Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How it all started - A piece by Peter in the Sunday Times

ARTS AND THE RIGHT by Peter Whittle

During a recent radio interview about the National Theatre’s forthcoming season, its director Nicholas Hytner said that one thing he would really like to see there in the future would be a ‘good, mischievous, right-wing play.’

Listeners on the political right, theatre-goers or not, were doubtless nodding in agreement, if not some astonishment. While welcoming such an event, the underlying implication in Hytner’s intriguing statement - that such a production would be an unusual occurrence - would certainly have also confirmed them in their traditionally held conviction that the contemporary arts in general stand firmly behind enemy lines. Creative types, whether novelists, film directors, TV producers or playwrights are invariably, goes the argument, on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Arty people are lefty people (you only have to look in the jobs pages of the Guardian), so the stuff they produce is lefty too.

I asked Hytner about the kind of play he had in mind. He’s unsure about how you’d define it. ‘I don’t know what a mischievous left-wing play is anymore,’ he says. Would he, for example, welcome the appearance of a play which questioned the basic tenets of multiculturalism? ‘Totally,’ he says. ‘That’s what we would do. And it will happen.’ He could, then, imagine a play which questioned prevailing orthodoxies about such matters? ‘I could only imagine a play which questioned the prevailing orthodoxies,’ he says.

The National’s most recent political dramas have been by authors from the liberal left tradition. But, says Hytner, the polemical theatre of the 70s and 80s no longer holds much sway, and he wouldn’t categorise David Edgar’s Playing with Fire, which depicted racial tensions in a northern town, as a particularly left wing play at all. It’s certainly true that, despite the author’s political pedigree, the play included a monologue on government race policies by a sympathetic character which one could certainly see going down well with sections of the Tory rank and file. Similarly, David Hare’s anti-war play Stuff Happens contained two eloquent pro-war speeches which caused a palpably uncomfortable silence in an audience which had come seemingly to hear its views echoed on stage. And although opposition to the Iraq war is something which crosses left-right lines, the effect of these speeches was to elevate the play from the pool of the otherwise predictable exercises in straightforward left-wing anti-American agitprop.

There’s also an important distinction to be made between a hypothetical right wing play with a big R and one which is conservative with a small c. Says Hytner: ‘Our biggest hit since I took over as director has been an unequivocally small-c conservative play. Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a conservative play, in a way that a great deal of art is conservative, in that it’s specifically concerned with the preservation of that which is culturally enriching from the past. It ends on the message – pass it on, boys, pass it on.’

The fact is that the theatre, he says, has always been anti-authoritarian, or at least sceptical of authority, whatever its political complexion. Does that mean that those bemoaning a lack of right-wing art are barking up the wrong tree? ‘If there is a status-quo that is thin-skinned, or if there is a right-wing which is thin-skinned about the preservation of the status-quo,’ he says, ‘then the theatre and many of the arts are always going to appear to be in opposition to that.’ The political right shouldn’t be worried, he says, by their perception that artists tend to be on the left, something which is in fact, he says, more a tendency to be unusually empathetic. ‘I don’t think unusual, universal empathy is the preserve of the left,’ he adds. I think if there are those on the right who remain worried about this, they should get over it.’

But this doesn’t explain the apparent absence of creative voices with specifically right-wing assumptions, especially at a time when that status quo and the orthodoxies surrounding it could hardly be called conservative in the traditional sense.

‘The criticism of the Labour establishment in the arts world is quite muted,’ says Hugo Swire, the Conservative shadow minister for Culture, ‘ but in so much as it exists at all, it tends to come from old Labour, from the Harold Pinters of this world. This government has become very prescriptive, and rather Cromwellian, in its dictates and control-freakery, and you would have thought that writers and musicians and film-makers would pick up on that, and at least be rattling the gilded cage. It would be nice to see a bit more evidence of that.’

So where are the right-wing artists? Do conservatives not do these kinds of things? You could agree with the view put in these pages by AA Gill some weeks back, that broadly speaking the right conserves, and the left creates, or with the belief that the most enduring art tends to be subversive. However where that leaves such figures as Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Graham Green or Edward Elgar becomes a matter for debate.

‘Conservatives do write plays, are film producers and do write music,’ says Swire, ‘ but I think there’s a small left-leaning club which sort of feeds of each other, and which still hasn’t recovered from the fact that we’re out of government. A lot of them still behave as though we’re in 1983. I’m not sure they’re doing their audiences a service, or themselves intellectually a favour, by continuing in a lot of cases to be fellow travellers of the new Labour project.’

Whether or not you agree with that, it’s hard to deny that if there are right wing artists or writers out there now, they’re certainly keeping a low profile. It’s fair to say that one will look in vain through the listings pages for a film about an African dictator who uses Western aid to fund his lavish lifestyle, or a TV drama centring on the loss of the social moorings of a sympathetically portrayed white couple in an area of mass immigration. Other than specifically genre writers such as the famously right wing Frederick Forsyth and George McDonald Fraser, you’ll have difficulty finding a voguish ‘serious’ novelist who, like Houellebecq in France, has his characters blast the backwardness of Islam. And although much visual art has become so concerned with self-expression as to be irrelevant in terms of a wider political debate, public art, which has undergone something of a renaissance in the past decade, has been co-opted for social uses, often to make a point, along liberal lines, about social inclusion and prejudice, the most famous example perhaps being Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square.

There’s another way of looking at all this however, which is that with the ascent of political correctness, any kind of real dissent is currently at a low ebb in the arts. ‘The terms right and left wing are not helpful in politics today,’ says Claire Fox, head of the Institute of Ideas think tank. ‘The issue is not the lack of right-wing playwrights, but rather that certain orthodoxies are espoused by everyone with little critical engagement. From diversity and identity politics to environmentalism, the position of Tories, Labour and Lib-Dems are indistinguishable. In general, nobody is going against these orthodoxies.’
She largely agrees with the often-stated notion that if the right won the economic arguments, then the left won the culture wars. ‘In the sphere of culture, it is cultural relativism and political correctness which dominate most institutions. This is not because those institutions are full of ‘lefties’, but rather that these ideas are rarely challenged by anyone.’ Perhaps when it finally comes along, Hytner’s mischievous right wing play will set the ball rolling.


1 comment:

Andrew Zalotocky said...

The key issue here is leftist dominance of the institutions of the arts. You won't get right-wing plays at the National or on the BBC as long as the people commissioning them all share the same left-wing assumptions. In the visual arts, the subsidies go to the kind of artists that the arts bureaucrats approve of. He who pays the piper calls the tune.