If high art is the new religion, then we had better watch outby Ben Pimlott / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
High art is more visible than ever before. Even the aggressively philistine would have difficulty missing the bombardment of arts programmes, the classic novel re-makes on television, the advertisements on London buses which play games with images from art. Every driver on the road to Scotland knows Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, every commuter confronts a poem on the tube; even the most dedicated sun-and-sangria seeker can expect his or her hotel bedroom to be decorated with images from the Prado.
It was not always so. In the proletarian world examined by Richard Hoggart, in The Uses of Literacy, more than 40 years ago, ordinary people had a place in their lives for “Art”-but it was a peripheral one. “Whilst they are enjoying [Art],” wrote Hoggart, “people submit themselves… but at the back of their mind, they know it is not ‘real’; ‘real’ life goes on elsewhere.” Today, with bits of high art everywhere, it is different. Everyone in Britain recognises a Van Gogh, a Munch, a Picasso, a Warhol-even if they cannot name the artist. Such images are part of the universal visual currency just as the language of Shakespeare is part of everyday speech. They are all around us, like the wallpaper of experience. Many modern wallpapers, indeed, have high art motifs.
In the first half of the 20th century, high art belonged not so much to the upper middle class, as to a Bloomsbury demi-monde section of it, so that serious interest in the arts was not quite respectable. In the second half of this century, widening affluence, proliferating commercial display and conspicuous consumption have spread the most obvious symbols of high art across the nation’s consciousness.
It is true that gallery and classical-concert visiting remain minority pursuits. It is also true that in 1994, 21 per cent of people in Britain claimed to have visited a museum or art gallery at least once in the last quarter. It may once have been true that high art was a conversation within the small elite of the self-consciously cultivated. It is much less true today. If high art is a conversation, it has become one which millions of people listen in on, even if they do not actively participate.
But there is more to it than this. It is not just that people are more surrounded and affected by the arts than at any time since…