An aversion to seriousness runs deep

It must sometimes be frustrating to be the director of the Edinburgh International Festival. Throughout August, the headlines tend to be about comedians, buskers, contortionists and body-piercers, with the Fringe rather perversely pushing the concerts, dance, opera and drama of the main festival into the wings.

The injustice of the situation seems to have got to the current director, Jonathan Mills, who has been sounding off about the state of British society. This country’s cultural diet is “white bread without the crusts”, he says, adding: “We have gone so far in wanting everything to be baby fed and pre-digested that we have actually missed out.”

When commentators use the pronoun “we”, they invariably mean “you”. In this case, Mills is having a pop at the public. He is saying we have become couch potatoes gorging on Beckham, Big Brother and other forms of entertainment junk food.

There is, in fact, nothing new in British aversion to seriousness. Almost half a century ago ago, the Conservative politician Iain Macleod failed to become Prime Minister largely because he was suspected of being, in the words of Lord Salisbury, “too clever by a half”. The bias towards stupidity is alive and well in 2009, as Edwina Currie proved only last week. Her sneer that Harriet Harman, was “over-educated” was an accusation which would cause genuine bewilderment in almost any other country in the world.

The egghead is such a figure of contempt that the only people who acquire a wide reputation for intelligence are celebrity brainboxes – Stephen Fry, Clive James, Alain de Botton – who carefully package their thoughts with self-deprecating wit. It is not enough, though, to blame the innate anti-intellectualism of the British for the trivialisation of their culture. Festivals offering serious work show there is still a minority hungry for it. What is lacking is any kind of infrastructure to provide it.

Those who once led in our culture are now simply following the market. Anyone putting the Mills argument to, say, a BBC executive or a senior publisher would be regarded as a dinosaur, representing an outmoded form of elitism.

These people, at the top of the vast conglomerates at the heart of our so-called creative industries, have come to believe in certain unbreakable commandments. Thou shalt be inclusive at all times. Thou shalt not appeal to an intellectual minority. Thou shalt put faith in ratings and sales, not ideas or originality. That a work should be available because it is culturally important – even if uncommercial – would simply not compute.

Here is the true trahison des clercs of our time. Intelligent, privileged people are reducing the intellectual life of the nation by favouring populist, lowest-common-denominator product over anything that will risk losing viewers or readers by being too difficult. Mills claims the process of spoon-feeding the public with easily digested entertainment is what causes individual frustration. Of course, that is right, but there is a deeper political and cultural effect, too. A nation which is afraid of ideas becomes supine, easily led.

It is no surprise that politicians are relaxed about the decline in high culture. There are fewer excuses for those highly educated, well-paid people in “creative Britain” who, in the name of market values, are content to lead the slide towards stupidity.