Editorial: The arts have failed us

Editorial: The arts have failed us


norman lebrecht

September 26, 2020

From the October issue of The Critic magazine:

Where have the arts been during lockdown and why have they so plainly failed by their own lights?

Too much can be expected of art. The cliché that art has become a substitute — or even actual — religion for too many civilised people is a commonplace for a reason: they have mistaken what art is there to do. Which, more often than not, is to decorate life, not fulfil it. Art serves purposes, it doesn’t provide them.

So where has art been during this last half year of our lives? Afflicted, at first, by the physical fears which grasped so many at the start of the Covid crisis, but unlike other more vital activities, which have pushed and hungered to return to their usual places, the arts have not. They have in their own way been as bad as the actual churches, sheltering themselves away from fears they seemingly neither understand nor are able to offer comfort.

The agitprop of half a century, of straining at every legal leash, from the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil to the obscenity laws, has led to this empty, wordless stage. Why such conformity? Why have the arts not strained at the bonds laid upon them in the way earthier pursuits and pleasures have?

We have some football but few plays, pubs but little music. Restaurants strain at capacity while those museums and galleries that have reopened severely limit the numbers who can attend. Such timidity speaks to a husk of a culture whose reality is very far from its antique self-conceit. There was more lockdowned rebellion to be found in a public park from teenage children than there was in what must now be seen as “Legacy Art”…

Read on here.





  • Anon says:

    That’s a rather strange opening in the blog that has relentlessly reported the attempts of the arts world to rebel against the restrictions that have been placed on it. And then I read the rest of the article and realise that it’s another sally in the continuing Lebrecht war on the BBC – the organisation that has done more than any other in the UK to sustain the arts over the last few decades and through the pandemic.


  • Alexander Hall says:

    Patrick Cockburn, himself a victim of polio in Ireland, argues very persuasively in The Independent
    https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-coronavirus-testing-nhs-covid-app-herd-immunity-b599887.html?r=4685 that our only long-term salvation lies in herd immunity. If I think of the damage that has already occurred in the arts sector alone as a result of all lockdown measures, never mind the effects on the mental health of millions deprived of an important area of live entertainment, I am filled with anguish. A savage national lockdown has also not hit the virus for six. Other countries have experienced much the same, some more agonisingly, others less so. Politicians have become very fearful of antagonising the public and appearing oblivious to the many individual tragedies of lost lives. However, if we carry on in the same piecemeal manner the virus will still be around a year from now. Live entertainment will be reduced to the lucky few and so many who once worked in this sector will have given up. It’s time for a major re-think.

  • Bloom says:

    Maybe because deep down there s a feeling of emptiness and exhaustion. A generalized creative block. An impasse that has to be acknowledged and not disguised underneath I don t know what fake activism. Corona may be a primarily a soul disease that will be cured only by inventing new means of artistic expression and by finding a new, authentic sense of purpose in the artistic enterprise.

  • Mike Z says:

    Curious to respond to the charge “The Arts Have Failed Us” with a diatribe against progressives’ issue to the lyrics of a song and nary a positive case for the Arts instead.

  • Gary says:

    Whilst it’s not always appropriate to criticise the messenger rather than the argument, it is worth noting that ‘The Critic’ is a contrarian right-wing mouthpiece for Covid denying poltroons like Toby Young (contributing editor). Peel away the article’s rhetoric and it amounts to a call to ignore shielding requirements which is both dangerous and irresponsible (and illegal in many cities at the moment).

    • Allen says:

      Suggest you take a more intelligent, open minded approach and consider the views of Professor Carl James Heneghan, for instance.

      A little less emphasis on numbers of cases, and a little more on deaths would be sensible.

      • Dr Who says:

        Heneghan has published nothing on sars-cov-2 in any peer reviewed journal. He is not a virologist. The same old lies are being told by erroneous modelling.

      • Richard Graber says:

        Many who survive are left with horrible internal medical problems for the rest of their lives. It’s not just about the deaths.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I don’t know about this whole paragraph:

    “Too much can be expected of art. The cliché that art has become a substitute — or even actual — religion for too many civilised people is a commonplace for a reason: they have mistaken what art is there to do. Which, more often than not, is to decorate life, not fulfil it. Art serves purposes, it doesn’t provide them.”

    Art serves purpose, it doesn’t provide them, it is to decorate life, not fulfill it?

    One might as well say that thought or emotions are only to decorate life, not to fulfill it; as if some other stark process is the ultimate.

  • Doc Martin says:

    The doctor and the artist have much in common. The doctor tends to the weaknesses of the flesh, the infirmities of the mind and artists too are healers.

    Their art is nourishment for the human soul, without it we whither and die.

    During the lockdown and ongoing pandemic, I have enjoyed many happy hours playing my Irish harp and listening to others play on youtube, especially the harp scholar Simon Chadwick. The Irish harp is wire strung unlike others. In Turlough O’ Carolan’s time (1670-1738) they were strung with iron strings, later brass which gives a lovely bell like sonority. Simon Chadwick a harper based in Armagh has done sterling research into the Irish harp.

