Cultural democracy: Revolt and Revolutions at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Saturday, 24 March 2018 06:15

Cultural democracy: Revolt and Revolutions at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille reviews an involving, stimulating exhibition which encourages the growing appetite for cultural democracy.

The recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to Arts Council England was yet more evidence of the increasing domination of public funding for the arts by corporate and right-wing interests.

There is growing resistance, however, among activists and artists. There are also signs that labour movement leaders are becoming more aware of the importance of cultural activities in the lives of their members – see for example Len McCluskey’s Introduction to the Bread and Roses 2017 Poetry Anthology.

The 2017 Labour manifesto also contained some progressive promises around devolving decision-making, increasing funding and boosting arts education in schools. It was a great improvement on previous manifestos, which had become more and more oriented towards art and culture as merely functional for economic regeneration.

It was flawed, though – see here for a cogent critique by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt. Debates and discussions on the left are growing, and reports, articles and manifestos are being proposed, based on a much more radical approach to arts and culture. For example, see here for the result of discussions at the Momentum-organised The World Transformed festival in Brighton last September. Events are being planned around the country to present and consult on this manifesto, by the Movement for Cultural Democracy.

One of the features of this movement is a belief that the cultural struggle and the political struggle go hand in hand – that culture, as well as being entertaining and enjoyable, is essentially liberating in a political sense. Cultural activities are fundamentally social and equalising, asserting our common humanity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions engendered by capitalism, especially its neoliberal variant. In this view, culture can inspire, support, and accompany radical change in the real world.

There is no better current example of this belief in the power of art to transform the world than the current ‘Revolt and Revolutions’ exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. A variety of works, linked in various ways, showcase some of the strands of counter-cultural and anti-establishment movements of recent times, and invite us to join in.

At the entrance to the exhibition, The Internationale, as sung by the artist Susan Philipsz, is broadcast in the open air. It calls us in, resonating across the former coalfields and industrial heartlands of South Yorkshire. The faltering, saddened voice conveys both the sufferings endured by the northern working classes in the last fifty years, and their resilience and continuing determination to redress injustice through political action.

As we go inside the gallery, more music welcomes us. Ruth Ewan’s A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World is a selection of classics of political music and song, updated to include songs for the Trump era, which visitors can choose and listen to.

Resized Ruth Ewan A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World 2003 2017. Courtesy the artist and YSP. Photo Jonty Wilde D850167

Ruth Ewan, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, courtesy the artist and YSP. Photo © Jonty Wilde

Political music is also celebrated by two arpilleras, a kind of Chilean patchwork quilt, illustrating the key ideals of the New Chilean Song Movement. This was a powerful, persuasive cultural movement which accompanied and assisted the rise to power of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1970. One of its main supporters was the singer, guitarist and communist Victor Jara, later tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime. Pinochet’s admirers and allies included Margaret Thatcher, responsible for the privatisation of the local Yorkshire steel industry and the British state’s war against the miners and their socialist leaders, in 1984-5.

resized 2 Arpillera New Chilean Song 198083 unkown political prisoner Chile. Private Collection. Courtesy YSP. Photo Jonty Wilde D850171     YSP resized

Arpillera, New Chilean Song, 1980–83, unknown political prisoner, Chile, and an installation view including Helmet Head 1, Henry Moore, cast 1960. Courtesy YSP, photos © Jonty Wilde

Henry Moore was a socialist and the son of a miner, brought up in a household where meetings of the first miners’ union were held. His works have graced the Park for many years, and in this exhibition his bronze sculpture Helmet Head evokes the exterior toughness and interior vulnerability of hardworking, hard-up men and women.

Resized Revolt Revolutions installation view 2017. Arts Council Collection Southbank Centre London the artist. Courtesy YSP. Photo Jonty Wilde D850274

Revolt & Revolutions, installation view, 2017. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist. Courtesy YSP. Photo © Jonty Wilde

There are many more artworks and a particularly vivid display of photographs expressing the punkish, counter-cultural spirit of the seventies. But the outstanding artwork is a 15 minute video of local resident Alison Catherall, still living in Castleford, birthplace of Henry Moore. It tells the story of the region over her lifetime, from the optimism and pride of the fifties and sixties to the Tories’ assault on the working class communities in the seventies, eighties and beyond, and her determination to crusade for a better life, a transformed world for young people through education, culture and heritage.

She tells her lifestory, from the optimism and pride when she was young in the fifties and sixties, to the Tories’ assault on local steelworking and mining communities in the seventies, eighties and beyond. Her voice rises and becomes impassioned as she talks about her continuing militant determination to crusade for a transformed world – a better life for young people through education, culture and heritage.


