High arts for all – a window on a lost world.
Last week I wrote a piece inspired by an old communist propaganda postcard. It reminded me of an encounter i had in a mini-cab in the Czech Republic almost 10 years ago. I was visiting a friend in Prague. She very kindly came to the airport to pick me up and we hailed a cab to take us on the short journey back to her apartment.
As we pulled away she struck up a conversation with the cabbie. He was getting very agitated about something that had just been on the radio. What followed was a very one sided rant by the cabbie on the iniquity that he’d just been made aware of – my Czech being non-existent I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about but it was still interesting to listen.
It amused me how similar he sounded to a London cabbie, ranting about immigration, football or like. To be honest I suspect I could quite easily have joined in the conversation simply by adding the requisite sympathetic grunts whenever he came up for air. But I decided not to, just incase he asked my opinion and I’d have to admit I didn’t speak his language.
Finally we arrived at the apartment, the cabbie still up in arms about whatever it was that had offended him. I don’t know if it’s my memory playing tricks on me, or if he genuinely did carry on calling back out of the window of the cab even as he was driving away. I was just amused that irrespective of the country you’re in the cabbies all seem to have a burning desire to force their strongly held opinions on those poor unfortunates trapped in the back of their car. More out of politeness then genuine curiosity I asked my companion what he’d been getting so worked up about.
“Oh it’s nothing. He just heard that the girl they’ve cast as Aida in the National Opera is a German singer, he’s a follower of one of the local singers and thinks she should have been given the role.”
I was speechless. I didn’t know which shocked me more. A cab driver so engrossed in high culture he follows the castings of the national opera, or my companions complete acceptance that there was nothing out of the ordinary about this.
Underlying my shock were two assumptions that still permeate the english debate on the arts.
On the one hand there is the patronising right wing view: the high arts are out of the reach of everyone except the middle – and upper class and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And on the other side an equally patronising left wing view: that the high arts are out of the reach of everyone except the middle and upper class – and there is something wrong with that, so the answer is to dumb down the high arts and present them as community inclusion projects.
What the cabbie represented was a wholly different approach. He was a hang over from a soviet society that believed in high arts and cultural excellence and believed that it belonged to the whole nation. That the national opera was the preserve of the cabbie as much as the heiress.
I haven’t been back to Prague in the last 10 years. I imagine a lot has changed. But I do hope that cabbie is still following the castings at the opera and ranting to his passengers about it. If for no other reason than to remind the modern free market world that it is possible to have a society who’s whole population are happy to call the high arts their own.