Britain, we learned over the weekend, is on the verge of a “new Renaissance.” That is the view expressed by Sir Brian McMaster in a new arts policy review commissioned by culture secretary James Purnell. In an interview with the Guardian, Purnell endorsed McMaster’s assessment: “When Brian talks about the potential for a new Renaissance, I don’t think that’s an overstatement. It’s exactly true.”
Why do writers of policy reviews—and the ministers who commission them—feel the need to make such blatantly absurd claims? By doing so, they detract from—and to some extent discredit—the genuinely good aspects of their recommendations. McMaster’s review is called “Supporting Excellence in the Arts,” and it proposes that state subsidy of arts should focus on “excellence” (“quality” might have been a better word) rather than the fulfilment of targets such as audience numbers and diversity etc. This is to be welcomed: it is right that considerations of quality weigh heavily in decisions about who gets what.
But then McMasters goes and spoils it all with that ridiculous “new Renaissance” claim. It is true that “renaissance” has become a somewhat debased word; these days, any hint of artistic or cultural flowering (or simply the desire that such flowering should take place) is enough to guarantee use of the epithet. In recent years we’ve had renaissances of British food, of northern cities and of Britain’s regional museums, among others.
But even so, it would be nice to think that the government and its advisers would be able to show a little more sense of proportion, and of historical literacy. There are three obvious reasons why proclaiming a new British Renaissance is a daft idea. One, the fact that a “Renaissance” is about to occur suggests that the period immediately preceding it (ie the last ten years) has been one of cultural stagnation; presumably the government would deny this. Two, renaissance means “rebirth” or “rediscovery”; what, exactly, does McMasters think is about to be reborn or rediscovered? Finally, the 15th-century Florentine Renaissance was a product of private patronage; the money for it came from individual families (most famously the Medicis) or from hugely wealthy prelates. Britain’s “new Renaissance,” to judge from the context in which it is being proclaimed, is to be triggered by a change in government arts funding. Of course, a publically engineered renaissance is not a theoretical impossibility; I’m just not sure that the recently announced…