HAMLET:  Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
CLOWN:Why, because ’a was mad. ’A shall recover his wits there; or, if ’a do not, ’tis no great matter there.
CLOWN:’Twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.
—Shakespeare, Hamlet

I do not know whether any enterprising young graduate student has yet looked into the possibility that Hamlet was suffering from Mad Cow Disease. If not, I offer the idea gratis as a likely ticket to tenure. It would only be necessary to show that greedy, capitalistic cattle farmers were exporting their products a bit earlier than hitherto suspected. Correction: greedy, capitalistic, and imperialistic cattle farmers— who were doubtless non-vegetarian smokers, to boot. Think of what might have infested those funeral baked meats coldly furnishing forth the marriage tables! You may not know that Fortinbras, harbinger of a new European Union, actually appears in the last act to oversee the slaughter of infected livestock. Hence the play’s closing line: “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

Of course, the really mad thing about Mad Cow Disease is the furor it has created, especially among other members of the European Union. If it weren’t for the British cattle farmers, who have really suffered from the ban, the episode would merely be ludicrous. As it is, the ban on British beef is a perfect example of how the (as it were) ham-fisted way politically correct bureaucrats in Brussels, dancing to tunes called in Bonn, can be expected to act. Accordingly, when I was in London early in May, I resolved to tuck into some wholesome British beef at the first opportunity as a sort of reverse boycott. My chance came almost immediately when I was invited by a friend to lunch at the Savoy Grill. It’s a charming spot. I highly recommend their prime rib of beef, rare, with Yorkshire pudding.

As we discussed the beef ban and other matters pertaining to “Europe”—the familiar shorthand for the proposed redefinition of England as a colony of a German-led European coalition—I wondered whether the Brussels bureaucrats would continue to allow meals such as we were consuming. My friend was enjoying eggs lightly scrambled in butter over smoked salmon. Possibly the health police were even then installing sensors to warn them about tables such as ours where the cholesterol level was woefully unenlightened.

While it is difficult to calculate exactly how intrusive a brave new European world would be, early signs are not encouraging. That very morning The Daily Telegraph reported that a European Court had ruled that a council was wrong to sack a college manager who had had a sex-change operation. “Hello, Johnny; from now on you’re to address Mr. Jones as Miss Jones.”

While it is difficult to calculate exactly how intrusive a brave new European world would be, early signs are not encouraging.

Not that left-leaning Brits need lessons in butting into other people’s lives. The columnist Minette Marrin, in a hair-raising piece in a subsequent issue of The Daily Telegraph, quoted from a document written by one Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, who argued that “for too long, the early years of a child’s life have been seen as the private concern of the parents.” Like Hillary Clinton, this zealous public servant wants to get the state into the business of child rearing. In particular, she wants “a comprehensive approach to integrate education and care into a seamless service for children under five” in which the “private sector”—a.k.a. mum and dad—are not too involved. In other words, “it takes a village.”

Miss Marrin rightly describes these proposals as “totalitarian” (and “horrendously expensive”). She also notes that when Margaret Hodge was leader of Islington Council and responsible for the upbringing of many children in the care of Islington’s childrens’ homes, there was “a very nasty scandal” involving sex abuse that was severely criticized in a Government report. Mrs. Hodge eventually admitted that “as far as services for children are concerned, we failed.” But that failure has obviously not dimmed her enthusiasm for pontificating. “In her position,” Miss Marrin concludes, “I think I might restrain myself from addressing the nation about the state care of children, or about the care of children at all. I think shame might keep me quiet.”

Ah, yes: shame. There’s not terribly much of that on either side of the Atlantic these days. Not that the current orgy of shamelessness is surprising. The experience of shame presupposes standards of behavior that, being widely acknowledged, bind a community into a moral whole; when one fails to meet such standards, the result is shame. At a time when such standards are in disarray—when they appear arbitrary or merely “personal”—then the sense of shame disintegrates. What remains, however, is not freedom, as some apostles of shamelessness have declared, but a species of self-infatuation among whose salient characteristics are smugness and superficiality.

I had occasion to reflect on this phenomenon one night when I joined several artists and critics for dinner after an opening-night party at a gallery off Cork Street. Conversation at my end of the table, with an artist and two critics, started off decorously with lots of talk about the nature of aesthetic experience and that sort of thing. But matters took a decided turn for the worse when the artist declared that, in his view, Margaret Thatcher ought to be “assassinated” as an act of public benefaction. It didn’t help when I announced that I was an avid fan of Lady Thatcher’s. From there the exchange rapidly degenerated. Somehow the phrase “British Empire” insinuated itself into the conversation. I made the mistake of speaking up for that, too, observing that there was a lot to be said for imperialism, particularly the British variety, and especially when you considered what a botch most of the former colonies had made of their countries without Western guidance.

