Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and arts editor, and co-managing editor of Culture Matters.

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture
Sunday, 12 November 2017 20:00

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture

Published in 1917 Centenary

Mike Quille outlines some of the ways the Russian Revolution has influenced art and culture across the world in the last 100 years.

The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 was the world’s first attempt to create a socialist society. It was based on the active support of the majority of the population, workers and peasants alike, and apart from ending Russia’s disastrous involvement in the First World War, it liberated and enfranchised the Russian population politically, socially and economically. It was radically progressive in its social policies – for example towards women and children – and in particular in its truly comprehensive education policies, as outlined in an article by Megan Behrent in this new, commemorative section of Culture Matters.

What about its impact on culture? Unquestionably, the Revolution gave a massive boost to creativity and imagination and led to an explicit recognition, by artists and Bolsheviks alike, that art could serve the general population rather than elites, and thus advance the aims of the Revolution. The natural links between artistic creativity and emancipatory politics were made – not for the first time in human history, but in the strongest way to date.

This explosion of creativity occurred in the visual arts, film, poetry, ballet, children’s literature, music and many more popular cultural pursuits including sport and science, theatre and theology, fashion and clothing. Hardly an area of human cultural activity was unaffected by the Revolution - for an illuminating discussion of its effect on science, see Andy Byford's Revolution and Science under the Bolsheviks.

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Children's literature from the 1920s

Complementing the energy and political focus of cultural workers like artists and poets - see John Ellison's article on Alexander Blok - came a qualitative and quantitative change in the reception and appreciation of culture. There was a massive improvement in the ability and willingness of the mass of working people to engage with and enjoy the arts and other cultural activities, thanks to the government’s progressive educational policies and bold, imaginative attempts to connect the masses to culture, for example in the agit-trains and agit-boats that carried the political art of Mayakovsky, Lissitzky and Malevich to hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants.

MQ agit trains 2  MQ Agitprop Boat with theatres and entertainment on board 1920s

Agit-train; Agit-boat with theatre on board

These kind of bold, ambitious initiatives, developed in a relatively poor and backward country a century ago, make a telling contrast with our Arts Council’s timid attempts to encourage 'community engagement'. State policy towards the arts in this country is still dominated by the elitist mission of subsidising the interests of the richer segments of metropolitan populations.

What is often less discussed is the cultural impact of the Revolution across the world outside of Russia. It was a massive influence at the time, and has been for the last hundred years. Indeed, the purposes, meanings and effects of the Revolution on culture are still being played out today - a kind of 'cosmic background radiation', as Andrew Murray vividly describes it.

This brief survey will sketch out those influences, with a few examples where space allows. They are grouped into three kinds of influence.

The revolutionary impact on cultural workers

Firstly, there was the direct and worldwide influence of the Revolution on cultural activities such as art, literature, music and sport. The constructivist movement in the visual arts and in architecture, for example, was possibly the most influential global artistic movement in the twentieth century - see Jean Turner's article on avant-garde architecture.

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Tatlin's Tower;socialist architecture

As Owen Hatherley and others have pointed out, abstraction, pop art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk, and architectural brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism are all heavily indebted to the constructivism which sprang from the Russian Revolution. Constructivism combined a radical new approach to technology and engineering with an explicitly communist social purpose. Malevich, Tatlin, Rodchenko and Stepanova all represented different strands of the constructivist movement, and their influence can be seen in buildings across the world in the twentieth century.

Numerous examples could also be drawn from the literary arts. In poetry and literature generally, the ‘turn to the people’ that the Revolution represented, the replacement of an elite perspective with a focus on the lives and concerns of ordinary people, took a massive step forward, particularly in developing and increasingly anti-colonial countries.

RR Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising and Agrarian Leader Zapata

Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising; Agrarian Leader Zapata

The kind of mutuality and affinities which the Revolution sparked in Indian literature and Asia can also be traced in African and South American art and culture, too, notably in the the work of Diego Rivera.

Up until the Revolution, the global dissemination of art and culture had always had an imperialistic dimension. It was inextricably entwined with the capitalist exploitative colonial project, a means of imposing metropolitan cultural values on other peoples. After 1917, just as the Revolution strengthened radical political opposition across the world, so it enabled indigenous cultural and artistic traditions to flower and make international connections, on a scale not seen before in human history.

Closer to home, an example of this international effect was the leftist poetry movement in 1930s Britain led by Auden, Macneice, Spender and others. They were inspired by the Revolution to create a more overtly political, even didactic literature. In both form and content they aimed to connect more closely with the mass of the population. And there’s no doubt of the huge influence of the Revolution on many other writers like George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf.

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George Bernard Shaw; W.H.Auden and Benjamin Britten

This literary movement itself influenced musicians and composers like Alan Bush and Auden’s friend Benjamin Britten, who was also independently attracted to communist and specifically Russian culture.

It spread also to documentary film-makers like the GPO Film Unit and its successors, who started a fine tradition of compassionate and sometimes overtly socialist documentaries on the living conditions of the British people, before, during and after the Second World War.

MQ Coal Face 1935

It is a tradition which was continued by the ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the fifties theatre, in TV dramas such as the Wednesday Play and Play for Today, and the exemplary work of Ken Loach right up to the present day.

The wider world was if anything even more influenced by the Revolution than Britain. In literature, art, and music the list is virtually endless. It is striking how left wing political perspectives are so common across all the arts in the twentieth century, and this is partly due to the influence of the Revolution on global culture.

MQ Eisenstein Battleship Potemkin  MQ Poster for Vertovs Kino glaz produced by Alexander Rodchenko

Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin; Poster for Vertov's Kino-Glaz produced by Alexander Rodchenko

In cinema, the innovative techniques of Sergei Eisenstein, using ‘oppositional’ montage to create a new cinematic language, and Dziga Vertov, capturing ‘film truth’ in a radically new type of documentary, laid the foundations of world cinema - see John Green's comprehensive and authoritative survey of Soviet cinema. It is widely recognised that John Ford, Orson Welles, the Italian neo-realists, Carol Reed, Hitchcock, Coppola, Scorsese, and many others were heavily influenced by these Russian pioneers. 

