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This article is taken from PN Review 103, Volume 21 Number 5, May - June 1995.

The Canon: Values and Heritage Donald Davie

'Art and Value' conference, The Tate Gallery, October 22,1993 When I was first recruited to speak here, the one question put to me, to focus my mind, was: 'What should we preserve?' The focus was blurred to begin with, and it got more blurred the more I thought about it. Among the questions it raised, the one that flummoxed me most, and still does, is: 'Who do we think we are?' Are we, those of us who speak here, setting ourselves up as arbiters of taste, not just for now but for the foreseeable future? And if we are to be so presumptuous, do we envisage some way in which our decisions can be enforced? Am I to imagine myself as some sort of gauleiter's apparatchik, deciding what the masses may and may not remember? I'm not that sort of 'decision-maker' about the arts, and I'm not happy consorting with those who are or think they are.

The two previous speakers have set my mind somewhat at rest. Neither Simon Schama nor Mary Douglas has spoken as an empowered impresario, any more than I'm ready to do. All the same, my misgivings linger. Melvin Bragg for instance has said in the press, having this conference in mind: 'We have to ask which will be more important to have in 50 years' timeā€¦ the British TV sitcoms of the Sixties, the Seventies or the Eighties, or the letters and novels of those periods.' We do? I can't for the life of me ...

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