(Fwd) The little Lenin inside Mr Smith

From lsi <lsi@lsi.clara.net>
Date Tue, 9 Jan 2001 01:35:52 -0000

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"He who controls the present, controls the past; he who controls
the past, controls the future." -- George Orwell, 1984


Chris Smith in ruthless new power grab.  Alarm as Culture
Secretary lunges for control of museums and galleries

Why is the Culture Secretary Chris Smith hellbent on flooding our
museums with 'political' appointments?  George Walden is not

_The Evening Standard_, Friday January 5 2001 p13

Somehow, we can't believe it.  You might as well suggest that Alan
Bennett, a fellow national treasure, has been had for mugging old
ladies in Yorkshire village streets.  Yet our smiley, benign, animal-
loving Mr Smith has indeed been caught attempting to divest
innocent old parties, in the shape of the boards which run some of
our major museums and galleries, of their pride and joy: their
residual independence.

And he has tried it not once, but twice, first last October, when he
wanted to make all chairmen of the boards subject to appointment
by the Prime Minister.  Some of them are already, so it was
presented as a tidying-up operation, whereby the liberties of the
institutions just happen to get swept into a corner.  Of course, the
position is anomalous, but why not leave near well alone?  Or -- a
pious hope in the case of a government that wields its powers with
the delicacy of a workman weilding a power drill -- tidy up by
extending a degree of independence to all?

Thwarted by the outcry from the institutions in question, to general
amazement, Smith came creeping back, still animal-loving, still
smiling, this time for a sneak attack -- a new clause slipped into a
Bill that was so evasively drafted everyone was onto it in a minute.
The Culture Department's description of his intentions is soothingly
tentative.  "For example," it says, institutions, "might consult the
Prime Minister on future Chairman appointments."  Now what could
be more smiley and benign?  And when the institutions put forward
a name that displeased Mr Smith mightily, he could, for example,
suggest that consultation might be more fruitful if another name
were submitted -- and, as it happens, he has a perfect example at
the ready.  One man's consultation, we all know, is a more
powerful man's veto.

Like many things that really matter these days, cultural control is
not a party-political issue.  Increasingly, people in the arts who see
themselves as Left-inclined are joining with the Right-wing
libertarians to complain about political interference.  Smith's
intrusiveness would be more understandable if our great museums
and galleries were letting the nation down, but anyone who has
seen the improvements at the British Museum, the Wallace
Collection, Somerset House, the National Portrait Gallery, some of
the recent exhibitions at the National Gallery, or the (overdue and
somewhat thin, but never mind) Tate Modern and claim that what
we need is more control and direction from the politicians who gave
us the Dome, is out of his or her exceedingly exiguous mind.

The mystery of Smith's heavyhandedness, said to worry close
advisers, remains.  What has turned our national treasure into a
little Lenin?  Could it be that the Treasury, which has never given
up the battle over museum charges, is twisting his arm, so as to
get the people it wants chairing the boards?  Too devious a project,
surely, and one with minimal chance of success.  The explanation
is more likely to lie in the human factor.

The problem with Smith, a highly conventional thinker, is that he
has some quaint old-fashioned notions about culture.  Right-
wingers suspect him of harbouring, deep in his Left-wing, middle-
class intellectual's bones, a Marxoidal view of the world, but things
are at once better and worse than that.  Smith is a soft, muddled
man driven by emotional conviction that all art has a social
function, and that the more of it he makes available to us the
better.  It follows that institutions or individuals who do not behave
in the way he wants, for example by putting aesthetic integrity
before accessibility, or resisting the populist tide, are so many
obstacles between himself and The People.

Like Blair himself (remember his response to the Ecclestone
affair?), Smith becomes genuinely incredulous at the suggestion
that he is capable of the abuse of power.  Both men are deep
believers in their own moral sanctity - a dangerous frame of mind.
The Church and authoritarian regimes used to be convinced they
knew exactly what was good for us, and Blair and Smith share a
kind of populist religiosity.  Chris Smith's God, unlike that of the
dastardly "elitists", are The People, for whose aesthetic awakening
he has been placed on this earth.

So it is that nice, cultured, expensively educated, middle-class Mr
Smith turns into a power-seeking pachyderm where his strategy for
the arts is concerned.  Buried in speeches that no one except
equally smiley and genial apparatchiks ever reads are phrases
suggesting that it is a key Government function to give "strategic
direction" to the arts.  Mr Smith is too nice a man for anyone to
ask him which regimes have tried this approach and with what
results?  And how it is that countries that have dirigiste approaches
to culture, such as the French, are no models for anyone at the
moment, whereas the Americans, with their superb galleries,
orchestras, films, literary and popular culture, get by with no Mr
centralised takeovers of the boards of great national institutions?
The New York Museum of Modern Art has existed far longer than
the Tate Modern, and has a superior collection, all without the
President of the United States being "consulted" about the
chairmen of the board.

Resistance to the Government's cultural empire-building is
spreading.  A new book, Art For All?, contains essays and articles
by artists (eg,. Anthony Gormley), critics and cultural
commentators of all political persuasions voicing various degrees of
concern about the official line on the arts.  If he were wise enough
to drop the legislation designed to strengthen his control even
more, Smith would have time to read it, and discover that doubts
about his policies are not confined to those ubiquitous bogeymen
the "forces of conservatism".  Though I doubt if our infinitely benign
and grieviously mistaken Culture Secretary will ever understand
that petty tyrannies almost invariably begin with the best of

------- End of forwarded message -------

. ^               Stuart Udall
.~X\     stuart@cyberdelix.net
.~ \    http://cyberdelix.net/

..revolution through evolution

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