Sublimating beauty within the cultural landscape: diversity, democratisation and deconstruction in the arts today

by The Editor

Robert Servaud assesses the multicultural and anti-British composition of Arts Council England. Its emphasis on diversity and recent dropping of the English National Opera illustrate its antagonistic attitude towards indigenous culture.

“Championing, developing and investing in the arts and culture in England ”. Thus reads the banner on the website of Arts Council England. Note the substitution of “in” England as opposed to “of” England. This single statement sums up the problem that lies at the heart of current arts funding in this country namely a denial of a national cultural identity in favour of one which celebrates democratisation of the creative process and multicultural diversity.

In a recent speech entitled, ‘Delivering on Diversity , Sir Peter Bazalgette (Chair, Arts Council England) placed responsibility on every funded arts organisation to ensure their programmes reflected the communities which they served:

“We must embrace diversity genuinely to achieve our mission of great art and culture for everyone”.

There then followed a panel discussion comprised of the following individuals: Dawn Walton, Artistic Director, Eclipse Theatre Company; Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director, English National Ballet; Skinder Hundal, Chief Executive, New Art Exchange; Maria Oshodi, Artistic Director and CEO, Extant; Rufus Norris, Director Designate, National Theatre. When one explores the background of each member of the panel, the political and cultural bias within the Arts Council’s collective mind-set becomes apparent. Take for example, Tamara Rojo, a ballerina trained in Spain whose parents were committed anti-Franco campaigners and political radicals . Rojo recently made this comment in relation to the role of the traditional ballerina, “Just a beautiful body? That bores me to death”. The other panel members hold similar views as in the case of Skinder Hundal who has delivered on the theme of ‘the creative case for diversity’. Not exactly a broad cross-section of panel views but one which is culturally selective and exclusive. These individuals are responsible for shaping the direction of future arts provision in England. The end result is quite clearly obvious and the process towards this end goal is one which will seek to erase all trace of national identity:

“We will support diverse leaders across the arts with the support and encouragement to develop creative content, and the opportunity to take national leadership roles in contributing to the Creative Case for Diversity. This will include taking on mentoring roles for the next generation of a diverse arts and culture leadership” (‘Diversity in arts and culture across England’, Arts Council UK)

The most worrying aspect of this trend is a shift away from the traditional view of multiculturalism as one which benefits minorities wanting to maintain distinct cultures , protected from the pressure to assimilate to the majority culture towards the creation of a new majority culture founded upon the recognition and celebration of diversity. Those forms of traditional artistic expression which form the foundation of our national identity, once depleted of financial resources to ensure their effective communication through both educational and cultural channels, will be swept away on this new wave of multiculturalism. What lies ahead is a future arts landscape, democratised, diversified and dumded-down. The opponents of this new multiculturalism will in the words of H.E.Baber be labelled as “atypical, inauthentic, or even self-hating” (‘The Multicultural Mystique: the liberal case against diversity’)

The democratisation of the tools of creativity in this brave new world of ‘art for all’ results in a de-emphasis on beauty which has already been hinted at in the earlier comment by the ballerina, Tamara Rojo (“Just a beautiful body? That bores me to death”). In music this can be heard in the de-construction and fragmentation of traditional pitch, harmonic and rhythmic relationships where the disconnected remnants of these structural parameters wander as lost souls in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Devoid of any real musical and emotional meaning, the listener’s only interpretational recourse is to read the commentaries provided by their creators to support the hidden structures within the music. One such example is to be found in the work of the composer, Aaron Cassidy, whose work perfectly encapsulates the mind-set of one who seeks to eradicate the traditional musical object in favour of a new output which emphasises the significance of noise. Cassidy’s recent book, ‘Noise in and as music’, focuses on this very aspect of musical creation and the sublimation of traditional melody and harmony in favour of anti-music processes. The program note for Cassidy’s vocal piece, “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips (2003-2006)” provides the perfect example of the composer as apologist for a work which requires an unveiling of its hidden processes for these to be made apparent to the listener. The concept and idea underpinning the music here appears to be as of equal importance as the final audible output. Fragmentation and destruction appear to be the ultimate goal of the composer. Form devoid of beauty, symmetry and balance are replaced with a descent into an abyss of sonic chaos:

“The piece directly confronts the notion of translation and all of the various ruptures and lacunae implicit in the process of transferring meaning between (and within) languages. It is about fragmentation, about the decoupling of sound from meaning, about a linguistic “play” (with a fully intentional if reticent nod towards Derrida) moving between sound, meaning, syntax, and language through various fissures and explosions and leaps and obstacles. The three texts run simultaneously throughout the work, and the cross-cutting between these linguistic strata sometimes probes meaning (jumping between languages through words with the same meaning/implication but clearly differing phonemic content), sometimes sound (through words with similar sonic content but different meaning (often quite humorously so), and sometimes both (between French-English cognates). Quite crucially, with the exception of one rather brief passage, all of this is done with an effort towards ensuring that the texts never devolve to the point of mere sound, mere phonemes – despite the extensive fragmentation (of words, of text, of meaning), their identity as words and as language remains more or less intact” (Program note by the composer)

In this new musical landscape beauty has been erased and replaced by a system of hidden sonic codes and notational symbols whose meaning and practice is the preserve of the few who have been invited into this inner sanctum of conspiratorial noise-making. Cassidy let it be noted has received financial support in the form of grants, stipends and commissions from the following organisations: Südwestrundfunk, the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music, Haupstadtkulturfonds Berlin, New York Foundation for the Arts, ASCAP, the American Music Center, Arts and Humanities Research Council, British Council, and PRSF 20×12/London Cultural Olympiad 2012. Would those composers working within more traditional compositional forms receive similar financial support? The cultural map for the future is now very much in place.

Whilst such modernist/multi-cultural creative activity continues to be in receipt of significant funding via Arts Council England, the erasure of more traditional forms of artistic expression from the cultural map of these Isles continues apace. A prime example is to be seen in the case of English National Opera who have been dropped from the Arts Council's national portfolio of organisations for 2015-18 and placed "under special funding arrangements". Althea Efunshile, acting chief executive of Arts Council England, has recently commented: "No one is doubting that English National Opera is capable of extraordinary artistic work but we have serious concerns about their governance and business model and we expect them to improve or they could face the removal of our funding." English National Opera is placed in a situation where the only solution is for traditional operatic programming to be replaced by more commercial ventures complemented by making the membership of the full-time orchestra and chorus redundant. Warning signs have been provided over the last few years in the form of isolated projects embracing more populist forms. One such example was a tasteless piece of music theatre based upon the life of Muammar Gaddafi with hip-hop music provided by the Asian Dub Foundation. The Arts Council has placed English National Opera in a position which will see similar such ventures replacing the traditional operatic repertoire. The dying strains of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ will soon give way to the angular rhythms of electronic dance music and rap-inspired vocal lines, the spray can of populist multicultural inclusion defacing our most cherished musical institutions and traditions.

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