High Art: are you an omnivore or paucivore?

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Hoorah! Oxford university's survey of arts consumption has blown the whistle on the patronising idea that high art is for posh types in opera hats while the proles prefer mass entertainment. "We find little evidence for the existence of a cultural elite," it says. "There are certain individuals who fit this description, but they are too few to figure in any survey-based analysis."

So goodbye forever to the idea of tastes being stratified by social class. It comes - ironically - more from the left than the right, with populist politicians (and some teachers) so determined to be "relevant" that they assume anyone on less than pound;50k needs everything translating into references to Big Brother and that all black boys love rap. The arts establishment can be as bad: one lot feting geezerish Britart-speak and displaying horror of anything involving study or craft and the other lot wincing at anything popular.

That is why the research categories the university lays out are so refreshing. There are univores, who only like popular culture such as cinema, and who form the majority; omnivores, who like everything from opera to soaps and cheerfully load their iPods with Mahler, Madonna, Mozart and Meat Loaf; paucivores, who absorb very little culture of any kind, and inactives, who avoid it. The art-avoiders are not necessarily poor: "A substantial minority of members of the most advantaged social groups are univores or inactives," say the researchers flatly. They're right. Look at Prince Harry. They are also right that love of high art doesn't rule out the other sort. You can love Shakespeare and Coronation Street, and get back from Gotterdammerung at the Royal Opera House to turn on the Skybox recorder to see who won Strictly Come Dancing, then read yourself to sleep with Jilly Cooper or Rushdie. Classic FM request spots teach us that there are office cleaners who love Brahms; the work of the London Shakespeare Workout and Fine Cell Work in prisons demonstrate how much of a buzz tough semi-literate men get out of 16th-century tirades or sewing fine needlepoint. The challenge is not to lead all children towards High Art, pretending that violins are synonymous with virtue; nor to dumb everything down to presumed aspirations and "culture". The job is to encourage omnivores - curious, fearless, classless, critical, adventurous, receptive.

I remember being dazzled by a disadvantaged and parentless south London schoolgirl who had seen every single play running at the National Theatre; in another school I noted the casual habit of playing Mozart over the PA system every day. Children called it the "happy tune time". They will go through life unafraid of classical music. At another school everyone painted a version of Botticelli's Birth of Venus from a poster of the original; the results ranged from brilliant copies to punkish improvisations. They won't dismiss art galleries as a yawn or be left to the mercy of the telly. They'll take pleasure wherever it comes from: rich or poor, they'll be alive.

Libby Purves, Author and presenter of The Learning Curve on Radio 4.

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