Islam: The subject artists won't tackle

Far from being cutting-edge, the British cultural establishment ignores the biggest threat to artistic freedom: radical Islam

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Peter Whittle
On 2 December 2013 18:51

Delivering this year's Reith Lectures — the first contemporary artist to do so — the media-friendly transvestite artist and potter Grayson Perry posited the notion that perhaps art had lost one of its central tenets: its ability to shock.

Sure, there was no shortage of claims being made by both the media and the art world: that Tom was "radical", Dick was "cutting edge" and Harry was "breaking boundaries". But all this obscured the truth, which was that art was no longer any of these things, that artist and audience had got well and truly used to each other, and familiarity had bred jadedness.    

There's no denying this but, in keeping with art itself, Perry's observations were rather behind the times. For art has not shocked, provoked or otherwise challenged for years now. The belief that it does, should or could is almost endearingly quaint when one hears it voiced.

Certainly the words used to describe creative activity, such as those above, are a product of the general hyperbolic drift in many aspects of our everyday language. And, rather like racism, the more the arts diminish in relevance in relation to both our personal and national life, the more overblown and indiscriminate are the claims made of it.

Of course the notion that the arts should shock is a thoroughly modern one in historical terms but, even as it became accepted and then entrenched as a cliché, wider social developments throughout the latter half of the 20th century were working to undermine it. The gradual dismantling of social and moral boundaries left art with less and less room for manoeuvre, if to challenge and provoke was its purpose.

It is hard to be truly transgressive in a society where around two million people take recreational drugs each week, drink to oblivion as a matter of course, treat debt as a lifestyle choice or no longer bother getting married. We are, as it were, all bohemians now.

All that seems left for art in this respect is to retreat into a cul-de-sac of its own minor personal preoccupations.

Consequently Tracey Emin's unmade bed might have meant something to her, but the overwhelming reaction of the public to it was amused indifference or an irritation at having her banalities foisted on them. Shocked they most definitely were not.

Those parts of the metropolitan intelligentsia who infest gallery private views may flatter themselves by clinging to an idea that they are at the cutting edge of something or other, which they then feel they must champion, but in truth they are the most sheep — like of all, slaves to concocted fashion, political whim and received wisdom.

Broad social changes are not the whole story, however. The growing loss of cultural resonance which characterises all of the arts, even at a time when they are slavishly and sycophantically celebrated by a 24-hour print and broadcast media, derives from their reluctance to take up, comment on or, yes, be shocking or provocative about the most important issues facing us.

When they do proclaim or offer an analysis, it is invariably so late as to make it irrelevant, and is furthermore almost always comfortably in line with the political and social orthodoxies of the day.

If you doubt this, then try to think of a novel, play, film or piece of installation art which, for example, seriously criticises the doctrine of multiculturalism. With a tiny number of honourable and genuinely brave exceptions — Lloyd Newson's DV8 dance troupe's 2011 production of Can We Talk About This? being one — there is a deafening silence on what is one of the most urgent issues of our time.

Similarly, the chances of the BBC commissioning a drama which explores the experiences of an ageing white couple in an area transformed by mass immigration — surely a subject with real dramatic potential — are virtually nil. And if such a project ever did see the light of transmission, the audience could be forgiven for predicting quite accurately all the conclusions that would inevitably be drawn. 

On a whole host of issues — foreign aid, climate change, social inequality — the viewer, gallery-goer and novel-reader, far from being shocked, provoked or given even a slightly alternative perspective, generally know exactly what they are going to get.

For our cultural establishment, there is a right and a wrong way of looking at such issues and as a result the arts, far from being "challenging" or "cutting edge", have essentially become the providers of window dressing, a sort of visual aid unit, for the views and assumptions of the political and media class.

This narrow-minded complacency is illustrated perfectly by the state of British satire, currently at one of its lowest ebbs. Whether on stage, in print or hanging on the wall, satire is the ground on which artistic creativity and politics meet with most urgency, yet with the exception of the Westminster-fixated BBC series The Thick of It, it is hard to know where to find it. And yet never has it been more needed.

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