Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt

Rebecca researched and drafted the report on Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, 2017 for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing,

Pan American Unity
Tuesday, 16 January 2018 13:57

Promoting creativity: towards a socialist cultural policy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt offers a critique of the section in the 2017 Labour Manifesto on Culture for All, and some suggestions for promoting creativity for everyone, to benefit our health, well-being, and our capacity for political thinking and collective working.

The current Labour leadership is characterised by its openness to ideas relevant to national policy. This analysis is offered in a constructive spirit by someone with more than a decade of professional experience in the cultural field and an equivalent history of researching the cultural policy of both late capitalism and Marxist humanism. It begins with an analysis of the Culture for All section of the 2017 manifesto, For the Many Not the Few, before suggesting some additional areas for action.

Culture, which forms the subject of the Culture for All section of the manifesto, is notoriously difficult to define. In 1958, Raymond Williams usefully described culture as both a whole way of life (in the anthropological sense) and the arts and learning (taking specific account of human creativity). The Culture for All section begins:

Britain’s creative industries are the envy of the world, a source of national pride, a driver of inward investment and tourism, and a symbol of the kind of country we are now and aspire to be in the future. As Britain leaves the EU, we will put our world-class creative sector at the heart of our negotiations and future industrial strategy. We need to do more to open up the arts and creative industries to everyone.

The creative industries sit awkwardly with definitions of culture in the public sphere. They are the brainchild of New Labour, and they involve conceptions of creativity as an instrument of wealth generation. While the creative industries may be described as a ‘driver of inward investment and tourism’, it tends to be the arts and learning which are a ‘source of national pride’ and culture in the anthropological sense which provides a ‘symbol of the kind of country we are now and aspire to be in the future’. And, while the creative industries might be placed at the heart of Brexit negotiations and future industrial strategy, this only makes sense for culture conceived in commercial terms. A socialist cultural policy needs to foreground cultural and creative activity aside from the market. The final sentence in this section is a non sequitur, but a vital one: under socialism, the arts and culture should be for everyone as both spectators and creators.

We will introduce a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to upgrade our existing cultural and creative infrastructure to be ready for the digital age and invest in creative clusters across the country, based on a similar model to enterprise zones. Administered by the Arts Council, the fund will be available over a five-year period. It will be among the biggest arts infrastructure funds ever, transforming the country’s cultural landscape.

It is admirable that £1bn would be invested in our cultural and creative infrastructure by a Labour government, but why limit it to the digital? It may be that some parts of the infrastructure would benefit from good old-fashioned analogue improvements. A fund like this could begin to enable access to cultural and creative activity in the furthest-flung parts of the country, which would make a substantial contribution to improving the health and wellbeing of the nation (more on this later). By contrast, creative clusters are a largely discredited concept imported from creative industries (creative class, creative cities) rhetoric.

Labour will maintain free entry to museums and invest in our museums and heritage sector. Conservative cuts to the Arts Council and local authorities have created a very tough financial climate for museums, with some closing or reducing their services, and others starting to charge entry fees. The Cultural Capital Fund will have a particular focus on projects that could increase museums’  and galleries’  income and viability.

It is admirable for Labour to ensure that there are no barriers to accessing our cultural patrimony and absolutely correct to highlight the damaging impact of recent governmental cuts. Since Thatcher, cultural organisations have been expected not to rely solely on public subsidy and to supplement diminishing grants with corporate sponsorship or, more recently, private philanthropy. For several years, Arts Council England has taken the generation of external income to be an indicator of success. This will need to be re-examined if we are to attain a properly socialist cultural policy. Added to which, it will be important to recognise the impact of the cuts not only on the museum and gallery sector but also on the many thousands of artists underpinning this sector, who earn an average of £10,000 per year from their work.

Labour will end cuts to local authority budgets to support the provision of libraries, museums and galleries. We will take steps to widen the reach of the Government Art Collection so that more people can enjoy it. We will continue to mark the ongoing centenary of the First World War, and the sacrifice of all those who died during it. Labour remains committed to honouring the role of all who have served our country, including the Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish soldiers who fought for Britain.

It is laudable and necessary for Labour to not only end cuts to local authority budgets but also restore them to their pre-austerity levels, adjusted for inflation. This will have an immediate impact not only on the culture sector but also on the public’s health and wellbeing. Properly funded museums, galleries and libraries need to play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and being accountable to their publics. With studies showing that accessing culture leads to longer lives better lived, extending the reach of the Government Art Collection will follow in the footsteps of the British Council collection by touring, and hopefully also continuing to acquire, artworks for the nation. Commemoration of WWI and those who fought in it refers to culture in the anthropological sense, and a socialist cultural policy might focus on peace and reconciliation rather than nationalism.

