Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss
Thursday, 12 May 2016 21:15

I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

When I asked Fred Voss if we could do an interview by email, little did I know what would happen. In response to my prosaic questions, he sent back a stream of prosepoetry, an inspired, Whitmanesque outpouring of creative thinking and feeling.

'How did you do that?' I asked him afterwards, amazed at what I'd read. 'It was your questions, they sparked something in me' he said, modestly. But as you will see, there was nothing special about my questions, they are the usual ones all writers get asked. The answers, though, are anything but usual.

However it happened, I feel privileged to have sparked this torrent of imaginative prose, and am very proud to present it to you here on Culture Matters. I hope you feel something of the surprise and joy I felt when I opened his messages. And I hope you agree that if ever proof was needed that culture mattered, then surely this is it.

Q. Can you tell us what it's like to live in Long Beach?

I have lived in Long Beach for 40 years, and I love it. It is Los Angeles County’s second largest city, located 20 miles south of L.A. on the Pacific Ocean, and its port of Long Beach/San Pedro is the largest in the U.S.

It has a long history. It was a navy town for many decades, had one of the most famous amusement parks and roller coasters (The Pike on the beach) in the U.S., and was home to Douglas Aircraft Company, builder of aircraft for the U.S. WW2 war effort and of airplanes for the world after the war.

Star Kist was one of many tuna canneries on the waterfront, there was a ferry from Long Beach to San Pedro across the harbor, Todd Shipyard and the Naval Shipyard employed thousands of blue collar men, a statue of Harry Bridges the famous Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) union hero stood beneath the green Vincent Thomas Bridge, oil refineries and oil islands and oil derricks dotted the landscape, the downtown streets were full of all-night movies showing men’s movies and cowboy movies, bars with names like The Pink Elephant and The Poop Deck and the V Room full of pool hustlers and sailors with peanut shells strewn across the floors were on every corner, there were old Hollywood sound stages and the Villa Riviera 1928 hotel with a green copper roof where Clark Gable and Rock Hudson and many other movie stars liked to stay (the ghost of Clark Gable is still said to haunt Ocean Boulevard). In Visions of Cody Jack Kerouac mentioned visiting Long Beach in the 40s and seeing the downtown streets full of guys in cowboy boots.

It is an eccentric city of nearly half a million, and when I moved here in 1976 The Pike Amusement Park was shutting down and the International Long Beach Grand Prix was starting up, making the downtown streets shake. I got a job at Douglas Aircraft Company where over 50,000 people worked, joined The United Auto and Aerospace Workers union and began my career making aircraft parts.

There were hippies in the parks playing softball and sometimes throwing rocks at police, the Morningland religious cult with its purple banners on 7th Street, witchcraft stores selling oils and herbs, and poetry readings in the many bars. California State University at Long Beach, with its 32,000 students, has fostered a strong creative writing poetry tradition since the late 60s inspired by the literary legend Dr. Gerald Locklin, and Charles Bukowski gave several of his first readings in the early 70s at the university and in the city’s bars where he drank and read his poetry in defense of the down and the defeated and the working men and women and the joys and laughs of going crazy and rebelling against the American bourgeois way of life.

An editor of the Long Beach poetry magazine Maelstrom Review, the late Leo Mailman, said he thought there was something magical about Long Beach that made people write, and I’d have to agree, having written 7 novels and 3,000 poems here at kitchen tables as motorcycles roared and old ladies hobbled down sidewalks on canes. On Grand Ave. I lived next to door to Big Ivan from Russia who told me stories from his days wrestling professionally at the storied Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A., then drank himself to death after his drunken wife went crazy throwing furniture at the walls and singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and was hauled away in a police car. How can you not write when you share a paper-thin wall with people like that?

For 26 years I have lived happily two blocks from the sea with my wife the poet and publisher Joan Jobe Smith, founder and publisher of Pearl magazine for 40 years, close friend of Charles Bukowski and author of “Charles Bukowski: His Art & His Women, and I have enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Long Beach’s vast array of roustabouts, pipefitters, bartenders, welders, electricians, tree trimmers, construction workers who walk hundreds of feet up in the air, bookmobile drivers taking Dickens to old people in wheelchairs, nurses, waitresses, shipyard workers, dishwashers, professional wrestlers and truck drivers with the black asphalt roads of America in their bones, graveyard shift janitors and candle makers and pool hustlers as we shared smiles and stories and raised schooners of beer to life.

Long Beach is indeed some kind of a magical city, the land of workers and poetry.

 Q. What have been the main influences in your life?

Watching the stars and planets with my father on our front lawn
as a young boy
infinity gripped me
H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe at age nine
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Hemingway at age 11
Playing basketball in High School age 14-15
Emerson and Kant and Whitman and Hart Crane and Camus’s The Rebel
and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Doors and getting kicked off
the varsity basketball team for going to a Doors concert instead of a game
and James Joyce’s Ulysses at age 15 -16
Rimbaud and LSD and demonstrating against the Vietnam War at The University of California
at Riverside campus and Pindar and Baudelaire and Blake and Beowulf and Pink Floyd and Heraclitus and my first girlfriend at 17-18
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at 19
Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and blues blues blues music and Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski at 20
At age 22 after dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature and going to work
in the factory world my father
came to my side and became a big influence again
my rudder against crashing against the rocks of the real world
as I lost my way and life became a nightmare my father
told me of his wanderings across the country in Great Depression 1933 America
and told me I could make it through the long dark subterranean night of my soul to the light
of some kind of dawn
and working in a steel mill with blast-furnace-burned-face and slivers of cut steel piercing my palms my dawn
was setting pen to paper
and writing 7 novels
to the syncopated rhythms of Thelonious Monk’s piano
the golden midnight tones of Miles Davis’s horn
the angry black throbbing explosions of Charles Mingus’s bass
(always I was close to the soul of the American black man as I floated down the Mississippi with Huck and escaped slave Jim)
then the great Marvin Malone
editor of The Wormwood Review poetry magazine entered my life after I submitted the first 4 poems I wrote to him in 1986 and he told me I would survive in literature
Marvin Malone
the main magazine publisher of the great poet Charles Bukowski
Bukowski a huge influence on me since the age of 20 (I was 34 now) with his poetry and novels made of slaughterhouses and lettuce pickers and bicycle factory and post office Neruda
Henry Miller Herman Melville Mark Twain Richard Wright Tennessee Williams Robinson Jeffers
among my heroes as Marvin Malone published over 100 of my poems and I met my wife Joan Jobe Smith on the pages of Wormwood Review: 105 (we had our poems published together on its pages) and later I met her in person at a Long Beach California poetry reading
and Joan and I were married
Joan the founder and editor of Pearl the leading Long Beach poetry magazine for 40 years now
became the second great editor of my poetry
each weekend morning
she hears my latest poem and helps me with her brilliant instinctive poetry ear
listening to my voice as I read my poems aloud to her
and then John Osborne published 100 of my poems in Hull’s Bete Noire literary magazine
and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books published my first poetry book Goodstone in 1991 (published in the U.S. by Joseph Cowles of Event Horizon Press) and The Poetry Society
booked a whistlestop tour for my wife Joan and I
and we crossed the Atlantic and set foot on the emerald isle of England for the first time
and rode the Brit rails to Hull and The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and The Poetry Society of London and The Bristol Poetry Festival and since then I have been blessed
by being published by some of the best publishers in Britain
Martin Bax in his galvanic avant garde literary magazine Ambit
Alan Dent in his hard hitting Penniless Press and Mistress Quickley’s Bed magazines
Michael Curran in his beautiful limited edition hardbound Dwang
Joan Jobe Smith and Marilyn Johnson at Pearl magazine
and Dan Veach at Atlanta Review are regular publishers of my poems
and I have grown to love classical music these last 20 years
Ives Stravinsky Shostakovich Duke Ellington Mahler Debussy Beethoven
and with me always as inspiration is the great Edward Hopper
with his paintings of the lonely American pushing a rake or standing nude at a window
or cutting hair or sitting in a bright lonely diner
swallowed by American night at 3 am
and Van Gogh’s sunflowers Gauguin’s dreamy-eyed Tahitian women
Eakins’s swimmers Grosz’s
fat piggy cigar-chomping capitalist Berliners
and always Neruda
with the foam of his Chilean beaches his ghost of Magellan
on Cape Horn rocks and Buk
smiling over his typewriter just finishing a poem with a bottle by his side grinning as he laughs
at bourgeois America
and always Joan
my incredibly wise and loving wife by my side with her brilliant sense of humor
inspiring my comic relief Frank and Jane poems
and always the factory workers
the never-boring real-as-nails funny exciting bow-down-to-no-man
ready-to-haul-their-toolbox-down-te-road-to-the-next-machine-shop
never-say-die infuriating inspiring shocking x-rated brutally honest indomitable working men
who keep these poems alive.

