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Thursday 24 January 2019

An artistic lexicon for the 21st century

Our culture has changed. The words we use for it have not. Playwright David Hare provides a modern glossary


On an edition of Start the Week in the early 1990s, Norman Tebbit, one-time Chairman of the Conservative Party, asked his fellow guests why a Rolls-Royce jet engine could not be regarded as a work of art. Understandably, his question had a streak of grievance. His boss, Margaret Thatcher, had never been popular with the majority of artists. Without having time to think, I replied by saying that although the jet engine was an object of exceptional skill and beauty, it was fashioned without any metaphorical intention. It was a thing whose only subject was itself. A work of art must be suggestive of something beyond. I have no idea if I was right.


The standard vocabulary of art talk seems exhausted, geared for the wrong century. Most everyday arts writing strings together words which, like blackened teeth, have hollowed out with over-use. The terms which were current in the twentieth century no longer compute in the twenty-first, now that art is delivered and distributed differently. When so much is more easily available, at least at second hand, can anything any longer be described as “cutting-edge” or “avant-garde”? “Conceptual” just means “illustrating a familiar idea”. “Diverse” means “has a black actor in it”. “Iconic” means “has been around for a long time”. Does anyone believe that there are any longer people called “bohemians”? What does the word “outsider” mean exactly when it’s deployed by every actor, artist, politician and dentist looking for a way to suggest they’re not boring?

The poor, the homeless and people who have arrived illegally, still live outside Western societies. They’re outsiders. But, truly, who else?


In politics, “radical” was once a good left-wing word, but it has lately been appropriated by the right wing to suggest any challenge to the common wisdom from whatever direction, but most commonly from the right.


In culture, “elitist” was once a good left-wing word used to attack cultural forms that were conceived to flatter the ruling class, but it has lately been appropriated by the right wing to attack the very notion of culture itself.


Seventy years ago, a group of writers including Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart in their books Culture and Society and The Uses of Literacy valuably expanded the idea of what culture might be. It wasn’t the art which came out of drawing rooms from a socially or intellectually advanced group at the top of society. It was the whole sum of what was going on at all economic and social levels. The feeling of the time, as manifested through art, came up from below. In Raymond Williams’s most famous assertion, “Culture is ordinary”.

These working-class academics had particular hostility to privileged writers, handily represented by people like FR Leavis and the Bloomsbury Group, who shared a myth of a Britain destroyed by the Industrial Revolution, and who spoke of the masses as dismayingly ignorant and the culture as dying. As Williams insisted: “A dying culture, and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see.”

Out of this same instinct to look wider and deeper in the 1950s came a new British cinema, pioneered by people like Tony Richardson and Jack Clayton; a new British theatre, pioneered by John Osborne, Joan Littlewood and Shelagh Delaney; and most importantly of all, in the 1960s, a new British music, which cheered everyone up and blew fresh air through the stale chambers of high culture.

The impulse behind this widespread opening-out was decent and democratic. But in the 1980s the same impulse was appropriated by a group of right-wing militants who formalised their hostility to all things intellectual – and, more pressingly, their social distaste for intellectual types – by declaring that anything which smelt of the highbrow was, by definition, elitist. Their mission was to elide the words “popular” and “good”.

Anything which was admired by large groups of people was superior to anything which was admired by small groups. Difficulty and pretension were the same thing. Newspapers began to favour charts showing how well a work of art was doing over lengthy examinations of what it might be saying. The salesroom correspondent had an importance denied to the art critic. The New York Times began to report cinema box-office results, and, in British broadsheets, TV ratings were given prominence over TV reviews.

This new movement found its home in a supplement of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times which was wittily named Culture, in order to house representative writers who loathed culture and everything it was understood to represent. Its TV critic, AA Gill, even argued that the day of the individual writer was over, and that British TV could only match the vitality of American when it went over to the group writing system which prevailed in writers’ rooms in the US.

Historically, he could not have been more wrong.


“I didn’t kill the enemy because the enemy wanted to listen to a concert in A minor while I preferred a concert in A major. I killed him because he took the bread away from our German families. I love a good film, a play, a book, I love art, but when I’m hungry the best film does not interest me.” Adolf Eichmann’s words speak to the impossible burden put on art in the twentieth century by the decline of religion. Tyrants like Hitler and Stalin held vehement views about art, and were able to ban or encourage art which they interpreted as hostile or friendly to their own political ideas. Eichmann, in contrast, rejected the twentieth-century notion that art mattered. Late Victorian thinkers had argued that when God died, people would turn to culture to do the heavy lifting previously achieved by belief. No matter if people were no longer awed by divinity, instead they could at least be awed by art. In the process, good behaviour would be encouraged.

As Terry Eagleton put it: “Matthew Arnold’s idea of culture is a gentrified form of Christianity.”


In the last century, this religious notion was expressed architecturally. The Barbican, the National Theatre, the South Bank and the Lincoln Center in New York were all built in the mid-twentieth century to express separation. Like cathedrals, major arts centres stood alone and proud, and free of the traffic of commerce. They were sanctuaries for the soul, often in forbidding styles. But in the past fifty years these holy places have panicked at their isolation and transformed themselves to look as much like the rest of the city as possible. The South Bank has re-booted as a party venue for countless merry-makers. On Thursday and Friday nights, tens of thousands stand on the terraces getting hammered, while inside orchestras continue to play music that requires astonishing levels of skill and virtuosity. Inside the National Theatre, Chekhov and Shakespeare are performed by actors who need to dedicate themselves to years of diligent practice and experience. But the foyers have been redecorated to look like airport duty-free shops, and outside there are jugglers, singers and dancers doing what more or less anyone can do after a pint and a day’s rehearsal.

