Art and the Movement

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Banner Theatre  playing at the 2016 GFTU Festival
Banner Theatre playing at the 2016 GFTU Festival

Jan Woolf reports on the recent The Art of Trade Unions event, organised by GFTU.

I have never seen an angel. Show me an angel, and I’ll paint one.

This, from the French 19th century realist painter and Communard Gustav Courbet marked a turning point in the relationship between artist and society, for he was breaking a historic link between artist and patron that had required them to paint superstitious or aristocratic subject matter. Like England’s Constable, Courbet was an artist of the material and natural world – considered at the time to be subversive. Because it wasn’t only a declaration of art for all, but the world for all.

We’re still a long way from that. The long historic struggle between Capital and Labour has always had art at its heart – the best of it (but not all of it) on the side of Labour, for creativity has progress as an imperative. It’s not so much church and state that we’re taking on now, but the multinationals under a particularly vicious neo-liberal anarchy.

There is an urgent need for progressive artists to be involved in the Movement.

This was the opening remark from GFTU’s general secretary Doug Nicholls at The Art of Trade Unions event in Bedford December 6th, which was organised by the General Federation of Trade Unions and the open network Liberating Arts. A gathering of a radical network of activists, academics and artists watched performances and presentations that had one agenda – how cultural workers can better serve and celebrate, working class struggle.

In short, how we can change things. It’s clear how this might have happened in the past. Novels like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, the work of Charles Dickens and Jack London, helped change consciousness to pave the way for the Welfare State, but are safely lodged in the past – and of course, we’ll never get back to those days.

Or will we? Ken Loach’s recent masterpiece I, Daniel Blake reveals the vicious effects of neo-liberalism on working class people. It’s how art works with and through us during this time of change for the working class today that is the challenge.

Academic and activist Rebecca Hillman talked about collaborations between theatre makers and trade unions, how it can be used to challenge oppressive structures, and how art can be used as a political tool. A theme taken up by Dave Smith of Blacklisted, who spoke of ‘propaganda by the deed,’ and the campaign to expose the recent blacklisting of union activists in the construction industry.

Peter Marcuse from the artists’ collective Brandalism presented a campaign against the corporate control of outdoor adverting – how it pollutes our minds. Advertisements were taken down and replaced with different images by this guerrilla art collective working with their toolkit – a key for dismantling an advert and high vis vests. After a call for graphic artists to attend AA meetings (Advertisers Anonymous), intrigued designers turned up, keen to take on the toxicity of consumerism and adopt the manifesto ‘Advertising shits on your head.

When asked about the legality of the campaign, Peter’s answer was this:

They didn’t ask if they could put their images in our faces, so we didn’t ask them if we could take them down.

‘What got you going?’ I asked him later. He said:

We were motivated by the dominance of commercial images in our cities,
and the idea that those with the most amount of money can display their
messages in front of us without our consent. Advertising regularly
re-asserts problematic cultural values that appeal to our sense of
status, individualism, wealth and power - rather than socially
beneficial values like equality, community and solidarity…Confronting the advertising industry means organizing…. and challenging one of a key drivers of neoliberal consumer capitalism.

Another ‘artivist’ was Theresa Easton of the Artists’ Union of England, talking about her work with communities engaged in activism – a hidden art force putting the paper images into a campaign, notably the Durham Teaching Assistants strike, when their employers tried to cut their pay by 23%. Did those employers REALLY expect them to lose 5k a year?

Sean Ley of Reel News was involved too – showing his film of highly energised protests, mostly women, at the Durham demonstrations of November 2016, and eighty picket lines of newly empowered workers. You don’t get that back in the bottle so easily. Reel News is a video activists’ collective who know how to use social media well, how, paradoxically, to use it to build that old fashioned idea of getting people in a room talking together.

Education was a big theme. Poet Jess Green – all staccato movement and Kate Tempest-like intensity - expressed through her performance, the contrast between the imperative of education – which comes from the Latin educare, to lead out – and the folly of excessive testing of children, and the pointless bureaucracy imposed on young teachers. Let kids be kids not a national average statistic, she said.

Banner Theatre, who had been working with trade unions since the early 1970s, did a great performance and music piece on the recent Chicago teachers strike, and the formation of Coalition of Radical Educators (CORE) a group that transformed their sluggish union into a fighting force that took on the slow privatisation of Chicago’s schools, stopping them becoming little businesses.

Townsend Productions performed extracts from Tolpuddle Theatre, and United We Stand – and their current touring production Dare Devil Rides to Jarama, by Neil Gore. It’s a new play about Clem Beckett, a motorbike speed rider who volunteered to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Another character is the Marxist critic Christopher Caudwell. Caudwell on stage? Fascinating stuff. This is sophisticated drama, not agit-prop.

An invigorated audience generated some interesting ideas for;
• alternative arts councils, funded by the trade unions
• a centre/theatre as a home to working class theatre.
• importance of the revival of satire
• use of a common language around the arts, whatever the level
• professionalism and excellence
• importance of a fair rate to artists, making communities stronger

It’s interesting how the obfuscating effects of postmodernism has undermined all this, with the exclusivity of art language blurring communication between people and communities. Sure, art can serve politics by revealing and mirroring our society. It can put the oomph into a campaign, inspire and motivate, help the ideas slip down nicely, but it is its transformational nature that’s so important, and the role that art plays in a fulfilled life.

Like food, it nourishes, and we can’t live without it. But this was a given; no need to rehearse and finesse psychological theories about art and the individual and society. This event was a step on the way to a three day Liberating Arts festival planned for November 2017 as the trade union movement gears up towards a high level of struggle during the next few years, when cultural work will be strengthened to appeal to the head and heart. For art changes people, and so does activism. Together they’re dynamite.

Doug Nicholls concluded by saying this:

It's no accident that our great national poet and playwright was on our side....... Shakespeare in his history plays and great tragedies depicts the economic and moral collapse of the feudal system, in his Roman plays he shows how any socially divided society is undemocratic and ruled by despots and in his comedies, particularly plays like The Comedy of Errors, he shows how the market driven economy destroys social relationships and how human identity is distorted by profit and the cash nexus.

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Jan Woolf

Jan Woolf is a playwright, writer and reviewer, and is currently writer in residence at Hampstead school of art.

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