 Q. What brought you into writing?

I needed something
I had the fierceness and realness of a steel mill I was working in
and I worked at a blast furnace burning the moustache off my face
then moved into the machine shop where the razor-sharp teeth of shell cutters sliced
through ¼-ton steel standards and threw red-hot
chips of steel onto my neck where
they stuck and sizzled
but I needed something more
something that would keep me from feeling empty and hungry inside
I needed to find a spirit within me
as fierce and real as that steel mill
I needed to nail it down onto a page
I needed to bring art into this steel mill of blank tin walls and ticking time clocks
and snarling foremen where no Vincent Van Gogh sunflower had ever
been seen
no Beethoven DA DA DA DA crescendo ever heard
no Hemingway Cuban fisherman old man ever dreamed of African lions sleeping on the beach
I needed to dream I could change the world just a little bit
like Nelson Mandela stepping out of his Robben Island prison cell
Jim Morrison breaking on through to the other side
Jean Valjean
free at last

Q. Do poetry, music and the other arts have anything to do with economic and political realities?

The great ships have circled the globe and stolen the Mayan gold
200 + years of industrial revolution
and 900 lions are left on this earth
as the tiger and the gorilla
barely hang on….
as America has become an oligarchy/plutocracy mouthing words about free speech and voting rights but enslaves its masses in economic chains of exploitation
America ruled by men with clean hands who shuffle the papers and walk the 80th-floor offices
as the earth enters its death throes….

My viewpoint is from the earth-level shop floor where men get their hands dirty. Whitman and Neruda and Brecht are on my shop floor. Neruda’s father worked for the railroad, my father was an outdoors man swimmer and mountain climber (his grandfather a Nebraskan homesteader) who hopped freights in the Great Depression and could walk up to any man on the street and start up a conversation with him and be at ease with him.
I am walking with Brecht’s Mother Courage as she forges ahead through a war-torn landscape.
I am with Whitman walking down his open road and taking off his hat to no king Neruda escaping the fascists by horseback over the Andes Charles Bukowski saying, “The worst men have the best jobs and the best men have the worst jobs.”
I am with Charles Ives the great iconoclastic American composer writing symphonies and songs of marching bands passing each other in the American streets and the sounds of Central Park in the dark and Emersonian universal brotherhood and small town dance bands playing “Turkey in the Straw”, Ives who sent up Wall Street greed with the cacophonous insanity of his 4th symphony’s 2nd movement.
I am with John Huston and his classic American film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that shows how we rip gold from the earth and how money can ruin and take our marvellous gift of life by dividing men against each other.
I am with Whitman and Blake and D.H. Lawrence and the great American artist Thomas Eakins who believed in the honesty and dignity and holiness of the naked human body the laboring human body and I believe in the soul of the labouring man not in top hats and gold and guns and locks and locked vaults full of money and $2,000 suits but bread
for all free concerts in the parks openness and caring for all Yosemite National Park and Sequoia redwood trees for all

I believe in the common man the man of the earth of sweat of shouts in the street and meetings on street corners of Van Gogh’s coal miner potato eaters Eakins’s shad fishermen Goya’s blacksmiths Hemingway’s old Cuban fisherman Santiago battling the sharks Hugo’s Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Paris sewers Melville’s sailors and his mighty white whale Steinbeck’s farmers Mark Twain’s escaped slave Jim Neruda’s mineworkers Diego Rivera’s mural glowing with assembly line blast furnace flame Philip Levine’s Detroit auto plant workers Thoreau’s homemade cabin on Walden Pond Kerouac’s Sierra Mountains fire lookout August Wilson’s black trash truck driver Troy Maxson Arthur Miller’s thrown-away-like-an-orange-rind-by-the-company salesman Willy Loman Lautrec’s cancan dancers Homer’s warriors Shakespeare’s gravedigger Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony of revolution Stravinsky’s peasant dance folk music as Jim Morrison sings, “What have they done to the Earth?” and The Rolling Stones sing “Salt of the Earth.”

Where do most of us spend most of our lives?
behind bus wheels at sheet metal bending machines behind donut counters at cash registers over jackhammers gripping wrenches flipping burgers serving coffee laying floor washing windows tarring roofs punching out motorcycle gaskets sitting in cubicles looking at inventories on computer screens where we barely feel human where we need poetry and art and music and theater and film to find us and tell our stories
Let Jackson Pollock paint the wall of a factory
Let a symphony grow from the booms and bangs and rattles and groans of an assembly line
Let the grease on a concrete shop floor be full of soul
Let Rembrandt set up his easel beside steel cutters
Is it the maintenance man gripping the monkey wrench that will save the earth?
Is it the heart of the man straddling the machine big as a locomotive that will save the tiger?
If men who stir red-hot molten steel with 20-foot-long rakes are treated like humans could it
keep the polar icecaps from melting?
men who walk the earth where panthers and giraffes and Buddha and Jesus walked
men who keep wheels rolling
old people walking and breathing
bridges hanging
water flowing
boats floating
with their hands
Can they save the earth?

 Q. What's your vision? What do you aim for when you're writing poetry and prose?

Dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature in 1974, my writer’s instinct told me to leave the dryness and cynicism of the academic ivory tower and turn toward life.
“God is a cry in the street,” Stephen Daedalus said in James Joyce’s Ulysses and my writer heroes were
Jack Kerouac hungry for life rolling automobile wheels across America toward a San Francisco bebop jazz club
Hemingway risking his life on the 1937 Spanish earth fighting the fascists and writing For Whom the Bell Tolls
Whitman putting his arm around a dying soldier on the American Civil War battlefield
Melville on a military ship in his white jacket high up in the crow’s nest in the freezing wind and ice rounding Cape Horn
Richard Wright showing how quickly a black man’s life can turn into a nightmare in 1930s Great Depression America
Mark Twain guiding his steamboat around rocks through the fog on the mighty Mississippi
And I was drawn into the world of the factories and went into a steel mill
the fierceness and realness of a steel mill was what I needed
I was not studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I was Sir Gawain
in 1977 entering a new strange world of adventure and vernacular speech raw open emotions earthiness the sensuous beauty of toil the honesty of working with hands
humor exuberance shouting with 2-ton drop hammers pounding sizzling of cutting torches hissing of welding rods everything outsized and exploding with life
the backbones of cities ready to be carved and stamped out of red-hot molten steel ex-cons out of prison sweating and straining desperate to remake their lives
laughs and curses and screams all the wild guts and heart and passion of man living life hard

And I started writing novels of truth and fortitude and survival until in my last novel, Making America Strong, written in 1985, my vision and aim for my writing truly began to take shape. It was a short novel set entirely in a machine shop where a defense contractor, Goodstone Aircraft Company, is making nuclear bombers and raking in the big money from the Reagan-era military industrial complex.
Writing Making America Strong I had a vision of the corporation as America and suddenly realized corporate capitalism defined America as much or more than democracy did. In the novel workers without any say in company direction or management and forced to follow often insulting and senseless rules and procedures, turn to harassing and abusing each other like humiliated children, using drink and drugs and falling into racism and violence.

