Thirty years ago I bought Dire Straits’ first album. In Somerset, it was the days of three television channels and pop music available only on BBC Radio 1 or Radio Luxembourg. The album was played again and again; I knew the Sultans by heart. The track that lingered though was In the Gallery, Straits’ protest against the arts world.
Harry made a bareback rider proud and free upon a horse
And a fine coalminer for the NCB that was
A fallen angel and Jesus on the cross
A skating ballerina you should have seen her do the skater’s waltz.
Some people have got to paint and draw
Harry had to work in clay and stone
Like the waves coming to the shore
It was in his blood and in his bones
Ignored by all the trendy boys in London and in Leeds
He might as well have been making toys or strings of beads
He could not be in the gallery.
And then you get an artist says he doesn’t want to paint at all
He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall
The birds of a feather all the phonies and all of the fakes
While the dealers they get together
And they decide who gets the breaks
And who’s going to be in the gallery.
No lies he wouldn’t compromise
No junk no bits of string
And all the lies we subsidise
That just don’t mean a thing
I’ve got to say he passed away in obscurity
And now all the vultures are coming down from the tree
So he’s going to be the gallery.
“All the lies we subsidise” was a judgment on a circle of cognoscenti determining what was good. The year after the album came out, the Thatcher revolution began and the free market was left to do the determining.
Three decades of free market economics and we have become imbued with the notion that market value is at the heart, if not the only factor, in deciding what is good and what is not. Even the BBC Antiques Roadshow would not be the same if the experts did not provide an estimate of how much something would sell for. People bringing things along seem not content just with beauty or intricacy or rareness or history, there must be a bottom line.
Caught between the “trendy boys” and the hard cash merchants, deciding what is “good” seems less than simple. Coming from a blue collar home, Mark Knopfler’s words had a strong appeal. Why should our taxes subsidise “artists”? If people wanted to do that stuff, then let them make a living from selling it, and if it didn’t sell, then let them do something else.
But is something only good if it sellable?
Writing a series of twenty monologues for use in our church during Holy Week, I sent them off to three different religious publishers in the vain hope that there might be some interest in a book. The response from each of them was alike: there’s no market for that sort of stuff.
Taking the rejections as a reasonable judgment on the material, after all there were three different editors, I was surprised by the person producing them for broadcast in Northern Ireland between Christmas 2008 and Easter 2009. “This is good stuff”.
“The publishers didn’t think so”.
“But they’re interested in making money – not in whether something is good or bad”.
Inclined to agree, after all it was my stuff that had been rejected, I suddenly remembered In the Gallery. If the stuff I’ve written is going to be any good, I’m going to have to find a way to sell it.