Our thriving creative sector, from the games industry to fashion, needs a strong pipeline of skilled talent to sustain its growth.

This sentence seems entirely geared to the creative industries. We haven’t yet heard much about the non-commercial arts.

Labour will introduce an arts pupil premium to every primary school in England – a £160 million annual per year boost for schools to invest in projects that will support cultural activities for schools over the longer term. We will put creativity back at the heart of the curriculum, reviewing the EBacc performance measure to make sure arts are not sidelined from secondary education.

Restoring creativity to the curriculum is essential to the future of our culture in the widest sense, but this should not just be a logical consequence of the preceding one-sentence paragraph, supplying a pipeline of skilled ‘talent’ to sustain the growth of the creative industries. Recognition needs to be made of the value of creativity to the physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development of children and the part played by cultural learning in ironing out the inequalities in educational attainment, employment opportunities and health that arise from poverty. This would best be addressed not only within the curriculum but also in after-school clubs and in the community, which are particularly important for children and young people excluded from school. Generations of children exploring their creativity will give rise to brilliant, unpredictable things.

Labour will launch a creative careers advice campaign in schools to demonstrate the range of careers and opportunities available, and the skills required in the creative industries, from the tech sector to theatre production.

Again, this refers only to the creative industries, specifically the technical areas in which it is possible to forge a career. School advisors would be equally well placed to extol the virtues of creativity in maintaining emotional health and wellbeing through self-expression.

Being a performer is a great career. But too often the culture of low or no pay means it isn’t an option for those without well-off families to support them. We will work with trade unions and employers to agree sector-specific advice and guidelines on pay and employment standards that will make the sector more accessible to all.

With research showing a lack of social mobility in the creative industries, it is appropriate that the class-based nature of a career in the performing arts is acknowledged. With depression being three times higher among professional performers than in the general population, it is also appropriate that the precarious nature of a career in the performing arts is acknowledged. Welcome advice and guidance on pay and employment standards could be extended to the visual arts, in partnership with Artists’ Union England. In recognition of the vast non-commercial arts sector, it would be preferable to see creativity being referred to less as a career (or a lifestyle choice as the Conservatives are wont to do) and more as an activity this is socially useful and remunerated appropriately.

We will improve diversity on and off-screen, working with the film industry and public service and commercial broadcasters to find rapid solutions to improve diversity.

This is another crucial step and one that could be extended into all branches of the arts, particularly at leadership level.

We recognise the serious concern about the ‘value gap’ between producers of creative content and the digital services that profit from its use, and we will work with all sides to review the way that innovators and artists are rewarded for their work in the digital age.

The large number of people engaging creatively through digital means provides a route for broadening the category of ‘innovators and artists’. While it is inappropriate for digital services to profit from this, creative content needn’t necessarily be subjected to commercial considerations.

Music venues play a vital role in supporting the music industry’s infrastructure and ensuring a healthy music industry continues in Britain. Labour will review extending the £1,000 pub relief business rates scheme to small music venues.

It seems sensible not to penalise small music venues through excessive business rates. At the same time, attention needs to be paid to the role of small venues within the wider infrastructure of the music industry and the notion of ‘deferred value’, whereby artists nurtured in small venues go on to achieve widespread popular acclaim. The same principle may be applied to small visual and performing arts venues developing non-commercial work that is taken up by larger, sometimes international, venues and the commercial sector. In such cases, public subsidy might be made more directly than through rates reductions. It is also important to acknowledge that, in a socialist society, culture can thrive at a grassroots level, freed from spurious notions of career progression.

And we will introduce an ‘agent of change’ principle in planning law, to ensure that new housing developments can coexist with existing music venues.

This will need careful consideration to ensure that the arts are not used as a foil for gentrification, which is increasingly being thought of as a form of social cleansing.

We all need to work harder to keep children safe online. Labour will ensure that tech companies are obliged to take measures that further protect children and tackle online abuse. We will ensure that young people understand and are able to easily remove any content they shared on the internet before they turned 18.

This seems prudent and refers to culture in a broad sense. In addition to the thoughts outlined above, there are many areas that could be looked at as part of a socialist cultural policy. A handful of ideas follow, which could be supplemented through widespread consultation in the cultural sector.