In 1986 I started writing poetry and this world of work became the subject matter of my poetry.
My poetry has been greatly affected by the men I’ve worked with in the factories all these years and the fact that I was a poet in the factories.
At first I thought (as we’ve been taught) the men were somehow less than human
less than poetry
less than me
but as the layoffs hit me and I learned what it felt like to know
I might end up living in the street
as I saw men going on gripping wrenches with hands swollen with arthritis
going on as bosses screamed at them
and aching and tired still smiling at the end of the workweek walking out into the sun like man
must never give up hope
and someday we must all be free
those men didn’t look down on me
because I didn’t yet understand how they could still laugh
between tin walls in the face of firings wrenched backs crazy bosses in this loud grinding factory
where no flower
or poem
ever grew
they didn’t look down on me because I didn’t know
what a micrometer or a ball peen hammer or a compound angle was
they handed me their tools
their hearts
wise with a lifetime of steel dust and driving their rollaway toolboxes down highways
and rolling them through countless machine shops and going on with a twinkle in their eye
I didn’t know I would soon begin writing poems about them
or that years later when they found out and read them
they would like them
who says this world contains
no miracles?

We can begin to see workers in factories are just as human
as kings
firemen orchestra conductors tightrope walkers ship captains ambassadors
nurses and novelists

we are all Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp twirling his cane walking down the open road at dawn
Toulouse Lautrec laying down paint onto canvas celebrating the high-kicking legs of cancan dancers though his crippled stunted legs ache
the fighter
getting up off his stool and coming back out of his corner though he was almost knocked out
in the last round

we invented the gods
built the cities
made the wheels the axles the chimneys the wings the masts the scalpels the rudders the valves
the rails the keys
and no corporation should ever stand above us.

See also: Let the poet lift a hammer: the prophetic poetry of Fred Voss

A Monument to the Working Class
Thursday, 12 May 2016 21:17

Let the poet lift a hammer: the prophetic poetry of Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

"I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little." - Fred Voss

Why have mortality rates amongst middle aged working class Americans suddenly increased? Why is inequality increasing, so that the top 1% of the U.S. population own 35% of the wealth, and why are bonuses on Wall Street more than double the total annual pay of all Americans on the federal minimum wage? Why has support swollen so rapidly for a buffoon like Donald Trump? And finally, in such darkly unequal times, what can poets do about it? 

Mortality rates for white working class Americans declined steadily until around 2000, as you might expect following the postwar years of peace and prosperity, the 'golden age of capitalism' as it is sometimes called. But in the last few years they have got worse, for the first time since records began. White working class men who never got beyond high school now have an absolutely worse mortality rate than black, Hispanic or any other demographic.

What are the causes of these early deaths? Drugs, alcohol and suicide, mostly. Basically, these men have killed themselves with drugs and drink because the rich and powerful American ruling class, running the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, do not need or want them any more. They're on the economic scrapheap, or on their way there. There are simply not enough jobs for them, and the few jobs around are increasingly badly paid.

Those groups who have been on the margins of the capitalist USA for a long time have weathered the recession better because they have always had nasty, short, precarious lives. But white baby boomers, brought up to expect a brighter future, are discovering that they are going to be worse off than their parents. Most of their efforts to cope with, come to terms with, or struggle against this legalised robbery of their labour, their health, wealth and happiness, are failing. They are becoming more and more desperate, and so are voting for the dangerous, delusional fantasies of Donald Trump, when they are not drinking and drugging themselves to death.

Fred Voss expresses the situation poetically as

Shadows We Will Never Escape

All day as we work
we stare
out the rolled-open tin door at the 50-storey downtown L.A. WELLS FARGO
and BANK OF AMERICA and CITICORP
buildings gleaming
in the sun with all their wealth and power
trying
to keep our children fed
trying to keep from losing hope
and throwing in the towel
on our low wages
riding buses
bicycles
thin
with hangovers making us teeter and hold our stomachs
over pitted concrete floors
and stumps instead of fingers
we go without glasses and teeth and hope of anything
but poverty
in old age we
stick our chests out and throw around 100-pound vices and try not
to get strung out on drugs
or pick up guns and go crazy as we work
in the shadows
of those buildings
so close
with so much wealth and power we stare
out at those towering shining buildings
from the shadows on the concrete floor
of our factory
until we truly begin to know what it feels like
to be buried alive.

At the point of production, there is no democracy, no land of freedom and opportunity, not even adequate material rewards for punishingly hard work. For growing numbers of poor working class men and women there is only naked exploitation, built on centuries of racism and violence. In this impoverishing environment, suicide, madness and prison are only

One Hair's-Breadth Away

I sit on my steel stool at work at break and read
the news article
about the genocide we Americans committed against the Red Man
for centuries
I sit
and read about the genocide
we Americans committed against the Black Man
with nooses
and butcher knives
I read
the concern
the horror
the apology in these articles
the shock
that we as Americans could ever have allowed such genocides
then look around
this factory just like so many thousands of factories in this land
at the men
who cannot afford a pair of glasses a haircut shoelaces
a meal a room
a woman
men
one hair’s-breadth away
from suicide
madness
prison
the street
men
getting poorer penny by penny each hour each day each year
without hope of a raise
white men black men men from Mexico and East L.A.
and Guatemala and Vietnam and Russia
men
with twisted backs and tired tombstone eyes
and I wonder
where are all the articles full of concern and shock and horror
about them I wonder
why the only genocides that make our papers are the ones that are already
finished.

And where, you might wonder, are all the poems about work and the working class? The problem here is that

Only Poets With Clean Hands Win Prizes

The homeless woman pushes her little boy and girl in a shopping cart
down an alley to the trash cans
where she desperately looks for scraps of food
as the poet
writes about whether or not an ashtray on his coffee table
really exists
the man works 50 then 60 then 70 hours a week in a factory
so he can live in a tiny cheap room with another man
instead of in a car
and the poet
leans back pleased with her image
of a red teacup
sailing through a wall
the poets
are polishing lines about the shadows inside ivory bowls
and what time really means
as old people
must choose between their medicine and eating
people in agony with no health insurance spend nights sitting in chairs
waiting in crowded emergency rooms
men
go to prison for the rest of their lives for stealing
a sandwich
the poet
is writing about looking in a mirror
as a wave curls
over his shoulder and he knows it is all
an illusion
while men are thrown out onto the street
where they will pick up bottles
or needles that will ruin their lives because
there are no jobs
as the poets
work to polish words that prove the ticks of a clock
aren’t real.

Voss knows the ticks of the workplace clock are horribly real signifiers of oppression and exploitation. Not because of the work itself, but because of the conditions of employment which people work under. Voss sees and expresses the actual evil of capitalist production, but also the potential for good under different arrangements. And he expresses it clearly, lyrically, without ever losing sight of the factual, material basis of life, and the equally straightforward way things could be different. As he says in 'Bread and Blood', he is making parts for attack helicopters in Iraq, when he could be making socially useful things like wheelchair wheels.

Voss's dialectical understanding of capitalist production also connects the energy of work in his machine shop to universal values. See how in the following poem we move smoothly, seamlessly, from the sweaty, oily detail of early morning machining in a metalwork shop, to some of the finest scientific and artistic accomplishments of humanity, and from there to happiness, fulfilment and liberty.

By interpreting the world in this way, Voss is surely helping to change it. His poems sing out hope and possibility to us like Whitman's poems and Kerouac's prose and Ginsberg's poems and The Doors' music did for an earlier generation, or like a

Saxophone on a Railroad Track

There is nothing greater
than the energy in a lathe man at 6:07 am throwing every muscle in his body
into the steel 100-pound tailstock of an engine lathe
digging
his steel-toed shoes into a concrete floor and leaning
into the 100-pound tailstock and flexing muscle shoving it across the tool steel ways of the lathe
until the foot-long drill in the tailstock’s mouth meets
turning brass bar and begins to chew
an inch-in-diameter hole through that brass bar’s dead center
it is the energy
that raised the Eiffel Tower
pushed off
the shore in a canoe that crossed the Pacific
it is Einstein breaking through years of thinking to find time stops
at the speed of light
Galileo
daring to look through a telescope and prove the earth isn’t the center
of the universe
it is Houdini
breaking free of every lock and shooting up out of the river gasping
the air Van Gogh breathed
the minute he brushed the last stroke of oil across his canvas full
of sunflowers
look at the smile on the lathe man’s face as he turns the wheel
forcing the drill through the brass
it is the roar
of the tiger the ring
of the Liberty Bell the laugh
of that lathe man’s baby girl as she sits on his shoulder and reaches up
for a star and the lathe man puts everything he’s got
into turning that wheel
and smiles
because little girls laugh and planets revolve and telephone repairmen
climb telephone poles and train wheels carry a saxophone
toward a music shop window so a man
who has picked himself up out of a skid row gutter can blow Charlie Parker’s notes
off a green bridge again
as the butterfly wing cracks open the chrysalis and Nelson Mandela
steps out of prison
a free man.

