I can’t remember the last time I turned to the BBC for cultural guidance. That’s not to say that the BBC doesn’t provide an extremely valuable public service on the arts. It does. It’s just I doubt it’s the public service they ever wanted it to be. For the BBC has become an absolutely fantastic bet-your-bottom-dollar benchmark for what not to see, listen to, go to or respect. It is the finest cultural mortuary we have. You’re wondering whether Jarvis Cocker has any creative juice left in him, just switch on BBC Boring – I mean, BBC Four. Spot him? You have your answer. The BBC is where once talented, once creative beings go to die. And they were all packed into one gaudy room for Tony Hall’s first major speech on the future for BBC Arts.
To be fair, Hall is to be saluted for at least trying to set out a new vision for BBC arts coverage. It’s just a pity that his vision lacked any vision whatsoever.
Viewing the world from a Royal Opera House box seems to have done funny things to Hall’s understanding of culture. You get very used to enormous public subsidies, very reliant on a bureaucratic mentality and very hung up on the idea that culture is synonymous with high art. You begin to think that this is where creativity resides. That’s the only way I can explain the bizarre idea that what he announced this morning was a ‘brand new vision’ for BBC Arts. Sure, if you consider eating a cheese sandwich one day and a ham sandwich the next a ‘brand new vision’, then this indeed was a brand new vision. But for anyone sane, the announcement was a mixture of waffle, stale buns and bureaucratic mess.
In short, the BBC will be making several semi-interesting new arts programmes (as they do every year). There’ll be ‘collaborations’ and ‘partnerships’ (as there have always been). They’ll be broadcasting performances live (as every other institution has been doing for half a decade). The Space will return. (You remember The Space. The online arts channel that no one watched.) Some bloke no one had ever heard of, Hall announced, would be become the new head of some department no one cared about. Exciting!
If he had stopped there, however, we would have gone home merely disappointed. But there were announcements in here that will actively harm the arts. The announcement that panjandrums like Nicholas Serota and Nicholas Hytner were to join the BBC (as head of a new ‘sounding board’ and chief executive respectively) is a bad new step that will further reduce the diversity of artistic opinion and further embed a cultural monopoly in the country. And isn’t it pretty amazing after all that’s happened over the past few years that Hall thinks the solution to the BBC’s arts coverage is to hire several more chairs and chief execs and directors and boards. A new vision? A new BBC car crash in the making, more like.