Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (30)

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

Culture for the many, not the few

Written by

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.

Os Semeadores
Saturday, 14 October 2017 16:38

What Do Marxists Have To Say About Art?

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Richard Clarke introduces some of the main Marxist insights into the nature and value of art, and its links to political and economic realities.

Most Marxists would say that the value of a work of art such as a painting, or the pleasure they get from it - in its original or as a reproduction - is above all else an individual matter, not something that ‘experts’ (Marxist or otherwise) can or should pronounce upon. At the same time experts can enhance that pleasure, for example by explaining the technique and methodology of the composition of a painting. Again, this is no more the exclusive province of a Marxist than (for example) a commentary on the technical skills embodied in the design or manufacture of a washing machine.

However a Marxist approach may help to deepen the appreciation or understanding of an art work by revealing the historical context of its production and the relation of a work of art or of an artist to society. Art, just as any other human activity, is always created within a specific social and historical context, and this will impact on the art work itself. This is why Marxists argue that one can only begin fully to appreciate and understand a work of art by examining it in relation to the conditions of its creation.

Here a fruitful starting point for discussion is a materialist view – looking at the production and consumption of art, the position of artists in relation to different classes, and the conflicts embodied in a work of art and in the history of which it is a part. For example, Ernst Fischer’s seminal essay The Necessity of Art (1959) is a Marxist exposition of the central social function of art, from its origins in magic ritual through organised religion to its varied and contradictory roles within capitalism and its potential in building socialism.

The Marxist art critic John Berger in his Ways of Seeing (a 1972 four-part television series, later adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing) was hailed by many people for helping to deepen their understanding of art. Berger argued that it was impossible to view a reproduction of ‘old masters’ (generally paintings by European artists before 1800) in the way they were seen at the time of their production; that the female nude was an abstraction and distortion of reality, reflecting contemporary male ideals; that an oil painting was often a means of reflecting the status of an artist’s patron; and that contemporary advertising utilises the skills of artists and the latest artistic techniques merely to sell things for consumption in a capitalist market. 

Berger’s work remains controversial and has been revisited many times, particularly since his death in January 2017. Many have argued that he over-simplifies and that he incorporates the deeper perceptions of others such as Walter Benjamin, working at the interface between Marxism and cultural theory. Some have asked (for example) why there is no reference to feminist theorists in Berger’s chapter on the ‘male gaze’. However Berger’s work needs to be seen in context as a polemical response to the ‘great artists’ approach which characterises much establishment art history and ‘art appreciation’ typified by Kenneth Clark’s (1969) Civilisation television series.

What is clear is that cultural expression (art, lower case) is characteristic of all human societies and that while art and society are intimately connected, the former is not merely a passive reflection of the latter. The relationship is a dialectical one. As Marx declared in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘The object of art, like any other product, creates an artistic and beauty-enjoying public. Production thus produces not only an object for the individual, but also an individual for the object’. 

A distinction is often made between the performing arts (including music, theatre, and dance) and the visual arts (such as drawing, painting, photography, film and video). Performing arts are of their nature ephemeral, and as Robert Wyatt, the communist percussionist of the ‘60s psychedelic rock group Soft Machine, declared, ‘different every time’. The performance is the initial product, although it may be recorded, reproduced and subsequently sold.

‘Art’ (as in painting, on canvas) is sometimes presented as the highest point in the development of ‘civilised’ culture. Jean Gimpel, an historian, diamond dealer, and expert in art forgery, attacked the concept of ‘high art’ in his book The Cult of Art (subtitled Against Art and Artists). He argued that the concept of Art - especially oil paintings, on transportable framed canvas - is specifically a product of capitalism, personified in the Florentine artist Giotto ‘the first bourgeois painter’ of the Renaissance and his successors.

Under the patronage of the Medici and other nouveau riche Italian patrician families, the ‘artisan’ workmanship of frescos on church walls or decorated altarpiece was superseded by the movable (and marketable) canvas. In short, it was commodified. ‘People no longer wanted a 'Madonna' or a 'Descent from the Cross' but a Leonardo da Vinci, a Michelangelo or a Bellini.’ The cult of art and the artist was born.

Yet it was not until the eighteenth century that the distinction between ‘artisan’ and ‘artist’ became fixed. Even today people can be heard asking – of everything from the Lascaux cave paintings to some suburban topiary — ‘but is it Art?’ High art of course also produced its supposed antithesis - the artist in his garret (women artists were to a degree excluded from the equation), suffering, sometimes starving in the cause of art unless they are lucky enough to be ‘discovered’, often only after death. With capitalism, for the first time the artist became a ‘free’ artist, a ‘free’ personality, free to the point of absurdity, of icy loneliness. Art became an occupation that was half-romantic, half-commercial.

