Via Guido Fawkes, news reaches us that shadow culture minister Ed Vaizey MP has been spotted lunching at Scotts of Mayfair — for an heroic, credit crunch-busting three hours, apparently — in the company of the accomplished Channel 4 television interviewee, fashion icon and occasional jobbing BritArtist, Tracey Emin.
Like any successful work of art, this is a story that can be enjoyed at a variety of levels. Guido’s readership, baying companionably at each other in the comments section, seem largely to have appreciated it on the level of ‘bloody fat troughing hoon, we’re paying his salary, how dare he, let’s burn something down’. Guido himself, I strongly suspect, took pleasure both in the spectacle of his own apparent omniscience — rather like the Eye of Providence on the back of Great Seal of the United States, but with rather more wi-fi access — and the happy fact that its target was, on this occasion, that rare creature in politics, someone who’s good at being teased.
For me, however — always the contrarian, except of course on those occasions where being a contrarian would be the obvious thing to be — the chief interest of the Vaizey-Emin lunch lies in what it seems to imply regarding the direction of Conservative arts policy. The conclusions it prompts are, alas, indigestible ones.
The problem isn’t, by the way, the existence of Miss Emin per se, whatever all right-thinking conservative commentators may shout to the contrary. Truth be told, she was by no means the worst of her over-hyped, under-qualified, rapidly ageing YBA generation. This sounds weak praise — for the simple reason that it is weak praise, spelled out at marginally greater length, albeit also seven years ago here, but all the same, praise of a sort. For if one can get past that marginally tedious bed, or indeed the quilts, Emin always retained a degree of graphic ability, a facility with the pen, with the result that her career always seems to me less a story of exploitation — ‘Artist Fools Us Into Paying Far Too Much For Useless Tat’ — than a much sadder tale, revolving around the abject failure of Britain’s educational institutions to cultivate natural talent, rather than deforming it into a sort of crazed compulsion towards self-publicising nihilism or, alternatively, a weirdly cynical strand of sentimentality. In the end, anyway, Emin should have been a better artist than, I expect, she ever now will be. This should be a source of regret, I think, rather than a basis for sneering.
Sneering, however, was what Emin received in lavish multiple helpings when, recently, she denounced Labour’s 50 per cent tax regime, suggesting she might instead move to France, where apparently ‘the French have lower tax rates and they appreciate arts and culture’. David Thompson, of course, was typically perceptive in pointing out that, for all her born-again Thatcherite pretensions, Emin nonetheless at the same time advocated state subsidies for artists — subsidies funded, presumably, with other people’s taxes. Yet I’m disinclined to come down too hard on Emin for these inconsistencies. Whatever else she may be, however competently she may wear a push-up bra or flash that extraordinary, jolie-laide smile for the paparazzi outside the Ivy, she is not, by any stretch of the imagination, much of a political commentator. Heaven knows, politicians can get themselves in enough trouble when they try to talk seriously about art, and then have to spend hours getting staff members to doctor the relevant Wiki-facts by way of inept cover-up. And yes, there’s a reason why career specialisation has caught on over the past few thousand years or so.
Vaizey, in fairness, benefits from a firmer and fairer grasp of cultural matters than most politicians ever manage. It helps that his mother, Lady Vaizey, is herself an art historian of some seriousness — a judge for the Turner Prize, but, lest we hold that against her unnecessarily, also at various points a trustee of both the Geffrey Museum and the Imperial War Museum — as well as one of Britain’s better arts reviewers. Accusations of Philistinism, lobbed at Vaizey by the less attentive school of Tory-bashers, simply will not stick. That’s a good thing, if only because it wrong-foots a crowd who deserve considerably worse than mere wrong-footing. Vaizey is also, it must be said, one of life’s natural ‘ambassadors’ — intelligent, charming, funny. But then there’s also the point that, given Vaizey’s unfortunate neo-con inclinations — he’s a Henry Jackson Society enthusiast — platinum-card membership of the Notting Hill set and generally modernising habits — he’s likely to do less harm when put in charge of culture than he would in many other contexts. (See, I’m learning to be positive about our Dave’s decisions – convincing, no?)
Yet for all that, the news of the Vaizey-Emin lunch-a-thon left me feeling distinctly dyspeptic. Here’s why. Can it really be right that a shadow minister for culture, perhaps only a few months away from the moment of his long-awaited apotheosis to real ministerial responsibility, should be able to spare three hours — an expensive three hours too, from the sound of it — in the company of a woman who, for all her demotic, Margate-girl-made-good charm and, as far as I’m concerned anyway, uncomplicated, cat-cuddling likeability, is so ineradicably an artefact of the early-to-mid 1990s cultural scene?
Don’t get me wrong. This is a conservative blog, after all, where avant-garde credentials remain an embarrassing and incidental feature to be explained away in the context of formal or utilitarian success. Had we learned that, for instance, Vaizey had been taking lunch with our greatest living painter — which, for all I know, may well have been the case, if only because his taste in pictures is, up to a point, remarkably sound — I’d have been delighted. What worries me is, more to the point, an attack of deja-vu.