The revolutionary impact on appreciation and enjoyment

Secondly, there is another kind of influence, which is the impact of the Revolution not only on production but on consumption - on ways of accessing, experiencing and enjoying cultural activities.

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Joan Littlewood; the People's Theatre, Newcastle

For example, there was the establishment of workers’ film societies in Britain, which brought quality cinema closer to working class people. The people’s theatre movement in Britain also grew very strongly in the 1920s, encouraged by G.B. Shaw, a strong sympathiser with the ideals of the Revolution. They were taken forward by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl into both popular theatres and folk music clubs, before and after the Second World War. Joan Littlewood was heavily monitored by MI5: what better evidence can there be of Bolshevik influence?

Radical workers’ theatre in the rest of Europe and the United States was massively stimulated and energised by the democratising, anti-elitist influence of the revolution, and there was also a workers’ radio movement in Europe.

The revolutionary nature of art

The third kind of positive influence of the Revolution on art and culture was deeper and more general. It is an influence shared with every other progressive revolution in history.

Just as one of the main benefits of the Russian Revolution was to strengthen not only specifically radical political and economic alternatives to class-divided societies, but the very possibility of realising an alternative at all, so the Revolution did the same for artistic and cultural activities.

This is because as William Blake and others have recognised, artistic and cultural activities like poetry, art and music are fundamentally social and communal activities. That is why and how they evolved in human history: they are essentially acts of powerful, rousing and empathic communication which develop and deepen human sympathy and solidarity. Art – and other cultural activities such as sport and religion – can overcome and break down all kinds of barriers between humans. Cultural activity can overcome and dissolve, in reality as well as in our imaginations, the fundamental class divisions in human societies based on unequal shares of private property that have existed since ancient times.

The challenge to class-based society which the Revolution represented enabled and empowered artists, writers, musicians and their publics across the world to make, understand and enjoy art which was critical, challenging and oppositional to the status quo.

These countercultural, challenging strands can be traced in all the arts. This was something peculiar to the Russian Revolution, or totally new – evidence of artistic opposition to injustice, inequality and hierarchical oppression can be traced back through human history, as can the insistence of artists on the liberating power of creativity - see Doug Nicholl's article on Lugalbanda. But the Revolution strengthened that liberating, oppositional strand which is always, everywhere present in human cultural activities, the 'counter-hegemonic' forces identified by Antonio Gramsci.

JF Guernica 2

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

Without the Revolution, there might well have been artistic protests against war and imperialist aggression, progressive religious movements, museums and art galleries, and cultural education for more people. But would there have been Guernica? Liberation theology? People’s museums? Comprehensive arts and sports education?

The Revolution enabled a more confident, collectivist and communal challenge to elite forms of art – not only its themes and content, but its mode of production, distribution, accessibility, reception and criticism.

Inspiring art and progressive politics have always been inextricably intertwined, which is one of the reasons why conservatives and liberals always want to keep them separate. The Russian Revolution firmly connected them, and all the debates about art and politics since then have been influenced by it. For example, the very idea of art and other cultural activities needing to respond to the needs of the mass of the population and not just serve ruling elites was given an enormous boost, which has influenced arts and culture policies across the world ever since. Those agit-trains agitated the world!

The revolutionary impact through resistance and reaction

All these positive influences of the Russian Revolution on art and culture have also been resisted, undermined and often beaten back, in ‘cultural wars’ which continue today. 

This takes us to a fourth, very mixed legacy of the Revolution in world culture today, which is a consequence of the deep and long-lasting opposition of the capitalist powers to the Russian Revolution.

From the beginning there was diplomatic, economic and military opposition from the United States, Britain and other European powers to the anti-capitalist nature of the 1917 Revolution. This was temporarily replaced by an antifascist alliance in the Second World War, but thereafter quickly degenerated into various open and proxy conflicts across the globe during the Cold War.

This hostility and failure to support the fundamentally democratic advances made in Russia after the overthrow of autocracy caused tremendous suffering in 1920s and 1930s Soviet Union, directly and indirectly. Enforced isolation and the crushing of attempts to spread the radical impulse internationally were tragic, missed opportunities for what could have been an international flowering of human life, materially and culturally. Western elites, through acts of commission and omission, carry a huge responsibility for the sufferings of peoples across the world in the twentieth century.

In the Soviet Union, the defensive reaction to capitalist reaction and aggression led to the submersion and disappearance of some of the positive aspects of revolutionary culture. The pluralism of cultural policy under Lenin and Lunacharsky, and the bold ambition of the Proletkult - see article by Lynn Mally - was eroded into a much narrower approach to the arts and culture generally. Although the early Soviet state was always far more directly supportive of the arts and culture than capitalist democracies – particularly regarding literacy, cultural education and general access for the masses, for example – it also developed heavy-handed censorship arrangements, and intolerance of artistic and musical dissent and nonconformity.

The cultural influence of anti-communist hostility of the West was also expressed within capitalist countries. It took – and takes – many forms. Just to take one country, the United States, for example, there was the blatant, career-threatening persecution and blacklisting of left-leaning screenwriters, actors and directors in the film industry and other creative industries. 

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American postcard, 1930s

Another clear example is how the CIA covertly funded certain art forms such as abstract expressionism, and put pressure on various cultural institutions, in order to counter the left-leaning realist traditions in the visual arts (photography as well as painting) which were developing in Thirties America.

It is important to remember that this anti-communism is still current. The elites of Western powers have not forgotten or forgiven the power of artists to advance progressive and revolutionary political agendas. It is evident in the continuing prejudice of the American and British film industries against genres such as social realism and other cinematic attempts to tell the truth about capitalist exploitation and oppression. Individualistic, sexist themes which are congruent with capitalist culture, such as lone brave violent males supported by emotional caring females, dominate our screens. Because films generally are made for quick profit rather than for quality of insight and enlightenment, they rely overwhelmingly on superficial values including melodrama, sentiment, spectacle, glamour and celebrity, over real insight, intellectual depth and social relevance.

