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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

This age of unenlightenment

By Norman Lebrecht / June 5, 2002

So how was it for you? Fifty years ago, when the Queen came to the throne, we were promised a second Elizabethan era - a thrilling renaissance of national creativity unwitnessed since the heyday of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Tallis and Byrd.

Britain, bled white by the war, was artistically surgent. Benjamin Britten, Laurence Olivier, Dylan Thomas and Henry Moore achieved world renown. Angry new waves of expression were rumbling, ready to break. In 1953, Francis Bacon in London and Samuel Beckett in Paris, both born in Ireland, presented Pope Innocent X and Waiting for Godot, two works that instantaneously altered the recognised form of their respective arts.

Kingsley Amis, with Lucky Jim, ripped up the ration book of fictional austerity. John Osborne, close behind, fomented generational war with Look Back in Anger; then came Pinter's debut, The Birthday Party. Almost before the Queen could catch her breath, the arts in England had stripped off bourgeois restraint and changed into something much less comfortable - an attitude dangerously recalling the edgy ferment of the early Weimar Republic.

Walls were kicked down, foundations laid. The 1960s "London School" of David Hockney and RB Kitaj, rattling the Royal Academy rafters, granted (little did they know) iconoclastic permissions to the unborn New British Art of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. The Beatles in the mid-Sixties bucked the norms of pop music, bending dance rhythms to socio-critical lyrics. Their instant conquest of America blazed a trail for the Rolling Stones and other English exotica.

England, under Elizabeth II, reversed its balance of cultural payments. A net importer for centuries, it swiftly became a global powerhouse of art and ideas. Architecture, uncertain after late-imperial Lutyens, broke new ground with Richard Rogers's Pompidou Centre for Paris in 1976 and Norman Foster's 1981 Frankfurt Athletics Stadium. Twice as many English novels are now translated into French as vice versa. Andrew Lloyd Webber is bigger in Berlin than any German composer in London. England exudes a creative confidence that has eluded, for instance, its heavy industries and national football teams.

Here endeth, however, the hymn of selfpraise. Happy and glorious as it may seem in the afterglow of the Buckingham Palace galas, the renaissance has been rigorously restrictive. The commercial ephemeralities of pop, fashion and movies have displaced-culture in our homes. The mentally enfeebling spread of television has fostered a passivity that positively scorns enlightenment. Alongside its cultural ascendance, England has cultivated the highest illiteracy rates in western Europe, as well as the ugliest cities. Children leave our schools never having heard of Bach or Leonardo, their fertile minds stuffed with three-bar tunes and electronic games. Many will reach the end of their lives never having set foot in the National Gallery or Royal National Theatre, never having glimpsed the opportunity to transcend the ordinary.

Half a century ago, England hungered for news of Margot Fonteyn's bruised ankle as it does now for David Beckham's foot. Today there is not one ballerina, not even the blessed Darcey Bussell, who can make a jot of difference to the national morale. Advances in art - or in science, for that matter - are confined to a knowing minority. How many of us can name the two Englishmen who cracked the DNA codes in, as it happens, the year of Her Majesty's accession?

The causes of decline are self-evident: collapses in educational values, local authority support for public libraries and the innately religious urge for self-betterment. Public broadcasting, a British invention, abandoned Reithian ideals of popular elevation and locked us in the Orwellian horror house of Big Brother. The critic Milton Shulman used to claim in these pages that ours was The Least Worst Television in the World. That title is no longer tenable; the nation has been lobotomised and abused by its media.

What the Queen has reigned over is a profound cultural schism between the owners of knowledge and those who will never look above the two-dimensional glass bowl in the corner of their living rooms. A comparison with the first Elizabeth is horrifically instructive. The Tudors commissioned magniloquent infusions of music and poetry for their breakaway Church of England. The Windsors' tele-mediated legacy will be a diet of soap operas. Gone is the early Weimar effervescence; culturally, we are becoming a nation of Stepford Wives. Even as I write, our pop music has fallen out of the US charts and imaginative fiction has been reclaimed by the French and Americans. The English renaissance, if ever there was one, is over.

But hang on: the reign has still some way to go. Seismic monitors of cultural mood report subtle changes. The Queen, since the death of her mother, has been getting out more, mingling with artists, throwing open her private gallery. A signal has gone out that Elizabeth II greatly treasures the arts. The Jubilee concerts, composed of nostalgia, invited mass participation. The weekend's events will not be quickly forgotten. There is something in the air that suggests renewal.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001