Do not think that the clarity of expression is artless. At first sight Voss's poems look like chopped-up prose, but read them aloud and you will hear their sinuous, resilient rhythms, winding onwards like a Whitmanesque river, developing an idea from an initial striking title and first few lines, towards an always memorable resolution.

Here's a good question:

Can Revolutions Start in Bathrooms?

I’m standing
in front of the bathroom mirror washing up after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich and politicians
talk of “trickle down” and “the land of opportunity” and “the American way”
and Earl on the turret lathe keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car to ride
the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72 heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
are silent
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed and our workloads rise I’ve never heard one word
of revolt
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator walks into the bathroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
“Hey which front office person is driving that brand new Jaguar
I see parked out there now?”
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
“Well, whoever it is,” Teddy says,
“They’re making too much money!”
After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of The Bastille.

Voss never loses the sense of what work is really for, and what the ideal communist society might look like. He lifts his poetic hammer, verbally envisioning redemptive change, helping to create the communist and compassionate political movement needed so that all of us – but especially the poor – will be able eventually to restore our health and happiness and eat

Broccoli and Salmon and Red Red Apples

Let the poet lift a hammer
let the poet break bread
with a man lying down in a bunk in a skid row midnight mission homeless shelter
let the poet come out from behind the walls of his ivory tower
and feel the steering wheel of a downtown Long Beach bus in his hands
as he steers it toward a 66-year-old grandmother
who rides it to work at a factory grinding wheel
let him feel the 12-hour sun the lettuce picker feels beating down on the back
of his neck
let him pull a drill press handle
hook a steel hook through a steel pan full of motorcycle sidecar yokes and drag it
100 feet across a gouged concrete factory floor as drop hammers pound
let him grease a gear turn a wheel
crack a locknut serve a plateful of crab
drain a panful of oil plant
a stick of dynamite hook a tuna
in the deep green sea dig bulldozer bucket teeth
into the side of a hill feel
how good the sun feels on his face Sunday morning
when he’s finally gotten a day off after 72 hours behind windowless factory
tin walls
how good a tree looks
or a river sounds or a baby feels
in his arms
when he’s earned his bread with the sweat on his back
how true a star
and the notes of Beethoven and the curl of a wave around the nose of his surfboard are
when he’s thrown his arms around a 1-ton bar of steel
and guided it into a furnace full
of white-hot flame
how much a wildflower or a fire truck siren or a pick
in the fists of a man in the depths of a coal mine
mean
when he earns his bread by getting the dirt of this earth
on his hands
how human
we all are covered in soft skin and pulsing
with warm blood and deserving
of a roof over our head and a bed under our bones and a laugh
around a dinner table piled high
with broccoli and salmon
and red red apples.

Finally, here is one of Voss's most complex and successful poems, weaving themes of beaten-down oppression and class division with utopian aspiration and a willed determination to achieve human – and indeed universal – reconciliation through socially useful, unalienated work. It is a vision of

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand

“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time clock and the sun
rises
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
but paradise?
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian beaches
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancún
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vice with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of men
carving steel
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in Honduras
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their machines
like the sun
couldn’t rise
without them.

Fred Voss' poetry is rooted in factory life on the West Coast of California, but rears up and stretches our imaginations as we read it, taking us across time and space. It lives in the here and now and works to the tick of the factory clock, but transcends our 'cold competitive time'. Like Blake's poetry, it sees the world in a grain of sand, tells truth to power. And like Blake, Voss combines the precision and realism born of years of skilled craftworking with a sweeping, lyrical imagination and vision arising from years of reflection on work, on the working class, and on the dreadful but alterable material realities of the world around him. Voss's sword will clearly not be sleeping in his hand, any time soon.

Voss writes prophetic poetry with a deep spiritual content, focused on the point of production. He connects the inherent, present harshness of class conflict under capitalism with the ultimate, future promise of communism, a 'warmer way to live' as he says in the poem below. It can be ironic, satirical and even angry, but it always retains its dignity, warmth and humanity. He is searingly honest in description, visionary in imagination, and is surely one of our greatest contemporary poets, tirelessly lifting his poetic hammer and striking the spark of revolution into our hearts and minds.

Let him have the last word, as well as the first. This is a poem about making

A Clock as Warm as Our Hearts

As I sit at this milling machine cranking out brass parts
at the precise rate of 21 per hour
I wait for the sun to creep its way across the sky until it shines
through the high windows
in the west wall of this factory onto the top of the blue
upside-down funnel on the workbench
beside my machine
and then my fingers
the way it always does.
There is an order to things
men in caves
before sundials and hourglasses
and clocks
knew
an order
higher than staying competitive by turning out 21 parts per hour in this factory
or losing your job
a warmth
in the sky that always returns
to shine upon my fingers
the way the dying leaves of fall return
the way our dreams return
the tide
and the comets
and as the boss comes down the aisle cold and angry
and screaming for parts
I wait
for the soothing touch of that sun on my fingers to tell me
that someday
we may put our cold competitive time clocks and bosses away
and find a warmer
way to live.

This article is also published in Communist Review. Thanks to Fred Voss, Bloodaxe Books and the Morning Star for permission to republish poems. Two collections of Fred Voss's poetry are currently available from Bloodaxe: Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 1998, and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 2009. 

 See also I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss.

Bakshiram
Monday, 04 January 2016 21:45

Artist and Empire

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille explores the relations between art, politics and empire, in the current Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain.

Has there ever been a more successful engine of global exploitation than the British Empire? And has any other empire been better at reframing that exploitation as benevolent paternalism, moral improvement and the general all-round civilisation of savages?

At its height the British Empire was the largest in history, covering almost a quarter of the world's total land area. It has shrank over the last hundred years to a handful of overseas territories, but its legacy is everywhere. It is most obvious in the statues and monuments all over the country to cruel, thuggish and racist monarchs, admirals, generals, politicians and imperial administrators. They dominate and disfigure our public spaces: hence the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford.

Other legacies of Empire lie in social structures, in the fault lines of contemporary global politics particularly in the Middle East, and in art and culture generally. One of the sad and sobering aspects of this exhibition is the way it reveals how the ruling classes have since the early colonial period co-opted most art and most artists, most of the time. Commissioned by the rich and powerful, artists have themselves been colonised, paid to promote, legitimise, and even glorify Britain's violent and rapacious foreign conquests.

Six rooms at Tate Britain tell the story through art of colonial conquest, collaboration, subordination and resistance. Various items of visual and material culture eg paintings, flags, sculptures, clothing and maps, are used to illustrate various themes.

In the first room, Mapping and Marking, we see how British cartographers and surveyors mapped occupied territory, erased indigenous ownership, imposed new names and new borders, and presented domination as civilisation.

The next room, Trophies of Empire, focuses on the various objects, specimens and other examples of material culture brought back by explorers, sailors, missionaries and traders. It shows how the looting, bartering and purchasing which accompanied the imperial project penetrated museums, elite collections, laboratories and zoos.

Next, Imperial Heroics explores the explicitly ideological mission of most British history painting, which helped shape popular perceptions of the Empire. They include representations of heroic struggle and martyrdom by tiny bands of brave British soldiers, surrounded by crowds of savages. Some of the representations of nineteenth century jihadists resisting Empire are unnervingly topical, and seem prophetic in the light of the current Islamophobia in the media. Just how much has actually changed in the way our mainstream culture views people with other religions and darker skins?

