I first wrote this for The Independent in 1993 and then expanded it for The Musical Times.

Plus ça change…



Serious contemporary music in Britain is disappearing before our ears. Regular perusal of the monthly calendar New Notes suggests that there are now fewer concerts of new music in the whole of Britain than there were three years ago in London alone. If you ask some of its most talented and successful performers what they are doing, they reply evasively and change the subject. The explanation lies deep in our cultural fabric, and no further than the nearest polling station.




The support structure, now being broken up for scrap, took half a century to erect. Following the Beveridge Report in 1942, the non-partisan welfare state assumed responsibility for the physical well-being of all its citizens; then, from the foundation in 1945 of the Arts Council, its aesthetic education as well: public funding became a pri­mary means of support for serious art not paid for directly at the box office. On the whole, we all benefitted; the few dissenters were mostly among those who had been passed over.


The results were admitedly uneven. Since the state-appointed arbiters were often badly trained or ill-informed, their judgement was erratic. Knowing this, the artists chosen were tempted thenceforth to play it safe, on the premise that whatever mysterious quali­ties had led to their selection would likely ensure its continuation.


But there were artists who realised that they had been granted not only a public honour and a modest income but also the rare privilege of producing a substantial and coherent opus. They therefore seized the opportunity to address a hypothetical audience which they hoped would gradually come into being.




In the verbal and musical arts, the most farsighted decision was the creation of the BBC Third Programme in 1946, a year after the Arts Council. The late D.G. Bridson, one of its greatest producers, tells in Prospero and Ariel (1971) the story of its construction and demolition. It was built on the enlightened principle that the country would benefit from allowing its best intellects and talents to express themselves on the air, honestly and at length. Though there were political constraints, the artistic freedom was remarkable. Several old rooms of this noble edifice survived on Radio Three, but in the shift to cultural chitchat they are fast going the way of Scarborough’s cliffhanging hotel. (Recall for a moment that the latter had a T.S. Eliot Room: HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME)


Radio became a new art form. Working in listener-supported non-commercial Pacifica Radio in America in the early 1960s, I discovered the BBC’s features, dramas, and music programmes, a sampling of which were then available to foreign broadcasters for next to nothing via the Transcription Service. We were excited to learn that, halfway around the world, others were also taking radio seriously, and with government backing. The programmes were an inspiration and a model, both in their content and in their formal invention. Behind them was a presumption that few in charge at the BBC today venture to speak aloud: namely, that their purpose was not just to entertain, but to teach, challenge, even inspire the public.


With growing state support, this freedom from commercial constraint also touched British music. The uncompromising complexities of the Second Viennese School, heard in British concert halls, produced indigenous reverberations. These did not, alas, guarantee excellence; doctrinaire serialism soon became God’s gift to the composer with nothing to say. In the gardens of the muses, it has always taken a great deal of manure, as well as cultivation, to produce even a single rose.


Nevertheless, the arts as a whole began to reflect the professionalism, the accurate observation, and the objectivity which had long been the ideal, sometimes realised, in the scholarly and scientific disciplines of higher education. There were more and more artists with a view of life which was the product, not of ignorance, triviality, or an ulterior motive, but of habitual integrity.




It was not to last. From the 1980s, as social cohesion was first devalued, then denied, the entire cultural environment came under ideologically motivated attack. Concert halls, theatres, museums, universities, public libraries, the BBC: all were forced to remodel themselves along the lines of shopping malls.


This vendetta, still continuing, is both fiscal and philosophical. Grants have been preferentially withdrawn so as to turn allies into rivals, even enemies. Natural selection, the quasi-Darwinian model of free enterprise, has been arbitrarily imposed on centres of cooperative, interdependent activity. The latest example is the Arts Councils proposal, with the blessing of its chairman, to give London a lean, mean orchestral scene through the operation of market forces; i.e. economic cleansing. As in the City, everything’s up for grabs. After an internecine orgy of back-stabbing, the corpses will be cleared away and the New Rambo Philharmonic will be pieced together from the naturally selected winners.


This cynical game of Let’s You and Him Fight arises from the government’s transformation of the Council from benefactor to butcher. Too fastidious to wield the weapons themselves, the Council have chosen, like the trusties in the concentration camps, to make the victims do the dirty work. They may even delude themselves that they are achieving damage limitation, though some, sickened by the carnage, have had the honour to fall upon their swords.


The management consultants who have recently dismembered the Arts Council may also wish to reform the symphony orchestra. If so, they should first consult AN EFFICIENCY REPORT...from a management engineer after a visit to a symphony concert. Published in Harpers Magazine in the 1960s, it offers a thorough examination of the waste and extravagance prevalent in orchestras the world over. It reads, in part:


All 12 violins in each section were playing identical notes. The staff of these sections should be drastically cut.... It is recommended that all notes be rounded up to the nearest semi-quaver. If this were done it would be possible to use trainees and lower grade operatives....There seems to be too much repetition. Scores should be drastically pruned. It is estimated that if all redundant passages were eliminated the whole concert time could be reduced to 20 minutes...[minimalist concerts to 20 seconds—Ed.]


Frank Zappa, always helpful, made an even more radical suggestion in his film, 200 Motels (1971), recently broadcast on Channel 4. If it were carried out, the Arts Council could then get back to bricklaying in the Tate.


