With every news story of national interest there is a certain detail which emerges from the eye of the media storm to reveal – with sudden clarity – the true and often ludicrous state of the nation. With the phone hacking scandal this detail came early in 2003, when Rebekah Brooks so casually announced, “We have paid the police for information in the past.” Despite its significance not being fully grasped at the time, this comment exposed the endemic corruption of her leadership of the News of the World.
In the case of the recent riots this detail has been the survival of Waterstone’s bookshop. As if by an act of God, as rioters looted and destroyed electrical and clothes shops on high streets around the country, the Waterstone’s branches they passed were left alone, without so much as a broken bookmark. An employee of the Manchester branch has been much quoted as saying, “We will stay open, if they steal some books they may learn something,” and the rioters’ snub of the written word confirms their materialistic rather than political motivation.
Waterstone’s survival is also, however, a symptom of the country’s growing lack of interest in and, even rejection of, the traditional Arts. As reality television, social media and mobile technology increasingly dictate how we spend our time, the idea that literature or art can constitute entertainment now seems alien. There is an increasingly widespread consensus that conventional ‘Culture’ has little to offer, being relevant only to a diminishing and bourgeoise minority. Politicians scramble over themselves to confirm this populist view, declaring a distaste for literature (Ed Miliband claims he does not read at all, because novels are “all made up”; Cameron chose a cookery book on Desert Island Discs; and Brown flaunted his “addiction” to The X Factor in 2008). By contrast, David Starkey’s intellectual arrogance has been his undoing; his blustering on Newsnight confirmed the public mistrust of him as an out of touch caricature. In government policy, there have been merciless cuts in funding for the Arts sector and, more sinisterly, universities’ Humanities departments, seeming to confirm that art, language, literature and philosophy are irrelevant both to us and future generations. With this social climate, is it any surprise that those causing chaos on the streets saw more value in a flat screen television than any book the English language has to offer?
Matthew Arnold would have been quick to see a further connection. The Victorian poet, critic and self-appointed do gooder saw the social unrest of his age as a symptom of the mass ignorance of classical and literary ‘Culture.’ He believed that providing an education in what he called in 1875 “the best which has been thought and said in the world” to a larger proportion of the population had the power to redress the Victorian social imbalance. Many of the conditions of the Victorian age – surges in technological advancements, an increasing split between rich and poor, inequality of employment – are not so very different from our own. Arnold would probably deride our contemporary rioters as philistines, but his desire to break down class barriers through shared understanding is one absolutely relevant to present troubles. The reality is that literature, art and philosophy have something to offer to everybody in inherently and wonderfully subjective ways. They are all essentially expressions of attempts to understand human life, a task with which we all need help at some point. As Richard Eyre has put it, “Art gives us a glimpse of another person’s humanity to better understand our own”, especially in a cultural context where absolute moral values are anachronistic.
The spark of recognition when you realise that another mind has thought and expressed that which you believed to be unique to your own can be not only moving, but incredibly comforting. Being permitted this glimpse of another’s humanity and feeling this connection of shared understanding should not be seen as a luxury reserved for the public school educated or the dinner party attendee. Although I’m not suggesting that feeding the convicted looters Plato or Keats would have stopped them taking to the streets, nor that a lack of Arnold’s classical education was the reason for the riots, it is undeniable that a sense of human solidarity can guard against the feelings of alienation experienced by so many, feelings that can lead to desperate and violent acts. The opportunity to engage with another person through thought rather than perpetual materialistic competition should not be presented by the government as an expendable cultural extra, relevant only to people with high disposable incomes. Rather, it should be seen as a structure of shared experience around which to rebuild our society.
In a society where novelty and consumption appear to be valued above all else, the empathy and humility of the Arts could prove to be even more valuable than in Arnold’s day. Engaging with a commentary on what it is to be, rather than to have, is essential to any society and should be protected and nurtured as such.