The room on Power Dressing is a fascinating insight into how the Western elite tradition of grand portraiture, developed to convey the power and dominance of representatives of the ruling classes, arrived in colonies along with the gunboats, machine guns and deceitful diplomacy. British diplomats and administrators were often portrayed wearing indigenous clothing such as Native American costume. Colonised peoples, whilst often forced to adopt Western styles of clothing, often modified and resisted it, or knowingly played to imperial expectations by wearing their own. Trans-cultural cross-dressing expressed the tensions and conflicts between homeland, colony, and imperial centre, in striking and sometimes humorous ways.

Face to Face contains some fine examples of portraits of Empire's subjects. Both Charles Frederick Goldie and Rudolf Swoboda paint colonial subjects sympathetically, giving dignity and identity back to them, and revealing elements of doubt, even guilt, about imperial conquest. Swoboda's 'Bakshiram' (reproduced above courtesy of Tate Britain) is one of the finest paintings in the exhibition.

And finally, in the artworks in the Out of Empire room (and occasionally pointedly positioned in the other rooms) we see how post-colonial and contemporary artists developed some effective artistic practices which challenged, ironicised and thoroughly demolished the deceitful ideology and iconography of Empire. Gradually, through long and difficult struggles by Black and Asian artists who were initially marginalised by the art establishment, modern visual art has freed itself from the shackles of misrepresentation and glorification of Empire. Now, it is a much more critical and truthful representation of the political and economic realities which underpinned it.

Artist and Empire is revealing, educational and entertaining, and shows how important it is to present art within its political and economic context. Curating art in this way clarifies how art is rooted in and reflective of its historical and political environment. It shows, sadly, how art sometimes works by supporting and glorifying racism, sexism and other kinds of class-based cultural domination which enable and legitimise the straightforward economic exploitation which is the core project of empire.

You will surely come out of this exhibition, feeling moved and enlightened, as I did, asking questions, like Brecht's Questions from a Worker Who Reads. Why are the relations between art, history and politics not commonly shown in our art galleries? How much more relevant and popular art would become if we were shown, for example, how artistic images of women throughout history are linked to the class-based oppression and exploitation of women from time immemorial?

What if the pictures of representatives of the ruling class in the National Portrait Gallery, and in all our local museums and stately homes, were presented in the context of the actual exploitative economic realities underpinning their elite status?

What if all curators – as they do in Artist and Empire – routinely unearthed and exposed the true nature of the relations between art, ideology and the politics of class-divided societies, where wealth accumulates from the economic exploitation of subordinated working people? Would it not be a public service if more art gallery directors, curators and other cultural workers joined the struggle for our cultural liberation?

Artist and Empire is a brave and satisfying exhibition, a great help with that cultural struggle. And its huge popularity with the general public as well as critics suggests that it is high time this kind of approach was adopted more widely.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until April 10. Admission is £16 but concessions are available.

Blake's Jerusalem Frontispiece
Tuesday, 01 December 2015 14:24

Welcome! Thank You! Join In!

Published in Round-up

Welcome to Culture Matters, a website about progressive art, culture and politics.

You'll find more information about us in the About Us section, surprisingly enough.

We hope you enjoy your visit, and are interested, engaged and even inspired by the material to join in the 'mental fight'.

The Home Page has all of our latest articles, you can go here for details on recent material, and you can look at everything using the buttons above.

In particular we recommend the material which is about (and by) Muslims and refugees, such as the poems and short stories of Mohja Kahf, Muhaned Khorshid, and Amir Darwish. And we recommend Salena Godden's post-punk poem on the Paris attacks; Christopher Rowland's insightful article on Blake; John Storey's cogently argued piece on why culture matters; and Andy Croft's lucid yet passionate case for the essentially communist nature of poetry. If you know anyone who can write like Andy about the other arts, please send them our way.

Thanks also to the Morning Star for their assistance and support. Some of the current pieces you see here are taken from that unique paper. They are there not only for their own sake but as examples of the kind of committed writing we hope you are looking for, and which we want to encourage. And thanks to the Communist Party of Britain for providing webspace and technical support for this broadly based artistic and cultural project.

Culture Matters is currently like a first edition, or a skeleton, or a thinly populated country which we have provisionally mapped out but not defined. Many sections need more articles, and more creative material. In the months and hopefully years ahead, we want contributors to populate the country, help put flesh on the skeleton, and clothes on the flesh.

So please do join in, if you want to. You will find some common threads running through a lot of the material, a kind of emerging consensual approach to art, culture and politics. That approach, coming from contributors, is our steer, which we want to build on. Please help shape the site by reading the material, by making comments and suggestions, and by sending proposals and material to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Help build the new Jerusalem, artistically, culturally and politically, throughout Britain and the world as well as in England's green and pleasant land. Enjoy your visit, and please come back. Because Culture Matters!
Mike Quille and Ben Stevenson, Co-Managing Editors

 

About Us
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 20:05

About Us

Published in About us

We are a group of writers, artists and activists who think that culture matters.

Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire.

I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Culture matters. The arts (films, plays, paintings, music etc.) and culture generally (sport, religion, the media, eating and drinking etc.) can be wholesome and liberating. They please the senses, stimulate the mind, arouse emotions, and feed the soul. But class-based divisions in society, founded on unequal property ownership, constrain and prevent our enjoyment of cultural activities, which are essential to enjoy life and be fully human.

Culture matters. Cultural activities and experiences can promote awareness, arouse indignation, inspire creativity and imagination, create a sense of equality, community and social justice. They can help us in the 'mental fight' to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a more democratic, equal, socialist society – not only in England but across the globe.

So the Culture Matters website aims to publish relevant creative material (poems, images, music etc,) and critical material (reviews, articles, interviews etc.) We also run Bread and Roses Arts Awards, publish books and pamphlets, and work with the labour movement through workshops and campaigns on culture issues.

Submissions

Submissions are very welcome, from anyone who has something to say about art and culture which contributes to these aims. Please write as clearly, concisely and accessibly as possible, avoiding footnotes. We are currently unable to pay for material, unfortunately. If you want to contribute, look at what's already on the site and try and shape your material to fit with our broad aims. Submissions are subject to editing. Please provide brief notes and a jpeg of yourself, any preferred accompanying images, and send to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Our published material is mostly original work. Feel free to link to or copy our articles, but please email us for permission first. All republished work should attribute the author, publication and date. 

Our current team of editors and support staff is as follows: Jim Aitken, Dennis Broe, Mollie Brown, Jenny Farrell, Sally Flint, Martin Gollan, Gillian Grant, Gemma Jane Howell, Michael Jarvie, Mike Jenkins, Fran Lock, Rebecca Lowe, Alan Morrison, Mike Quille and Ben Stevenson.

Donations

We rely on donations to keep going, so if you have enjoyed visiting the website, you can support our mission by using the button below.

 

Muslims Say Sorry! The poetry of Amir Darwish
Monday, 14 December 2015 22:48

Muslims Say Sorry! The poetry of Amir Darwish

Published in Poetry

Wars rage in the Middle East. The US and its allies pursue their policies of economic and military aggression, regime change, and the deliberate fomenting of chaos, instability and hardship. Refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants are forced to flee, towards the richer countries of Europe, whose wealth has been built on the imperialist exploitation of the rest of the world. There they are met by steel fences, police with dogs, endless paperwork, squabbling politicians and suspicious populations. Random atrocities are committed against civilians, on the ground and in the air, in Paris, Damascus, Jerusalem and Beirut.

That is the world in which we are living, and it is a world familiar to Amir Darwish. Amir was born in Syria in 1979 and came to the UK during the second Gulf War. His poetry has been published in the USA, Pakistan, Finland, Morocco and Mexico.

His recent book of poetry, 'Don’t Forget the Couscous' is in the words of the publisher, 'a book of poetry about exile and home. It is a love-song to the Arab world – Syria, Kurdistan, Morocco and Palestine. It is a memoir of the failed Arab Spring and the civil war that has turned Syria into a ‘fountain of blood’, as Darwish puts it in one of the poems. It’s a bitter account of the demonization of Islam in the West, and the violent interference of the West in the Islamic world. It is about being a Muslim and not a terrorist.'