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Poster, Go to the Stadiums!

Sport provides another instructive example. As Gareth Edwards relates in his piece, the Revolution opened up the possibility of more grassroots-driven, widely-practised and co-operative forms of sport which did not rely solely on the excitement generated by individual competition. The remarkably progressive approach to womens’ rights in the polity and economy was paralleled by advances in the access of women to sport and physical pursuits, for example in the growth of womens’ athletic organisations. This caused a hardening of elite attitudes in the West. It was at least partly responsible, for example, for the crushing of womens’ football by the FA in 1921 and other attempts to maintain the cultural dominance of white men.

The Cold War and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism, with its accompanying culture of competitiveness, elite celebrity and individual excellence, has also tended to corrupt sporting ideals. The Olympics, instead of being a celebration of human sporting ability, was turned into another proxy ideological and nationalistic battle between capitalism and socialism, and has still not fully recovered. Recent and ongoing drugs scandals across swathes of sporting activity bear witness to the insidious pressures of commercialism, individual achievement through winner/loser competitiveness, and celebrity culture.

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928  RA Woman with a rake

Great art and poor curating at the RA: Alexander Deineka, In Defence of Petrograd; Malevich, Woman with a Rake

This anti-communism has also manifested itself this year, in various TV programmes and exhibitions. The exhibition of post-revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy, for example, was strikingly reactionary. Funded by the Blavatnik Foundation, a beneficiary of the sell-off of state-owned assets when the USSR collapsed in 1989, the exhibition abandoned the usual liberal approach of trying to provide a balanced historical account of the political background and art of the Revolution. Instead, it promoted an openly hostile perspective, which downplayed, denied and derided links between the progressive politics of the Revolution and the marvellously energetic and powerful art that it inspired. In general, mainstream media coverage of the centenary has been predictably hostile, uncomprehending, tepid, or plainly mistaken - exactly the same problems that characterise its coverage of Corbynism, and for exactly the same reasons. 

The revolutionary influence today

In complex and deeply interwoven strands across all of human cultural activity in the last hundred years, the Revolution has had a massive effect. Its power and influence can still be detected in debates about the links between politics and economics on the one hand and art, sport and religion on the other. In all these debates, the example of Russia is inescapable.

It has left us with some tremendous and enduring examples of excellence in all forms of artistic and cultural activities, across all the world and across the hundred years since 1917. And because of the resistance of ruling elites, it has also led to a polarisation of debates and of practices.

Ever since 1917, there has been debate about the detailed legacy of the Revolution for art and culture. But one thing we can surely all agree about, at least on the Left, is the way it strengthened the capacity and confidence of art and artists to creatively imagine difference, improvement, and radical alternatives to what is.

This influence is extremely relevant today. We face increasing struggles against the incursions of capitalism into our human culture these days. There are all kinds of different barriers and pressures – financial, geographical, thematic – which tend to twist and corrupt human culture. Naturally healthy and developmental cultural activities such as art, sport, religion, eating and drinking, in all their myriad forms, are facing pressures to become corralled into expensive, inaccessible, privatised and patrolled enclaves for the rich and powerful.

bread and roses

In the current struggles that we face to democratise culture, to make it accessible and relevant and affordable to the mass of working-class people, the example of the Russian Revolution is like a beacon of inspiration. It shows us that things don’t have to be the way they are, that tomorrow may not be the same – and that we can achieve and enjoy a better life.

The team at Culture Matters hope that this piece, and the accompanying articles in this section of Culture Matters, give you some sense of the power and range of global cultural influences which sprang from the Russian Revolution. However, perhaps the most enduring influence of the Revolution lies not just in our appreciation and enjoyment of its tremendous cultural legacy, but in the way it still stimulates and motivates us to act now to fulfil its promise – by replacing the culture, politics and economics of capitalism with a socialist alternative.

Culture for the many, not the few
Tuesday, 31 October 2017 15:53

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.

Lankum
Sunday, 29 October 2017 21:57

Lankum

Published in Music

Mike Quille interviews Ian Lynch from the four-piece traditional Irish folk group Lankum, formerly known as Lynched, who are currently on tour.

Mike: I appreciate you must get asked this all the time, but can you tell us why you changed name, from Lynched to Lankum?

Ian: The bottom line is that we didn’t want to continue operating under a name connected to acts of racist violence. In modern Irish parlance the term is used to describe getting jumped on by a gang, but it seems that everywhere else there is a different understanding of the term. Playing more and more outside of Ireland and outside of our own immediate scene brought this home to us and so we decided to change the name. I think we are seeing a very alarming acceptance of right wing ideas all across the western world at present and it’s definitely not a time to sit on the fence about such matters.

 Mike: What’s the attraction of the Traveller culture, music and tradition for you?

Ian: I think that Travellers get a really raw deal in modern day Ireland. They have always been looked down on as second-class citizens, but ironically I think that they were more accepted in days gone by. The majority of Irish people see Travellers as an aberration - settled people gone wrong and not as a distinct ethnic minority with their own language, culture and traditions etc.
Personally I find it fascinating that the Travelling community held on to so many of the old ballads for a lot longer than the settled community and I think if people were more aware of this and other aspects of their rich culture then they might be forced to reconsider some of the prejudices that they hold.

Mike: One of the most angry, hopeless-sounding songs, ‘Cold Old Fire’, clearly has a strong political content, about Dublin since the financial crash. I know it was co-written with Cian Lawless, but can you say something about how you express your politics, in this and other songs you sing?

Ian: To me it’s far more interesting to find ways express such views in a more poetic, personalised style rather than simply painting a black and white picture. I grew up listening to a lot of hardcore punk and the moralising ‘don’t do this, don’t do that/this is good this is bad’ outlook of a lot of bands just bored me. Whether people agree with the sentiments or not the last thing they want is to be condescended and lectured to.