Resized Larry Achiampong and David Blandy FF Gaiden Legacy 2017 film still. Courtesy YSP and Castleford Heritage Trust 04

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, FF Gaiden-Legacy, 2017 (film still). Courtesy YSP and Castleford Heritage Trust

This moving oral history of suffering and struggle is illustrated by film of a female avatar, taken from the video game Grand Auto Theft 5, striding through deserted pit galleries, up and down the hilly landscape, by day and by night and through all weathers. The local and particular story of suffering, endurance and resilience becomes universal, an artistic tribute to both local and global working class communities – particularly the experience and struggles of women to keep those communities alive.

This focus on art which comes from the experiences of the many, and is addressed to the many, is carried through not only in the curating of the exhibition – there are several exhibits inviting public participation – but in the events organised around it. For example, on February 20th, the evening of the UN Day for Social Justice, YSP are running a talk on ‘Do You Want to Change the World’ on the relevance of art and culture to the political transformation of society.

Helen Pheby is the senior curator at YSP responsible for the grounded, varied and interlinked themes running through this excellent exhibition. I asked her for some insights into her approach, to share with readers of Culture Matters. This is what she said:

'The inspiration for Revolt and Revolutions came from working with Henry Moore's family and foundation on a previous major exhibition and learning how radical he had been, not just as an artist, but also through his commitment to social justice.

I was conscious that we don't seem to be hearing much good news at the moment and wanted to share works by artists who are trying to make a difference, or who are giving a voice to people in our communities committed to positive change.

My hope was that this small show might be a catalyst, raise spirits and hopes a little, and suggest ways we can all have power. The public response has been very positive, with record visitor numbers in the gallery and people making pledges to make a difference. Our associated events, such as inviting people to change the world, are proving popular, suggesting a real appetite for people to get involved.

Helen’s hopes have surely been realised. By showing and promoting the power of art to change the world, through the exhibition itself and the activities, talks and discussions that run alongside it, Yorkshire Sculpture Park are encouraging the appetite for cultural democracy which is emerging from the labour movement.

Finally, Matt Abbott, the poet, has written this poem to accompany the exhibition. It's best listened to on the link, but here's the text as well:

Revolt and Revolutions

by Matt Abbott

Placard, pin badge, denim, leather.
Fist clenched tight at the end of your tether.
Minds in the margins all come together
the Revolution will not start itself.

When the turn of a phrase is the twist of a knife
and a movement swims at the tide of the strife,
a slingshot points at the status quo
the choir sings a resounding “NO!”:
change, is a product of protest.

Give a soapbox to a voice
that can’t be heard amongst the crowd.
There’s a rebel with a cause,
there’s a dream that’s not allowed.
There’s a sub-group that’s been silenced,
a door that’s slamming shut.
An establishment that works to keep you structured
in a rut.

Where optimism sits with solidarity and strength.
For justice and equality, we’ll go to any length.
Apathy is acceptance. Acceptance never improves.
So stand up, and be counted: we’ve got goalposts to move.

Grab a megaphone, and articulate your grievances.
Strum guitars, paint banners, leave writing on the wall…
In the shadows, is where you’ll find allegiances.
We might be tiny individuals, but together, we’re tall.

Give power to the vulnerable; a voice to the unheard.
Don’t allow the privileged to take the final word.
March longer, sing louder, fight for what is right.
Acclimatise to darkness, and you’ll never seek light.

Revolt, reject, and rejoice in your dreams.
Protest is always more potent than it seems.
Be it beret wearing ‘Ban the Bomb’ or mohawk wearing punk;
others pinched nostrils but we shouted when it stunk.

Revolt and Revolution: come and join the number.
because nothing serves injustice like society in slumber.
Music and colour. Peace signs and love.
There are far more below than there are sat above.

It takes an awful lot of raindrops to form a monsoon.
And this station has a glitch: it’s time to retune.
Do not succumb to victimhood, or silence, or stealth,
because the Revolution will not start itself.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, is open 10am till 5pm and the exhibition, which is on till 15 April, is free. You can also visit this exhibition at the same time.

Culture for the many, not the few
Saturday, 24 March 2018 06:15

Culture for the many, not the few

Published in Cultural Commentary

Culture for the Many, not the Few

The world transformed! Quite a heady claim, isn’t it? But a few weeks ago in Brighton, there were some glimpses of a new and better world: a new and better approach to art and culture.

The World Transformed festival is run by volunteers from Momentum, the political movement formed after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. In 2016 they staged their first event alongside the Labour Party conference, a four day festival of politics, art, theatre, music and cultural workshops.