Here are some poems from the collection, showing Darwish's poetic skills as a light, musical lyricist; as an honest, informative and insightful political commentator; and as a skilled ironist and satirist, capable of both sharpness and warmth.

Sorry!
An apology from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) to humanity

We are sorry for everything
That we have caused humanity to suffer from.
Sorry for algebra and the letter X.
Sorry for all the words we throw at you;
Amber, candy, chemistry, cotton, giraffe, hazard,
Jar, jasmine, jumper, lemon, lime, lilac,
Oranges, sofa, scarlet, spinach,
Talisman, tangerine, tariff, traffic, tulips,
Mattress (yes, mattress) and the massage you enjoy on it:
We are sorry for all of these.
Sorry that we replaced alcohol with coffee for Enlightenment philosophers.
Speaking of hot drinks,
We are sorry for the cappuccino the Turks brought over.
Sorry for the black Arabian race horses,
For the clock,
Maths,
Parachutes.

Abdul in the US is sorry for what so and so did;
He does not know him but he is sorry anyway.
Sorry that we accompanied Columbus on his journey to the States.
And sorry for the Arab man with him
Who was the first to touch the shore and shout ‘Honolulu’
And named the place after him.
Sorry for the architecture in Spain and the Al Hambra palace there.
We apologise for churches in Seville
With their stars of David at the top that we built with our hands.
We say sorry for every number you use in your daily life from the 0 to the trillion.
Even Adnan the Yezidi (mistaken for a Muslim)
Is sorry for the actions of Abu whatever who beheads people in Syria.
Sorry for the mercury chloride that heals wounds,
Please give us some –
Because the guilt of initiating all of the above
Gives us a wound as big as this earth.
Sorry for the guitar that was played by Moriscos in Spain
To ease their pain when they were kicked out of their homes.
Sorry for the hookah as you suck on its lips
And gaze into the moon hearing the Arabian Nay.
Sorry for cryptanalysis and the ability to analyse information systems,
To think what is the heart of the heart of the heart and bring it to the world.
Sorry for painting Grenada white to evade social hierarchy.
Sorry for the stories inThe Arabian Nights.

Every time we see a star, we remember to be sorry for Astronomy,
We are sorry that Mo Farah claimed asylum here
And went to become the British champion of the world.
Sorry for non-representational art,
Pattern and surface decoration.
We are sorry for all the food we brought over:
From tuna to chicken tikka masala,
Hummus,
Falafel,
Apricot,
Doner kebab
Right up to the shawarma roll.
And don’t forget the couscous.

If we forget to apologise for something, never mind,
We are sorry for it without even knowing it.
Most of all we are sorry for Rumi’s love poems,
And we desperately echo one of them to you:

Oh Beloved,
Take me.
Liberate my soul.
Fill me with your love and
Release me from the two worlds.
If I set my heart on anything but you
Let that fire burn me from inside.
Oh Beloved,
Take away what I want.
Take away what I do.
Take away what I need.
Take away everything
That takes me away from you.

Please forgive us.
We are sorry and cannot be sorry enough today.

Palestine

Palestine is a rose that rose
To refresh the air as it enters the nose.

There must be a light at the end of this tunnel

There must be a light at the end of this tunnel
At a point where
So many eyes look into darkness
Cut through a bone and
Shine it.

There will be a creature there
A strange one
With no hands
No lips
No arms
No ears
No body
And only eyes
Eyes and soul.

That being will find a light from within you
And strike it out to the world.

Over there
In that place
The river of sadness dries
Melancholy waves hush and
The Sorrow garden
Reflects an Arabian desert moonlight
Shining the universe.

There
You sit with your hand back and forth
Playing the water of a Damascus fountain.

I interviewed Amir about his past, his poetics and his politics. Amir asked me to make it clear that he is not speaking on behalf of all poets, nor does he intend offer advice to others on what to think or write. His views are his and his alone.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself to start with, please?

I am a British/Syrian poet of Kurdish origin, born in Aleppo in 1979, and I came to the UK in 2003. I started writing at the age of 16 or 17. My poetry has now been published in the USA, Pakistan, Finland, Morocco and Mexico and in the anthology Break-Out. I recently completed an MA in International Studies at the University of Durham, and prior to that I gained a BA in history from Teesside University.

The book you've chosen the poems from, 'Don't Forget The Couscous' is a collection of poetry about exile and home, love and loss. My next book will be an autobiographical work, 'From Aleppo Without Love', touching on themes of pain and agony felt by myself and my sisters, Shaza, Rana and Layla.

Can you tell us something about your approach to writing, about why and how you write?

As a child and as a teenager, I experienced oppression both in the private and public spheres. I was both a subject and witness to violent acts for several years, and those memories have inspired my writing. My writing has become an outlet, to channel some awful experiences and redeem their pain.

Inspirational moments, for me, often arrive while on a journey. At stations and airports, poems are born, and then later on rise and mature, in quietness. The first stage of the process, the poem's conception, is more important than the second. I am constantly ready with pen, paper, phone and laptop, to put down words and thoughts when on the road. I am a writer who starts big and then goes small, small, small until the word is loud and clear. Nonetheless, the increase and decrease of thoughts is sometimes done as an experiment. Clarity, a sense of simplicity, and fluency are continuous aims.

How do you find living in Britain, on Teeside?

Living on Teesside gave me a good start on the poetry road here in England. The poetry scene is lively and dynamic, with new faces often coming to light. Particularly through the MA Creative Writing course at Teesside University, led by two local poets, Andy Willoughby and Bob Beagrie.

I appreciate what Britain offers in terms of safety, shelter and an atmosphere to write fearlessly. These aspects are particularly relevant to my next work, “From Aleppo without Love” which is scheduled for publication in 2017. Not many places on earth are available to write such work bravely and feel safe. Britain is one.

Can you give us your thoughts on the current refugee crisis, and the troubles in Syria and the Middle East?

A poet is not a politician for sure, but more someone who can guide public opinion so that politicians are directed onto certain paths. When a poet tries to become a politician, there is a danger for him/her of restricting the imaginative self to intellectual certainties. Nothing kills creativity at the cradle more than adherence to one sole, specific view. As a poet, I try to stay free of specific political thought as much as possible, like a bird who visits nests but never resides forever in one of them. Not sure if I do that successfully! I do perhaps still exhibit partisan views, like everyone I have certain biases.

As for what goes on now in the region, I still feel traumatised by what went on, what goes on now and what might happen next. I don't have the ability to take up a pen and write properly on recent events. Maybe the next generation can. Possibly that is why some of my attempts to write poems about the refugee crisis are weak, powerless and tend to fail as poems. Humanity, and here I mean worldwide not specific governments or locations, will need to examine itself after such a crisis. The current Syrian refugee crisis is the largest since WWII, who would have thought the world would see such a massive refugee crisis?

What other poets do you admire, and would recommend to our readers?

Humanist poets in the Middle East are now necessary more than ever. The Syrian poet Adunis is a great example, tightly embracing the humanist ideal when the Arab Spring/revelation/uprising/ unrest (or whatever you prefer to call it) started. For an intellectual from the region to hold such views is not an easy task. Adunis consistently provokes us away from the thought of taking sides, whether that's Arab nationalism or another system of thought. The Middle East needs more poets like Adunis and wise words like these:

Do you remember how I followed that war? And how once I turned to time and said,
'If you had two ears to listen with
You too would have walked the universe, deluded and dishevelled,
no beginning to your end'

The second poet and writer who comes to mind instantly is Muhammed Shukri. Moroccan and of Berber origin, Shukri's writing breaks down social barriers that are put into place to hide the unknown. That 'unknown' is at the heart of what goes on now in the Middle East. Shukri speaks about Arab society with micro details. He does it with openness, frankness and insight into the 'how' and the 'why'. After all, rulers of the Middle East come from the region’s social fabric, not from Mars.

