The Times, 4 November 2009

Today, the British Council is presenting a debate on the role of the arts in democratic change. When they asked me to participate, I was initially sceptical. Do the arts really need to be politically relevant? Can't they just be pretty, or interesting, or fun? Surely no-one goes into the arts to change the political landscape. People who want political influence go into politics. People who want to be cartoonishly poor, then feel bitter about their fringe status, then become successful but still quite skint, then feel bitter about their mainstream status, then become passé, and then die, convinced that their genius will only be recognised by one undergraduate pursuing her thesis generations after our deaths: they go into the arts.

And what has democracy ever done for the arts? Fifth century BCE Athens was the original paradigm for direct democracy. No-one voted for representatives to go and debate their futures or make their decisions. They turned up themselves, listened to proposals, and voted by raising their hands. And art flourished during this time. Aeschylus' surviving tragedies are full of pride for the role that a civilised society can play in the lives of its citizens. When Orestes turns up in Athens, in the Eumenides, he is a ruined man, pursued by the Furies. He has done his duty and killed the murderer of his father, Agamemnon. But since Agamemnon was killed by his wife, Orestes' mother Clytemnestra, Orestes now bears blood-guilt himself. This is, of course, the problem with retaliatory homicide; for each death that is avenged, a new cycle of death begins.

But Orestes is not killed by the Furies, or anyone else. He is brought to stand trial before the Areopagus, the great Athenian court. He is acquitted of murder, and the Furies abide by the court's decision. In a play filled with gods and monsters, it is the ordinary democratic process of a court of Athenian citizens who can cut through an insoluble problem and impose their moral and legal authority on a chaotic world.

And democratic societies still use art to shape their perception in the rest of the world. As the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts developed, for example, many countries expressed their disapproval of American foreign policy. But at the same time, the political television drama, The West Wing, was a huge international hit. It was offering, in essence, an alternate reality, one where a left-wing, intellectual humanitarian was President of the United States. Josiah Bartlet cared about global warming, he agonised over the death penalty, and when furious with God, could and did curse him in spontaneous Latin.

And it wasn't just left-wing political porn that proved alluring to audiences who could condemn America on the news while still gobbling up their cultural offerings. The first series of 24, the one-man-saves-America-from-terrorists adrenalin fest, was broadcast less than two months after the September 11th attacks. And as the world flipped between sympathy for America's losses and disquiet at its response, we all tuned in to the ticking clock and its hawkish hero. The same audiences who were rightly appalled by the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison watched in delight as Jack Bauer punched, shot, electrocuted, and even decapitated threats to American security. And our appetite for a man to torture his way to safety remains unsated; 24 is about to begin its eighth series.

It's not just serious drama that bounces off a democratic society, either. Political comedy has relied on democracy for millennia. Aristophanes' scabrous comic play, The Birds, is a pungent critique of the weaknesses of Athenian democracy. The birds set up a rival state in the sky, Cloudcuckooland, to try and get away from the corruption of men on earth. It doesn't take long for the corruption to follow them up into the heavens. Rather more recently, Spitting Image had a lasting impact on our political sphere. For those of us who grew up watching it, it is still almost impossible to think of John Major in any colour other than grey. And David Steel, whose puppet was a tiny pocket-sized irrelevance, was never taken seriously again. If indeed, he had been previously.

Political comedy needs democracy, for the excellent reason that political comedians tend to have a short life-expectancy under dictators. Cristian Mungiu's excellent Tales From The Golden Age opened at cinemas last weekend. It is a selection of satirical urban legends, set in Romania under Ceausescu. It's easy to see why it's taken so long for this film to be made: the second story is called The Legend of the Party Photographer. As a tired old man and his nephew try to finish work and go home, they are constantly thwarted by party officials who need them to doctor photographs of Ceausescu. First he must be made taller, then taller still. No matter that he will be taller than he is even in other doctored photographs, he must appear bigger that the other politician in the same snap. They come unstuck when trying to edit his hat into, and out of, one picture at the same time.

The stories in Mungiu's film were clearly inspired by the nightmare of living under a vicious dictator. It is a paradox of oppression that it encourages precisely the kind of mockery it tries to obliterate. But he needed a democratic government before the film could actually be made. In artistic terms alone, as Churchill said, democracy is 'the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.'