It was hugely successful and this year The World Transformed came to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, bigger and better than last year. Over 5,000 people attended 100 events, run in 10 venues across Brighton – churches, theatres, cafes, meeting rooms – from late morning to late evening. Big names like Ken Loach and Peter Kennard spoke alongside less well known but equally inspiring grassroots and local voices, such as Becka Hudson and Kemmi Morgan from Grime4Corbyn.

The excitement, the buzz, the sense of anticipation and determination, were palpable. Long queues for places at the events snaked round the streets, and most events were full up. All the events I attended were efficiently run but also relaxed, informal, and very inclusive.

The arts and culture generally were treated in an accessible and democratic fashion. There is often an elitist and metropolitan drift in definitions, discussions and events about culture, which ignores or downplays the activities valued and enjoyed by large sections of the population.

Activities such as sport, religion, watching TV, clothing and fashion etc. get little attention compared to what goes on in art galleries, concert halls and theatres.

But as Raymond Williams said, ‘culture is ordinary’ and here, a wider definition of culture was being put into practice.

An outstanding example of this approach was an event called ‘Football from Below’. This workshop was run by Mark Perryman, a regular writer for Culture Matters and co-founder of Philosophy Football, together with several others including Suzy Wrack from the Guardian Weekly and Kadeem Simmonds from the Morning Star. Not to mention Attila the Stockbroker, veteran punk poet and musician and Brighton’s most famous football fan.

Together, they focused on the need to reclaim the game from capitalist culture – from the corporate, commercialising forces which are threatening to corrupt and kill it off as an accessible, affordable entertainment and activity for legions of fans and players.

Contributors spoke of the groups of militantly anti-racist fans organised as ultras in many clubs, and the rise in community ownership across all the League’s divisions. Attila used spoken word to describe the fifteen year fan-led campaign to keep their local football club playing in Brighton, which has now culminated in the club joining the Premier League.

Above all, contributors pointed to the growth of the women’s game, and the need to challenge entrenched gender bias. Why can’t more clubs, they asked, follow the example of Lewes FC in allocating equal budgets for women and men players?

The workshop was entertaining and inclusive, involving open discussion as well as poetry, visuals and song. It was itself a model of the kind of grassroots cultural activity being presented and promoted.

Clearly, football can be viewed as a political metaphor for capitalism. The unequal relations of ownership; the grotesque contrast between players’ wages and those of cleaning staff; the commodification and branding of the club’s identity; the price of tickets; the corporate sponsorship and privileged seating; the culture of celebrity; the use of drugs; the over-emphasis on winning and losing rather than the quality of the game played – all these corrupting and antisocial developments are a consequence of capitalist economic relations, and reflect and express capitalist culture. They contradict and undermine the genuine, playful and communal spirit of the game, both for players and viewers.

But here’s the main point which came out of the workshop and indeed the whole festival. All of our cultural activities, all of the topics covered by Culture Matters – poetry, film, theatre, visual art, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, the media – show the same kinds of contradictions.

Consider how institutional religion – not only Christianity, but Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – has served the interests of ruling classes throughout history, by muting or silencing essentially revolutionary philosophies.

Religions have a tremendous capacity to present moral, spiritual and political challenges to all class-divided societies, including capitalist ones like our own. This is precisely why they have been suborned by ruling elites, made to focus on individual sin rather than structural injustice, and on the hereafter rather than the here and now. Christian religious beliefs and practices, originally developed to help liberate the poor, have become ways of generating submissiveness, obedience, and resignation amongst the exploited and oppressed.

Consider how all of the arts are, in one way or another, inaccessible through cost and geographical location, and incomprehensible to large sections of the population who are increasingly denied an education which would help them understand the arts, an education which is barely enough to prepare them for a lifetime of exploitation under capitalism. And how they can be used – for example in most Hollywood movies – to express reactionary, sexist and anti-socialist values which maintain consent for an exploitative, class-divided society.

All these cultural activities and many more should be wonderfully liberating, enjoyable and developmentally valuable to us as social human beings. Yet we are witnessing the growing privatisation of the cultural commons – those cultural activities and expressions that belong to all of us – by capitalism.

We need to resist the commercialisation and ideological manipulation of the arts. We need to democratise the access, affordability and content of all our arts and cultural activities, and show how a bottom up, DIY ethos can work. We need to reclaim our common cultural heritage from the few, for the many.

Next year, let’s hope The World Transformed festival in Liverpool is even more ambitious. Momentum can reach out even further and help us understand, develop and put into practice the socialist ideas of the Labour leadership across a range of cultural topics.

