Martin Gollan introduces a virtual May Day parade, produced by Newcastle Trades Union Council, and downloadable at the end of this article. The image above is Magical Nurse by Katie Marshall
What is the purpose of creativity and culture in a market-driven economy which is ruthlessly dedicated to the pursuit of private profit, the defence of property rights and largely blind to injustice and inequality – including inequality of cultural provision?
Is it that offered by Arts Council England, in its 'Next Ten Years' strategy consultation document: to uplift and entertain, to ‘help us make sense of the world and of ourselves’ and to ‘encourage us to empathise and bind us more closely together’?
Or should it be, as EP Thompson wrote (responding to Raymond Williams’ definition of culture as a ‘whole way of life’), a ‘whole way of struggle’? Surveying the damage inflicted by ten years of Tory austerity to individuals and communities across the North East of England, it seems fairly clear that Williams and Thompson offer the more urgent and relevant objective.
Such a call to the barricades may excite and bring together activists, trade unionists, artists, musicians and poets. But in working-class communities exhausted by austerity, inequality and lack of opportunity, there is likely to be other more immediate priorities to attend to. How then to purposefully engage communities and the arts?
Newcastle Trades Council’s May Day 2020 booklet was originally conceived as part of a wider project to bring together some working-class communities in Newcastle and Gateshead with artists, musicians, poets and trade unionists, working under the theme of ‘The Commons’.
The Commons sets out a different approach to how we can organise our economic, social and political relations. How, for example, we can make better, more sustainable use of not only natural resources, but also the systems we have created. In particluar, the vast digital networks that we have quickly come to rely on for work and maintaining social ties – especially at this moment when our only effective response to the coronavirus is lockdown and social distancing.
The Commons provides us with a framework within which to confront the inequalities and injustices, the exploitation and oppression of a capitalist, market-driven economy, along with the established networks and institutions – including cultural institutions – that protect and sustain the profits, property and power of the wealthy and connected.
By adopting the Commons as a framework, May Day 2020 sets out to develop a set of definitions that may help us to make sense of the world and ourselves, that may encourage empathy but also, as Owen Kelly says, which ‘critically use and develop traditional art forms, adapting them to present day needs and developing new forms… to effect social change and affect social policies’.
We are only at the beginning. The public health emergency caused by the coronavirus and the resulting lockdown meant the May Day celebrations of labour had to be cancelled. An irony of the current situation is that many of those whose work has been overlooked and dismissed as low-skilled and therefore only deserving of low pay, who have worked largely and precariously in the shadows – nurses, care workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff etc. – are now ‘key workers’ and applauded for what they do. Yet because of the crisis we cannot properly and publicly celebrate these workers, and the values of solidarity, collective effort and the dignity of labour that they represent.
So this booklet, produced by Newcastle Trades Council, is our virtual parade, celebrating workers locally, nationally and internationally. It replaces some of the activities originally planned for this year, and begins to set out an approach and a whole way of struggling and working – and points us hopefully and confidently towards May Day 2021.
- Newcastle Trades Council May Day 2020 FINAL.pdf (96 Downloads)
Martin Gollan paints but also works with print and video. He recently has been working with local charities and their beneficiaries to dynamically illustrate the impacts of austerity and welfare reform.