Mike: Generally speaking where do your political sympathies lie? Is there any equivalent in Ireland to the Corbyn phenomenon – the one thing that gives socialists in this country some cause for hope?

Ian: My political sympathies lie with the people, always. Saying that, I don’t like to define myself as anything ending in ‘-ist’, no matter how much I may agree with a certain position. I would be worried that once you codify your political outlook in such a way then you may be forced to ignore certain truths that don’t fit into that paradigm, and that seems like denial to me.

In Ireland there has been a lot of dissatisfaction with the mainstream political parties in recent years and this has led to some very outspoken independents being elected to sit in the Dáil. Much like Corbyn though, they are constantly derided, ignored and made fun of by the more established parties and often by the media.

The two major parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – are centre-right and largely identical to one another and people still go from one to the other every few years depending on how one has performed over the last few years. It’s really quite despairing and brings to mind the old maxim – if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.

Mike: ….and the same question on music, who do you most admire musically and what kind of sound are you aiming for?

Ian: Sound wise we are really drawing on a large range of musical styles. While we do consider ourselves a traditional folk band first and foremost, these different styles do make themselves into our music in subtle ways – informing the musical palette that we draw upon rather than making themselves fully apparent.
I don’t know if I can describe the sound that we’re looking for – only that when we get it we know it. Musically I admire anyone who has the drive to realise their creative vision no matter how odd or unpopular it may be to other people. Richard Dawson, Brian Eno, Adam Green, Quorthon – these people are all heroes to us.

Mike: What’s your experience of the music business, and where do you think it’s going? There seems to be a lot of opportunities to return to a more DIY, punkish, grassroots and homemade approach to music making?

Ian: I know this has been said a hundred times, but I think it is so easy to record and get your music out there these days. When you hear about how bands on some major labels are treated – so–called ‘360’ deals where the band are paying merchandise and touring money to the label you have to wonder if bands are really gaining anything by signing such a deal. As always, they need us – we don’t need them.

We had an approach by a major label a few years ago, but it was very apparent from the outset that they didn’t get it (they wanted to know if we would be interested in writing a song for the Irish football team), and they weren’t really offering us anything concrete either.

We signed to the legendary independent label Rough Trade at the start of the year and it’s been really amazing. They have a total hands-off approach and really let us do our own thing. I’m not really interested in the music business to be honest – most of the events I go to are 100% DIY, and I think that’s usually the best way to go.

Mike: Can you tell us something about the new album, what you were aiming for and how do you think it relates to your previous recorded material?

Ian: I think Between the Earth and Sky is a definite continuation of what we did on Cold Old Fire, with some areas seeing more development - the heavy use of drones for example. While it is something that was there on COF we really beefed it up on this album, aided in no small part by our drone-obsessed soundman John Murphy. On some tracks we layered up drone tracks, played them in empty churches and recorded them down again – all to give a much heavier and layered sound. We have a greater proportion of our own original songs on this album and also Radie sings more songs – both of which I’m very happy about.

Mike: Finally, it must have come as quite a shock to move from playing squats and pubs to concert venues like the Sage, Gateshead. Where do you think you’ll be, musically and politically, in two years’ time?

Ian: It’s definitely a big change, and every now and again you find yourself looking around and wondering what’s going on. I like some aspects of playing big venues, but in a very clichéd way, you do definitely find yourself yearning for the intimacy and atmosphere of playing in smaller venues and spaces. Luckily for us we all still play and sing in sessions on a regular basis, so we get to experience this and feel like we are ‘keeping it real’ and not being total sell-outs!

Between the Earth and the Sky is released on October 27th. Details of Lankum’s tour can be found here.

Lugalbanda: lyrical, topical and extraordinarily relevant
Wednesday, 23 August 2017 21:08

Lugalbanda: lyrical, topical and extraordinarily relevant

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille introduces the new version of the ancient Sumerian epic poem Lugalbanda, produced by Doug Nicholls, Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions.

How can a poem 5,000 years old speak to us so attractively, and with such contemporary relevance? The Notes that Doug Nicholls has written to accompany his striking new version of Lugalbanda give clear and detailed explanations of the history of the poem, the literary skill underpinning its lyrical beauty, and its political relevance today. But before you read the Notes, read the poem, and appreciate the world it comes from. Let it charm you with its vividness, lyricism and profound humanism.

Doug suggests that we approach this and all ancient poetry not as mysteries or myths lost in the distance of time, but as examples of poetic engagements with realities that we still encounter. So when reading the poem, think about the similarities as well as the differences between the world of the poem and our world. What is like you and us in the poem, what qualities do we share with Lugalbanda?

He is an heroic figure from the first civilisation to invent writing, the wheel, law, architecture, agriculture, irrigation, and many other human firsts, which developed in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates that are now occupied by the troubled regions of Iraq and Syria. Lugalbanda survives abandonment in the wilderness, where he is left to die after falling sick whilst out with a war party, out marching to invade a neighbouring city and steal its property and its land.

In his desolation he finds the chick of a great monster bird living in the mountains. He decides to pamper and nurture the chick as its parents hunt bulls and other creatures of the mountains. As a reward for nurturing the chick he is offered great powers and riches by the chick’s father, Anzu. Yet nothing Anzu offers will please Lugalbanda, so he requests something even more powerful. He is granted his request of an amazing, creative force and power.

This request and what it symbolises is at the heart of the poem’s insight. It is an incredible choice and in making it and in exercising his new found powers, Lugalbanda changes to embody the most complex  and distinctive of human essences. As you read the poem consider what you think this power is, and then whether the Notes expresses its true meaning.