Dire Straits’ ‘In The Gallery’ is a song about the conversion of use-value (the worth the artist or her audience see in an art work or the pleasure they get from it) into exchange value. Harry is an ex-miner and a sculptor, ‘ignored by all the trendy boys in London’ until after he dies, when, suddenly, he is ‘discovered’ (too late for Harry, of course) – the vultures descend to make profit from his work.

In The Gallery

Don Mclean’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ carries a similar message. The principal difference (beyond the tempo of the songs) is that Harry is politically engaged, very much of this world whereas tormented Vincent (Van Gogh) was ‘out of it’ - unlike his post-impressionist erstwhile friend, Paul Gauguin, who asked his agent what ‘the stupid buying public’ would pay most for and then adjusted his output accordingly.

Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

Irrespective of their recognition or fame, art and artists are frequently presented as apart from, sometimes above, society. For Marxists it is clear that the arts and artists are an integral part of society. In terms of aesthetics and policy however, Marxists would suggest caution - the history of art within socialism is a mixed one. The early flowering of post-revolutionary Soviet avant-garde art is well known. Constructivism strived to put art at the service of the people. The subsequent rise of socialist realism as ‘official’ art was an attempt to make art more accessible (and it existed alongside a flourishing variety of unofficial art forms).

constructivist image

Left: Gustav Klutsis – Workers, Everyone must vote in the Election of Soviets! Right: Russian Propaganda Poster

In the United States modern art was promoted as a weapon in a cultural cold war with the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist realist’ art forms. In the 1950s and 1960s, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Farfield Foundation, and other covers, the CIA secretly promoted the work of American abstract expressionist artists - including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - in order to demonstrate the supposed intellectual freedom and cultural creativity of the US against the ideological conformity of Soviet art.

jackson pollock autumn rhythm number 30

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Even when art is oppositional, capitalism has an uncanny knack of appropriating it. The Royal Academy’s 2017 exhibition of Russian revolutionary art was accompanied by vicious and ignorant curating – presumably to disabuse any who might otherwise have been inspired by the works on display. Banksy’s graffiti, a determinedly uncommercial form of art ‘for the people’ (maybe a modern equivalent of the Lascaux cave paintings?) is now ‘in the gallery’ – decidedly a collector’s item with a price tag to match. Another (dead) graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 depiction of a skull was auctioned in May this year for more than $100 million. Banksy’s own comment on this is conveyed on a wall of the Barbican where a posthumous exhibition of Basquiat’s work runs until January 2018 (admission £16). City of London officials are currently considering whether (and how) this fresh graffiti might be preserved.

banksy tribute jean michel basquiat

Within capitalism, as its crisis deepens, ‘high art’ (provided it is portable, saleable, in a word, alienable) is – next to land and other property – one of the best investments that there is. A recent example is Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, ‘saved’ for the nation in March 2017 at a cost of £4 million, through a fund raising exercise to pay its owner, Diageo. This multinational drinks conglomerate (profits last year £3 billion on net sales of £10.8bn, 15% up on the previous year; CEO Ivan Menezes’ salary £4.4m) graciously agreed to accept just half of the paintings ‘estimated value’ of £8 million. More than half of this money came from the National Lottery - itself sometimes described as a ‘hidden tax on the poor’. 

The Monarch of the Glen Edwin Landseer 1851

Edwin Landseer,The Monarch of the Glen

Gaugin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (‘When Will You Marry’?), painted in 1882 and, like his others, presenting a romanticised view of Tahiti, sold for $300 million in 2015 — just topped by de Kooning’s Interchange the following year. A 24ct gold bracelet, designed by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese ‘dissident’ and ‘champion of democracy’, inspired by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (the deadliest earthquake ever, 90,000 dead, between 5 and 11 million homeless) sells for a modest £45,500 from Elisabetta Cipriani, (ElisabettaCipriani). The majority of artists and their artworks of course, never reach such dizzy heights.

The role of the artist in society remains a controversial subject. In the meantime it is clear that art and artists can and do play a vital role and that artistic freedom and license are crucial. Perhaps a good model is that followed in the former Yugoslavia and other socialist countries (as today in Cuba). Artists were not paid or employed as such by the state, although the arts in general were and are given generous state support. As in capitalist countries artists had to make their living through commissions, though these would be more likely to come from community associations, trades unions, local councils and the like, rather than from wealthy patrons or investors. Many would have to supplement their incomes by teaching, or by doing other jobs. But their social position was recognised and their social security contributions were paid so that on ill-health or retirement they would not suffer.

