With such a vast canon of excellent music and literature available to us, is there ever any excuse to waste time on unedifying modern efforts? Digby Anderson thinks not

It’s surprising how many of our current problems are about dealing with novelty. The question that dominates this magazine is, in large part, just that, one of novelty. Current politics is obsessed with the new, with change, being positive and moving on, and so is modern culture. So any help we might get with the general matter of novelty is welcome. And I know of one small contribution from an unlikely source, but first some illustrative novelty problems.

Taking your medicine

The cultural commissars who control the Third Programme have perfected an ingenious ploy to torture their listener victims. They excite them by promising an evening with a nice drop of Ravel or Finzi. Then they explain you can only taste these delicacies once you have taken the medicine.

The evening’s music will start with a specially commissioned piece, indeed a world premiere, composed by one of their pals. The implication is that the BBC has contrived, against a multitude of competing sponsors, to bring us this gem. In fact it had to be specially commissioned by the BBC because no one else would do so.

‘World premiere’ might mean the first anywhere in the world. It can also mean no one else has seen fit to bother with it. The gem turns out to be gnat’s music, something breathtakingly radical to make us sit up and think, something new and challenging to startle us self-satisfied listeners out of our easy traditionalist complacency. It is usually unmusical, juvenile rubbish. They know we, the majority of the listeners, hate it.

This only makes them the more determined to force it on us. Hence the programming of it near, often before, something we like. It ought to be broadcast, after a half hour of cordon sanitaire silence, at 3.47 a.m. so the fourteen people who like it can prove their commitment.

The equivalent of the gnat’s music in ideas and literature is perfected by the intellectualist discussion programme, Night Waves.

More assaults on the ears

After the enjoyment of the Finzi or Ravel, we are permitted some pleasant but dull Haydn. Then, as we doze off, we are doused by buckets of freezing water, a diatribe about the ignoring of Somalian culture, a reminder not to forget the miners’ strike, or a plea for more state subsidy for composers of gnat’s music so the whole business can be repeated another night.

It is possible to argue with these people and explain why Ravel is very good and the gnat’s world premiere very bad, why Burke was a genius and Sartre an evil fraud. But it’s pretty pointless. The professional intellectuals have their programme to which they all uncritically subscribe. They are determined to inflict it on us, for whom they have contempt.

The true cost

Yet there is one argument that ought to be made more often. It comes from economics, but don’t let that put you off. It is called opportunity costing. The price of a pound of fresh peas, say, is £1.50. The price of a bunch of asparagus is £1.50. If you only have £1.50 – and remember economics is about the allocation of scarce resources – then the cost of eating a dish of peas is not eating a dish of asparagus.

When it comes to music and literature the scarce resource could be money. But it might also be time. The cost of listening to an hour of gnat’s music is not listening to an hour of Elgar or Strauss. The cost of going to Krapp’s Last Tape is not going to Lear. Now none of this would matter if time were not scarce. But it is and what makes it so scarce is the quantity of Elgar, Strauss and Shakespeare that is waiting to be enjoyed.

The gnat promoters say you can have both, the old and the ultra-new. Not so. Because the old is so huge, some part of it must be foregone to ‘enjoy’ the ultra-new. The vastness and variety of the traditional canon also result in the raising of entry barriers. It is just so difficult now for a new poem to be good enough to compete for our time with Donne, Coleridge, Eliot and the others.

A vast canon

So good and vast is the canon of music and literature that we don’t need any more. There is enough good music to keep us happy every evening of our lives without even considering gnat’s music.

I am not saying we will never need any more poetry or music but we are certainly good for a couple of centuries. When should the barrier come down? At what date should we end the canon collection? Probably 1960 but I’m not immoveable on this. Indeed I am tempted to make it earlier if only to remove Messiaen.

The precepts cannot be applied to everything. Science and technology are properly progressive knowledges in which experimentation, testing and method mean that knowledge tends to improve as it goes along. The arts, philosophy and religion are not. Aristotle is as good as ever he was and certainly better than A.C. Grayling. Why read Kung when there’s piles of Aquinas? In fact, I was going to end by examining the implications of these economic precepts for theology, ecclesiology, morality and liturgy but I think you might well enjoy building some bonfires for yourselves. ND