    This is the old Irish harp tune and song air, Cúileann fín (“fine head of hair”). Probably better known as “Súd é sios an rod a d’imigh sí (that there is the road she went). He is playing it from the Edward Bunting’s live transcription from the performance of an old Irish harper, probably Hugh Higgins in summer 1792. You can see the manuscript page here at Queen’s University Belfast: http://digital-library.qub.ac.uk/digi


    (Doc Martin is a retired GP, Irish harpist and amateur composer, based in Belfast).

  • christopher storey says:

    I suppose that for far too long we have operated under the illusion that the BBC had an artistic side to it, when the reality has been that any artistic purpose which was envisaged by Reith a century ago has been watered down consistently and remorselessly during the last 35 years or so . Loss of Drama on both Radio and TV has been one result, and an equally damaging process has been the relentless dumbing down of Classical Music on Radio 3, and on TV, and its total elimination from other networks. Similarly, in fields other than the artistic, it has lost its balance and become little more than a propaganda machine for the left wing of politics . The only realistic view is that the BBC no longer serves a useful purpose, and the time has arrived to wind it up and let it be gently forgotten

    • A bassist says:

      I learnt almost everything I know about music from going to the BBC Proms, listening to BBC Radio 3 and its back online catalogue (record review, discovering music). The back catalogue alone gives one insight into the contexts of not only the works of the traditional canon but also plenty of music off the beaten track. And that turned out to be enough knowledge to get into some of the most prestigious establishments of musical learning in the world. It would be a great shame if future generations didn’t have that same easy access.

  • will says:

    Is this crap serious, or is it a spoof, or more probably a deliberate wind-up?

  • Stop complaining and start working! says:

    The leftists in charge of the cities and states you’re weeping for created their own problems as usual, unable to either learn or make good decisions.

    You want art back? Open up commerce! It’s that simple. ACT like you’re “college educated” adults and stop sitting around in self-pity.

    Not being able to function like grownups gave the US President Trump and you’re WELL on your way to a second term with him the way you’re acting!

    If there were clear policies or good things to say about your own candidates, you’d all be out talking about your own party in a positive light. So those still on the left have NOTHING TO OFFER…again and you’ll destroy things on November 3 as you did before.

    Art is not an issue you can begin to handle if you can’t even manage yourselves like men and women.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    What the global cov-19 pandemic has revealed is that we are far too much dependent on “canned and second hand entertainment”, you must re-establish home
    entertainment and music making for yourselves and families. In Ireland we have a folk tradition second to none.

    Learn an instrument, anything, you might find it enjoyable.

    Listen to Liam O’Flynn a master of the Uilleann pipes, plays the fox hunt. Pure genius. Especially after a ween of Guinness!


    • St Patrick's Aunt says:

      Yes I see some ejit does not like the Uilleann pipes, clearly some tool who could tell a reel from a hornpipe. Liam was a magic piper.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    Just listen to the legendary piper Seamus Ennis tell the story of Don Niperi Septo. Magic.


    • St Patrick's Aunt says:

      Yes the philistines would not know anything about real music and the pipes. Seamus was a master story teller and piper.

  • Observing the obvious says:

    It’s ok to pack in the same amounts of people at a grocery store without regulating occupancy just as before so why not at an opera house or symphony hall?

    What difference at this point does it make?!?!?!

  • Craig says:

    Seriously, do we need yet more crap contrarian journalism clogging our airwaves? A classic type of article that poses many questions, no answers and only serves to stir up bad feeling. ‘Oh we have the football, with all its financial backing, but why not the arts?! I know, it must be the fault…of THE ARTISTS.’ Truly illuminating. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

    • Anon says:

      There appear to be two Lebrechts. There is the thoughtful and interesting commentator on classical music who recognises that “Western” culture isn’t the preserve of dead white Christian males, welcomes attempts to open it up to new audiences and enjoys the contribution of popular artists. And then there’s the professional controversialist who produces knee-jerk rightwing clickbait rubbish like this.

      I wonder which Lebrecht will win if, as is being predicted tonight, the appalling philistines Charles Moore and Nigel Dacre get put (without the open contests required by law) in charge of the BBC and Ofcom.

  • Doc Martin says:

    Watch this RTE documentary about the last days of Luggala, a paradise in the Wicklow mountains. Garech Browne is greatly missed a great patron and supporter of Irish art and music.

    As a young medical student at TCD in 1966, I recall a wonderful costumed Ball there, Handel’s fireworks music and all.


    • Flann O'Brian says:

      Yes Garech Browne whose mother was Oonagh Guinness was a 1 in a million. I remember the great craic up at Luggala with the Chieftains, Champagne flowed like water when he was in residence. The place was sold by the Guinness Trust for 20m Euro to a reclusive Italian Count and hedgefunder. Sad times indeed.

    • Flann O'Brian says:

      Some English ejit has thumbed down Luggala.

  • marcus says:

    This is patent nonsense. “The Arts” (whatever that is meant to mean) did the right thing by not engaging in activities which kill people.

