Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham.
I can’t stop thinking about Richard Wagner.
But this isn’t a piece about the terrifying resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe. A sentiment which (during, admittedly, one of his sillier moments) John Maynard Keynes had in mind when commenting that, ‘One can believe sometimes that no greater responsibility for the (First World) war lies on any one man than on Wagner.’ Yet, even if the composer was in any part to blame for the insidious nationalistic fervour which led to so much carnage, it would be, at best, anachronistic to echo Keynes’ words now.
Rather, I’ve been thinking about Wagner as a representation of art at its most luxuriant. Wagner as something in which to drown, rather than to gain tangibly. Wagner as something which intoxicates and attracts through its very unnecessity. And this relates to the biggest problem our Conservative-led government faces: successfully fixing our economy through a series of prioritised cuts, whilst staving off criticism for doing so. Do we need Wagner on prescription? The furore surrounding recent Arts Council strictures shows not only an inherent desire for culture, but also our reticence to embrace it fully by paying for it through choice. And choice is what it’s all about.
Someone on a recent Radio 4 comedy slot used a rise in charitable giving in order to blame government cuts. He claimed that more extensive government funding would take away the necessity for charity. But this, surely, is hilariously retrograde. Giving to charity is something we choose to do. We pay for government funding by obligation, through our taxes. And it all comes back to the surprisingly widely-held misconception that state-funded or -subsidised things are free.
And, with that in mind, do you really want to suffer higher tax in order to pay for yet another explorative dance troop? Maybe that’s harsh, but greater competition for funding undeniably drives up standards. And do you want to be able to see paintings for free, at the expense of seeing a surgeon? For what it inevitably comes down to, particularly during hard times, is priority.
There was an amusing game, making the online rounds recently, in which you had to run the Exchequer with a (percentage-representing) budget of £100. When you had finished dividing this up between healthcare, defence, welfare, et al, it proclaimed which UK Chancellor you were most like. It’s one of the most difficult games I’ve played in ages – and I say that in the context of my brother having just made me take part in a stress marathon called Manhattan Project (look it up). But the amount I finally gave to the arts from the public purse was negligible.
For difficulties in quantifying the necessity of arts funding are fueled, once more, by misconception. Assumptions about the price of opera tickets are so widely held that they engorge the cries of elitism never heard at costly football matches. Yet, if you’re in the know, opera-going is not expensive. At either of the country’s acronymic best opera houses (ROH and ENO) you can get day-seats for the price of a round of non-elitist half-time meat pies. You can cut down even further by standing, or perching on a cushioned rail, going to a dress rehearsal, or by being a student, unemployed, retired, or disabled.
And look at Glyndebourne. (If you get a chance, you might want to listen to it, too.) Glyndebourne, for me, exemplifies British art at its best. Not only because it consistently attracts the very finest international soloists and players, but also because it’s completely financially independent. And, if you consider everything you get for for your money, it’s really very reasonably priced. On top of world-class music, it’s a half-day experience which includes access to (and help to upkeep) one of the most beautiful country house and garden combos, contribution to an unrivaled network of community outreach and education work, the ability to help keep its numerous workers in well-treated employment, etc, etc. And anyway, tickets start at just £10 – plus you can find cheap returns online, join their free under-30s £30-ticket mailing list, or see productions on tour for considerably less than in situ.
But we mustn’t forget the Oxford Movement argument for the state support of art. Butterfield’s mosaiced interiors offered escape from the oppression of back-to-back terraces, replaced industrial smog with the druggy smell of Damascus Rose incense, and charmed the masses by offering Christ as an enticing Caravaggio. And yes, art is medicine — and we do need it to be accessible. Yet, again, this argument shouldn’t hinge upon spending. Throwing money at a problem rarely provides an enlightened solution. Old Penguin paperbacks (my favourite thing) are two-a-penny (except if you buy them in Oxfam, which overcharges mercilessly), you can Prom for a fiver, and it doesn’t cost a thing to ogle beautiful buildings.
But what you do sometimes need to appreciate these things fully, and, indeed, to get those cheap opera tickets, is information. And this is what we should take from the example of the Victorian Church’s illumination of its followers’ lives. Access to attainable art doesn’t require education to PhD level, or even GCSE, but simply a bit of help in navigating the manifold opportunities out there. And this is where we return to the old Conservative ideal of informed choice over endemic dependency. For in the internet age, information truly is free. And then, when you have it, you can use it as you want.
So, back to old Richard. And maybe it’s just a question of balance. For on the one hand, drowning in Wagnerian hours of unashamedly uncadenced pleasure is just what we need at the moment — something to take us away from the problems we face, not only those of our home economy, but also the escalation of terror in Africa and the Middle East. Yet on the other hand, surely intoxication creates its own form of dependency. Dependency on something apart from personal responsibility. So I give you another Richard – Richard Strauss. Sensuous and beautiful, similarly politically worrying perhaps, but measured and concise. For me, the final minutes of Rosenkavalier beat the seventeen hours of Wagner’s Ring any day. And, more tellingly perhaps, he was someone who responded and reacted musically to the times through which he lived, rather than delving deeper and deeper
Turn on your radio and listen to the Proms for pennies, spread the word about day seats, and give to charity when you can, but don’t get indolent, because we’ve got a lot to do. Maybe just a couple of minutes of Parsifal first…