Well, that was simply not to be borne. The artist told me that just as no person had the right to impose his values on anyone else, so too no culture—especially no benighted Western culture—had the right to impose its values on another culture. What about his wanting to assassinate Lady Thatcher, you wonder? Wouldn’t that be a bit of an imposition, at least from her point of view? Apparently that was different. But then what about the many societies in what used to be called the Dark Continent and elsewhere in which female genital mutilation is widespread? Surely Western European societies, with their commitment to universal human rights, had a right, nay an obligation, to intervene where they could to discourage this barbaric practice? At this the female art critic grew thoughtful. But the artist was ready with the evening’s pièce de résistance. Not only was female genital mutilation no worse or more barbaric than (male) circumcision, he said, it was no worse than an English parent sending his children to public (what we would call private) school.

That did momentarily take my breath away. He wasn’t serious? Oh, yes, quite serious. He even had an elaborate tale about how English public schools perpetuate an evil, class-ridden, capitalist society: it was right out of central casting. And of course here was a man who was just about to depart for the many bucolic acres of his Hampshire farm and art studio, a welcoming retreat paid for, I gathered, from the sale of aggressively mediocre abstract daubs of the sort I had seen in the gallery exhibition earlier. It was almost enough to make one lament the evils of capitalism.

All this was just business as usual in the world of contemporary culture. But it was nonetheless depressing to recognize once again to what extent the English cultural scene was becoming more and more like the American cultural scene in its attitudes, pretensions, even in its choice of comestibles (though this last might well be an improvement). Every time I go to London now it seems a little less British. There is pressure from “Europe” on England to surrender its legal autonomy, its currency, and important elements of its way of life; there is even greater pressure from beyond Europe from unfettered immigration, which is rapidly changing—perhaps irrevocably—the character of English society; and there is the ubiquitous infiltration of what is euphemistically called American “popular culture,” a term that embraces everything from jeans and McDonald’s hamburgers to the moral incontinence of an insatiable hedonistic relativism fed by an addiction to the mindless culture of television and rock music. The politicians in Britain, mirabile dictu, seem even more feckless than their American counterparts. Absent Margaret Thatcher from power, there doesn’t seem to be anyone with sufficient pluck to turn things around. Tony Blair, who almost everyone agrees will be the next prime minister, is a very smooth operator. But on all the essential questions he seems to me to be Labour Party boilerplate gussied up with a certain amount of Tory rhetoric. Scratch the rhetoric, and what you get is capitulation on Europe, equivocation on immigration and questions of “multiculturalism,” and collusion with radicalism on most cultural and moral issues.

There is pressure from “Europe” on England to surrender its legal autonomy, its currency, and important elements of its way of life

It may seem unfair to blame America for the degradation of England’s cultural life. After all, England gave us The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and punk rock. Even if their original “inspiration” came from American popular music, the Brits perfected the formula—if “perfected” is the mot juste. And readers of the late lamented Kingsley Amis novels—I am thinking in particular of Stanley and the Women and Girl, 20—know that English society is every bit as fecund as America in the production of radical left-wing phonies and the virus of political correctness. Would that Sir Kingsley were still here to harry them!

But American influence has been particularly destructive in the area of culture. Several forces, which have been developing at least since the Sixties in the States, have gained an increasing foothold in English culture over the last several years. From the American university, radical multiculturalism, political correctness, and what has come to be called “cultural studies” have become an ever more prominent part of English academic life. Again, there were plenty of native-born examples of such phenomena (the term “cultural studies” as currently used in the academy may even be English in origin). But the triumph of such forces in American intellectual life has given these phenomena a tremendous boost in England. It was not so long ago that English institutions such as the BBC and Oxbridge largely held the line against the rising tide of demotic culture. Now the BBC is an echt correct institution that goes to great lengths to find announcers who do not speak what used to be called “BBC English” and that regularly capitulates to the lowest common denominator in cultural as well as political matters. And even the great English universities seem to be doing everything possible to jettison their great heritage in order to achieve the intellectual mediocrity and political silliness of their American counterparts. The appointment of the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton to the Warton chair at Oxford a few years ago was merely one symptom of the trend.

A curious dialectic stands behind and nourishes these developments. On the one hand, intellectuals are busy conducting a kind of love affair with pop culture, expending great energy analyzing the significance of TV soap operas, pulp fiction, and the lyrics of rock music. All this is conducted in the name of establishing a kind of parity between high culture and pop culture. If the backs of cereal boxes can support the same sort of hermeneutical ingenuity as a play by Shakespeare, then aren’t they really the same sort of thing: cultural “discourses” between which it would be invidious, or at least elitist, to draw any hard and fast distinctions? On the other hand, quite apart from this equalizing pressure, there is also a levelling pressure, which presses inexorably downward. If there is no fundamental distinction between a Bach chorale and, say, the latest offering from Niggaz With Attitude, then not only is rap “music” reborn as a species of art music, but Bach suffers a demotion, being reincarnated as a form of entertainment that, like all forms of entertainment, must compete in the marketplace for clients. The effect on both is disastrous. Pop culture is endowed with pretensions it cannot support; high culture is burdened with populist demands it cannot meet without serious adulteration.