The people who jazz these buildings into non-specialness seem to be apologising for the almost superhuman degree of expertise required inside. Highly specialised creativity is felt to be the enemy of the creativity which is potentially in all of us. Inequality of skill is confused with inequality of opportunity and wealth. Refined accomplishment is treated as slightly embarrassing and anti-democratic.

The river entrance to the National Film Theatre was recently shut for over a year. It has finally re-opened. Inevitably, the only visible change is a new bar, which significantly resembles the one it replaces, only larger. The auditoria showing the films are untouched.

If the performing arts ever did have a spiritual mission, popular opinion today demands it be disguised.


The purpose of diversity in the arts is not, as opponents represent it, social engineering. It is to improve the odds on great work. Limit the pool of people making art to one gender, one social class and one racial background and you limit the likelihood of it being first-rate. Our educational system is so intermittent and flawed that large numbers of people do not think about becoming writers, dancers, musicians or painters. Everything we can possibly do to expand the number of people who feel that, with perseverance, they might have great art in them is worth doing.


Bitter experience has taught me that the representation of women and ethnic minorities in film and theatre has not changed because of what has been happening inside those industries. It has changed because of what has been happening outwith. It’s a patronising cliché to argue that excluded groups should be included because they have new stories to tell, since that view implies all art is necessarily autobiographical. Yes, of course, perspective is an element in creativity. But it’s not the whole thing. There’s more to creativity than the generic trigger “as a woman” or “as an African-American”. Great art is created as much from the imagination as from experience. It’s the distinctive mix of the two which is exhilarating. Certainly, any ethnic group may want to bring forward stories of their own culture. But nobody can forbid them the right to bring the stories of others.


In the twentieth century the mad were commonly held to have unique access to the mysteries of the universe. Who believes that now? Who thinks drugs open the doorways of perception?

Method acting

Method acting was a style of performance which was invented specifically to celebrate outsiderism. It was principally dependent on inarticulacy, and was intended to suggest that the actor, almost always male, was good in bed. Because the idea of the outsider is defunct, so is the method. Already, old Sean Penn films look more mannered and dated than old Rex Harrison films.

Cinema versus television

The first casualty of streamed television drama is always said to be network drama. But that’s not true. It’s American independent cinema which has suffered more – it looks fatally. Arthouse cinema had always been dependent on mood, charm, social detail and accuracy. It has not been able to compete with narrative television whose only priorities are story, story and story. Mood has always been a signifier of highbrow, as has mumbling; narrative and clear-speaking are signifiers of low and middlebrow. The move towards larger reach and wider subject matter is, on the whole, invigorating, but there is a balance here which will one day be redressed.

Learned versus naive

In his introduction to his post-war anthology, The New Poetry, the critic Al Alvarez wrote of the gulf between two strands in British poetry. On one side was the romantic kind, essentially an outpouring of personal feeling, as exemplified by Wordsworth. On the other was the learned or academic kind, tending, like TS Eliot’s, towards the evasion of feeling, and certainly informed by a comprehensive knowledge of the history of the art form. In one version, the poet was a bard. In the other, a scholar.

In 1962, Alvarez hoped this gulf would be bridged in his lifetime. He would be disappointed to know that when a friend of mine recently published a book of poetry after a career spent doing something else, many people remarked on his “courage”. Essentially they wanted to warn him that modern poetry was so vexed and contentious a field that it was almost foolhardy to write the stuff without knowing what state-of-the-art thinking currently ruled was good or bad.

This view of art as a chess game that may only be undertaken by experts is profoundly depressing. Novels in the United States are largely written by people who teach novels, usually in universities. I attend an awful lot of plays written by playwrights who have all too clearly been to see an awful lot of plays. There are few romantics. But the new voice, the untutored voice, still thrills me in a way no other can. Twice in 2018, reading new books by Sally Rooney and Rachel Kushner, I felt “nobody else could have written this”. Both effortlessly bridge the gulf between academic and romantic.


In the last lesson he gave to his students, the American poet James Dickey said that civilisation was being driven to suicide by the feeling that nothing matters very much. “That is what is behind all the drugs and the alcoholism and suicide – insanity, wars, everything – a sense of non-consequence.” He argued that poets had to be free from that feeling precisely because they were creators – secondary creators, of course, but still creators. “For the poet everything matters, and it matters a lot. That is where we work. Once you are there, you are hooked. If you are a real poet, you are hooked more deeply than any narcotics addict possibly could be on heroin. You are hooked on something which is life-giving rather than destructive.”

If Dickey is right, then people in the new century are going to need art more than ever. People who feared that books, paintings and plays would face extinction have discovered instead that these forms are prospering and valued precisely because they offer relief from the numb screen. New things are happening which render categories of high and lowbrow meaningless. But the language in which the arts are discussed seems not to have caught up.

Appropriately, it was Donald Trump, that most exhausting of rhetoricians, who observed, “I know words. I have the best words.” The words used to talk about art right now are as anachronistic and formulaic as the President’s. The ideas have moved on but the language to describe those ideas hasn’t. Sixty years ago, Kenneth Tynan, the most incisive theatre reviewer of my lifetime, wanted to give up being a critic because he couldn’t stand the word “relevant” any more. Who can blame him? But it’s worse today. Art’s running ahead, usage is running behind.