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The Blog of Adam Price AS/MP, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

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Archive for August 10th, 2009

10th August 2009

Democratic culture and the arts

It is good to see that my critique of WNO continues to generate debate.  In the latest contribution to debate – where else but in the land of Song could opera become an issue of contemporary controversy – Newport Lib Dem activist Jeremy Townsend lambasts my ‘protective and parochial” call for the W and the N in the WNO to ring out more clearly.  There is much to take issue with in Mr Townsend’s piece:

Firstly, I think that his dismissal of the role of ‘national’ culture - that he dismisses as ‘national flag-waving” - in the classical musical tradition betrays an ignorance of the history of music in general and opera in particular.  Verdi’s operas were synonymous with the movement for Italian unification - so much so that the chorus of the Hebrew slaves – the unforgettable Va pensiero - became the anthem for Italian independence.  Indeed the connection between the Romantic movement in music and liberal nationalism (or national liberationism) was a consistent theme throughout the 19th century.  In Czechoslovakia Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek all produced operas in the Czech language - while incorporating progressive musical ideas - and saw the creation of a distinctively Czech opera – which they more or less created from scratch – as part of as wider project of Czech national consciousness building.  The earliest – and most dramatic precursor for the role of music – and opera in particular – in nation-building was Auber’s La Muette de Portici – that railed against foreign oppression and so sparked the Belgian Revolution of 1830.  Other examples though abound in Norway (Grieg), Finland (Sibelius) and Poland (Chopin).  Though not Romantic nationalists in the same way, it is very difficult to imagine many of the great Russian  (Mussorgsky; Rimsky-Korsakov; Tchaikovsky; Shostakovich) or Austro-German (Beethoven; Wagner; Strauss) composers without reference to their national contexts.  In the UK context, the opening piece by the Saddler’s Wells Opera (that later became the English National Opera) after the end of WWII, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the first English opera since Purcell to achieve international acclaim, was a deliberate attempt to re-found an avowedly English operatic tradition.         

Mr Townsend’s attitude to Welsh cultural production as ‘culturally  regressive’ involving ‘male voice choirs and traditional Welsh costumes” and Eisteddfods “held in the middle of nowhere” (a reference to the Bala) that are less deserving of public support it seems than ‘more ambitious’ cultural forms like jazz, sounds as if it has been lifted straight from the pages of a Matthew Arnold diatribe circa 1850.  It also sits uncomfortably with his defence of the WNO’s programming policy which, though it can be accused of many things, is certainly not path-breaking and innovative.  Instead, as even the WNO themselves would freely admit, because of the need to ensure a 85% ticket sales target for every production, it concentrates exclusively on the classics of the opera cannon.  It is by definition a very conservative repertoire.  What I am calling for is more original work – yes, commissioned by Welsh-born or Welsh-based composers but not necessarily on stereotypically Welsh themes (whatever that means) featuring people with pointy hats.  Personally I would rather have a modern opera on a modern theme by a contemporary Welsh composer than the two last commissions by the WNO which have been by a Scottish (MacMillan) and English (Maxwell-Davies) composer on stories based on Welsh medieval folklore. 

Where I fundamentally disagree with Mr Townsend is that politicians or citizens should not have a ‘political’ debate about the quality or relevance or purposes of publicly-funded art, nor indeed culture in general.  It was that greatest of all our cultural thinkers, Raymond Williams, that taught us that ‘culture is ordinary” – i.e. it is not some separate, privileged, rarefied, autonomous sphere of human activity – it is part and parcel of everyday life and there is no reason therefore why it should not be the subject of ordinary politics.  The much-lauded ‘arms-length’ model of British arts policy – and the myth of impartiality on which it is based – which Mr Townsend defends – is just as subjective and value-laded as anything that I or any Culture Minister (and on this name-change I would agree with him – a Department of Heritage was a Thatcherite neologism, why on earthare we perpetuating it?) might say.  The difference is that an arms-length model is unaccountable and so prone to elitism in  the type of art produced or the audience served.  That surely is not what democratic devolution was meant to be about.  “God help the minister that meddles with art” said Macaulay.  For art read culture; God Help Us if a Welsh nationalist minister didn’t.