At one level the poem recounts an episode within a wider epic of adventures about the first city states and their culture. Its diction is delightful, sparkling with images of the natural world as experienced at that time, with its fish, flowers, animals and imagined gods. It is about the first wars and the first longings for peace in the region. It expresses – and embodies – the stupendous power of human beings, both creative and destructive. It speaks to us of the joys of communication and social interaction. It recalls the pre-civilised existence of human beings and the creation of the first agricultural and urban centres.

Above all it identifies something about the nature of human beings that has exceptional importance to us today. Making this discovery anew is one of the great pleasures of the poem, and makes re-reading it today a brilliant experience. You will ask yourself, how can such an ancient poem be so timely?

Read on, study the Notes and see how the voice of an unknown poet or poetess, most likely building on a still older collective oral culture from the dawn of human society, sings with a voice like ours.

This new version by Doug Nicholls of Lugalbanda is attractive, topical and extraordinarily relevant today. It is exactly the kind of cultural project that Culture Matters was set up to publish and promote, and we are proud and privileged to do so.

Lugalbanda is available here.

For the many, not the few: Liars of Earth at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art
Tuesday, 11 July 2017 06:00

For the many, not the few: Liars of Earth at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille reviews the national premiere of Liars of Earth, and interviews the artist.

Review of the Drawing

Chad McCail’s 100-foot long drawing depicts a series of stories from an imagined world in which the many have combined to overthrow the few. The liars are levelled, and the rich and powerful are overthrown and rehabilitated.

In the drawing, class struggle is presented as a parable. On one side are masked, robotic figures – oddly reminiscent of Tory politicians at election time – who have been living in stately homes, exploiting and imprisoning working people, privatising hospitals, slaughtering animals and despoiling the environment.

On the other side there are massive, mythical, avenging figures, who look like they’ve come straight out of Marvel comics. On the far left (!) they include a minotaur, destroying military tanks and aeroplanes. Moving along the drawing, we watch a huge snake devour the rich and poo them out to be re-clothed and rehabilitated. Then there’s a giant lizard which plucks apples from a willing tree that has burst out of the concrete and feeds them to children – who then turn their school into a combat vehicle and join the struggle for liberation.

Liars of Earth 1 resized 286 jpg

The skeleton of Death subdues the military

At the right-hand end of the drawing, in front of prison walls which have been smashed, crouches Jesus, compassionately overlooking a group of liberated prisoners, chatting with their victims.

Towering over it all, in the central section of the drawing and energising the whole series of tableaux, stands the ‘man of men’. He – or it could be a she – is a human giant, a figure built of thousands of people working together to defeat the rich and the robots and build a new order.

Liars of Earth 2 resized 580

The minotaur liberates animals from the abbatoir

It’s an updated, modern and witty version of the print accompanying Hobbes’ Leviathan, which shows how during a crisis the many, the entire body politic, has to unite and act as one. With the crucial difference that this time there is no crowned figure symbolising unity – there is just the ‘man of men’.

liars of earth leviathan

The print which accompanied Hobbes's Leviathan

McCail’s work builds on the techniques of comics and video games to imagine, in a playful but deeply serious way, other possible worlds where we unite to overthrow the ruling class. The moral and political lesson from this Marvel-lous work of art is clear. Only by working collectively can we defeat the rich and powerful, and build a fair and equal world where we are all free to develop as individuals and as social beings, and realise the common good – for the many, not the few.

It’s engaging, it’s imaginative, it’s topical – and it’s very, very funny.

At the NGCA, now housed at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland, 24 June - 8 October 2017.

Interview with Chad McCail

What was the inspiration for the drawing?

I worked with local residents to make a mural depicting the history of the Becontree Estate in Dagenham in 2014. I lived in London while we were making it. I hadn't lived in London for 20 years and it seemed a harder, more divided place. I learned at first hand about the city's housing and migration problems and I saw the huge disparities in wealth. When I came back to the village I live in in Lanarkshire I wanted to make something about those issues.

Can you take us through the drawing please, describing the main characters and events depicted?

My idea was to represent a city and to scale people according to their wealth and power. For the very rich the world is like a model. They pick up a factory and move it abroad. They are like giants. The people can only combat them by drawing together. In the picture they have formed themselves into great people of people, even larger than the giants.

I also wanted to suggest that when people do unite together, they discover dormant talents. They are not afraid, their confidence grows and they find hidden qualities and strengths. I think that reflected my experience of working on the mural with the people of Becontree.

Liars of Earth 3 resizedpg

The 'man of men' overthrows the rich and powerful

So I drew figures from myth who help the people to overcome the giants. Death subdues the arms manufacturer. A horned bull god frees animals from outside the abbatoir. A great snake, an ancient symbol of fertility, consumes the rich giants and shits them out reduced to normal size. The tree of knowledge bursts through the church and the biblical serpeant feeds its apples to children enabling them to adapt the school structure into a kind of animated machine/robot which helps the people. Jesus reconciles prisoners and victims.

What political ideas influence your work generally, and this work in particular?

I am interested in the work of Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst who studied with Freud but who sought a mass cure for neurosis. He thought that people's difficulties stemmed from their social conditions and the anti-sexual nature of institutional Christianity. He published The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933 and was a deeply sensitive and instinctive thinker whose articulate analysis does not date.

He was a friend of the pioneering educationalist A.S.Neil who founded Summerhilll School. Neil's understanding of the repressive nature of mass education led him to set up a democratic school where children take responsibility for their own education and where the rules are debated and changed at a weekly meeting where everyone, from the youngest child to the headmistress, has one vote.

Liars of Earth 4

The snake defecates the rich, who are then re-clothed and re-educated by children who've turned their school into a combat vehicle of liberation

I am influenced by the writings of different socialist and anarchist thinkers who believe that people are perfectly capable of organising themselves. And finally, Robert L. Moore gave 4 lectures on masculine archetypes where he refines Carl Jung's ideas. He suggests we are drawn to pleasure like moths to flame. We need pleasure to release the tension that builds in us, but if we surrender utterly to its demands it will destroy us. Culture provides us with structures to approach that flame, draw the energy we need and return renewed and refreshed.

