Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Britain's cultural divide

Whilst the big cities, London in particular, have an incredible wealth of galleries, museums, theatres, libraries, music, dance, clubs and sports facilities to offer, some of them even free, other parts of Britain like South Shields (where X-Factor winner Joe McElderry comes from), large areas of Yorkshire, Scotland, Cumbria, the Midlands and Kent are unemployment black spots and cultural deserts.

This reality persists and has become even worse in the years of New Labour despite the incredible cultural potential of the technological revolution. The impoverishment of the majority has been in inverse proportion to the rise and rise of the new global super-rich – the “hyper-educated, internationally minded meritocrats who have been the chief beneficiaries of globalisation and the technological revolution”, as one writer has described them.

The advent of digitisation has made things possible that could not even be dreamt as little as a decade ago. Digitisation and personal communications have an incredible potential to provide mass access to appreciating high quality artistic and sporting performances, not only for individuals but in a highly social way.

In the late 1990s art galleries began to make their collections available online and music lovers could listen to any number of tracks. Google is in the process of scanning in the world’s literary heritage for people to download on gadgets like its Kindle book reader. Now, downloadable applications for iPhone for example, now mean, that, for £1.19 you can listen to 800 tracks by great composers or for £1.79 you can view 250 works from the National Gallery’s collection. Sound cheap? It is, but to get your iPhone, you need to tie yourself into an expensive long-term contract.

As with all the extraordinary potential offered by the on-going technological revolution, there is a sting in the tail which is summed up by the viewing figures for low-brow programmes on television as well as the high readership figures for abysmal and racist rags like the Daily Mail and The Sun.

Appreciating and participating in “high” culture remains the preserve of a strictly limited proportion of the population, even while the last few years have seen millions taking advantage of free admissions to museums and galleries. Globalisation has shown the real thirst for accessible and affordable culture.

The economic recession has reinforced this, rather than weakening it. Witness the significant increase in attendances at National Trust venues, theatre and other forms of what might be called “high culture”. For some there is a turn away from reducing “achievement” in life to bling, fancy homes and cars, to a search for meaning and fulfilment. Once again, however, this is strictly for those with cash to spare as anyone who has tried to buy a ticket for the West End theatre quickly finds out.

For the moguls and executives of the companies who dominate what goes on television screens and the mass media, there is only one serious question: how to overcome declining advertising revenues. The most obvious is to mine the gullibility of viewers by dragging out ever less famous “celebrities” and providing public humiliations for the spectator while raking in the money through phone votes.

The viewing figures for the final of The X-Factor, which was seen by 19 million people just before Christmas, and the continuing success of Celebrity Big Brother – watched by 6.2m on Sunday night – provide serious food for thought, as well as nice little earners for the likes of Simon Cowell. The continuing success of these shows underlines perhaps more than anything else, the cultural divide that prevails in Britain.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win

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