Wealth can’t buy good taste. Contemporary Sri Lankan society is an excellent example of this age-old truth
Good taste is harder to acquire than wealth. If we take good taste in art, it takes a great deal of education, and years of perseverance, to acquire it. Wealth will buy the best housing, cars, furniture and, if one has the right kind of taste, even the best art available. But wealth can’t buy good taste. Contemporary Sri Lankan society is an excellent example of this age-old truth. We have become a pop culture with popcorn tastes and mannerisms.
That’s what I was thinking when I heard an FM radio announcer bubbling with enthusiasm recently. She was going on about ticket sales for an entertainment event. Tickets cost Rs. 20,000 and only 1000 were available. Already, by noon, over 700 were sold. So, if you needed tickets, you had to hurry.
"You can’t build a society with good taste with the kind of people who are satisfied to pay so much to see a phenomenon essentially past its prime"
This was the week when Lionel Ritchie was expected to arrive in Colombo. I’m not sure if she was talking about that event. As far as I know, no other Rs.20,000 ticket event was scheduled that week, so it may have been that. This is now the standard price for such mega events in Colombo. While school children or actors doing the rounds trying to sell Rs. 200 or 500 tickets for dramas and concerts have a hard time, you have to rush and queue up to buy tickets to see ageing Western pop stars. Such are the social disparities we have. It also says something about our taste when it comes to culture. Lionel Ritchie is followed by Kennie G. and then Kool and the Gang are due to arrive.
A month ago, a fantastic German all-women group of musicians performed at the British School auditorium. It was a world class performance and they were all young. Tickets were priced at Rs. 500, 1000 and 2000. I wonder if anyone would have bought Rs. 20,000 tickets if any such had been available, or even Rs. 5000 tickets, though that would have been more justifiable than spending so much to see an ageing star inside an unsuitable venue.
I believe the much-hyped Lionel Ritchie event was held at the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre opposite the Lake House newspaper establishment. I can’t think of a sorrier venue for hosting Lionel Ritchie. This event was initially announced as a private party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a local business conglomerate. Selling Rs. 20,000 tickets would be an excellent way to cover the party costs. People who wouldn’t buy a Rs. 500 ticket as charity to help a struggling dramatist or musician spend colossal amounts to prove that they are smart enough to be duped by people smarter than themselves.
People can spend any amount they like to see him, but they must ask if they are getting value for their money. People in the UK were able to see him in concert by paying twenty- five Sterling pounds each. A friend of mine was able to see Madonna performing at the Wembley Arena, London, for less just a few years ago. Those fans would be astonished to know that Sri Lanka’s super-rich are clueless enough to dish out over 97 pounds each to see Lionel Ritchie. (Imagine the riot if Madonna had arrived here. People would have killed each other to buy tickets at Rs. 50,000).
You can’t build a society with good taste with the kind of people who are satisfied to pay so much to see a phenomenon essentially past its prime. No first class artiste should agree to appear at such a sorry venue, either. Lionel Ritchie’s agent should have looked into this matter carefully before signing an agreement.
The ruling class and their sycophants are now going on endlessly about creating world class standards. I suppose inviting world-class performers (even if many have by now retired) and charging exorbitant ticket prices is one way of proving that we are there. But I beg to differ. While we have better venues to host musicians, none of them, including the much hyped Nelum Pokuna, can be classified as world class.
The list is quite long. We don’t have a world class exhibition hall or museum to host world class art. That’s just one of the many reasons why we have to buy books or surf the net to see the best in art – painting, sculpture, music, opera, theatre.
Wealth operates in many ways, good and bad. It can be used to create good taste provided those who acquire wealth have good taste to begin with. In China, some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs have built private art museums. They can buy or rent expensive art works from Western dealers or museums of art. But these exhibitions aren’t free. Ticket prices are high. But these entrepreneurs are taking risks to promote good taste in art.
This is where we fail and fall. Assuming someone achieves the miracle and we have an exhibition of world class paintings in Colombo, say in the J.D. A. Perera Gallery which is a decent venue, would those who pay Rs. 20,000 each to see pop stars buy tickets for 2000 or 5000 to see a Picasso, a Rothko, a Hepworth or something contemporary and exciting? Would they pay 20,000 each to see Russian opera diva Anna Netrebko or Indian singer/sitarist Anushka Shankar perform? Or to see Perlman play violin?
That would be the acid test of our cultural maturity.