October 18 2011
I am writing this – somewhat surreptitiously – on a device resting upon my knee. The scene is the impressive boardroom of Eversheds, the City law firm. It’s dinner and we are between the duck starter and the bass main, or, probably more to the point, the Puligny-Montrachet and the Morgon. The windows frame the oldest and newest monuments of London’s continuously shape-shifting financial district. On my right, the majestic drum and dome of St Paul’s: as fine a symbol of permanence as you might require. On my left, Renzo Piano’s London Bridge ziggurat is tentatively nearing its vertiginously boggling completion. Splendid creation it may be, but it always strikes me as an alien presence. It’s as if ambitious pre-Colombians had acquired advanced concrete technology and invaded Borough.
Other symbols of comforting permanence and unsettling change surround me: the beautiful Julia Peyton-Jones, Queen of The Serpentine. On my right, Tracey Emin and Andrew Lloyd Webber being very talkative.
Hang on. The genial Ed Vaizey, arts minister, is just getting up to speak. This is The Conservative Arts Dinner, a fund-raiser. A little earlier I had said to the host, Cornelius Medvei, Eversheds’ elegant managing partner, that I think the fifty or so guests should have colour-coded badges to declare whether they represented art or money. I also confessed to experiencing a very bad case of impostor syndrome since I don’t much care for The Arts when they come with a capital “T” and “A” and start making demands of government.
I don’t think art is about budgets and quotas. That’s a crude McKinseyite conception of creativity. Everything I know about art suggests that constraints – practical, economic, legal, moral – are a positive stimulus, not a hindrance. In fact, if you wanted to stimulate creativity, you’d legislate against it. Besides, I think art with a lower case “a” is a fugitive and elusive thing, popping up unexpectedly in response to new difficulties, new technologies, new opportunities. The problem, or one of them, with the capital “A” arts is that it accepts, even insists on, the eternal validity of the old categories. No one today can possibly think, “I have a set of interesting ideas which I want to use to create beauty and excite speculation about the human dilemma so I’ll compose a ballet”. Do they? If anybody is making new ballet today, it is to attract a grant.
Hang on again, now Andrew Lloyd Webber is asking a question about the theatre. I remember Stephen Daldry in the Blair Dawn telling me that Old Labour was fine because, while it didn’t care for theatre, it was very keen on subsidies. He added that the Tories were also fine because, while they opposed subsidies, they did enjoy a bit of a night out. New Labour, however, Daldry explained, was a hopeless case because they did not believe in anything. I am still wondering what Ed Vaizey actually said. So back to my theme of permanence and change: what we have in Eversheds’ boardroom tonight is real theatre of a very high order. I think it may mark the revival of surrealism.