'Meanwhile, what about Socialism?', a quote from Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, was the question posed by the AV International Arts Festival 2016, held in North East England in March. Since 'socialism' was the most looked-for word in 2015, what more appropriate title for a progressive arts festival could there be?
Thematically linked by Orwell's road map of a democratic socialism based on equality and fairness, the events were all inspired by themes of socialist political struggle, and created by artists committed to the importance of cultural action in contributing to a progressive politics. Over the course of a month, a varied and wide-ranging programme was offered including 12 exhibitions, 48 films, many talks and discussions, and some special performances by artists.
The film screenings and discussions about British film maker Marc Karlin, whose work critiques both Thatcherism and Blairism, were highlights, as were the politically and aesthetically radical films from the Soviet Union.
The screening of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's Winstanley was a reminder of the almost forgotten tradition of English communism, and the programme of British political documentaries from the 1930s to recent times exposing injustice and deprivation offered practical and utopian alternatives.
Why on earth, it made you wonder, aren't films like this being made any more?
The Festival ended with a live performance by Kris Canavan. Over 22 hours he pounded the pavement of Jarrow opposite derelict industrial land, crushing 200 concrete blocks, reflecting the number of proletarian protesters who marched to London, denouncing the crushing of their shipbuilding industry and their community by the capitalist system.
Thanks to the artists involved and the powerful, synergistic curating of the Festival Director, Rebecca Shatwell, all the events contributed to the sense of a developing manifesto, a collective challenge to the apolitical, self-referential mainstream art world, and to the harsh and corrupt consensus of the political world.
From different positions, in different art forms and geopolitical contexts, a common message emerged of international artists successfully removing progressive politics from the language of nostalgia and mourning and suggesting new and vibrant forms of resistance.
Neoliberal capitalism increasingly appears to be morally, culturally and politically bankrupt. It certainly has come close — and may come closer — to financial bankruptcy. Which is why the question AV poses: “What about socialism?” couldn't have been more timely.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and arts editor, and co-managing editor of Culture Matters.