Culture in austere times

In the evenings I’m still reading Dominic Sandbrook’s State of Emergency: Britain 1970-74, a book too big to carry around on the tube (although I’d never read it on an e-reader). A passage about the resurgence in high culture against the background of an ailing economy and bitter strikes struck a chord. Sandbrook quotes David Lodge in 1971 saying there was “unprecedented cultural pluralism which allows, in all the arts, an astonishing variety of styles to flourish simultaneously.” It was a rich era for British fiction, for blockbuster exhibitions like the Tutankhamun show at the British Museum (I queued for hours as a schoolgirl to get into that), or Turner and Constable at the Tate. In classical music, the 70s brought operas by Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett was at his peak, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies came to prominence. The Observer in 1975 commented on the mass enthusiasm for “sales of LPs, prints and paperbacks; the viewing statistics for opera, ballet and drama on television.” It added that there was a surge too in amateur dramatics, Sunday painting, community arts centres and other indicators of eagerness to participate.

The chord this struck was with an excellent book about the 1930s, Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation 1919-39. He too made the link between economic upheaval and huge enthusiasm for seriousness in the arts and books. Overy highlighted, for example,  the astonishing popular success of the Left Book Club, and political and literary publications.

Are we experiencing the same kind of phenomenon now? One aspect that stands out for me personally is the growth of huge audiences for modern dance and classical ballet – I’ve been attending performances for years, and while these were considered challenging, minority interests 20 years ago, they’re tremendously popular now. Another is the passion so many people have for serious debate – lectures and debates are packed. The Festival of Economics at the weekend was one manifestation of it. There is certainly an appetite to understand what’s happening in the world.

So, another parallel between the 1930s, the 1970s and the 2010s: a cultural revival in austere times?

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