The government have constructed, at great expense, an experimental reorientation facility—to find a way, perhaps, to retrain these useless old musicians ... to give them a trade, a reason to exist in a modern world, a happier, more productive life. Some will enter the military, some will learn shorthand, and some will disappear in the middle of the night, on a special train theyre sending in. Its the only way, really, to bring about the final solution to the Orchestra Question.


Zappa’s Modest Proposal, perhaps mooted in the corriders of the Treasury, rings loud and clear from the outer fringes of the art world. The rift has widened between the luxury arts, with which executives and politicians entertain the clients they wish to impress, and the proletarian arts, through which a token handful of the oppressed are allowed to respond with harmless ritual fury.


Dismissed as ‘politically correct’ (a red-rag epithet with Soviet echoes), agitprop is often, alas, not an authentic statement, but a synthetic artifact churned out by the parasites of oppression, the ambitious hacks who scurry between fashionable causes. This proliferation of under-the-counter-cultures, competing noisily for their tiny share of a shrinking budget, has grown inexorably from the premise that minority artists are naturally inferior, incapable of participating in an open forum or addressing the larger concerns of suffering humanity. A friend who edited a poetry anthology had thrust upon him the ghetto categories of black and womens poetry. Wanting to be helpful, he offered a poet of his circle the option of appearing in one of them. ‘Not on your life!’ was her indignant response. ‘I’m staying with the A-team!’




Within the Arts Council are those whose restless obsession with novelty demands the promiscuous coupling of forms and genres. Many overhyped examples of crossover or multimedia are the result, not of natural affinities, but of shotgun weddings whose stillborn progeny exhibit the deformities of genetic engineering.


The fundamental betrayal, however, has been the Arts Councils burgeoning support of that ultimate oxymoron, pop culture. The validity of an art form was not always in inverse ratio to the size of its public. San Francisco Rock, for instance, whose birth in the early 1960s I had the good luck to witness, was a born-again, musician-led restructuring of the old cliches, during which relatively little money changed hands. But pop culture today, whether footgear or eargear, is a wholly manipulated synthetic product, sold through a global multi-faceted sales campaign whose purpose is to monopolise power and money—enormous amounts of both—through mass addiction: in William Burroughs memorable phrase, the face of total need.


To this end, plastic pop is designed to induce deep narcosis, the numbing of the critical faculties by loud incessant repetition. Its trendy manifestation in the concert hall is minimalism, a Heath Robinson device requiring even less talent and training to operate than rigid serialism; you merely switch it on and leave it running. With luck, its minders will choke on the fumes.




The multi-media blanket is often described carelessly as McLuhanesque. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marshall McLuhan was a cultural anthropologist, not a prophet of the media massage. His attitude to the post-Gutenberg explosion was not unlike that of Marx to capitalism. One of his most perceptive epigrams encapsulated his hope for education: a means of civil defense against media fall-out. If only he were alive today.

   McLuhan once mockingly defined art as anything you can get away with. Today the totally commercialised pop culture industry is getting away with murder--the murder of intellectual and artistic integrity--and the Arts Council are accessories before, during and after the fact.




It would be comforting to blame it all on the government, but we’re back at the polling station. In many respects our rulers are profoundly populist; their attack on artists and intellectuals, if put to a referendum, would accellerate. When a recent arts minister and professed music lover writes that ‘classical music and concert going is [sic] losing contemporary relevance’, he is confident that he has his finger on the national pulse. Like it or not, we are part of an electorate who support the worst gutter press in the world and have returned the same callous philistines to power four times in a row. As John Kenneth Galbraith diplomatically puts it, ‘We attribute to politicians what should be attributed to the community they serve.’ If the government is now unpopular, it is because the voters are reaping the fruit of their myopic self-interest. Nor would the unlikely return of some other government bring about instant utopia. A perfect parliament consisting of the wisest heads in the land, even if allowed the necessary laws and taxes, would be confronted with a long, painful operation to repair the massive injuries that have been inflicted on our entire infrastructure—moral, intellectual, physical, and economic. There’s an old Polish proverb: ‘It is easier to turn a pig into sausage than to turn sausage into a pig.’




The social fabric of Britain is in tatters; we might as well confront the fact. When times are difficult, the arts are the first to suffer; when times improve, the arts are the last to benefit. Throughout history, patronage has been a seminal problem. The uncompromising artist has rarely been granted a job for life with a secure income. Joyce did not write Ulysses and Finnigans Wake reclining in the cosy hammock of an Arts Council grant; a handful of modestly funded but far-sighted patrons paid the bills.


Even in the worst of times, serious art remains, for some, totally indispensable. As the halcyon days recede, artists will reexamine the wellsprings of their creativity and the means of reaching a committed audience. Musicians with an inner compulsion to com­municate will come together and perform each others work—free, if necessary. Private houses, community halls, or the low-rent anterooms of pubs and cafes will become their venues, as they already are for Britains best poets, who for years have neither had nor expected state support. The audiences will be small. But, as Ezra Pound observed forty years ago,


It seems that only a few persons occupied about the temples, at least in Rome, were enough to keep alive the cult of the old gods. The preservation of verities ... is a great deal more interesting than is commonly supposed.


 John Whiting is an international sound designer and recordist who has lived and worked in and from London since 1966. (c)2020


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