This assault on culture has proceeded very far in America; it has done incalculable damage not only to those institutions charged with preserving the legacy of high culture—universities, museums, symphony orchestras, and the like—but also to the myriad institutions in which contemporary popular culture is born and disseminated. Indeed, it is hard to know which is worse, the perversion of high culture or the descent of popular culture into the gutter. Until recently, I should have said that things were not quite so bad in England as here, but clearly the forces of cultural tawdriness in London have been playing an aggressive game of catch-up.

It is hard to know which is worse, the perversion of high culture or the descent of popular culture into the gutter. 

In some ways, theatrical and musical life are still in better shape in London than here, despite the ubiquity of pap by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber in the West End. (It is a pity, as one wit recently observed to me, that we in America do not have a device like Britain’s honors list with which to enshrine certain forms of cultural fatuousness: imagine, Sir Robert Mapplethorpe, Dame Maya Angelou—the prospect really is delicious.) In the art world, though, things are every bit as bad in London as in New York. We may have David Ross at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Thomas Krens at the Guggenheim, but Londoners have Nick Serrota at the Tate and Norman Rosenthal at the Royal Academy. The prospect of choosing among them reminds one of Doctor Johnson’s response when asked who was worse, Voltaire or Rousseau. “Sir,” he replied, “it is not for me to apportion the degree of inequity between a louse and a flea.” The Tate, at any rate, has all but totally capitulated to the anti-art art brigades: that is, to those who combine with equal ferocity a passion for consumerism with a taste for the meretricious.

Even the National Gallery, alas, despite the presence of some excellent and level-headed curators, is beginning to succumb. While I was in London, a charming little exhibition of paintings from the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome was on view at the National Gallery. It included masterpieces by Titian and Raphael, and Velázquez’s spectacular Portrait of Pope Innocent  X. Apparently, such great works of art were not considered a sufficient draw, for on May 1 the exhibition was supplemented by four paintings of Popes and Cardinals by England’s greatest painter of raw meat, Francis Bacon. Although he never actually saw Velázquez’s painting of Pope Innocent X, Bacon nonetheless has proclaimed that it was (as reported by a press release) “one of the greatest portraits ever made and that he was attracted by the magnificent colour.” (Thanks be to Kodak.) His own paintings in the exhibition were “inspired” by the Velázquez in the sense that they offer disdainful, characteristically distorted parodies of the stern original. The conflation of Bacon and Velázquez—the repugnant and the sublime—by the National Gallery was a deeply cynical maneuver to increase attendance and garner a little PR. But its predictable effect was, once again, to cheapen high art and illegitimately elevate the second-rate. Of course, the Bacons looked positively preposterous next to those old masters; but they did manage to render the whole exhibition ridiculous.

In London, as in the States, however, the most virulent precincts of the art world lie mostly outside the penumbra of institutions like the National Gallery. One thinks, for example, of the notorious Damien Hirst, whose formaldehyde-preserved animal carcasses represent the really dangerous outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in London and which only recently were allowed by health authorities into the United States. The worst example of this sort of thing in London at the moment is probably the “sculpture” of Jake and Dinos Chapman. These thirty-something brothers started as assistants to that other pair of art-world hucksters, Gilbert and George, whose latest effort, the Naked Shit Pictures, consisted of stylized photographs of the dynamic duo surrounded by images of (presumably) their own excrement. Of course, this tasteless travesty was celebrated by much of the London art world in terms befitting a religious revelation.

I am not certain whether it is possible to be worse than Gilbert and George. But the Chapman brothers have certainly done their best to outdo their mentors, both in the rebarbative nature of their productions and the pretentious verbiage with which they proffer it to the public. One of their first collaborations was a pornographic movie. Now, in an exhibition called “Chapmanworld” at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Pall Mall—in a beautiful building designed by John Nash, God help him—the brothers were displaying their wares: mannequins of seven- or eight-year-old girls that had been mutilated or otherwise “updated” to fulfill the Chapman’s twisted fantasies. Here is one critic’s description:

The sculptures have adult genitals, but in the wrong places. A vagina replaces an eye or anus, extends a mouth or nestles in the join between two hips… . A mannequin riding a child centaur holds on to the penises projecting, like horns, from its head. To anchor them in reality—so they can most effectively assault notions of good taste—the sculptures wear wigs and sneakers.

Other mannequins are displayed with various appendages ripped off, with super-realistic wounds in their place. One is hung from the ceiling and has fake blood dripping from several wounds. Quoth Jake about these objects: “Anyone shocked by our work must be disgusted at themselves.” And Dinos: “The masses are so uneducated. They shouldn’t go into galleries—galleries should be means tested.”

Naturally, one feels uneasy even describing such pathological garbage for fear that the notice will encourage more of the same. But the Chapmans, like Gilbert and George, represent a growth industry. Their “sculptures” are fetching upwards of £30,000, they have had an exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (another casualty of the culture wars), and many English critics have swooned over their art: one calls it “brilliant,” another praises it for dealing “with the commodification of desire and the impasses of critique,” while a third commends its “high stakes” struggle with important issues.

Will there always be an England? I hope so. But the combined forces of political acquiescence and accelerating cultural decadence make it a dubious proposition all around.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 10, on page 10
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