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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

How to hook the next generation

By Norman Lebrecht / December 3, 2008

The last time I discussed cultural policy with Boris Johnson in April 2004, he had just been appointed Tory arts spokesman and was spouting a knee-jerk, true-blue mantra of cutting theatre subsidies and restoring museum charges.

Well, four and a half years is longer than many lifetimes in politics and it’s good to see that the Mayor of London has learned a thing or two along the cycle lane to Damascus. The policy document he published last week under the title Cultual Metropolis amounts to a full-scale conversion to the Keynesian creed, which believes that investing in the arts is not a waste of tax money but a proven method of repairing society and fostering self-respect.

‘My job,’ said the Mayor, ‘is to encourage all manner of artistic expression, in the knowledge that culture is not just an add-on.’ Munira Mirza, his director of cultural policy, affirmed even more passionately that she wants ‘young people to get every opportunity to experience culture, to understand it, and to know it is for them.’

Beyond the jargon and the political keywords there are early signs of practical intent - an Oyster card that lets school students into arts events and a public appeal for musical instruments to be loaned or donated to young people. ‘Brave with funding and bold with vision’, Cultural Metropolis may not be on many reviewers’ Christmas bookslists, but the creative industries - locally, nationally and globally - will find it a jolly good read.

Gone are Mayor Ken’s street parties and Trafalgar Square jamborees, his grants to small ethnic crafts and dodgy garage groups. Gone, too, is the political obligation to pay lip-service to a spurious ideal of anyone-can-do-it equal opportunity, the dumb-down trend that has reached its nadir in the talent show wave that has engulfed public broadcasting. Talent shows are symptomatic of a civilisation on its last legs, the idle equivalent of gladiatorial combat, thumbs up for the victors, nothing to do with art.

Neither the winners nor the runners-up in the BBC’s Last Choir Standing sang together or in tune for very long, and the leading contender in Strictly Come Dancing had to drop out when his clodhopping threatened to suggest that the BBC was driving national performance standards back into dark ages.

London, thank heavens, has set its sights higher, and not a moment too soon. The Mayor has realised that we are world capital of culture which employs 12 percent of its workforce, more than half a million people, in arts-related industries. Three out of four of the city’s 150 million annual daytrippers say they have been drawn here by its cultural attractions. But tourism is almost an incidental benefit in present circumstances.

The Mayor and the Prime Minister are going to wake up one morning quite soon to find that, with the collapse of financial services, cultural production is now the biggest generator of national revenue, encompassing live music and online museums, small pottery kilns and Harry Potter films, advertising and choreography, book publishing, curtatorial expertise, art auctions and the making of medieval instruments.

If there is one sector that is going to haul us out of the depths of recession in the coming years it is the world of arts and ideas, and few economists have any doubt as to what John Maynard Keynes would have told us to do right now. Invest in the arts and open an opera house, he advised Winston Churchill when the country was flat-broke in 1945. ‘We look forward to a time when the theatre and the concert hall and the gallery will be a living element in everyone’s upbringing,’ Keynes announced to an austerity nation. That vision has found an unwitting echo in the Mayor of London’s timely new policy of encouraging culture for all, residents and visitors alike.

Will it work, though, and is it enough? One uncomfortable morning in the company of a bored and bewildered school class at Covent Garden or the National Gallery suggest that much needs to be done before vision can be translated into effective action. There is a deep-rooted disconnect in our system of arts provision.

Labour, when it came to power, promised joined-up government. Chris Smith, its first culture secretary, set up a body called Creativity, Culture and Education which spent ten years getting up and running and will now spend £75 million over the next two years trying to join up its own three nouns. Like most good political intentions, all that has been created so far is a Newcastle-based supplementary bureacracy, which does little to enlighten a generation raised on the idiocy of BBC talent shows.

The remedy most vociferously recommended for our breakdown between arts and education is that of the Venezuelan Sistema, which over 30 years has turned gun-toting slum kids into world-class orchestral musicians. Lord Adonis, the schools minister, launched a £3m English Sistema last summer, aimed at giving underprivileged children one-on-one access to teachers and players in London and Manchester. Scotland has a parallel scheme for infants in the first three classes. Results are keenly awaited, though I have my doubts whether a method tailored to the deadly barrios of Caracas will necessarily apply to social-security families in Catford.

An alternative model is China, where upwards of 30 million children are learning to play the piano, inspired by parental exhortation and the glittering stardom of Lang Lang and Yundi Li. Can you imagine millions of British kids clamouring to become conductors after seeing Sue Perkins win the Maestro contest? Yeah, right.

Oddly enough, Britain was once a pioneer in music education. Benjamin Britten wrote A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and Let’s Make an Opera, and animateurs from London orchestras are much in demand in Germany and Japan, teaching young people the thrills they can derive from the many-layered complexities of a musical chord. Back home, meanwhile, we have lost the plot.

Yet the solution is staring us in the face, a short hop across the North Sea, where one small nation regularly beats the world in maths and physics results and yields pretty good musicians besides. In Finland, they teach kids to sing and play an instrument on the first day at school. Practising is part of homework and composing a song comes as naturally as drawing a face or writing a sentence. The Finns are not musical by reason of environment or descent. It is by letting tiny tots get their hands on music that they have become a nation which punches consistently above its meagre five-million weight in science and technology, art and design. The mobile phone in your pocket is a product of Finnish education. Simple, really.

It is, of course, beyond the powers of the Mayor of London to reform primary education and it may be that our inner-city classes are too large and ethnically diverse to respond to the intense heat of the Finnish musical sauna. But if we want to awaken creative impulses in the next generation – and, by Keynes, we need to – our schools must allow infants to discover music and art before they become irredeemably jaded by the depredations of mass media. From day one, let the children sing.


Cultural Metropolis is carefully worded to guarantee continuity and avoid outcries from minority groups. But amid the political verbiage, there are ten new ideas that draw a clear blue line of Mayoral intentions:

1 Encourage Londoners to donate unused musical instruments; get them into the hands of young people.

2 Don’t patronise teenagers by directing them to hip-hop and pop music. Aim high.

3 Celebrate a London Film Day, with added attractions for outer boroughs and free tickets all round.

4 Offer financial support for internships in selected arts organisations.

5 Cut down the red tape in arts grant applications.

6 Promote London internationally as an unrivalled hive of creativity.

7 Spend £1.4 million on a Cultural Skills Fund for Olympic-related projects

8 Plan a 2009 heritage festival, The Story of London

9 And a 2011 celebration of 60 years since the Festival of Britain

10 Give planning consent to creatively challenging new buildings that brighten up the skyline.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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