In both the appreciation, understanding and, indeed, production of art, and whether you love or loathe his own designs, one assertion that all socialists would surely agree with is that of the communist William Morris, who declared ‘I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few...’, (Hopes and fears for art). What is certain is that art - of all types - can enrich our lives. It can also be galvanising, a force for social progress. But it is also clear that art that is subject to capitalist market forces involves a chronic distortion of the artistic product and process in which art works are valued for their price tag rather than their intrinsic quality. A Marxist approach can deepen our understanding of art provided that we avoid dogmatism and accept that this is an area of debate - one to which we can all contribute.

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Morning Star on 14 August 2017.

 

Postcard from Theresamayienstadt
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 22 August 2017 20:02

Postcard from Theresamayienstadt

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Marc Nash issues a provocation to all the arts communities - artists, performers, authors, poets, dramatists, film directors, and empty emptors. They have all settled cheaply, and become enervated.

Behind the unbarbed wire upon which vellum, parchment and ink lay drying, an unplugged quartet of guitar, double bass, tom-tom and vocalist gave a recital. With all the mechanical passion of the figures striking the hour on Prague’s Anatomical Clock. Marking time. Beating time. Passing time. Killing time. The youthful rebellion and insurgent energies of rock and roll now contained by executive moguls and derisive Svengalis, with the volume turned down so as not to wake the ghetto Kinder. There is no whiff of any kulturkampf within the palings of the UK’s culture camp.

The stand up comedians are to be found sitting down, before the Pathétique cine cameras that serve the internment with a lensed record of the entertainment within its walls. Participating in panel quizzes conflating news with comedy and comedy with news. Placing the emphases in the wrong places for laughs. Save for certain of their Celtic brethren who still rail through microphones. For they know who they are at least. Standing in opposition to the majority tribe in the penal colony, a different coloured badge sewn into their stripey pyjamas. And in between the panel shows, when the mirthsters do perform live, they celebrate shared dispositions with their audience. Comedy (not humour) drawn from spotlighting quotidian quirks. Captive audience recognition, sagely sitting on their hands in canny agreement, affirming how uncanny détentional life is.

In the next barrack block along, conceptual artists working with materials found around the camp, such as elephant dung, condemned houses, unkempt beds, dead sharks and diamonds. The children of the artists’ colony are asked to stick their hands in paint and then press their palms up to the wall to render an image of Camp Commandant Savile. What other choice do they have? In the inceptive Theresienstadt, a painter who refused to paint a portrait of the ghetto’s doctor was shipped off to an extermination camp. The art produced here is beyond the reach of all bar the Kapos’ patronage. Instead it is displayed in museums and galleries, for empty emptors to ogle. Passively queuing round the shower block, as if waiting for a glimpse of cadavers lying in state. Coffin art. Coffer art.

The dancers at least were pushing the boundaries of their confined bodies, a sub-rosa escape committee. But since their language was abstruse and non-lingual, no one could understand the urgent messages their bodies were conveying. They weren’t seen around the camp very often. It was presumed they were underground, quarrying a breakout tunnel. Leaving the above ground stage clear, for serving up ballroom peacock mating displays accompanied only by Grub St. pecking personal narratives.

Dramatists put on performances for the inmates in cold concrete 1960s monoliths. Plays that are a tourist version of Albion. Period pieces. Museum GB pickled in aspic. Revival Britain, when sleeping dogs should be let lie. Or shot. Oooh we’re staging Romeo and Juliet in 1950s seaside Margate, with the Montagues as Mods, the Capulets as Rockers and we’ll have Lambrettas and Vespas, Triumphs and Nortons on stage at the end of the pier show. On ice. Any playwright worth their sea salt, ups and leaves this barracks for the privileges of the log-burning studios in the film and television production blocks. Where the stamp of ‘funded by the UK Film Council’ in the opening credits, reflexively causes audiences’ heads to drop in anticipation of inevitable disappointment and defeat.