Some ideas for consultation

Extended consideration needs to be given to the non-commercial arts, taking account of the hundreds of creative practitioners graduating around the country every year. With the GLA predicting that 30 percent of artists in the capital will lose their workspaces by 2019, attention needs to be paid to studio provision in London and beyond. Grants to cover the cost of materials also need to be thought about, drawing on precedents from the Netherlands to the Nordic countries. If we are to avoid our major cities becoming like San Francisco, where creative communities have been priced out of the major downtown areas, artists’ living costs need to be given careful consideration, possibly leading to their inclusion within the category of key workers eligible for genuinely affordable housing in urban areas at the same time as the housing market is regulated.

There needs to be a restoration of practitioner expertise to Arts Council England, with the grant-giving process benefiting from peer review, and there needs to be an end to public-sector subsidy of the art market through grants to commercial operations and through interest-free loans to collectors.

Creativity can: stimulate imagination and reflection; encourage dialogue with the deeper self and enable expression; change perspectives; contribute to the construction of identity; provoke cathartic release; provide a place of safety and freedom from judgement; increase control over life circumstances; inspire change and growth; engender a sense of belonging; prompt political thinking and collective working. In socialist society, the aspiration must be that everyone has access to their own creativity. There is a long and proud history of community arts in this country. This history should be built upon, with Arts Council England supporting the relevant organisations and local authorities being encouraged to make space and resources available to ensure that creative activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.

From James Bond to Benefits Street, film and television reflect the values of a society. While governments are understandably reluctant to entangle themselves in the prescription or proscription of creative content, a new initiative is needed that could oversee productions which expose iniquities and offer an alternative vision. This could range from serialisation of literary works such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to commissioning biopics about great revolutionaries and social reformers. Documentaries, such as Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (2017), or artists’ films, such as Estate, A Reverie (2015), could be broadcast on national television. Ken Loach, a staunch supporter of the current Labour leadership, could be consulted on this initiative.

A wealth of evidence demonstrates the beneficial impact of creative and cultural activity on the conditions in which we are born, grow, work, live, age and die (the so-called social determinants of health). The arts and culture can make a signification contribution to tackling the social determinants of health by influencing perinatal mental health and childhood development; shaping educational and employment opportunities and tackling chronic distress; enabling self-expression and empowerment and overcoming social isolation. By making health and wellbeing a cross-governmental priority (as has been done in Scotland and Wales), policy in all areas could be orientated towards the elimination of health inequalities, with culture playing its part.

RGN 7 diego rivera detail from pan american unity by mark vallen

Campesinos creating folk art: detail from Rivera's Pan American Unity mural, 1940. Both photos courtesy of Mark Vallen.

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution
Tuesday, 08 November 2016 15:39

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution

Published in Cultural Commentary

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt traces the contours of cultural policy in Cuba since the Revolution.

On 26 July 1953, a group of young Cubans attacked two of the army barracks maintained by General Fulgencio Batista, who had retaken the country by force the previous year having earlier served as its elected president. The barracks assault ended in disaster, with many of the insurgents being killed, captured and tortured.

In his defence speech at the trial for his part in the failed attacks, Fidel Castro outlined a political programme which became something of a manifesto for the nascent 26 July Movement. This detailed five revolutionary laws and made reference to massive reforms in land, health and education, underwritten by social justice and an end to corruption. By the time of the first formal manifesto issued by the 26 July Movement in 1955, while Fidel was in exile in Mexico, education had become inextricably bound up with culture, in advocating the ‘Extension of culture, preceded by reform of all methods of teaching, to the furthest corner of the country in such a way that every Cuban has the possibility of developing their mental and physical aptitudes’. At the end of 1956, 82 men set sail for Cuba to wage an armed struggle against Batista’s dictatorship, from the Sierra Maestra mountains, which would last a little over two years.

In the early hours of 1959, Batista boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic and Fidel and his comandantes marched triumphantly upon Havana. Almost immediately, army barracks were turned into schools and those from the peasant population who had fought in the revolutionary war were taught to read and write. Before long, attention began to be paid to culture in the sense of the arts and literature, with a few early ideas coalescing that continue to determine cultural policy in Cuba to this day. The basis of the revolutionary approach is that culture:

• Belongs to everyone (as both spectators and creators) rather than being limited to an elite minority

• Should be detached from the market economy (copyright was revoked from 1967 to 1975, in a bid to provide access to the best of the world’s literature, and grants for artists were implemented from 1961)

• Is a form of social production (with humanity’s happiness as its end product)

• Stimulates not only social but also economic development (by increasing the cultural levels of the population in a country emerging from underdevelopment)

• Promotes revolutionary (and hence critical) thinking

One month after the Revolution triumphed, the National Museum of Fine Arts was reorganised, with a grant for its restoration being made a few months later. Museums and galleries were opened in every municipality, exhibiting artefacts and artworks that had previously been reserved for an elite audience.

