dead Hand of Britain's Cultural Bureaucracy?

By Hewison, Robert | New Statesman (1996), August 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

At Last, a Government That Isn't Shy of Talking about Culture. but Can Chris Smith's Task Force Raise the Dead Hand of Britain's Cultural Bureaucracy?


Hewison, Robert, New Statesman (1996)


At last we have a government that uses the "c" word: culture. Tony Blair has decreed that henceforth the Department of National Heritage, created in 1992 by John Major as part of his dream of a nation at ease with itself, will be called the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The title doesn't exactly sing, and it seems to imply that sport is not part of our national culture, but it marks a turning point in the long evolution of what we must now call public culture. Where once patronage of the arts was the concern of kings and princes, it has moved into the public realm. Across the world, culture has gradually become a matter of state policy, and the British government is catching up.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State at the DCMS, says the new name marks "a change of direction". Evidence of this lies in the creation of what sounds suspiciously like a new quango, the "InterDepartmental Creative Industries Task Force", peopled by new Labour's version of the great and the good: the film producer David Puttnam, the clothes designer Paul Smith, the publisher Gall Rebuck, the entrepreneur Richard Branson and the record company magnate Alan McGee, plus assorted marketing men and "strategy consultants". This task force is charged with examining the work of all the government departments that impinge on what 18 years of Conservative rule have taught us to call the cultural industries.

Such phrases - "the enterprise culture" is another - show that just as governments have gradually supplanted earlier forms of cultural patronage, so the definition of culture has changed.

Culture has always been more than the activities of painters, poets, playwrights, novelists and performing artists. Anthropologically it applies to the customs and beliefs of a whole people, which exist in a moral, indeed religious, dimension. Both artists and their patrons have felt themselves to be involved in a social activity that has moral as well as aesthetic value. For a Victorian such as Matthew Arnold, culture was "the best that has been said or thought in the world". It was a positive ideal, to be opposed to the development of a barbarian industrialised society.

Such a definition, with its emphasis on "the best", was inevitably elitist. As mass production, mass organisation and, significantly, mass education multiplied alongside the spread of democracy, feelings about the survival of this ideal culture became increasingly pessimistic. For T S Eliot and F R Leavis, culture became merely a saving remnant in a brutish world. In 1969 Kenneth Clark's television series Civilisation showed elite culture in retreat in the face of a debased mass culture - what George Steiner has called "post-culture" - promoted by the forces of commercialism.

In the sixties a new and more positive definition of culture again emerged: what Raymond Williams termed "a whole way of life". The traditional elitist pyramid of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow popular culture was replaced by a different model, a "long front of culture", which exchanged a hierarchy of taste for a democracy of access to the arts. In Pop Art, the iconography of vulgar popular culture was translated into high art.

The increased elasticity of this definition coincided with a momentous change in the developed world, from mass production to mass consumption as the primary focus of economic activity - consumption being necessary to sustain production. In this fundamental shift from the ruling condition of modernism to that of post-modernism, culture ceased to be a fixed ideal.

From roughly 1968 onwards, it became the subject of ever more destructive definitions from the left. Marxists developed Gramsci's conception of culture as one of the means by which a ruling class maintained control, in such a way that culture was no longer seen as a virtue, but as an ideology, a set of ideas, images and values that served to keep certain interests in power, not just by force, but by consent. …

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