And then the largest bloc of all, the authors and poets. Of which I am one, according to my camp tattoo, number 202,500. In a world of propaganda, post-truth and fake news, what better gladiators to duel with the concept of truth than us fiction writers? For we supposedly apprehend the relationship of fiction to reality. Our screeds billowing among the untended weeds growing between the stakes, are far stronger a restraint than any Krupp razor wire. The flimsy fences are actually constructed from market forces. The watchtowers are unmanned, the panopticon formed by a reticence to rock the boat. To startle the horses. To cause offence. Fence without offence. An off fence. Unelectrified and unelectrifying. Therefore the writers were penning themselves in. Those who wrote escapist yarns and those who gazed at their navels trying to extract precisely where they extracted from. For the former fail to ask themselves, why life is such that one needs an unending diet of escapism in order to continually veer away from it (as they too dream of a better life in the television and film bunker)? For the latter, nothing wrong with examining the dimensions and hue of the camp badge worn over one’s heart, except they overlook the rest of the rep of their striped pyjamas shared by every inmate in here. Atomising art both. Making wraiths of us all. Ghostwriters with their primaries in absentia.

There are no guards in Theresamayienstadt. No censors. The inmates at the Czech Theresienstadt couldn’t see beyond the walls, so they wrote poems and painted pictures of their lives inside the ghetto. Our artists can freely view outside the fenceposts of their hipster ghetto, yet they abjure depicting the scenes beyond the gossamer chicken wire. Staring them in their averted faces, the privations and assaults on the non-combatants. Whereas the Red Cross visited the Czech Theresienestadt and deemed it satisfactory, in our time they have proclaimed the National Health Service as being on the point of representing a humanitarian disaster. Where was the protest of any of this? From artists who had meekly accepted the commodification and profit accountability of their own professions back in the 1980s. The erection of the cash nexus stringers and pickets behind which they currently labour. Or from creatives who had politics conferred on them in the 1990s, when they took tea at Number Ten and were thanked for endowing Cool Britannia.

Where even are the triumphalist artists of now? Those who have secured their political and cultural revolution, where is any celebration of the fact of their vision in art? Where are erected any monumental architecture, giant statues, the huge canvases and murals? Nowhere that’s where. Not because they are all philistines. Some are barbarians. They do possess a modicum of an expressionistic form of their own. A folk art of Union Jacks, bulldogs and silhouettes of some of their country folk framed as no-entry signs. Tea cosies and towels. Tattoos and T-shirt designs. Commemorative pottery. The occasional spitefuelled comedian who never gets invited on to the same bills as the rest of the recumbent stand ups resisting on their laurels.

And so our artists willingly present picture postcard images. ‘Love from Theresamayienstadt UK’. ‘Wish you were here’. That all is right with the world in the thousand year obscurantist Reich. Our lords and masters nod, satisfied at their dolls’ house and count the export dollars and tourist roubles it generates. We fail to appreciate our own power. For we have Stockholm Syndromed ourselves. We don’t even have to break through the palisades, we could just walk through without any snagging of our corduroy.

I saw the best minds of my generation, and they had settled cheaply and become enervated.

Summer reading for a radical revival
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 09 August 2017 14:52

Summer reading for a radical revival

Written by

Mark Perryman recommends some radical summer reading, to help us grapple with interesting times.

The audacity of hope versus the mendacity of the weak ’n wobbly. 20 years ago it took until the early hours before that ‘were you still up for Portillo?’ moment established the sheer scale of the Tories’ meltdown. Two decades on this was different. Firstly, the indicator, the exit poll, came a whole lot earlier, leaving viewers with hour after hour of ‘surprise’ results to look forward to. Secondly, Labour’s triumph, despite missing the overall majority, was both unexpected by the mainstream media and clearly based on a radical appeal. 

Of course nothing stands still in politics. Yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s consensus while new issues arise to challenge us to change pre-ordained positions. Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth were both published prior to 8th June – now they are both required summer reading for Labour politicians and activists who might mistakenly believe that ‘one more heave’ will be sufficient to dislodge the Tories and effect progressive change.

Naomi Klein’s latest, No Is Not Enough sets the necessity for an evolving, always more radical, project in the context of how being against things is never, ever, sufficient – we need to be for something, too.  This is one of our brightest thinkers, writing at her very best.

Rules for Revolutionaries has a similar US bias to Naomi’s book, but is no less necessary to read. Co-authors Becky Bond and Zack Exley draw lessons – what they call ‘big organising’ – from their hands-on experience in the Bernie Sanders campaign. No serious Labour activist can afford to ignore these lessons if a decent second place in the key 66 marginals is to be turned into a runaway victory next time.

MP Thatcherite Offensive cover

The Thatcherite Offensive by Alexander Gallas is an important new contribution from an older perspective – the work of Nicos Poulantzas – towards an analysis of an era most of us would prefer to forget. Taking an admirably internationalist look at the  potential to challenge neoliberalism, the edited collection The Left, the people, populism ranges over a wide range of subjects and European countries, a vital antidote to the parochialism of the English Left.   