Who and what are the main influences on your artistic practice?

Most of my influences are literary. I read a lot of fiction, science fiction particularly because it's a genre that allows a writer a certain freedom to explore different possibilities, to examine the consequences of our general direction and propose alternatives and to use analogy and metaphor to get at current tendencies. Philip.K. Dick is a great writer who wrote serious fiction in a popular idiom with a lot of humour. Ursula Le Guin I love too.

What's your view of British politics these days, and in particular the Corbyn phenomenon?

 Jeremy Corbyn's manifesto was good and I hope that now the party will support him. I admire his integrity and how he stands by his ideas, whether they are popular or not.  40 years of neo-liberalism have deepened social divisions and inequalities, and there is an enormous amount to be done now. We need to rebuild the union movement, make real provision for immigrants, develop an industrial strategy based on a sober assessment of our needs and resources and an equitable use of our time and energies.  

We need to consider how our children develop a sense of responsibility, because the 19th century  model we use is really only concerned with discipline and pattern recognition. If you deprive young people of any real choice for eleven or twelve years how are they to get any experience of decision-making?

We need to recognise that real pleasure lies in our relationships with one another rather than things. The isolated way of life we have developed has destructive consequences for us as a society but also for all the animals and plants we so casually disregard.

Liars of Earth 5

The lizard plucks apples from the tree for the children, and Jesus oversees reconciliation between prisoners and victims

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017
Tuesday, 04 July 2017 15:30

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017

Published in Poetry

The Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite in partnership with Culture Matters, was instituted this year. The idea is to stimulate the writing of poetry about working class lives and communities, by people who otherwise might not write or enter competitions.

We're very pleased that it has been a tremendous success, although we were almost overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of submissions. Several hundred poems were sent in, of all kinds and from a wide range of writers across Britain and indeed across the world: America, India, Nigeria and Australia, to name just a few. Many entries were accompanied by notes saying how grateful the writers were to Unite and to Culture Matters for opening up what can seem a very exclusive and elitist artistic practice.

Two judges kindly agreed to the difficult task of studying, sifting, and judging the poems. They were Andy Croft, the poet and publisher of Smokestack Books, and Mary Sayer, an official from Unite working in the field of cultural education. In the light of the high quality of so many of the entries, the judges decided to divide the prizes equally between three poems, submitted by Helen Burke, Mair De-Gare Pitt, and John Wright. They will each receive £285.

The judges were extremely impressed by the entries. Here's what Mary Sayer wrote to us afterwards:

What a delight this has been – reading my way through the hundreds of remarkable poems entered into this competition. None of us had any idea there would be so many entries of such a high standard.

All of the poems were very readable and most of them were a real pleasure to read. I felt genuinely humbled having to 'choose' between such passionate and interesting poems. All were political and heartfelt - often funny and deeply moving - inspiring; I had no idea that there were so many articulate politicos out there.

But more than anything, as I read - I began to appreciate what a privilege it was to share the outpourings of so many committed and caring individuals. It was almost impossible to shortlist, and we did so on the understanding that we could highly commend a long list of entries and do justice to the rest by publishing as many as possible, in an anthology.

Thanks to Culture Matters for involving me in this competition and to my union Unite for sponsoring it. As co-ordinator of 'Unite in Schools' programme, this has inspired me to run a similar poetry competition in schools and colleges, around the campaigns and political issues chosen by students in our sessions.

 We will be publishing many of the poems sent to us, both online and in a printed anthology. We are very grateful to Unite for sponsoring the Award; to the judges, for all their hard work; but most of all to the hundreds of poets who sent in such wonderful poems. Please continue to send us poems that you wish to be considered for publication, especially on topical issues.

Here is one of the poems sent in, by Fred Voss. Fred works as a machinist in a metalworking shop in Long Beach, California, and has been published by Bloodaxe Books and by Culture Matters.

Billie Holliday Crooning a Rose Opening

by Fred Voss

All our lives we have known about great men
Teddy Roosevelt
on Mount Rushmore Paul Revere
riding his horse the marble eyes
of Lincoln looking out so wisely from his monument
but can standing at a grinding wheel 10 hours a day until your fingertips are scraped raw
be great
can holding onto a jumping pounding jackhammer
until your spine rattles
be great
Napoleon
in his 3-cornered hat is great Orville Wright gliding
over the sands of Kitty Hawk is great the top
of the Empire State Building and the Rock of Gibraltar
and Lindbergh stepping out of his airplane to ride down Broadway in his tickertape parade
are great but can oil cans
and concrete floors and twisted backs and crane hooks and whoops
of crazy delight from the throats of men who have run machines in the corners of tin buildings
for 40 years be great
can missing the dawn sun
as 2-ton drop hammers explode behind tin walls at 6 am and fists
that never give up closing around monkey wrenches and hammer handles and spirits
of men that can never be broken even after 7
layoffs and a thousand screams
of foremen in their faces
be great
can gnarled hands and ticking time clocks and greasy shop rags hanging out of back pockets
and men
who’ve clawed their way out of prison cells straightjackets
skid row gutters gangs and grabbed
machine handles and smiled again
be great
John Barrymore crossing a stage Caesar in a helmet Shakespeare holding his quill pen the tiger
leaping through jungle moonlight
are great but are the 3 teeth
left in the head of the engine lathe operator who lifts his wrench and laughs like he’s the luckiest
man on earth great is the man
who took the heroin needle out of his arm and learned to dial the razor-sharp edge
of a cutting tool into brass round stock and shave it
to a finish beautiful
as any solo
Miles Davis ever blew out of his trumpet
great
how can the sun a Joe Louis punch a marlin hanging in the air
above the sea Billie Holiday crooning a rose
opening any man
who ever worked his heart out to feed his child not
be great?

 

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital
Thursday, 18 May 2017 14:21

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille traces the links between corporate sponsorship and the distortion of history and art, in two recent exhibitions.

