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11 May, 2009

How modern art framed New Labour

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

In its enthusiasm for hip new art, Labour is ceding Britain’s cultural traditions to the Tories, says Jonathan Jones

A while ago I went to see the Government Art Collection, where I was shown many old paintings currently in storage. When the Tories were in power, I was told, these 18th-century portraits were all the rage for ministers’ offices. The current government has been more interested in modern art. I think I knew at that moment that New Labour was doomed.

The politics of culture can’t be as simple as the British Centre Left seems to think: modern good, traditional bad (and Tory). This ethos has pervaded the last years of Labour rule. A New Labour minister is more likely to have a Julian Opie on the wall than a Gainsborough. Imagine that: you could have an old master and yet you choose the Opie. I bet the furniture they’ve been claiming expenses for is really hip, too.

But it’s pathetic. Britain is an old country with a rich cultural tradition. The British left wing has a long history of reverence for what Leon Trotsky called the “peculiarities” of the English. In the 19th century it was the communist William Morris who did most to revive Arts and Crafts and weave Arthurian myths into his ideals of common labour. It is only with the advent of New Labour that a veneer of glib modernism became de rigueur for the Left.

New Labour has allowed itself to be seduced by a dualism it doesn’t need. The opening of Tate Modern in 2000 was a great moment, but it was not a social revolution that meant the British would now forget their past and lose their affection for gardens, cricket matches and village greens.

A healthy culture will always include both new and old, radical and reassuring. Labour has identified itself with one side of the modern national personality and has excluded British eccentricity from its cultural vocabulary. It has allowed the Tories to appear as if they are the natural party for people who might enjoy a visit to the odd castle. Which is one of the reasons why Labour is about to enter the wilderness. Let’s face it: doesn’t Boris Johnson, with his enthusiasm for classics, seem more well-rounded?

I wonder how consoling a Julian Opie print can be when your political life is over.

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