Progressive forces in the labour movement need to start local cultural struggles to transform the world outside Parliament, outside local councils, and outside the workplace. We need to challenge the authorities and the institutions – sports clubs, churches, supermarkets, pubs, and broadcasters, as well as art galleries, opera houses and concert venues – that legitimise capitalist exploitation and throw up barriers to us enjoying cultural activities that help us develop and enjoy our lives as fully human, social beings.

That’s how to achieve a world transformed, and a culture for the many, not the few.

Films for Corbyn
Saturday, 24 March 2018 06:15

Films for Corbyn

Published in Films

Andrew Warburton interviews one of the organisers of screenings of some socialist films at the islington Mill, Salford.

One proof of Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to inspire grassroots action among Labour members and in the community as a whole is the ever-expanding list of cultural projects and activities bearing the name ‘… for Corbyn’. First, we had ‘Poets for Corbyn’ (a collection of poems released by Pendant Publishing in August 2015). Then we had ‘Dance for Corbyn’, a mixture of speakers and DJ sets in London, and soon there will be ‘Rock for Corbyn’, a night of live music in Warrington. Next week sees the beginning of a Greater Manchester-based project called ‘Films for Corbyn’, involving the screening of socialist films in aid of various causes, including the pro-Corbyn activist group Momentum.

The first film, screened on 24th August at the Islington Mill in Salford, is the documentary, ‘The Hard Stop’, about the shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man, by the Metropolitan Police. Speakers at the screening will include Claudia Webbe, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee; Carole Duggan, the mother of Mark Duggan; and the poet Mark Mace Smith.

I asked Simon, one of the project’s organisers, what inspired him and his Momentum colleagues to start a film series in support of the Labour leader. A testament to the dynamic nature of grassroots organising associated with the Corbyn-led renewal of the Labour Party, Simon’s responses also demonstrated the importance of combining socio-cultural activities with the more serious business of political organizing.

What was the inspiration for ‘Films for Corbyn’?

I suppose ‘Films for Corbyn’ came out of us on the committee of Manchester and Trafford Momentum thinking about socials we could do to keep people engaged in politics. I think it’s important that as well as doing all of the important organising meetings, we do events which allow people to socialise and have fun, so that we don’t lose the energy from all of the people who have become enthused with politics for the first time in a while (or ever!) thanks to Jeremy Corbyn. I worry that it’s quite easy for people to become bored or disillusioned with politics, especially in the Labour Party, whose structures are often bureaucratic and unwelcoming to new people.

Will the project raise money for a particular cause?

We were initially going to donate any funds raised to our local Momentum group, which has been building a grassroots pro-Corbyn movement without any funding. The committee has had to finance our activities out of their own pocket, and that has become increasingly difficult as we have had to book bigger spaces to cope with the numbers of people coming to our events, which has risen dramatically in recent months. We will also be donating to causes which are related to the films we are showing. So our first screening will also be redistributing donations to the Duggan family.

Where will the films be shown?

This is initially a Manchester project, so we will be concentrating on showing films around the Greater Manchester area, with our first screening being in Salford. We don’t have any plans as of yet to show films in other regions, but if there is interest elsewhere it would be exciting to expand this project to other parts of the country

What kind of films do you intend to show?

We intend to show films from a radical working class or socialist tradition, which explore issues affecting some of the most marginalised groups and people in society, which are issues Jeremy Corbyn has been campaigning on throughout his political life.

What is your larger vision for the series, i.e., is it an educational project or part of a bigger political campaign?

For us, educational projects and political campaigns go hand in hand, and we want ‘Films for Corbyn’ to be both of these things. Not only is it something which we hope will maintain and attract enthusiasm for supporting a left-wing Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the films and discussions we will host will hopefully raise further awareness of issues in Britain which the Labour Party should be fighting. Promoting political education is something we have been doing in Manchester and Trafford Momentum and is something which we feel there needs to be more of.

What do you see as the great socialist filmmakers or classics of socialist film?

Personally, I’m a massive fan of the work of Cinema Action, which was a left-wing film collective whose members produced amazing (but overlooked) documentaries from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s. Particularly for me, the work of Marc Karlin and Steve Sprung, such as ‘The Year of the Beaver’ and ‘Between Times’ stand out. As someone who is more interested in documentaries, I also admire the series produced by Granada in its glory days, such as ‘World in Action’. And I, of course, love a bit of Adam Curtis.

The first film in the ‘Films for Corbyn’ series will be shown on 24th August at the Islington Mill, James Street, Salford. Tickets are £5 (£3 unwaged) and are available through Eventbrite at the following link: