Will the real Renaissance please stand up?

 

Culture Secretary James Purnell says in today’s Guardian (5 Jan 08);

“Community arts in many ways can be excellent in a different way from, say, the National Theatre. But what I wouldn’t say is, ‘We’ll tolerate average work because it happens to be in a particular location.”

In another part of the article the MP says, “If any part of our cultural sector is substandard, it’s not worth subsidising. Garbage in, garbage out.”

The article, by John Harris continues;

“He (Purnell) talks about ‘engagement with communities’ and the need ‘to spread the best culture around the whole country’. The (Sir Brian) McMaster review outlines the need for some big institutions – the Royal Ballet springs to mind -to get out more; the new idea, Purnell says, is ‘touring in a strategic way”.

The McMaster policy review’s official title is Supporting Excellence in the Arts and will be published by the government next week. Purnell is an enthusiastic advocate of the review telling the Guardian, “When Brian talks about the potential for a New Renaissance, I don’t think that is an overstatement. It’s exactly true.”

The idea of a renaissance in the arts is an in interesting one, but also problematic in the terms of how Purnell describes it. To dictate from the top-down the approach that the renaissance will take goes against the very nature of reactionary rebelliousness that lay at the heart of 15th Century Italian forerunner that Purnell and McMaster are prophesising. The heretic notions such as; the fact that the earth travels around the sun; the ‘right’ to publish and own personal Bibles translated into native languages other than Latin; and the realisation that the monarchy and clergy were not divine and citizens were equals with rights in society, were aspects of the anti-establishment feelings of the time that gave rise to the renaissance period. The leaders of the day were quick to captalise on the turning tides and cleverly appropriated renaissance ideas to suit their own ends in the tense relationships between church, state and nations, but the fact remains that the reformation spirit of the times were underground and punishable by death for treason and heresy.

Radical alternative media was at the centre of this spark for new thinking. As James Curran describes in ‘Communication, power and social order’ in Culture, Society and the Media (1988 – page 218);

“In a more general sense, the rise of the manuscript and subsequently of the printed book also fostered the development of an alternative culture. Although the bulk of scribal and early print output was in Latin and religious in content, the production and dissemination of vernacular texts helped to foster a parallel secular culture based on national languages and dialects, drawing upon indigenous cultural traditions.”

So, what is the refomation thinking in the UK today that this new Purnell/McMaster renaissance will follow? Well I would say that it will only come within a hair’s breadth of being a renaissance if it is led by the citizens not the leaders, and certainly broader than National Theatre and the Royal Ballet. It is all well and good for the financial gate-keepers of culture like James Purnell to say that ‘average’ and ‘substandard’ work will not be tolerated, as they want value for money. And I would also argue that cultural creative endevevours should be of a high standard to marry content with style, but as Purnell describes it is to see a renaissance as a glorified cultural tour, brining quality works to the people. As noble as that may, be, that is no renaissance, that is still a form of cultural imperialism.

A true renaissance cannot and will not be brokered by leaders or gatekeepers. It will be in places anarchic and in other places passivley (and maybe ignorantly) building on the shoulders
of those anarchic pioneers. At present the early (and I mean early!) signs of any new renaissance is in Web 2.0, in illigal counter-cultural activities such as graffiti, and also (of course) in the activities of the home bedroom music makers, film makers and other DIY producers of modern culural artefacts. Community & Independent media producers are the Galilleos and Martin Luthers to Mass Media’s Papacy, Emperors, and, ahem, Murdochs. But the 15th Century renaissance didn’t effect and influence the arts. It changed governments, influenced religions and shaped the cultural and moral values in the Western worlds. As idealist as we may be today, we still have a long way to go.

Are we actually in the midst of a new renaissance? It would be great if we were, but alas I guess I will never know as that surely is not the within the grasp of any of is to really know. We will be long gone and in a few centuries time it will be left to the historians of the day to define our ra for us. We are too close to recognise a renaissance if it came and gave us a lapdance! It’s also probably arrogant of us to even try define our endevevours in terms of refomations, renaissances, etc, but when people are passionate about what they do, what they believe in and the connection between the two, then, with feet firmly on the ground (like Galillio), it is good to think big.

I agree with James Purnell when he says, “Why shouldn’t we be that ambitious?”

Yes, as long as we are not attempting to shape others’ ambitions for them.

© Shawn Sobers 2007

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