For Shukri to give us such a detailed vision is a luxury. Unfortunately, he is yet to find adequate echo from other writers in the region, and yet to be given the status he deserves. That is possibly due to the culture of shame, which still shackles the process of liberation in the Arab world.

Thanks very much, Amir. Which poem from your collection would you like us to end with?

I would like you all to read and enjoy 'It's All About Love'. And thank you very much!

It's All About Love

Be grateful for everything written about love
From the first ink humanity slaughtered in Syria

To this very last exact word right now on this page: LOVE.

Love is a misbaha:

Full of beads
Suddenly
Cut loose on the world
To drown lovers up to their ears
Leaving only the brain
To think of love.

Love like a red wall in the Al Hambra

Blushes when you enter.

It is an Andalusian hammam

A scar left for ever on the face of Granada.

Love is a palm tree in Fes

Taaaalllllll with a nest at its top
Grass on grass assembled by lovebirds.

Love is a poem you perfect for months

And like an ardent and sexually demanding young lover
Always wants more of you.

So follow the fine line of the curve

Then rest your head in deep sleep.

Love is a tear

About to explode
In the middle of an eye.

It’s a Barkouk with wrinkles.

The squeeze let its remnants come out of the fist
The way runny butter does.

Love rises with every virgin who keeps herself intact only for one.

Love is a pair of naked lovers in a pickle jar

Twisted on one another and promising to stay this way forever.

And this life must go on to have more of love

Be in and out of it,
Fall for it,
Around it,
Because of it.

Finally

One refuses to call love it
Or he,
Or she,
Or they,
We,
Us,
Them,
Love is different.
It is a ferry crossing between lovers’ eyes.
It’s in trees,
Water,
Sky,
Rivers.

It’s an ember as lovers embrace

By a fire in the Atlas mountains.

And as the story goes in The Arabian Nights:

Love becomes a red rose that jumps into the Nazareth palace
And gives it colour
While lovers sent to the moon kissing
Stay there forever.

Love gives itself to everyone

Everywhere,
But since Eve’s arrival
What it gave so far nothing but this:.................

Love is a religion

So follow its scripture
Make love at certain times a day
On Friday,
Saturday,
Or Sunday,

Or even make your own new holy day and call it:
Loveday.

Love is a wave between Tangier and the sweetheart’s eyes
Daily it sails between the two.

Or maybe love is a stream of milk between a nipple
And the world to feed it tranquillity.

Love has one flavour

One colour
And no country.
Its inhabitants are everything that moves
including this pen as it writes.

It’s even in the sand clock that appears in a pupil,
Dropping endlessly as you watch it nonstop.

Love is the three quarters of the earth
Which is water,
You swallow it all

And your stomach can contain more if that is what love wants.

Love is a high mountain shadow

It appears and disappears on your lover’s back nightly
As he rises up and down in the act of making love.

Love is pure and never mixes itself with hate,

Yet it is part of it
The way an oil-slick moves in the sea.

Love is beautiful
So beautiful

That when you see it
You fall into a love-coma.

Love is the best form of government that political philosophy can offer

Where you have no duty but one:
To make love.


Thanks to Amir Darwish, and thanks to his publisher Smokestack Books for permission to publish the poems.
The poems are taken from Don't Forget the Couscous, by Amir Darwish, Smokestack Books, 2015.
The Third Man
Monday, 14 December 2015 21:32

The Third Man

Published in Films

Mike Quille unearths the radical politics and art in Carol Reed's great thriller.

In an uncanny parallel with today, many in the Britain of 1949 were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party’s policies for economic austerity at home and support for US imperialism abroad. Those concerns rumble below the surface in The Third Man, first screened that year. Written by Graham Greene and starring Orson Welles, the film is set in a post-war Vienna divided into zones of influence by the victorious but mutually suspicious Allies. It is a bombed-out, rubble-strewn city of darkness and disorder, emphasised by unsettling camera tilts and the distorted, wide-angle shots of landscapes, interiors and characters.

The film’s central character Harry Lime (Welles) is a US businessman criminally responsible for the death and chronic ill health of patients through diluting penicillin in the search for greater profits. Like transnational corporations, his business activities are lucrative and lawless — he avoids detection by using the city’s sewer system.

In a key scene, he literally employs high-flown rhetoric from the top of a Ferris wheel to justify making profits at the expense of the people far beneath him. Renaissance wars produced great art and philosophy, he argues, whereas “brotherly love, peace and democracy” in Switzerland brought “nothing but the cuckoo clock.” His words are a clear allegory of post-war US big business, a voracious, cynical capitalism cloaked — like its British forebear — in a veneer of culture and civilisation.

Writer Holly Martins, the film’s other main character, is a friend of Lime’s. The scripts he pens, where the classic cowboy strategy of solving problems with guns and calling it morality always prevails, implicitly reference US cold-war policy. Meekly followed by the Labour government, it dashed post-war hopes on the left that alliances with working people across Europe and the Soviet Union would be the best guarantee of lasting peace.

Lime has invited him to Vienna to write promotional publicity for his criminal enterprises — again, an allegorical expression of how advertising copywriters and other cultural workers were being commercialised and suborned to the US post-war project of promoting consumer capitalism while claiming the moral high ground of “freedom of the individual” over attempts in Europe to build fairer, socialist societies.

The Third Man is the Cold War in microcosm and a critique of its politics, accurately capturing the tension, mistrust and fear characteristic of Europe post-1945. Characters and their relationships assume the symbolism of economic and political forces without losing dramatic credibility as people in any way. The camerawork, the jaunty ambivalence of the music and the sombre shadows all create a sense of tension and uneasiness and the menacing, noirish atmosphere of betrayal and disappointment powerfully expresses the disappointment, disillusion and dissent amongst the British working class as the government drifts rightwards in its foreign policy and fails to challenge and change Britain’s rigid class structure.

Reed’s direction and all of the actors are outstanding but the most memorable performance is Welles’s brave portrayal of Lime, informed by his own radical politics and artistry, as was also the case with Greene. Lime’s persona brilliantly encapsulates the arrogance and violence beneath the surface of smooth-talking, charismatic capitalists. He’s a conscious recreation by Greene and Welles of Kurtz, the cynical and persuasive trader and tyrant in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lime, who makes money from mutilated children in Vienna, personifies the predatory capitalism of post-war US big business just as Kurtz, who enslaves and mutilates workers in the Congo rubber plantations, personifies the murderous colonialism of European empires.

The Third Man’s protagonist is thus the perfect symbol of the rising power of US post-war corporate capitalism. It’s no wonder that the US authorities bundled Greene out of the country in 1952 as a suspected communist or that right-wing Hollywood studio bosses regarded Welles as box-office poison and blacklisted him for years afterwards. By behaving in fact as Lime does in fiction, they could not have chosen a better way of demonstrating the truth of the radical politics and art behind this great film.
Unofficial War Artist: Peter Kennard at the IWA
Friday, 11 December 2015 00:00

Unofficial War Artist: Peter Kennard at the IWA

Published in Visual Arts

“The people’s peace museum” is Peter Kennard’s suggested name change for the Imperial War Museum, where his stunning images are currently on display. If Kennard ever does get his way on that one, it will be partly thanks to his 50-year artistic campaign of militant anti-war and anti-capitalist activism, the subject of this well-designed retrospective exhibition of over 200 of his artworks.

They make their impact through the cutting, pasting and juxtaposition of photographic images in ways which deliver striking and unsettling artistic and political messages.

Kennard turned to photomontage as a young art student because, he says, he could “rip into images and get at an unrevealed truth” for maximum aesthetic and political impact. Interventionist and activist, he has doubts about art “so layered with complex conceptual ideas that it only speaks to others in the art world.” Instead, he’s opted for an art form which he wants to use “to help build a mass movement.”

The exhibition’s powerful opening statement Decoration is a series of massive digital and painted prints of British and US war decorations from 2003, their ribbons ripped and their medallions replaced with images of bandaged heads, explosions and hooded Iraqi prisoners.
Following on, there are early montages referencing the Vietnam war, the “Prague spring” and the student riots of the late sixties and they have that provocative, deliberately disorienting and distancing effect which runs throughout his work.

