The source of inspiration

Sunday, November 14. 2010

A couple of weekends ago, I went to the Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A. I've not been to the V&A before, much to my embarrassment, even though I've spent a total of 13 years living in London, so we also wandered around the rest of the museum before becoming exhausted. The Diaghilev exhibition was, I felt, excellent and well worth a trip.

Serge Diaghilev was the artistic director of the Ballets Russes at the start of the 20th Century. The period from 1909-1929 is known as the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, during which time Diaghilev commissioned ballets from the world's leading composers, most famously leading to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which brough the Parisian audience at its primiere to riot, so offended were they by the concept of a girl dancing herself to death sacrificially, in order to secure the return of Spring. Later works commissioned and performed by the Ballets Russes had costumes and scenery created by Picasso. The Ballets Russes pushed dancing technique, the development of classical music, and the boundaries of ballet as a whole with such success that the world's leading composers, artists and dancers were drawn to collaberate with the Ballets Russes.

Whilst the Rite of Spring may have offended its audiences at its first performances by not only its thematic material but also its aural complexities, it has since become one of the best known compositions of the 20th Century, with Stravinsky's other ballet scores following not too far behind. Thus over time, and frequently without the dancing, Stravinsky's music has grown on audiences and become thoroughly acceptable fare. As a musician myself, the energy, power and emotion of much of what has become the well-known 20th Century compositions I find extraordinarily evocative.

The premiere of the Rite of Spring was in 1913. That was 97 years ago. What will be the corresponding exhibition at the V&A in 97 years from now?

The prospect of a V&A exhibition celebrating the work of Simon Cowell somewhat terrifies me. I remember an Art teacher at school, when questioned as to why there wasn't a modern day Monet suggesting that many artists were going straight into popular music. John Lennon, for example, went to the Liverpool College of Art, before going on to form the Beatles. It is however difficult to see the connection between many of the exhibits at the Tate Modern and popular music: the dearth of originality and expression in any "Pop Music" at all is in sharp contrast to Modern Art, regardless of personal tastes of modern performance art. The commercialisation and packaging of popular music is no doubt a substantial factor here, but not one I want to dwell on now.

Instead, there is maybe a strong possibility that such an exhibition, in 97 years time, might choose to celebrate film directors: Polanksi, Kubric, Scorsese, maybe Oliver Stone. It seems possible, even likely, that even as classical music and modern art developed to speak ever more directly to audiences about the nature of humanity, film nevertheless overtook them as the dominant story-telling medium. Certainly the advent of the TV would have aided this, but the sheer ease of comprehension and non-existant barrier of entry makes the format vastly more accessible. For example, whilst a basic understanding of Tchaikovsky's personal life and the contested nature of his death explains much when listening to his 6th and final Symphony (premiered just 9 days before he died), it is not as clear to me that any knowledge at all of World War II is necessary to better understand Polansky's The Pianist. From the sublime to the ridiculous, whether it's Hillcoat's The Road or any of the Harry Potter films, film as a story telling medium seems to be more successful in the absence of contextual knowledge than other art forms. There are of course exceptions: Stone's Natural Born Killers may not make a great deal of sense at the best of times, but as a commentary and reductio ad absurdum of the thirst to be ever more shocked, it is singularly effective.

It is then extremely interesting that in the week that the government's spending cuts are revealed to hit arts and humanities at University disproportionately hard, a celebrated school headmaster speaks of the importance of protecting the extra curricular activities, such as theatre trips and visiting art galleries as being essential in narrowing the class gap. The idea that exposure and subsequent appreciation of music, art, live acting and other cultural experiences aids class-levelling, is a powerful one. Looking back on my own experience at secondary school, I have absolutely no idea why we studied so much maths and comparatively so little art: the idea that any pupil leaving school at 16 gains from being able to do trigonometry but does not gain from being able to enjoy some Mozart, or from being able to tell a Rembrandt from a Picasso, seems absurd.

The problem though is always going to be the difficulty in quantifying the gain from such cultural consciousness. However, given the complete absence of any research-led setting of school curricula, it seems bizarre that the arts as a whole should be dismissed under these terms. The reliance on parents to supplement their children's education in these areas is shocking: London is the only city in the world that can sustain so many professional orchestras, and in the BBC Proms has a classical music festival that is in its own right a tourist attraction. In the West End, it has theatre productions and musicals which are the envy of any city in the world, with the possible exception of New York's Broadway. Yet this cultural strength is apparently so worthless that the provision for education of the Arts and Drama at school tends to be reliant on extra-curricular involvement, and University courses that produce the next generation of actors, musicians and artists suffer horrific cuts.

Whilst Tim Minchin's Mitsubishi Colt beat-poem may ironically mock the assumed enlightenment that a career as a musician may bring over material wealth, there is a stronger point too to be made about the nature of higher education as a whole: it is increasingly assumed that the purpose of a university education is to allow graduates to command higher salaries. That entirely dismisses the original point of universities, that of being able to provide an environment for education, for education's own sake. In the current economic climate, the idealistic principles of higher education certainly do not sit well with the harsh realities of attempting to run a business such as a university. However, the judgement that subsidising the education of future stockbrokers is more valuable than future artists, actors and musicians, is highly questionable.

As David Cameron likes to tell us, we are indeed all in this together; yet some seem more "in this together" than others. The 50,000 students that protested this week are certainly going to be "in this together" more than Cameron and indeed a substantial proportion of his cabinet, containing 18 millionaires. If arts education is indeed a class-leveller, then Cameron should consider the effect of cutting it back: his descendants may not take kindly to the thought that the V&A exhibition on Simon Cowell would have been instead to the greatest playwright the country had ever produced, were it not for the misguided priorities of their forefather.


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