Charles Dickens was also accused of dumbing down





It must be a tough job running the Edinburgh International Festival. Quite apart from arranging all those performances of Wagner and Purcell, there is the stress of handling the multi-million-pound budget and the pressure of hundreds of thousands of expectant visitors. And on top of all that is the gnawing frustration, the sheer injustice, of knowing that even while you are putting the finishing touches to your radical reinterpretation of Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, most people think the real Festival is happening in the upstairs room of some grimy pub, where a man in drag is telling dirty jokes to three drunken students and his embarrassed mother.

So perhaps we should not be too hard on Jonathan Mills, the Australian director of the Festival's "official" component, who this week delivered a ferocious rant about the "trivialisation" of British cultural life, with its diet of "pre-digested baby food" and "white bread without the crusts". It would be cheap and nasty to say that this is a bit rich coming from an Australian, so I will forbear to do so. But it is certainly a bit rich coming from the highly paid organiser of one of the world's biggest arts jamborees.

It is true that modern Britain offers plenty to make the culture vulture shudder, but if Mr Mills could only tear himself away from his copy of Heat, even he might find something to entertain him. As Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre, was boasting only yesterday, 27,000 people recently watched a performance of the Greek tragedy Phèdre, beamed to cinemas that were nine-tenths full. "There is obviously an appetite for more challenging work," Hytner says, "the size of which is consistently underestimated."

But the really funny thing about Mr Mills's diatribe is that we have heard it all before. Self-styled intellectuals are never happier than when they are moaning about the dumbing-down of our culture, even though – if bookings at theatres, classical concerts and literary festivals are any guide – public enthusiasm for the arts has never been higher. If the critics are to be believed, we have been dumbing down since the invention of the printing press.

As it happens, this year marks the 140th anniversary of the most famous attack on dumbing-down of all, Matthew Arnold's collection of essays, Culture and Anarchy. As far as Arnold was concerned, even British culture in 1869 – when Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope were at their bestselling peak, when Browning, Swinburne and Rossetti were scribbling poems that would delight readers for generations – fell sadly short. Middle-class taste, Arnold thought, was lamentably "philistine"; what was needed was an unrepentantly elitist national culture that would lead the benighted masses towards "sweetness and light"...


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