Apollo Magazine

Has arts punditry become a perk for politicos?

It seems as if arts criticism is becoming a treat for political journalists – but perhaps the job should be treated a little more seriously

The Newsnight Review line-up on BBC2 in 2001, featuring (left to right): Philip Hensher, Mark Lawson, Bonnie Greer and Tom Paulin

From the May 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

How serious are politicians? Not in the sense of being important figures or people who are reluctant to laugh, but in the sense that Succession’s Logan Roy uses the word when he says to his children, playing at making business deals: ‘You are not serious people.’

The political world doesn’t indulge in play or thinking for its own sake. It doesn’t celebrate ‘creativity’ unless there is a measurable output. It is meant to be dealing with big societal problems. Artists, on the other hand, do play, and creativity comes in many forms. But they are also preoccupied with what is often called ‘the human condition’. The concept may make you snort in derision, but it is arguably more serious than the business of party politics. Artists are also in a position to stand apart from the more transactional aspects of politics and offer a critique of its folly. So, by the same measure, how serious are artists?

The question takes on a different hue if it is not politicians and artists under consideration, but commentators and critics. Around 20 years ago, I loved nothing more than settling down late on a Friday evening to watch Newsnight Review on BBC2. The dream team of two Greers, Bonnie and Germaine, battling with Tom Paulin in a conversation moderated by Mark Lawson was, at times, electric. It even reached peaks of capricious wit when Paulin announced his love of We Will Rock You, Ben Elton’s jukebox musical based on the music of Queen, much to Germaine Greer’s disbelief.

Over time, the line-up changed. Kirsty Wark and Martha Kearney started to share moderating/presenting duties. Rosie Boycott appeared on the sofa to offer her views. Ian Hislop came to the studio to add his take on cultural production to the conversation.

What all of these people have in common – aside from being talented presenters and TV pundits – is that their professional expertise is not in the arts, but in politics. It seemed as though they were being offered a fluffy perk for having performed well in the political sphere. (That this might be the view of the BBC was further confirmed when they gave James Naughtie presenting duties on Radio 4’s Bookclub.)

This might just be professional bias speaking, but I am not sure that this is how arts criticism should work. It shouldn’t be a reward for getting to grips with the budget or grilling the latest inept minister. It is the work of careful consideration and experience. While arts critics have something in common with political commentators – politics and the arts are, after all, just lenses on to the world – it might be that the concerns of the most interesting artists are more far-reaching than the interests of most politicans.

So the question remains: who is more serious? We are in a world where former politicians take on jobs more prominent and serious than TV presenting (Tristram Hunt at the V&A; George Osborne at the British Museum). Once the ex-politicians have done their deals, we will see exactly what these are and just how seriously we should take them.

From the May 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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