Film was understood as an art form in its own right, partly as the result of a close connection between the revolutionary leadership and an influential group of filmmakers. The commissioning of film was initially centred on documentaries that attempted to mediate the pace of change, explaining land and housing reforms. Such educational documentaries soon gave way to more elliptical narrative adventures under the auspices of the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Arts and Industries (ICAIC). The film institute was founded just two months after revolutionary victory on the basis of ideas drawn up in 1954 by Cuba’s filmmakers, including Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García Espinosa and Alfredo Guevara Valdés, the latter of whom would serve as director of ICAIC until his retirement in 2000 (with a hiatus from 1980 to 1991 while he worked for UNESCO).

ICAIC was set up not only to commission films but also to disseminate them, via 616 cinemas, 480 of which were built and restored in fixed locations, the rest of which formed part of a mobile cinema programme, being pulled by lorry, boat or beast around the island, as part of the extension of culture to its furthest corner. Consistent with the idea that culture belongs to everyone, the profit motive has been removed from the film industry, attendance costs have been kept deliberately low and going to the cinema nowadays costs roughly the same price as an egg. At the same time, silk-screen posters, which have consistently been used to promote films, capture their essence in witty and colourful visual aphorisms. In this way, the glamour and reverence that typifies Hollywood film posters has been subverted in the same way as the market economy.

Throughout these formative years, Cuba was the subject of growing hostility from across the Florida Straits. Washington inevitably reacted badly to Cuba nationalising industries in which Americans had a stake, and, in 1960, the US imposed an economic embargo which remains in place. In anticipation of the ideological blockade that was about to fall over the island, Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado – who had taken part in the 1953 barracks attacks – was charged with creating a pan-American cultural house, which became known as Casa de las Américas [House of the Americas]. The idea underwriting this institution was that not everyone on the American continent shared the ideological imperatives of the United States, and Casa de las Américas quickly became a nexus for cultural visitors from throughout Latin America and beyond, many of whom came to serve as jurors on its prestigious literary prize. Visual artists also visited from outside Cuba, donating works to the growing collection and making work in situ.

It is important to mention that cultural policy – the operational principles laid down for culture by the state – did not begin to be formulated in Cuba until after the key cultural institutions had been established. This is typically unconventional, and it is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it meant that the institutions were initially guided only by the general ideas which had been established for culture (listed above), rather than being beholden to any overarching administrative authority. Secondly, the delay in forming cultural policy meant that, when this did happen, there was scope for a more discursive approach.

A key moment for this was the First National Congress of Writers and Artists in August 1961, which, as the name suggests, was organised by the country’s writers and artists rather than being a top-down affair. The commemorative publication for this event featured a slogan that had been devised by writers and artists the previous year, firmly implicating their work in the social justice aims of the Revolution – To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture.

At the 1961 congress, an artists’ and writers’ union was formed, and a system of grants was set up to provide living and material costs for artists. In the same year, a literacy campaign was launched which saw quarter of a million mainly young people going into the countryside to teach the peasant population to read and write (ironing out some of the inequalities that persisted between urban and rural areas, which the Revolution was committed to overcoming). Rumour has it that, a few years later, Fidel and Che Guevara were playing golf at a requisitioned country club on the outskirts of Havana, discussing how the momentum of the literacy campaign could be carried over into the cultural field more broadly, and they hit upon the idea of building a world-renowned art school that could provide a creative education to scholarship students from Africa, Asia and Latin America. This led to the construction of the pioneering National Art Schools.

While the National Art Schools provided education to hundreds of professional artists, something even more ambitious was attempted at an amateur level. Tens of thousands of arts teachers, many of whom had taken part in the literacy campaign, were trained to disseminate creative skills to farms, factories and workplaces throughout the island, responding to what Fidel called the transition from spectators to creators. At the heyday of this programme, an estimated one million amateur artists were operating within a population of around six million. This programme continues today, centred on the Casas de Cultura [Houses of Culture] that exist in every town, and anyone can request time off work to attend the National Art Schools for a week of professional training.

