BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal
« Previous | Main | Next »

Boris and culture

Razia Iqbal | 17:02 UK time, Monday, 24 November 2008

boris_226_getty.jpgHere's a thing: Boris Johnson thinks that one of the most important reasons to support the arts is that "they are an end in themselves. They are not just an add-on to your administration".

The Mayor of London was launching his new Cultural Strategy Group at City Hall, chaired by Iwona Blazwick of the Whitechapel Gallery. He said his policy on the arts was that it wasn't elitist, but was democratic and anti-dumbing down. And he declared that arts and culture can save the economy.

I suspect many would just scoff at that last claim, even though creative industries in the capital account for 12% of employment and bought £21 billion to the capital's output in 2002.

It is good that Johnson thinks the arts are an end in themselves, but it's a pity that some of what he says is likely to create uneccessary divisions between high and low culture. He thinks that institutions should stop patronising young people by giving them hip-hop and movies, and give them access to the fine art instead.

His chief of arts and cultural strategy, Munira Mirza argues that it is too often presumed that young people will only like art they can immediately relate to. But what's wrong with offering kids hip-hop or involvement in film-making, something that might grab them immediately? I'm not saying we shouldn't offer them Shakespeare and opera, too, but don't be surprised if they don't all embrace Hamlet or La Traviata with the same amount of enthusiasm as making a short film about their friends dancing, for instance.

Once a child latches onto the possibility of creativity and the possibility of their imagination, who's to say that the leap from hip-hop to Shakespeare is that huge?

It's the imposition of a particular set of criteria that stifles creativity of any kind, surely?


  • Comment number 1.

    How about you step back for just one second and realise that the step from Shakespeare to hip-hop is probably a more worthy challenge? But yet, 'elite' art gets the giants share of public subsidy for no good reason other than the political elite are culturally blinkered and living in the 17th (if generous 18th) Century.

    Enough already with this high and low art nonsense. I personally hate opera with a vengance - and ballet come to mention it - but find hip-hop and all its diverse offspring utterly compelling.

    Its not the kids who are the problem here. its those who think they gain social status by 'liking' culture we all know they really cannot stand.

  • Comment number 2.

    The problem is that low art is just that: low, unchallenging, appealing to the hard of thinking. It may stimulate base emotions but does not challenge the higher faculties. It encourages the lazy and gives unnecessary prestige to the mediochre by labelling it 'art'.

    Those who really compare modern children's music to the great classics are the same simpletons that encourage consideration of Eastenders with Shakespeare in classrooms, that accept the low grade hackery of the newspapers with the real wordsmithing of the likes of Dickens and that equate the doggerel witticisms of modern perfomers with the poetry of the Masters.

    It all springs from their own insecurity. A sneaking worry that they're not as smart as they'd like to be and so they refuse to demand effort and involvement to appreciate real culture from children.

    Make it simple.
    Make it accessible
    Keep it stupid.

    Then everyone can feel like they're "doing art but not, like, the posh stuff". They label it elite when in fact they should be labelling themselves as idle.

    Perhaps we should bring back bear-baiting and witch-burning. We could label them as art and then everyone is happy.

  • Comment number 3.

    What qualifies art as either high or low? Is it perhaps the cost of listening/watching/partaking in one? Or the perceived cost of the invisible gold threads used on the Emperor's new robe?

    So-called high art only became so because only those with means could afford to commission art in the days when the creative had to be patronised by the rich in other to survive.

    So-called low art is so because it is accessible to the masses rich and poor, illiterate and learned.

    It isn't about simplicity. It is about creativity. And arguing about Eastenders as against Shakespeare is choosing to forget that Shakespeare played at the Globe ( a publicly accessible venue) and not the Royal Palaces. One could argue that Eastenders today is what Shakespeare plays was in its day. It was for the masses as Eastenders is for the masses today.

  • Comment number 4.

    What's wrong with offering kids hip-hop and film-making? Only two things.

    First, no matter how deprived their backgrounds or how limited their cultural horizons, most children will, at least, dimly realise that popular music and film exist. Can the same be said for Bach's cantatas, the tragedies of John Webster or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch? But of course this art 'belongs' to these children - it's part of their heritage as human beings - as much as it does to any other children. Why teach children what they already know, rather than what they don't? Isn't that 'stifling' in itself?

    Secondly, and rather more grimly, it's almost certainly true that not all children are going to be offered enhanced involvement with hip-hop as a centrepiece of their cultural education. Some children will, by reasons of background or, worse still, ethnicity, be assumed to find hip-hop naturally 'relevant'. Meanwhile, others - for instance, those in private education - will be assumed to be ready for Schubert, Marlowe and the Van Eyck brothers. Children aren't generally stupid, whatever their backgrounds, and low expectations, ethnic or social stereotyping and outright racism will carry their own message about who does, and doesn't, deserve an 'access all areas' pass to the riches of our shared civilisation.

  • Comment number 5.

    A refreshing view from Boris. Art is as much about enabling an individual to express themselves, so whether they do it in the medium of oil painting, mime or rap is not really the issue. I would argue that to divide art in to "high" and "low" is an old-fashioned view best consigned to the past. We are privileged to be free to consider instead what we do and don't like, and part of an education in the arts should be to enable people to express what they like and why, and to discover the form of art that speaks to them.

  • Comment number 6.

    Boris is biggest joke to British politic.

  • Comment number 7.

    Boris is absolutely right to promote art as an end in itself. For too long, every art gallery and museum in the UK has been increasingly subject to dreary requirements to pack itself with cafes and tacky shops, and to conduct 'outreach programmes' to da yoof.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.