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14-18 Now: The arts and the First World War

Journey's End at the Duke of York's in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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So art is to be a part of the First World War commemorations – not “celebrations” as everyone is still having to be so careful to say. And so they should be, perhaps at the forefront of the proceedings, which they certainly won’t be.

It is curious that people tend to be much more interested in the Great War than the Second World War, and I think it is simply that the first conflict is now a generation away from our personal memories. No-one is now alive that served and few whose parents did, so it takes on a mythic quality.

It means that the images we have of the First World War, apart from photographs and jerky, sepia-coloured newsreels – which for the most part have been heavily censored to save our sensibilities – are what have been given to us by artists. The poetry of the First World War stands out in the 20th century pantheon as being soaringly inspirational, as well as bathetic to the point of despair. The painters, too – Nevinson, Nash, Spencer and hundreds of others – brought the horror of this hell to life, and still do. Many of them were killed, many more were psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives (Stanley Spencer couldn’t paint for two years after his discharge, and when he did his style had changed). Drama with the same theme was less prolific, but those that were produced still stand out. R C Sherriff was bitter that of all his plays Journey’s End, set in a 1918 dugout at Aisne, was by far the most successful.

Artists today can’t do that for us, but what they can do with a skill their forebears couldn’t call upon is project the present-day resonance of those awful, and awe-ful, days. That’s why Vikki Heywood, the former Royal Shakespeare Company executive director and now chair of the cultural programme, has called it 14-18 Now.

And what is particularly sensible about what is being set up is that a great many lessons are being learned from last year, the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival. Those responsible last year are nearly all on board again: Tony Hall, Alex Beard and Bonnie Greer, Ruth Mackenzie and Nigel Hinds, the co-creative producer in 2012, are all in again. And the director of 14-18 NOW is Jenny Waldman, Hinds’s oppo on the Olympiad. It was slightly eerie that the announcement on Friday was in exactly the same place, behind the Floral Hall in the Royal Opera House, where Ruth Mackenzie announced the Cultural Olympiad nearly four years go with many of the same faces present.

[pullquote]Maria Miller deserves congratulations for the pragmatic structure that is emerging[/pullquote]

Maria Miller, the culture secretary, who, it seems, got this whole thing by the scruff of the neck when it was being ignored by the other powers that be and set it up, deserves congratulations for the pragmatic structure that is emerging.

But what is inadequate is the funding. All of £10 million has been promised from Lottery funding for the whole four years of the programme, which compares with £70 million for 12 weeks of the London 2012 Festival had. Heywood expects that the amount will be doubled with fundraising, and there will undoubtedly be a degree of branding in which organisations with their own ideas already under way will be linked with and their proposals enhanced. And while there will certainly be branding, there will be no expensive logos created at vast expense, a very sensible economy.

So what will we get? Can Waldman and Heywood afford someone like Heatherwick, Boyle or Kapoor? Probably not, but this is an experienced team who have been round the block and who have developed close relationships with most of our best artists. Come the spring, we’ll know.

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