Is Antonio Pappano right, are politicians scared of the arts?

Antonio Pappano. Photo: Johan Persson
Antonio Pappano. Photo: Johan Persson
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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When a new culture secretary is appointed the first question the press put to them is “What play did you last see?” It’s predicable, and every time there’s an embarrassing pause while they rack their minds and usually fail to come up with anything, as if no-one in that position has ever been asked such a thing before. They’re not asked what football club they support, or which newspaper they read first each morning, it’s the culture bit of their portfolio that they are always gone for by the press and they always get it wrong – the only thing the latest incumbent could come up with was that he was Star Trek fan. And it’s so predictable that I’m starting go wonder if it’s deliberate. Thereafter, of course, the DCMS press office never fails to let us know precisely what their masters and mistresses have seen in the past week.

[pullquote]The arts get a bit close to the soul, and the average politician is not comfortable admitting having one[/pullquote]

Now Tony Pappano, the Royal Opera House’s music director has revealed that he thinks that British politicos are “scared” to go to enjoy the arts. “I wish politicians would be open to what’s going on in the arts, they could learn so much in every way,” he said. “Theatre, opera, concerts are brain-openers as well as heart-openers. Instead they seem scared to show their faces.”

There used to be a little group of senior Labour ladies – the likes of Patricia Hewitt, Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Hodge – who had a 'Thursday Club' on a traditionally quiet night in the House, when they would link arms and have a girls’ night out at the Coliseum being entertained by whatever the ENO were offering that night. But it was a private date, they paid for their own tickets, and it was nobody else’s business.

There have been famous arts lovers in the house of Commons, like Gerald Kaufman who haunted the ROH – and David Mellor who boasted the largest CD collection in Westminster. Many are evident at the private views of major exhibitions, and you can spot them at first nights before they spot you and scurry for the safety of the crowd like startled sheep. The House has very active amateur clubs for drama, photography, music, singing, dancing and painting, and several from Disraeli to Douglas Hurd have been novelists, but for some reason they keep their cultural enthusiasms in-house.

The problem, as Tony Pappano has noticed, is that the arts get a bit close to the soul, and the average politician is not comfortable admitting having one. The arts can be awkward if you let them under your skin, you find yourself in passionate arguments for and against, and when it comes to funding it’s not good to be seen by Whips to be soft on things that excite emotion. The truth is that we’re talking about irreconcilable opposites in public life: the arts are about who we are, not what we do; politics are the opposite.

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