On display in an “archival store” are his works Crushed Missile, Haywain with Cruise Missiles and Warheads in the form of posters, T-shirts, pamphlets, badges and placards.

These and other direct, simple and sardonic images are what Kennard described as “a toolkit of protest” which are reworked and used freely by the peace movement, student activists and anti-corporate groups. Kennard has always tried to make his art accessible and useful to Britain’s protest movement, in its form and in the way it is distributed.

Reading Room, an installation where lecterns are laid out with faces smudged onto the stock market reports from the financial pages, graphically illustrates the growing dominance of finance capitalism in the 1990s and the resulting social inequalities. On the walls financial pages are ripped and defaced in anger, frustration or, perhaps, revolutionary destructiveness.

A side corridor, lined with some of Kennard’s latest paintings, contains subtle, indistinct images of faces with no mouths, expressing his desire to “give voice to the speechless and marginalised.”

The concluding display Boardroom is a new installation. It’s an ambitious attempt to convey anti-capitalist, anti-militarist political messages through a series of 3-D montages of photographs, models and images, interspersed with facts and figures showing the connections between war, capitalism and poverty.

Their impact is akin to Bertholt Brecht’s “alienation effect” by engaging and shocking the viewer into seeing the truth by stripping away dominant ideological mystifications and denying comfortable illusions. Kennard’s work invokes astonishment and outrage by placing and re-placing images and events in unfamiliar contexts.

This is work exposing the ugliness of corporate capitalism, including its sponsorship of art. “Now we’ve got the unmentionables back in power,” Kennard says, “sponsorship will become much more important in the arts. And sponsors like bland and unthreatening messages, not focused, political artwork.”

In a sense, art itself is anti-capitalist, he asserts. But “self-expression is being pushed out of us by big corporations. Creativity can help us resist that, so it’s important for all of us to make and use art to resist and undermine corporate culture. Through changing consciousness, art can help create revolution.”

The best example of such politically effective art is probably the famous image — made jointly with Cat Phillipps — of Tony Blair grinning as he takes a selfie in front of a blazing oilfield in Iraq. Recently animated and projected onto the venue housing the Chilcot inquiry, it is an image which has helped define an understanding of Blairite foreign policy.

Confined as it is to a museum, the exhibition can’t possibly include all of Kennard’s site-specific interventions such as that projected image, the graffiti on the Palestinian Wall that he did with Banksy or the huge amount of work given to the Occupy movement and to student activists a couple of years ago.

Yet the very presence of this free exhibition for the next 12 months in the country’s main war museum, where it will be seen by thousands of people who may not otherwise visit an art gallery, is surely the most effective intervention possible by Britain’s most important, influential and inventive political artist. And regular reader of the Morning Star, of course.

The exhibition runs till May 2016

Billy Bragg on tour 2015
Thursday, 10 December 2015 23:20

Socialism of the Heart: an interview with Billy Bragg

Published in Music

 How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?

The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.

Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.

It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.

We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.

I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.

You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?

I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.

Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.

Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.

Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?

Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.

We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.

The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.

Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.

How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?

The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.

More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.

Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.

I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?

Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?

The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.

What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?

Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.

That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.

Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.

Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?

It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.

Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.

Thursday, 26 November 2015 01:38

The Communist Vision of Ai Weiwei

Published in Visual Arts

Is Ai Weiwei the most famous artist in the world? If so, it’s not because of his art but because of his celebrity status as a political dissident who’s been carefully shoehorned by the media — and sections of the cultural establishment, judging from some of the accompanying notes to this exhibition — into the liberal stereotype of the heroic individual artist defying communist tyranny.

To some extent, the question of whether this is a fair interpretation of his art gets a response in this large and varied exhibition, some of it site-specific, which provides an opportunity to assess the aesthetic and political qualities of Ai’s art.

Curiously, the least successful pieces are the most directly political ones focusing on Ai’s own disputes with the authorities. There are handcuffs, camcorders and CCTV cameras crafted from marble and a porcelain map of China’s regions with the slogan “free speech” on each of them. They show skilful craftsmanship but their deliberate uselessness as objects and superficial political content make them seem bombastic and crude.

Marble surveillance camera

Six iron boxes with dioramas of half-size, lifelike figurines tell the story of his imprisonment on suspicion of tax evasion a few years ago. While it must have been very stressful to live for several weeks under the gaze of guards, the literal, “cute” way the scenes are depicted drains them of any disturbing effect.

The echoes of the kitsch and jejune styles of official art under Mao undermine their power as political protest.

Some other pieces show similar strands of self-glorification and half-hearted, unconvincing conformity to certain well-worn Western artistic and political tropes.

In one triptych of photographs, Ai vandalises a Han dynasty vase by smashing it on the ground. Other ancient vases are dipped in bright industrial paint and daubed with the Coca-Cola logo and echoes of Duchamp. Crudely iconoclastic Dadaism and the more nihilist elements of Warhol-inspired art are painfully obvious in these derivative pieces.

Dropping a Han Dynasty urn 1

Yet there are other much more authentic and heartfelt artworks. One room is dedicated to the 2007 earthquake in Sichuan which killed 5,000 schoolchildren, partly due to the shoddy building materials and techniques used by corrupt local authorities. The victims are memorialised, not only in videos, photographs and lists of their names on the gallery walls, but most strikingly through Straight, a 50-foot-long installation laid across the floor of the gallery.

It’s a massive, beautiful construction using the reinforcing bars from the badly built school buildings. They were crumpled and twisted by the earthquake but have been straightened and then laid in gently undulating but unsettled waves, reminiscent of the seismic movements which caused the tragedy. It is a sombre, grieving and dignified monument to the victims and a particularly sensitive kind of artistic and political activism. As Ai says: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”

Straight 1

Another of his aphorisms, “I want people to see their own power” is expressed in much of his previous work. He helped design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, whose interlocking beams evoke fairness, mutual interdependence and social equality.

His installation of millions of sunflower seeds, supposedly China’s historic symbol of life and hope in adversity, in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall a few years ago was similarly memorable — a brilliantly original affirmation of hope and belief in the communist vision of similar yet separate individuals, living and growing together in a class-free society. The same feelings of respect for history, delight in craftsmanship and worked materials and an underlying faith in communal harmony are expressed in several brilliantly conceived and executed pieces in this exhibition.

The most abstract and imaginative expression is Fragments, a structure of intersecting beams taken from temples, sometimes driven through antique chairs and tables. The beams are fixed together without nails or screws, using traditional Chinese joinery methods and represent a kind of 3-D map of China, both formally geographical but also psychosocial. It invites the spectator to walk around and through it and it exudes history, strength and anxiety, along with a certain disquiet and subversive discontent, together with an exuberance at the power of the social, the joined and the co-operative.

Fragments 1

Other pieces, more straightforwardly representative, conform with another of Ai’s sayings, that “ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anyone else.” In one room, a sparkling and uplifting chandelier made of bicycles rotates very gently in the air, a wonderful homage to all the ordinary working people who have contributed their labour to building the modern Chinese republic. In another, vibrant tufts of grass are given a monumental quality by being carved out of marble. Like the sunflower seeds, they are all similar yet subtly different — a confident and empowering vision of Chinese people and society.

Bicycle Chandelier 1

Kippe is a stack of old and beautifully mellowed pieces of wood, salvaged from ancient temples. Fashioned into a tightly fitting, smooth-faced and harmonious block, strengthened and supported by gymnasts’ parallel bars, they reference the leading role of the Communist Party in maintaining and developing social harmony amongst the common people of China.

“My art becomes more and more political,” says Ai and it’s clear that his activist art is designed not just to interpret the world but to change it. It’s also clear from this exhibition that his political critique is not limited to repressive features of the Chinese state but is implicitly opposed to societies divided by class wherever they are. Ai’s best work summons up and celebrates the age-old communist vision of individuals living in egalitarian social harmony. By doing so in such an invigorating, empowering and pleasing way, it surely helps us achieve a society where we will indeed be “people who see their own power.”
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