How do the ruling classes manipulate art and culture to secure political consent for oppression and exploitation? Two exhibitions on the 1917 Revolution in Russia go some way to providing an answer.

Most historians of Russian history in 1917 accept that both the February and October Revolutions in 1917 were both clear improvements on the Tsarist autocracy that preceded them.

Most cultural historians also recognise the explosion of creativity and the widespread democratisation of culture which followed the October Revolution. Art and cultural activities suddenly became exciting, accessible and relevant to many ordinary Russians.

But these are uncomfortable facts for our current rulers, who must crush any hopes for political or cultural progress if they are to stay on top. And there are two ways they can undermine those facts and hopes. One is to construct a biased and misleading narrative which ignores historical evidence and downplays artists’ support for the Revolution. This is the strategy which was followed in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, in its openly one-sided and distorted presentation of the politics and art of the Revolution.

The second way is to create a monumental fudge which obscures the real historical and cultural achievements of 1917, through a kind of chaotic eclecticism. This is the strategy followed by the British Library in its current exhibition of ‘a wide range of objects’ and in the mistaken, banal and often meaningless ‘guided tour’ offered by its curator in the Morning Star recently.

Let me take three examples from the curator’s article. The first is this statement:

‘Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world.’

How on earth anyone can write this in the middle of an election campaign in which the Labour Party are quite clearly trying to address the faults of a capitalist society which concern us all, is beyond belief.

The second is the individualistic focus on the ‘personal stories’ of those involved, and reliance on the ‘individual interpretations’ of visitors to the exhibition, rather than providing a broader historically-based understanding of Russian history, which is left for ‘academics to analyse’. Frankly, this is a cop-out, because curatorial practice, including the type of contextual and supporting material supplied, is bound to influence visitors’ perceptions.

It is also disingenuous, because the curators do have a message. They believe that the exhibition ‘can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response’. This is sloppy and simplistic thinking.

History is full of instances where individuals and classes have violently seized control of commonly held resources, and have been unwilling to give them up peacefully. They have had to be challenged, defeated and restrained by force as well as by peaceful argument, in order that most people can have a fair share of the earth’s resources. Of course peaceful persuasion is best, but what alternative is there to force if that doesn’t work to end exploitation? Would slaves, peasants and serfs have ever been freed without their violent, illegal rebellions?

The ‘violence breeds violence’ message conceals a defeatist political agenda. When the law itself is nothing more than a codification of unjust and oppressive social and economic relationships, it has to be challenged and changed by every means at our disposal.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – both exhibitions have been sponsored by the Blavatnik Foundation. This foundation is the beneficiary of Britain’s second richest man, Leonard Blavatnik, who made a huge fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying legalised robbery by private individuals and corporations of the wealth built up by the Russian people since 1917.

So money stolen from the Russian people is used to fund cultural exhibitions which – guess what? – distort the truth about Russian history. That is how dominant classes manipulate art and culture to secure consent for exploitation and oppression.

Have there ever been more obvious examples of the increasing corruption of our cultural institutions by corporate capital, masquerading as philanthropic or charitable foundations? A key demand of any progressive arts and culture policy must now be the complete abolition of private sponsorship of our common culture and heritage.

This article is also published in the Morning Star.

Thursday, 12 October 2017 16:27

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

Published in Round-up

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Culture Matters are pleased to announce a new Songwriting and Spoken Word Award.

The Award is now open for submissions. The purpose of the new Award is to encourage songwriters and spoken word performers to write material meaningful to working class people and communities, and to encourage those communities to engage more with songwriting and spoken word. There is a £100 cash prize for each of the top five entries, and the winners will be asked to perform at the CWU annual conference in 2018.

For full details see the article in the Music section.

The struggle never ends
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 18:25

The struggle never ends

Published in Music

Like all artists, musicians enhance the quality of our lives, and expand the cultural commons which we need as much as the air we breathe. Chris Wood has developed into one of the most socially aware songwriters in Britain, and Mike Quille caught up with him during his latest British tour.

MQ: Who are the people who've influenced you most, musically and politically?

CW: The answer to both those questions is - Anon. I grew up listening to folk song and I have to say, it's all there. Our folk songs are a vast repository of wisdom, and are about a history that has largely escaped the airbrush of the establishment. In fact the establishment works quite hard to have us believe that our folk music is not cool, that it is silly and naïve, which a great deal of it is.

But in amongst the fol-de-rols there are works of exquisite genius and great wisdom. Tales of cruelty and injustice, inventiveness and stoicism, love and fortitude. Above all folk music reminds me that, whatever is thrown at us, we abide.

MQ. You won the BBC Folk Award for the song None the Wiser, a melancholy but devastatingly insightful song about the way things are these days. Can you tell us something about the background to the song?

CW: None The Wiser was written on the Joan Armatrading tour bus during a 60 day tour. I remember Elvis Costello saying that he quickly realised if he didn't learn to write while touring he wasn't going to get anything written.

Every morning we'd wake up in a different town and I'd have the whole day to hang out in town centres and coffee shops. I soon realised I was getting a privileged opportunity to observe Britain in the throes of Austerity. Much more immersive than any politician on a 'battle bus' - with or without a lie painted on the side.

I remember a guy whose job was as a 'first on the scene' aircraft crash specialist. He said the first crash he attended he couldn't see any bodies and then, he started to realise there was a piece of something there and another piece of what looked like something there, a smear here and a shape there, the horror that slowly came upon him as he 'got his eye in' was a moment he'd never forget.

Well, without attempting to sound too dramatic, I had a similar experience as I spent time hanging out in town centres the length and breadth of the British Isles. I started to get my eye in, and my ear too. I'm sorry if it's a bit gritty for some people but pretty much all of what takes place in that song happened.

MQ. The way  you've arranged and sing Jerusalem is unusually downbeat and reflective. How far do you identify with Blake’s ‘mental fight’ to ‘build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’?