The discursive, internationalist ethos of the Revolution reached its peak at the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968, which brought more than 600 intellectuals together to discuss their role in relation to imperialism and underdevelopment. From the UK, such notable figures as CLR James, Herbert Read, Arnold Wesker and Ralph Miliband travelled to Havana to take part in these discussions, and, in some cases, found themselves lagging behind the revolutionary attitudes towards culture that were being developed there. To take just one example, CLR James argued for the abolition of the category of ‘intellectual’ at the same time as Cuba was working towards the democratisation of education and culture in a bid to ensure that everyone had the right to engage in intellectual labour. More generally, the 1968 congress provided a forum for defining the role of artists and writers in revolutionary situations, positioning intellectual work as the ideological corollary of armed struggle and situating artists and writers as the bridge between the political vanguard and the people.

A few months after the Cultural Congress of Havana, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and the story darkens. Relations between Moscow and Havana had been gradually improving since the missile crisis of 1962 revealed Cuba to be little more than a pawn in the game between the two superpowers. As Cuba was by now officially part of the international communist movement, the revolutionary government could not publicly oppose the invasion, which caused the loss of many international friends.

So far, this account has discussed the ways in which cultural institutions were set up and policy became practice, but it has said little about the various factions that had been united under the revolutionary banner. While the insurrection was being fought in the Sierra Maestra, the commitment of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) to the mass movement caused it to oppose armed struggle until three months before the triumph of the Revolution. But, although the party played a negligible part in the insurrection, it had been developing ideas throughout the 1950s, with the leading artists, musicians and filmmakers of the day, which sowed the seeds for later cultural policy (notably the film institute).

This meant that, when the Revolution triumphed, it seemed logical to place culture in the hands of the PSP, and, in January 1961, their members were charged with running a new National Council of Culture (CNC), set up to implement the cultural policy of the revolutionary government. This created more than a little consternation in the cultural field, especially among the anti-communist factions of the avant-garde, and gave rise to some very public disputes, most memorably around the cultural supplement Lunes de Revolución, which ceased publication in November 1961.

In 1963–4, a series of heated debates took place around the kind of culture that could and should be made under the auspices of the Revolution. Generalising massively, more orthodox members of the PSP argued against films like La Dolce Vita and in favour of socialist realism while more culturally active party members and non-partisan artists and filmmakers advocated a situation in which all aesthetic tendencies could be pursued within a dialectical process of acceptance and critique. Ultimately, the latter perspective prevailed, but not before considerable disruption.

Returning to the period after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Cuba’s diminished standing in the international community, we find tensions simmering around a Cuban poet called Heberto Padilla, whose disillusionment with Soviet-derived forms of socialism was reflected in his work. In 1971, Padilla and his wife were arrested on counterrevolutionary grounds. This prompted a letter to Fidel from many foreign intellectuals, including those, such as Jean Paul Sartre, who had previously been supportive of the Revolution. A National Congress of Education, which had been planned for April 1971, hastily had culture added to its remit, and Fidel took the opportunity of his closing speech to castigate the small minority of intellectual traitors who had criticised the Revolution from the comfortable capitals of Paris, London and Rome.

The following five years and more are universally derided – within Cuba and beyond – as the grey period. During this time, intellectuals were persecuted and deprived of money and status. Responsibility for the worst atrocities may be attributed to Luis Pavón Tamayo, a former army officer and lesser poet, who was appointed director of the CNC. In 2001, an attempt to rehabilitate Luis Pavón and his cronies on television triggered a deluge of analysis of the grey years. Central to this, the writer Ambrosio Fornet described how Pavón’s anti-intellectualism led him to denude the country’s established cultural producers of influence over the field in which they operated. Notwithstanding the overall mood of the time, institutions like Casa de las Américas provided a sanctuary for artists committed to the Bolivarian Revolution that had been ignited throughout Latin America.

The grey period officially ended with the opening of the Ministry of Culture in 1976, with the husband of Haydée Santamaría (the former Minister of Education, Armando Hart Dávalos) at its helm, which gradually restored trust between artists, writers and cultural bureaucrats. Pivotal to this development was the first congress of the governing party, which took place in December 1975 and formalised the basis for the Marxist-humanist cultural policy that thrives to this day. The congress sought to establish the most conducive atmosphere for the progress of art and literature. It also relieved artists and writers of any dogmatic expectations and recognised culture as both intrinsically valuable and inherently revolutionary.

Marxist-humanist cultural policy, as it has been uniquely formulated in Cuba, is underwritten by the conviction that those taking up mental labour might emerge from any sector of society. This democratising impulse implies that both passive spectatorship of, and active engagement in, creative production are necessary to human fulfilment. At the same time, the conception of art as a form of social production and of the artist as an integral member of society endures.


Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt is the author of To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution (PM Press, 2015).