The ideology of Monet and Rolf

Submitted by Anon on 22 October, 2003 - 5:35

Lucy Clement asks, is the consumption of art elitist? And why?
The headline said "Britons can't tell Rolf Harris from Monet". That was a little unfair: in the survey in question only seven per cent had thought Rolf painted Waterlilies. Mind you, almost half didn't know that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, and only 15% knew the artist behind the Scream.

But the survey - carried out by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, presumably for purposes of peddling their website subscriptions - was revealing in other ways. It found that forty-three per cent of the people questioned had never visited an art gallery in their lives.

That's much more serious than mistaking Rolf for Monet. After all, there's no particular reason why we should all be able to look at a painting and instantly spot that it's a Botticelli, or a Goya, or that it's a trick question and actually an early Victorian copy. But the fact that almost half the population has never set foot in a gallery underlines the elitism surrounding fine art, even today.

The interesting thing is that this elitism is not simply and straightforwardly about money. Take London's National Gallery. It's free to get in to the very substantial main collection. It costs £2 for a bus pass to get you there and home again. Financially, it's by no means inaccessible.

A couple of years ago the Government introduced free entry to the major national museums and galleries. The smug Blairite culture minister, Tessa Jowell, declared: "Free admission has democratised the nation's treasures, making them accessible to all. That has to be good for our children, for students and for those who simply want to enjoy these wonderful exhibits."

And visitor numbers did indeed rise - by over 100% in some cases. But behind the headline figures the story was quite different to the impression given by ministers. What had in fact happened was not that access widened, but that the people who already went to museums and galleries started going more often, and the proportion of museum-goers from the lower socio-economic groups actually fell.

It's true that there are financial barriers to going to art galleries: the supposedly "free" museums can and do charge huge entrance fees for their special exhibitions. The National Maritime Museum's recent Elizabeth I show cost £22 for two full-price adults and two children. Two unemployed adults and two children would have had to pay £20. There are more subtle ways of establishing their expected clientele too. I once had lunch at Tate Britain, where a small piece of quiche, salad and a cup of coffee cost me £6. Message: this is a place for people with money.

But the fact remains that there are substantial free public art collections around the UK that are open to anyone who chooses to go in. So, what's stopping the 43% who don't?

Capitalism is very good at reserving the best of its culture for its ruling class (like Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber, whose art collection is on show at the Royal Academy if you've got £9 to spare and like drippy Pre-Raphaelite girlies). But it doesn't just keep the best for an elite through the price mechanism. Capitalist society has created an ideology which says that to enjoy art you have to be highly educated, to understand a set of unwritten rules. It's an ideology which has for years been reinforced through the school system.

At my (comprehensive) school the top sets got the best of the theatre and gallery trips and workshops; the bottom sets - it was assumed - couldn't or wouldn't appreciate such things. The best of culture was available to an elite selected at the age of 13 and the rest could forget it. There are a few good initiatives where galleries work with inner-city schools, but they're the exception. Hardly surprising, then, that by the time the 43% leave school, they leave with the firm impression that art is not for them.

The Government is making things worse - it's removed art and music from the National Curriculum for over-14s, and it's about to remove design and technology, as well as modern languages. There'll be compulsory "work-related" education, and even less time for such frivolous pursuits as looking at old pictures. The move away from comprehensive education will concentrate arts subjects in specialist, selective schools, even further away from the average working-class child.

One of the intriguing things about the Encyclopaedia Britannica survey was its finding that, despite the fact some of them have never been to a gallery, 68% of people think art is important to society.

What persuades someone to think yes, art is important but no, it's not for me? The answer is the ability of capitalist society to establish that some aspects of culture are for the elite - not necessarily by making them more expensive, but through a subtle, deep-rooted ideological process.

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