CW: I woke at 4am one day, with Blake's half-remembered words in my head, so I looked them up. For the first time in my life I encountered the words, not sung by the crowd at the Last Night of the Proms, but as the poet had intended, on the page. It was an epiphany, and two things struck me.

Firstly, the first verse consists not of triumphal statements, but of four questions, to which the answers are all No.

And secondly, that this was a 4am poem. It's not the voice of many, it is a solitary voice. It's the voice of a human reaching into himself to find a reason to carry on. The voice of a man shaken by the depth of indifference the world has for him and all that he believes in.

I managed to get back to sleep but I awoke with a new tune in my head. I'm not trying to sell my thinking or my work here but this setting seems to me to more closely honour the poet.

I know what Blake means – the struggle never ends.

MQ. What’s the music business like these days, for working musicians?

CW: The business is brutal, but I think it always has been. That said, I wouldn't want to do anything else. I asked a fellow music biz worker what would he do if he won the Lottery, and he replied ‘exactly what I'm doing now, but ruder! I love what I do but love is, as they say, blind.

If I could click my fingers and make one change I would have loads more women in the business. It's far too blokey. I'm not so much talking about the principal artists but the backing musicians, crew, producers, promoters, mix engineers etc. Whenever I encounter women in these areas of the industry they are not only, of course, highly accomplished but have a hugely positive effect on the men around them.

MQ: How's your current tour, the So Much to Defend Tour, going?

CW: Well, a few years ago the industry decided to make music available, effectively, for free. The public responded wholeheartedly and now we find we have an industry which is, how shall we put this... fluid.

But you still find people talking like nothing has really happened. So an innocent question like, "When's the album out?" actually means – when will we be able to get what you've been pouring your heart, soul and life savings into for the past three years, for free?

This of course is not isolated to musicians. Driving jobs employ the most males in the western world, and yet the driverless car is only about 4/5 years away. Even lawyers, god bless ‘em, are looking over their shoulders as legal search sofware becomes ever more refined.

So the perfectly reasonable question ‘How's the tour going?’ actually translates as something like - now that your recordings are worthless I expect you're playing every gig you can get?

MQ. Finally, in ‘Trespasser’ you lament the Enclosures, the process of privatising and commercialising the commons, which as you say happens with cultural products like music as well as land. So what’s your thinking on what the way forward should be?

CW: It’s a human fault to always feel that the times through which we’re living are somehow special. There’s nothing particular or special about where we are at the moment. All of history’s archetypes are present – the avaricious, the ignorant, the helpless, the blind, the unquestioning, the naive, the cynical, the jaded, the selfish, the acquisitive, the self-righteous and so on.

Personally, I try to vote with my money. I’ve never been in debt to anyone but a building society. I avoid multinationals, I try and source my needs from my community and keep the VAT down to an absolute minimum. The allotment is a massive part of our life.

And of course there’s the songwriting!

Chris Wood is currently on tour, for dates and venues see http://chriswoodmusic.co.uk/gigs/. This is an extended version of an interview published by the Morning Star.

Bread, roses and the cultural commons
Monday, 30 January 2017 15:24

Bread, roses and the cultural commons

Published in Cultural Commentary

‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’ said the aptly named Rose Schneiderman early in the last century. She was right, we all need bread – fair material rewards for our labour – but we also need roses. We need a popular and extensive cultural commons, including free or cheap access to cultural activities, to develop and enjoy our essentially social natures.

The Culture Matters website aims to contribute to the cultural struggle, what Blake called the ‘mental fight’ for a new Jerusalem, for a more democratic and socialist society. The struggle will be long and hard. Over time, capitalism has penetrated our culture more and more. And culture, as Raymond Williams pointed out, is not just highbrow art but consists of all our ideas, values, beliefs and customs, including all the arts but also sport, religion, eating and drinking, watching TV, etc.

It’s true that capitalism’s dynamism and innovation has helped create a massive expansion in opportunities for cultural education and enjoyment. Think of the number of TV and radio channels, books, art galleries, films, music festivals, and sports facilities there are these days. But there is also a relentless drive for profit in capitalism. Every human activity, including art and cultural activity, has to be measured by its contribution to profitability. It is also fundamentally exploitative, as demonstrated in the famous passage of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where the Great Money Trick is explained. This transfer of value from workers to owners is divisive and unjust, so in order to lessen social conflict there has to be an ideological drive to generate a culture of submission and acceptance of exploitation.

Capitalism shapes culture, and culture expresses capitalism, in many different ways. It’s why sport is so commercialised and corrupt, why so much organised religion is so uncritical of exploitation and injustice, why we have TV programmes like The Apprentice glorifying selfishness and ruthless competitiveness, and why the supermarkets encourage a culture of overconsumption of food and drink.

And it’s why we have a huge and long-term problem of unequal funding by the state for the arts in Britain today. The inequalities are of staggering, Dickensian proportions. Vast swathes of the arts and cultural activities are virtually impossible for most ordinary people – particularly poorer people – to access and enjoy, for reasons linked to social class, geography and education.

On top of these structural problems, we’re suffering massive cutbacks to support for arts and cultural activities across the country, particularly outside London and the South East. These are happening through cuts in funding, directly and through cuts in general support for local authorities – particularly in poorer areas. Critical and creative engagement with the arts is also being shunted out of the educational curriculum.

Culture Matters seeks to expose the Great Culture Trick, the shocking inequalities in the way the arts and cultural activities are currently funded and managed. It will also campaign for more progressive policies. Because we know that the arts and cultural activities can resist, oppose and help overcome alienation and oppression. They can increase awareness, arouse indignation, and imagine alternatives. Robert Tressell’s novel is a good example of that potential. But it’s also there in sports clubs, churches, supermarkets and pubs, as well as in art galleries, concert halls and poetry readings.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which triggered one of the most significant, popular artistic and cultural explosions of the twentieth century. Let’s make 2017 the year of campaigning for bread and roses.

If you think you can help with relevant material for this section of the website, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This is an edited version of an article first published in the Morning Star.

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