For we’ve been here before — specifically, back in 1997. Do you remember 1997? In 1997, Emin, while successful, at least in terms of cash-generation, had not yet assumed her present Modern Master status. The Frieze art fair, around which Emin apparently squired her new pal Vaizey this year, back then still had a bit of a buzz about it, not yet having filled up with Chelsea-dwelling hedge-fund magnates trying hard to pretend — for such is the fashion this season — that the credit crunch has adversely affected their buying-power to any serious degree. Cool Britannia was heating up. Now, though, it’s not only long since gone cold, but has congealed into a thoroughly unpalatable memory, a queasy reflux of approval-hungry politicians trying far too hard, an arts establishment all too anxious to be rescued from its own impacted failures by a long-awaited policy change that was never in fact going to come.
We are constantly told that Cameroons are passionate about appearances. Tories mustn’t be seen to be drinking champagne, for instance, or cutting taxes, or embracing their Thatcherite heritage in unbecoming displays of public ardour. Yet for some reason it is acceptable for the shadow culture secretary to pass a happy afternoon in Scott’s of Mayfair, basking in the company of an artist who could hardly do more to symbolise the most embarrassing excesses of the 1990s art boom — an historical re-enactment of New Labour’s innocent early days, complete with a naughty, tax-averse, Thatcher-friendly meta-theme. Yes, of course I am a conservative — but when I sit down to enumerate the traditions I wish to preserve and defend, the arts policies of the late 1990s do not feature prominently in my thoughts. And, for what it’s worth, for once I don’t think I’m taking even a vaguely contrarian position.
This aesthetically jarring lack of consistency isn’t, though, the whole problem. Put bluntly, I am not enthusiastic about present-day Tory arts policy. Vaizey has gone on record opposing future cuts to public arts funding. ‘Any cuts to frontline arts organisations will have a profound impact on their ability to do their jobs,’ apparently — although why hard-working taxpayers should, in effect, work to subsidise ‘frontline arts organisations’, whatever these may be, remains less than entirely clear. Vaizey is ‘very committed’ to preserving the Arts Council — this, despite the fact that almost no one not directly in its pay seems to believe that, at least as presently organised, it is anything less than a shambles. He’s pleased that the arts have ‘growing levels of participation’ — worrying code, if one’s feeling cynical, for the sort of arts policy that judges itself less on the ‘excellent’ Vaizey elsewhere espouses, than on footfall gauged in terms of age, gender, ethnic and economic desiderata.
Confronted in a Guardian interview with the charge that these were, in fact, all Labour policies, Vaizey only had this to say:
Yes, there will be changes, but I am not pretending that they are massive ideological changes. I admit they are detailed points, and I am not going to pretend that an equally committed Labour minister wouldn’t get them sorted if they had the same application.
He modestly omits to remark that the ‘equally committed Labour minister’ might not be able to stand the YBAs of yesterday such good lunches, or charm them so suavely, at such great length. Damningly, the relevant Guardian article ends with the statistic that, after the Tories came to power in 1979, state funding of the arts was cut by £1.1 million. We are, I supposed, supposed at this point to shiver deliciously over our Berliner-formatted harbinger of doom.
Yet what happened to the arts in the years that followed 1979? For all her lack of political nous, Emin should, at least, know the answer to that one. Within a decade, Britain was once more creating art that, whatever else one might say about it, made waves around the world. Pop music awoke from its over-commercialised and charmless torpor. Opera boomed. Merchant Ivory set off on its semi-successful imperial errand, flanked in its unstoppable march by Brideshead Revisited, the best-ever Sherlock Holmes adaptation and heaven knows what else. British fashion mattered for the first time since the short-skirted swinging Sixties. Blockbuster exhibitions, for all they may have diminished the seriousness of public culture, injected new life, as well as new cash, into museums and galleries. The art auction market soared. Modern Painters flourished briefly yet gloriously. Architecture suddenly became more interesting. Even British food was found to be, when accorded a bit of fanfare, disconcertingly good.
In short, a semi-tough rhetoric of neglect and indifference from the state sector, an entrepreneurial ethos on the part of the private sector and, most important of all, a strong economy brought about what was, if not exactly a golden age, something significantly more impressive than anything the arts in Britain have seen over the past decade of ever-less-sincere Labour luvvie-hugging. Thatcher was, in that sense, a far better friend to the arts than Blair and Brown put together — strange but true.
Whether this paradox sounded a troubling note amidst the clinking of glasses and clatter of cutlery in Scotts at luncheon yesterday remains, in the end, unknowable. Only one thing’s certain, and it’s this that leaves me feeling a bit ill at the news of what must, I suppose, have been a marvellously enjoyable lunch, at least for all those directly involved. If, as appears likely, Vaizey chooses the Cool Britannia arts policy option over the Thatcherite alternative, the bill — whether we like it or not — will be on us.