    • Geezer says:

      Activities in themselves do not kill, sars-cov-2 does. Yes attending arts events in a pandemic is a no no for the elderly and at risk groups. The former are frequently the main audience in classical concerts and have the money.

  • Madeline says:

    My thoughts exactly. I live in New York & attend concerts & theater frequently. I am appalled at the apparent acquiescence of the performing arts community. While hoteliers have their hands out and restaurateurs protest on the steps of City Hall, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the orchestras and opera companies, even Broadway, are all but invisible, except for notices of cancellations. Their seeming passivity is matched only by the dereliction of our city fathers & mothers. If they don’t care about culture, they should at least care about the billions generated by the performing arts.

    • John Kelly says:

      Tragically, 33,000 New Yorkers are dead (that’s about a normal evening at Yankee Stadium’s worth)…….how many more deaths do you deem acceptable so that we can generate these “billions of dollars” and so that we can have Carnegie Hall open during a pandemic that kills 3% of those infected by this most infectious disease? Just wondering…since I also live in NYC and attend concerts and opera very frequently….or at least I did……and will again…

    • Bertie Wooster says:

      We spell it theatre, theater is the German spelling. US is a real Covid-19 black spot more excess deaths that you can poke a stick at. Would not cross the pond for all the money in China.

      • Cubs Fan says:

        Yes, the number of deaths in the US is the highest in the world. BUT——look at the population! Per 100,000 the US count is lower than: Mexico, Bolivia, France, Iran, Spain, Peru, Romania, Indonesia, Columbia and Brazil. There are some serious hot spots in the US, but most of us are living our lives pretty much like normal, go about our business and don’t worry about it. If you’re under age 70 you chances of survival are like 99.5%. Enjoy your theatre. I’ll enjoy going to rodeos – outdoors and no mask!

      • Laughing AT you not with you says:

        Good job bringing up the ORIGIN of the Chinese Disease!

  • Morgan says:

    While speaking about the UK and mostly London (where I do not live), I find this an insidious, sophistic article. The arts community have responded with some ingenuity with streaming, with (by our silly sense of ‘norm’) some limited albeit odd concerts, plays, and even an opera or two. In a pandemic where at minimum a million people have died worldwide we are all moving one step per day. The failures are on the parts of most governments, not the art community where I many of my fellows around the work and have done as well as might be anticipated.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      The problem with UK Arts is precisely that they are too London centred. The devolved regions end up with crumbs. Just getting to London is real ordeal, especially in a pandemic and staying in it is like pot luck.

  • Devil Eire says:

    Doc Martin is right. Folk in the 21st century are spoon fed culture, they need to learn to make their own, learn to play, sing, draw , paint and be more self reliant. At least he is making an effort.

    The plague upon us is likely to be about for the next 5 years+, the vaccines may well be a failure. That one in China certainly is as is Rasputin’s.

    • GB says:

      but that would mean people would have to put down their cell phones and engage with non-digital technology. How on earth could they manage their Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and all the rest of their online social media engagements without being tethered to their second brain?

  • John Borstlap says:

    “The cliché that art has become a substitute — or even actual — religion for too many civilised people is a commonplace for a reason: they have mistaken what art is there to do. Which, more often than not, is to decorate life, not fulfil it. Art serves purposes, it doesn’t provide them.”

    Because this is a thinly veiled judgment of art as mere entertainment, exactly the very idea that prostitutes the art form, resulting in the many problems classical music is suffering from today. Anything following from such underdeveloped premise can quietly be dropped in the dustbin of the egalitarian, decadent, populist society model where it belongs.

    For people, inventing such nonsense, to justify their ignorance, there is enough ‘art’: specially made for them by people like them: conceptual artists, sound artists, fashion designers, etc. – it’s the John Cage and Jeff Koons type.

    Serious people look elsewhere, and fortunately there are enough of them.

  • Leonardo Bautista says:

    Well, in Russia the arts seem to be doing quite well even during covid-19 and there are none of the ridiculous bickerings about whether the arts are relevant or not.

  • Doc Martin says:

    Football is an outdoor pursuit it cannot be compared to sitting in an opera house or concert hall. The two situations pose markedly different risks to cov-19.

    Aerosol transmission occurs rapidly indoors, a study in Florida demonstrated up to 5m in a hospital ward, so 2m SD needs to be bigger and ventilation systems need a revamp.

  • fflambeau says:

    Sorry, wrong attitude. The arts haven’t failed us, we’ve failed the arts.


    Oh pur-lease, Norman! We don’t need more right wing nonsense with ZERO arts or music credibility. Here’s the BBC bashing financier behind this claptrap (who’d have a guessed, a millionaire leaver? Perhaps he’ll do us all a favour like all the other millionaire leavers, and LEAVE) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Hosking And here are the co-editors, ex-politioco, DUP & ERG members https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/critical-moment/ with huge credentials in the arts. Please don’t feed us this shit, Norman. The stakes right now are too high, and we might start thinking this site too is losing credibility