Whether or not the Apocalypse is approaching this Friday is speculation that I will leave to the Mayans. As life flashes past us, however, the approaching end of year provides a good opportunity to contemplate the changes that have happened in our world over the course of this past year and some of the PR dilemmas generated by a tsunami of negative memes.
As we have been quaffing the dregs of the Diamond Jubilee and delighting in the now-distant memory of the success of Team GB, a strange transformation has been taking place in the celebrity sphere. Celebrity culture has been punctured by the Post-Savilegate Twitter Trials that now drive the media agenda.
Whether we are looking at the names of those implicated in Operation Yewtree or Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell’s scuff with the Metropolitan Police, it is the ire of the crowd that has dictated, and continues to dictate the narrative – and in some cases – the outcome of the story. Where the old vanguard festers in its own corruption, there is growth, but not of the kind we might anticipate.
Where the post-World War Two working class would turn to professions such as boxing, football or music to seek fame upon the Yellow Brick Road, in recent decades we have seen the emergence of people seeking fame for fame’s sake. The value of culture has been undermined by a sugar rush driven by ten years’ worth of reality TV. Further proof of this generational lust for fame and overarching cultural shift came in the form of an interview earlier this week with Rylan Clark, the X Factor’s latest pantomime Dame. In Rylan’s words, “I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be famous. I didn’t know what I wanted to be famous for. I didn’t care. It was about being, not doing.”
But reality TV and Twitter cannot produce the kind of culture we export around the world. As luminaries argue over the future of the Arts post eBacc, they miss the point. The first question we should be asking is why this type of culture has slid so far down our list of priorities. I can point to one word: ‘elite’.
The word ‘elite’ has become a political power word that plays upon British class sensibilities. What we forget is that the word is not always about exclusivity, but about quality – and the UK is in possession of a cultural elite of which it should be proud.
The daring production and creativity showcased in the Olympic opening ceremony was a brilliant example of this, showing that a risky idea could reinvigorate the nation. It reminded us of just what Brand Britain has to offer in terms of quality of thought across all disciplines. Writing about the event, Frank Cottrell-Boyce reminded us of GK Chesterton’s old adage: “The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder.”
I fear that this prophecy might be the actual Apocalypse we are awaiting. While we laud the efforts of our artists and thinkers at a time when the world’s eyes are upon us, we have failed to create the right circumstances to sustain this creativity in the future. The likes of Danny Boyle were supported by a subsidised sector and institutions that many would now consider ‘elitist’.
The fact that these institutions have failed to defend themselves from such criticisms is a PR disaster not only for these institutions, but ultimately, for all creatives and potential creators of culture that we celebrated this year.
Our EU neighbours don’t appear to suffer from the same problem although they too are feeling the bite of the downturn. Where Angela Merkel is frequently seen at the opera and Germany has increased Arts spending by 8 per cent despite spending cuts, in the UK we continue to peel and pare the Arts out of existence.
While we may be able to reduce Shakespeare to 140 characters, we could never get Shakespeare from 140 characters, and though we may enjoy Rylan’s exploits, I don’t think he could get close to igniting the nation in the way Danny Boyle did.
If I could have one Christmas wish, it would be for our politicians to stop being too embarrassed to stand by culture and support it for fear of being branded ‘elitist’. The Arts are for everyone, and nothing embodies this better than the volunteers who worked tirelessly to create the opening ceremony this summer. Unlike the ultra-ambitious fame junkies like Rylan Clark (though he too has his place), they were not chasing Fame for Fame’s Sake, but Art for Art’s sake: for the people, to be shared by all.
In a world driven by the Twitterati, I can only hope that we start to see some real support for – and investment in – the Arts. If we run away from away from our cultural heritage, what will be left to export? Financial services? Well, we’ve seen where that’s got us.
The most challenging PR brief for 2013 will be how to rehabilitate elite culture and save it from damnation.