Sunday, 10 July 2011

Is Britain today, the Spain of the Renaissance?

Is Britain today, the Spain of the Renaissance?: A response (of sorts) to @agidgetwidget's 'microcosmic paradigm of civilisation experiencing the de-evolution from Renaissance to Popularist Banality to 0'.

While attendance of art galleries in London is up, one must weigh whether this is because of a longing for art, or if this is due to other, perhaps less purist reasons, such as those art galleries being tourist attractions or a source of free 'entertainment' during the years of economic recession. At the height of the Renaissance, all of Europe was gripped with a fantastic appetite to indulge more in art and artistic ideals. From the Germanic countries came philosophies and music the likes of which had seldom been seen before, while from southern Europe came a level of painting and drawing that would revolutionise the medium and remain popular to this day. In Britain, poets such as Milton and Spenser, playwrights such as Shakespeare and Marlowe and the refinement of political satire were key. However, there has always been one country in Europe conspicuous by its absence from the greater renaissance movement and this country of course is Spain. Spain was in the grip of the Inquisition and artistic things were oft viewed with suspicion. Aside from the undoubtably influential and highly thought of presence of Francisco Goya, Spain produced nothing to further the European renaissance. As the rest of Europe explored all possibilities of art, with the exception of Goya, Spain remained in a rot. The ruling royal elite aside, Spain was a country of peasants and priests, a standard that the Inquisition looked to maintain as this made their grip on power tighter. Indeed it was so tight that a revolution against the church was never even talked of, and it was only when the French invaded Spain that the Inquisition was destroyed.

Let us imagine what the entertainment was like to the Spanish of that time. Simple, almost romantic visions are conjured up. Flamenco and gypsy dancing (when the agents of the Church could not see it), perhaps board games of the time and of course wine. Work robbed them of energy and their commitments to one of the most oppressive religious movements in history robbed them of time and energy to become creative at all. Bar Goya's efforts Spain remained a place where culture died at the heel of the Inquisition until Napoleon brought his war to the Iberian peninsula.

Now, let us make some hypothetical considerations before looking at our own time, and specifically Britain in the 21st century. First we must concede that the church has not that power anymore (though in Britain it hasn't any really power for a hundred years at all). But the obvious replacement for the halls of God would be television. Each night before it, so many of us bend our knees and stare agog at the majesty we are shown. We use it to seek advice and hope that it will tell us what to do. 24 hour rolling news is like a channel dedicated to the movements and ideas of the new trinity that is mankind, his television and 'entertainment'. We see our brothers and sisters doing thus and then decree from the pulpit in our hearts and minds whether this is right or wrong. The television has its own room - each lounge a vestry. Our chief source of worship, wisdom, 'entertainment' and perhaps even guidance on an almost divine level, is the chattering box that we can control (though I fear, not as much as it can control us).

Those peasant pastimes of the Spanish during the renaissance years, what might they have been today? The dancing, that would once have been in fields or in the houses of friends now is found in clubs and bars where music blares out from speakers to drown out conversation (for conversing is key to creation which is active and they want you passive). It is as if we do not seek to think but to avoid thinking by stamping our feet and returning to a more instinctive form of 'entertainment'. And in those bars and clubs, still we find the drink of Bacchus and so much more. Alcohol still plays its part, though there is far more on offer than a cheeky rioja.

And we can return to boardgames now, though they have become electronic. From handheld devices to the consoles whose wires hang from the backs of television sets like the vines grasping for the glorious sunlight, our dice are now controllers and the best we can hope for from our opposable thumbs, that gift which took us from the animal kingdom and made us man, unique among all the creatures of the earth, is that it doesn't get cramp while trying to make Mario rescue the princess.

So take that Spanish peasant lifestyle and look at Britain today. More people are going to clubs to dance their evenings away, the sales of those consoles and their games are always climbing and our consumption of beer, wine and spirits will not abate. And every day, we feed a little more of our souls to our televisions. Viewing figures are sky high and only going up. And we pay for every one of these privileges. These populist pleasures drain us of that which we struggle for each day. Every nugget of gold that we scratch together is spent on alcohol, nights out and Nintendo.

And as this recession claws at the public purse once more, our oppressive inquisition in Britain has found those bastions of thought and education, of art and culture and painting them with bulls-eyes, for they are the easiest of targets. They will find more money from our wine, but this is for our own good as it will discourage us from drinking and being antisocial though really the thought of us sober must be terrifying. The economy would collapse for one thing and we might start thinking about our lives for another. No, it is the institutes of art and education that have already fell to the first salvo of barbaric cost-cutting. Public Libraries are closing for we have no time to read of the majesties and wonders of the past. Despite these noble places offering to those who seek it, young and old, a fountain of knowledge, wisdom and learning. And now universities are to become private companies obsessed with money first and learning second. They, our noble government said that one or two of these institutions would charge the maximum fair for entrance into the higher levels of thought and the tutoring that this requires but now nearly all have slapped fees on them as high as the very buildings they occupy. Each student now may go and feast on knowledge but only if he or she is willing to live a life of debt to a state that gave them nothing. But as long as they can dance…

And art funding for galleries and museums slashed like a child swiping at a spider's web. To keep the most amazing works of our artists and those from around the world, curators must now busk and plead to keep their doors open and their walls painted. Britain's government thinks not of art. For so much of art is free and they cannot find a tax for this. But as long as we have our television…

But what of television? And radio? What of the bbc? An institution built to educate, inform and entertain with impartiality at a small cost per year per household. Even they must suffer. The World Service, a station listened to around the globe in so many languages, a source of truth in its highest regard, is now a burden. It is no longer a service in the eyes of this government who think that we cannot afford to be thought of as a nation of truth perhaps and service to the world. This station that has kept the world informed through wars and revolutions must pick and choose which branches it must keep. Some already have perished. But we still have our wine…

Yes, our wine. Our taxable wine that makes us weak in the face of our government and makes the cuts we see each day to the highest levels of artistic endeavour, seem like but a scratch. And ay, there's the rub. But had we not a renaissance, we'd not know that phrase, but in the years to come, perhaps as the populist pastimes make roads, the future generations won't know them. For their schools were deemed too expensive and their universities a luxury and their libraries a decadence and the art galleries a gift to tourists, not for them.

So the topic of this essay, was wether my microcosmic paradigm (that is Britain today) has experienced a de-evolution from renaissance to populist banality. I think I've stressed that I believe it so. But I can give you reason too. Money. Art does cost money, but an artist never creates because of it. A true artist creates because he or she believes and feels that they have to. Their fee is but a way of sustenance so that they may continue. But a politician will look at an artist and think them a fool. And artists have, its sad to say, no control over banks and economies. Britain today is one of hand-ringing and people muttering about sticking together through hard times, though the only evidence for these hard times is that we have a government telling us we are living in hard times instead of a government that was telling us that salvation is just around the corner. Television has become God, and those populist pleasures are now the norm. There is still art and culture, true, but it has not the support it used to have. It is now for making money from tourists. If there was a renaissance in this country once, it doesn't live here any more.

Have we then descended to zero? Have we gone to a level of 0 creation? No, but if things do not change, if art does not receive the support it requires, it will soon. But at the moment we are at the mercy of politicians who see half price Budweiser and X-box bundles as the answer, so as they say on television; watch this space…

We are not Spain, for we have no Goya. We have not Spain, because we have no hope of france invading us and smashing every blasted set. We are not Spain, because they have better weather than we do. We are worse now than Spain was then, because things will only descend further into the mire of populism, while the angel of culture dies quietly, with an arrow made of money, buried deep within her breast.