Imaginary empires and a matter of class

16 Jun

Another year and another list of the queen’s birthday honours. The usual suspects: local government big wigs, a sprinkling of charity workers and of course the necessary people from the arts.

As time goes by the more annoyed I get with the whole concept. Does an outdated title make one’s work more worthy of attention, did the music making of Antonio Pappano, Mark Elder and Colin Davis improve when they were knighted? Will Zaha Hadid’s architecture be more boring now she’s a Dame? Have the buildings of Norman Foster become less grey and dull since his knighthood?

Apologists for the system will justify it as a form of broad recognition from the establishment that is sorely lacking, especially for classical musicians. My main objections to this archaic system is both a matter semantics and also of substance. The honours system is still using the terminology empire which is at least a century out of date. Why would anyone want to be tarred with the soubriquet British Empire is again mysterious to me.

But the main source of my chagrin is that the list is essentially assembled by the prime minister’s office at No10 Downing Street. When did politicians and the upper class become the arbiters of taste and achievement in this country? Why are musicians artists and architects falling for this meaningless class ridden circus every year? Can this be read as a demonstration of low self esteem of the classical music business/arts that it feels somehow vindicated and given its worth by a medal bestowed on them by prince Charles or the queen. Surely the adoration of the audiences and the more qualified, professionally conferred gongs are much more important. But in a Britain where class distinctions still linger like a bad smell, getting an MBE seems to carry a sense of arrival, as if leaving the world below stairs and getting a glimpse of the glittering world of ballrooms adorned with Van Dycks and Belottos.

Invariably this parade of meaningless titles leaves me disappointed that favourite musicians and visual artists felt the need to accept a gong that carries just a whiff of social acceptance from the upper classes and very little based on merit or actual appreciation. At least we can celebrate everyone who said no to one of those honours, have a look at the official list of people who refused honours from 1951-199n

Header image: Some views of Hans Haacke’s (literary) groundbreaking installation at the 1993 Venice Biennale where he questioned the accepted orthodoxies and raked up Germany’s ghosts. An artist not scared to challenge the establishment being political or artistic. A great interview with him can be found here.

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