Arts life: Britain I am optimistic enough to believe that culture - and the appetite for culture - can survive troubled times.
We all need some art to lean on
As the credit crunch bites, shares fall and people tighten their belts, some keep asking how culture will fare if a full-blown recession grips Britain. The answer is, no one really knows. At one level, the arts appear to be an indulgence, a treat that can easily be sacrificed if money gets short. On the other hand, there is very little sign that Londoners are currently giving up their entertaining nights out.
I went to the West End this week to catch Polly Stenham's much-praised That Face, which has been playing for the past couple of months. It was midweek, yet the theatre was full and buzzing, with people queuing patiently for returns. True, two musicals have closed early, but one - Trevor Nunn's production of Gone With the Wind - was universally panned by the critics, and it is a lot to ask people to pay up to Dh580 for a ticket (plus the costs of coming into town in the first place) to watch a high-profile flop.
The other, All Bob's Women, a musical farce about mistresses, shut just four days into its run. It had, however, been described by my colleague, The Telegraph's Charles Spencer, as "rancid bilge-water" and one of the worst nights he had ever spent in the theatre. And he was mincing his words. These are the exceptions to the general rule. Phone calls to the Barbican, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House and the Society of London Theatres all told the same story: audiences are keeping up and there is no sign of cost-consciousness just yet.
It may be that bleak days are just around the corner, that people have to start to feel short of money before they begin to cut back on non-essential items. Certainly you would have to be a Panglossian optimist of the kind depicted in Leonard Bernstein's version of Voltaire's classic Candide (which has just opened at English National Opera) to believe that theatres, galleries and cinemas can ride through a few fiscal problems unscathed.
But I am optimistic enough to believe that culture - and the appetite for culture - can survive troubled times. In the Great Depression of the 1920s, Hollywood thrived, offering a dream of a life that was far removed from the grim realities most people faced around them. And the British tradition of offering an opportunity to enjoy the arts to as many people as possible, for as low a price as possible, was established in the First World War and the years of austerity that followed when people packed theatres, galleries and concert halls seeking both refuge and relief.
But culture does more than offer escape or entertainment. It also provides a different perspective on life, a wealth of stimulation that goes beyond the financial. Tate Britain this week unveiled a new installation by the artist Martin Creed. He is the man who won the Turner Prize in 2001 with a work that consisted of the lights going on and off in a gallery. His new piece, Work No 850, is just as simple and just as controversial.
He has put runners into the 86-metre Duveen Gallery and instructed them to run as fast as they can. The idea, which came to him when he had to run through the catacombs in Palermo before closing, has a cinematic antecedent in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande, in which young students race through the Louvre. It also has the most remarkable effect. People visiting the Tate simply aren't expecting to encounter runners coming at them full pelt at 30-second intervals - and the looks on their faces are a delight to behold. Some look alarmed, some annoyed, others baffled, but all, almost without exception, eventually break into a smile.
At its most basic level, Creed's piece makes you happy. It reminds you of the sheer physical thrill of being alive. By placing that reminder in a gallery, Creed makes the point that this is also part of the purpose of art: it changes you, recharges your batteries, reminds you that there are things beyond the daily grind. Whether you are encountering a dotty installation, a statue by Michelangelo, a play by Shakespeare or a movie by Judd Apatow you are, in some way, enriching your life. That is why the arts will defy the doomsayers and stay very much alive, however hard the credit-crunch bites.