[Paleopsych] Telegraph: What's 'national' about national arts organisations?
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Mon May 9 21:05:51 UTC 2005
What's 'national' about national arts organisations?
Andrew O'Hagan investigates
What is the purpose of a national theatre, a national opera or ballet
company, a national orchestra, or a national gallery? What is the
meaning of the word "national" in those famous organisations? Is it
simply a matter of pride and funding, an indication that those
particular institutions have the backing of an entire nation, its
hopes and dreams of excellence? Or is it more complicated than that:
do we expect these arts organisations, above all others, to embody in
their work something essential about the nation? Should the Welsh
National Opera, for instance, seek to capture a vision of
international musical quality, or a vision of what it really means to
be Welsh - or both?
In 1899, WB Yeats, Augusta Gregory and Edward Martyn, the founders of
the Irish National Theatre, declared that the job of the new theatre
was "to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of
Ireland". This was almost 20 years before Ireland's war of
independence, but the Abbey, the theatre that grew out of their
declaration, would provide the platform and the occasion for many of
the great debates about freedom, responsibility, religion and
modernity, debates that shaped the new nation and are still shaping it
today. In Ireland, a taxpayer-funded conversation is seen to exist
between art and the state, a conversation whose difficulties are part
of its richness.
This was true in the Czech Republic (which ended up with a playwright
for a president); it was true in Spain after the death of Franco,
which invested in the arts as a way of opening up freedom of
expression; it was true in parts of Australia, where national museums
began to blush at the idea of excluding aboriginal art; and it is true
in post-war Germany and post-glasnost Russia, where national cultural
institutions have allowed not just a conversation but a means of
national cleansing about the repressions and horrors of the past. In
each of those places, national art institutions played a part in
making life new.
What about Britain? Do we have reason to believe that cultural
institutions bearing the word "national" or "royal" or "British" or
"English" or "Scottish" or "Welsh" are engaging us in questions about
who we are or who we are becoming?
To some people's minds, such an effort would be spurious in the
extreme. To them, the purpose of the Royal Opera House is to furnish a
version of, say, Das Rheingold which fulfils the virtues of the work
and stands up well to international standards. These are the things
one can rely on a national opera company to do. The task bears some
comparison with football in its modern form. A club such as Celtic has
many international players, it is super-funded and super-commercial,
super-branded, it can stand up to international competition on the
field, yet, one might ask, what has any of this got to do with
Glasgow? Does the team have anything to do with Glasgow? What
relationship does the corporate image bear to the traditions that made
the team and the community that supports it?
Like the few crown jewels or the odd Stone of Scone, national arts
companies are often, I feel, adornments that nations want to have in
order to seem more like nations, but which can't bear the
self-questioning that should come with a truly alive national company.
What is achieved, for example, by the excellent Scottish Ballet being
called Scottish Ballet instead of the Ashley Page Dance Company, which
is more descriptive of who they are? The company is based in Glasgow,
as it has been since 1969 when Peter Darrell took his Western Ballet
Theatre there from Bristol. The company is not Scottish in its bones,
so why should it matter that the company hangs on to the national
It seems to matter, though. People want to believe that their national
arts organisations speak volumes about the civilised nature of the
country they live in or come from, the country whose name the company
bears. It is like a highest form of cultural branding: your country is
a logo, the ultimate stamp of quality. You see how this has been taken
to extremes in America, where the use of that word, "America",
immediately seems to confer on what follows an almost unutterable
level of power and prestige.
Patriotism has, in other words, taken over the meaning of the word
"national": we use it to denote a settled imperial excellence, not the
situating of a higher conversation between the arts and the state.
That conversation exists, of course, in the streets, in the
newspapers, but is not advertised by national companies as part of
what they do. Perhaps the concentration on building "partnerships" and
sponsorships has represented a form of privatisation of British
culture by stealth; none of the cultural boffins I spoke to this week
could quite define what it was that made the British Museum "British"
or the National Gallery "National": they spoke of British values, but
couldn't really say how these affected the life of the institutions.
(It's interesting that the same people have no hesitation when asked
the same question about the BBC.) My own guess is that the National
Gallery of Art in Washington, for all its Van Goghs and Matisses,
tells a different story from the National Gallery in London, for all
its Van Goghs and Matisses. They each tell a particular story, but we
might ask for much more of the particularities. We might say, in the
spirit of the Irish, what does this material and the manner of its
housing have to do with us?
These days, we may mean less than we think when we speak of "national"
this and that. I mean, would it be problematic if English National
Ballet, who are near bankruptcy but are otherwise a good and
fully-functioning company with no very well-defined home, were to
become, as has been suggested, the National Ballet of Wales? It's
rather like the situation at the founding of Scottish Ballet, except
that, this time, many people are hitting the roof at the idea that the
Welsh National Ballet Company might suffer from being, well, a bit
un-Welsh. But why shouldn't a newly-designated ENB be good at getting
into the intellectual scrum of Wales's modern make-up? Peter Darrell,
who founded Scottish Ballet, was born in Surrey, and that didn't stop
him dealing with the wealth of Scotland's folk heritage in his
In fact, as in most areas of national life, a bit of outsiderism can
sharpen the instincts, so long as they don't assume, like most modern
footballers, that one piece of ground is the same as another. Each
piece of ground is different, and the arts should be an ongoing
investigation of that difference, an attempt to beautify and enrich
the native gardens without becoming too conscious of the fences that
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