Britain: The Renaissance State

8 January 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Britain may be about to produce "the greatest art yet created", ushering in a "new Renaissance" comparable with that in 15th century Italy, according to a policy review to be published by the government next Thursday. The Secretary of Culture James Purnell told the Guardian: "When Brian talks about the potential for a new Renaissance, I don't think that's an overstatement. It's exactly true." Who could disagree, and here is the proof:




Supporting Excellence in the Arts is written by Sir Brian McMaster and was commissioned by the culture secretary, James Purnell. It proposes that state subsidy of the arts should focus on the pursuit of "excellence" rather than the fulfilment of targets and says this switch could contribute to a historic cultural moment.

According to the newspaper report, Brian says "the society we now live in is arguably the most exciting it has ever been", and the arts "have never been so needed to understand the deep complexities of Britain today" while Purnell sees "the reclamation of excellence from its historic elitist undertones" as a move "from measurement to judgment". "Instead of just focusing on things you can measure," Purnell said, "people have got to have the space and the courage to say, 'Actually, this is better than that, and we're going to fund the stuff which is going to be world-class.'"

If you think "this is better than that" sounds properly elitist, well it's populist. It seems that the City of London Sinfonia and the London Mozart Players, and London's Drill Hall, the UK's leading home for lesbian and gay theatre will be cut. It would be unfair to mention that Purnell is himself something of a photo-artist.

But what "stuff" are they talking about?

What is the exciting, non-elitist excellence that reveals the deep complexities of Britain today? Could Damien Hirst's glittering skull, which went on the market in the last months of the Blair regime, be the herald of New Labour's artistic "renaissance".

Called, one could not make it up, "The Love of God", it echoes the former Prime Minister's religiosity. An emblem of death, it reminds us of the many victims in Iraq. Entirely imitative of Mexican work its originality lies only in its excess while its cold spirit is love of money. It cost £14 million to make, with over 8,000 diamonds, and was allegedly sold to an "investment group" for its full price of £50 million, although this was probably discounted, like all of Blairism, in this case to £38 million. Nonetheless, like Blair himself, Hirst got out at the top of the market. Naturally, the maker is a shameless self-publicist, calling it "uplifting, takes your breath away". Meretricious, morbid, derivative, created for the spectacle, hugely over-priced, its exciting excellence helps us understand the dark and complex nature of a Britain where peerages are sold without evidence. So here are some criminal mug shots:



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