The British government announced in May that it plans to monitor the ethnic composition of visitors to the nation's publicly subsidized museums. Those museums that fail to draw what the government considers a sufficient number of ethnic minorities will lose their subsidies.
Most intelligent people greeted the plan with derision. Surely it's a joke, a belated April Fool's prank? Is the curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum (one of the world's greatest cultural institutions) now expected to sally out with his staff to press-gang passing members of ethnic minorities into his galleries? Will reggae now rumble through Sir John Soane's Museum in an attempt to attract Rastafarians? Will the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam install flashing lights and slot machines to broaden their appeal to Chinese gamblers?
Alas, it is no joke. A joke, after all, would require a sense of humor. The Tate Gallery, cravenly submitting to the government's authoritarian directive, is already counting its visitors by race. Other museums will soon follow suit. Curators will do whatever is necessary to keep their jobs.
The government's cultural policy of ethnic monitoring is, of course, the continuation of vandalism by other means. It is the prelude to, and will be the pretext for, the dismantling of the cultural infrastructure of the entire country, an infrastructure it has taken centuries to build: a sotto voce Maoist Cultural Revolution.
By its directive, the government is effectively declaring that the value of the displays in institutions such as the British Museum or the National Gallery flows solely from the ethnic composition of the public they attract. If the terra cottas of Della Robbia don't interest, say, Sikhs, then—intrinsic artistic value being an empty notion—no reason remains for the government to continue to subsidize their display in the V & A: down they must come and out they must go. From now on, ethnic quota is the measure of all things.
This development represents a striking loss of faith in the value of the culture and civilization that had attracted the ethnic minorities to Britain in the first place, and to which many might make a valuable contribution if encouraged to do so. Significantly, no demand for the ethnic monitoring of cultural institutions has ever emanated from a group claiming to speak for an ethnic minority. The policy is entirely the brainchild of the government.
There is no end to the destruction the policy is capable of wreaking. If we discover—as seems likely—that the audiences at Stratford-on-Avon and at the National Theatre are ethnically homogeneous, does the curtain come down on Shakespeare in the land of his birth?
Far-fetched? Nothing seems far-fetched today in the brave new world of Tony Blair's velvet fascism.