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28 Aug, 2009

Heritage: consign it to history

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

It’s a dismissive and patronising word that smothers great art in deadening nostalgia – we should strike it from our vocabulary

The cultural life of Britain would be vastly improved if we could obliterate the word heritage from our vocabulary. I can’t understand how it has taken root so deep in our language, like a poisonous weed growing on a gothic ruin, eating up imagination and curiosity.

What an ugly word it is, to begin with. Why heritage, exactly? Why not inheritance – a much more forceful and imperative word? But that’s the point: to call historic art and buildings our inheritance would suggest a heavy burden of debt. The effect of the word heritage is, by contrast, to mute and disempower history and weaken our sense of relationship with it. It is the linguistic equivalent of a mock-Tudor cottage, reducing memory to nostalgia.

It entered our vocabulary in the Tory 1980s, when Thatcherite governments deliberately applied the word to a vast area of architecture, museums and art. By rights it should have faded away with John Major.

The problem with heritage is that it immediately, by a stroke of the pen, consigns what it denotes to a cosy, insignificant past. It implies that everything historical is irrelevant. Heritage smothers great art, great buildings and indeed great history in a clotted-cream fudge of coy comfiness.

To see how daft this word really is, try applying it to any truly powerful work of art. Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, for example. This painting hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London, part of Britain’s rich collection of art. But does heritage seem a useful word to describe Van Gogh’s intense grip on your emotions? Or what about the fiction of JG Ballard? Now he is dead, Ballard presumably belongs to our heritage. But his novels are more alive than most that will be written over the next few years. They will last and they will carry on seeming new, urgent, immediate – they will never become what heritage implies.

Only someone who has no admiration for the creative act would ever want to class any creative work as heritage. Real art endures because it connects and reconnects with each new generation. The notion of heritage serves everyone who fears this vitality. It is a philistine word we should consign to … our heritage.

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