Wednesday, 3 June 2015

All Arts Are Equal, So Why Are Some More Equal Than Others?

We live in a time saturated with culture and this abundance of content is bound to spark debate. There has been a divide between high and low brow culture since before anyone can remember. People have always tried to seem more intelligent or more refined than their peers and one of the ways the elite tried to elevate themselves from the masses was through culture. The rich dismissed art that the poor enjoyed as being vulgar or unsophisticated and barricaded off the culture they approved of as being for educated (read wealthy) people only. This sentiment was sadly also echoed by many artists – Byron for example was highly elitist and believed that his poetry should only be read by the kind of people he felt would fully appreciate it, which didn’t include the poor and unwashed. It is this kind of cultural elitism that creates the legacy of canon that we see today.

This is most obviously seen in literature – there are certain books you expect to be taught in schools and at university, books that have gravitas, whose names spark recognition, books that make a loud thud whenever you put them down: real books. These books make up the kind of reading lists that haven’t changed much in the past half century. They include books whose status is seen as absolute; books like Tom Jones, Jude the Obscure and anything and everything by Jane Austen. These books are seen as worthy because they always have been. Someone said they were definitively “good” books and so they are taught as such to generations after generations of students who go on to believe not only that there is such a thing as a universally “good” book, but also that the examples of such presented to them are, regardless of whether they were enjoyable, part of that upper crust of literature. This approach to culture is stifling. It means that any new works will always be trying to emulate the old ones in order to be considered canon worthy and it also means that kids have been learning the same old books for centuries. Of course nowadays there is more diversity in the curriculum and most universities have more contemporary texts along with rediscovered books previously considered unworthy of attention alongside the classics on their syllabuses, but the reverence for the canon texts still prevails. It’s why we have the term “modern classic”, because even if a new book meets the quality standards of whoever is deciding this sort of thing, it still won’t be allowed the same status as the just plain “classics” – again regardless of whether or not it’s more fun to read.

The same kind of bizarre elitism exists throughout all forms of media and art. Even the people who love contemporary literature and sing the praises of the celebrity autobiography will still often turn their noses up at comics and graphic novels. Those in the art world may wax lyrical about established artists from Michelangelo to Tracey Emin, but still dismiss art at local craft fairs for not being up to their standards. Television is also a serial offender. HBO is the for the educated elite and reality TV is populist nonsense and if you prefer RuPaul’s Drag Race over Breaking Bad you’re not allowed in the clubhouse. The thing is no one really seems to know who it is that decides what’s good and what’s bad, what’s entertaining and culturally relevant and what’s merely entertaining. Of course there will always be art that is more challenging or intelligent than others and criticism is invaluable when it comes to engaging with and questioning our culture. But the problem comes when instead of just saying what we like and what we don’t, what we think is good and what we think has problems, we judge other people for enjoying something we don’t, and we claim that something isn’t worthy of anyone’s attention if it doesn’t meet our own personal set of standards.

Art is by its nature subjective. One person looking at a painting may see and feel something completely different to the person stood next to them and we all have our own preferences when it comes to the culture we consume. Everyone knows this yet we so often get caught in the trap of taste and of judgment. Even fans of so called lowbrow culture will fall into referring to their love of The Real Housewives as a guilty pleasure, instead of just saying they enjoy it and they don’t see why anything else matters. It’s important to have culture that is challenging, culture that pushes boundaries and asks more of its audience than just passive enjoyment, but it is also crucial that we appreciate all culture for what it is – entertainment – regardless of whether or not we think it worthy of our personal time. This in no way means we have to like everything we see. I’m a passionate believer in the importance of good, interrogative criticism which examines why we like the things we like and conversely, what bothers us so much about the things we hate. It’s vital to keep questioning things, to call something out when it’s offensive or negative and to keep on asking for better, but that doesn’t mean we can continue to dismiss art out of hand for being something we personally don’t enjoy. Value comes in all shapes and sizes and though we may roll our eyes every time a new season of X Factor starts, we have to remember the enjoyment that the millions of people out there who love it get every episode. We have to allow ourselves to just sit and enjoy something. Culture doesn’t always have to be complex and insightful to have value. You don’t have to come out of a show feeling changed and philosophical for it to have mattered, you can just have had a bloody good time.

When you look at the programme for a theatre like LDH you can see how far reaching culture can be. In the next month alone we have an Elvis impersonator, a jazz singer, a contemporary dance company, hip hop tinged performance poets and even a medium on our stage. We have shows that will appeal to a mass market of people just looking for a good night out, and niche pieces that only a select group of fans will attend. We believe that both are just as important as each other. We need to have a space where smaller less populist art can generate an audience next to sell out gigs and household names. The cultural elitists will often bemoan the lack of attention their favourites are getting, but refuse to recognise that the best way to get people interested in more diverse art is to embrace the popular and mass marketed alongside it. Exclusion never does anyone any good and it’s this kind of snobbery that often puts people off trying out something new in the fear that they won’t be accepted or they might need to know something esoteric to be allowed in. We want to be a place where everyone feels welcome and where everyone’s tastes are represented and celebrated, whether they’re seen as artsy enough or not. We want people to come and enjoy themselves seeing whatever takes their fancy and to feel able to pop in and try something new and unexpected too. We want art to be just that: Art. Plain and simple. We’re here to entertain you and if you come out smiling, we’re happy. 

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