Of course such inwardness does get punctured from time to time, recently the #blacklivesmatter movement in the USA has been one such source of inspiration. Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All is the riveting tale of how this movement exploded on the US political terrain and helped begin to shift the boundaries worldwide of debates on race, class and policing to good effect. 

Jess Phillips is best known perhaps for her explosive interventions to burst the Westminster Bubble. Too easily pigeon-holed simply as an arch anti-Corbynite, her book Everywoman reveals instead a grassroots activist-feminist turned MP who more than anything else wants to upset the status quo, whoever or whatever is defending it.

Jamie Bartlett would certainly recognise the necessity of such an opening-up. In Radicals he provides a hugely original account of how outsiders across the globe, not easily placed on the traditional left to right spectrum, are forcing changes on the mainstream.

Leon Rosselson’s short memoir That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority provides a sense of one such source of this radicalism, an important rejoinder to the current febrile debate over what is, and is not, anti-semitic.  But of course outsiders, radicals, can originate from all variety of sources. The English Defence League for a period posed a real challenge to what it was assumed were settled notions of a multicultural and diverse society, fomenting an unapologetic racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration into a street-fighting weekend army.  Loud and Proud by Hilary Pilkington, is a vital study of the EDL in preparation for any revival of a similar type of movement.    

In contrast what might frame an enduring revival on our side? Most would argue that this will depend on the continuing popularisation of the anti-austerity message. Few books will do this better than Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Dismembered, a fact-filled polemical description of the scale and depth of our public services’ starvation of resources.

Housing was a hugely important issue to many of the millennials who cast their vote in such numbers for Corbyn. Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj combines an analysis of the growth of the private rental market and alternatives which would put the needs of tenants first and the profit margins of greedy landlords second. 

There is nothing worse than failing to look back to the past for lessons for today’s and tomorrow’s Left.  Unfortunately, looking to the past often becomes a recipe of being trapped by yesteryear’s models. Don Watson’s Squatting in Britain 1945-1955 is a textbook avoidance of that trait, and it also deserves a wide reading post-Grenfell. Another book useful for those reflecting on Grenfell is Justice Denied, a powerful reminder that righting wrongs is never anything less than a battle – Orgreave and Hillsborough are more than enough testament to that.

MP SwordsInTheHandsOfChildren CVF 1

Gregor Gall’s Bob Crow, Socialist, Leader, Fighter is described as a ‘political biography’ which neatly sums up its appeal. The story of not just a forceful personality who fought his way to the top of his trade union, but the values he sought to protect and promote via the campaigns he helped lead. A very different story is Jonathan Lerner’s autobiographical Swords in the Hands of Children . This is the era of ’68, all that hope, liberation and revolt and when all of that came to nothing, the self-destruction that came next.

Twentieth Century Communism is an uncanny read for those interested in rediscovering the range, content and meaning of perhaps the most important radical tradition of the past century. The latest edition is a special issue dedicated to the literature of communism.

But of course it is 1917 which is attracting the most attention in the Russian Revolution’s centenary year. The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali is not a hagiography, yet the message of the enduring case for revolution shines through, whatever the changes in circumstances. 

MP thumbnail dave sherry 51 37 24 19

For a short and very readable account of the movements that produced the Russian Revolution, read Dave Sherry’s Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed.  Written with a style few other authors would even attempt to match, October by China Miéville is novel, yet politically compelling, a book to appeal to those who remain drawn to the romance of the revolutionary ideal.

For an insight into the culture the Revolution helped produce and then propel on to a world stage 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dalyuk, is the perfect accompaniment.

Over the decades a culture of resistance has taken many forms, the latest #grime4corbyn being too recent to have very much written about it yet. Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps trace the English tradition of folk music in their book Performing Englishness. Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers is a magnificent account of skiffle which along the way Billy claims helped change the world.

MP Punk

Two books that cover more recent collisions of music and politics are Fightback: Punk, Politics and Resistance edited by The Subcultures Network, and the collection edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher called Post Punk: Then and Now. Dave Randall’s Sound System: The Political Power of Music is an unforgiving call to guitars, drums, keyboards, sax, by any instruments necessary to change the world. 

Of course no summer would be complete without the joys of salads, picnics, barbecues with ice-cold chilled drinks on the side. Be overwhelmed with ideas to sparkle the appetite – and without a sniff of meat in sight – in Sam Murphy’s superb Beautifully Real Food.

MP Mike Rosen

And the other treat no summer would be complete without is of course a decent thriller. Chris Brookmyre’s latest Want You Gone certainly won’t disappoint with his customary mix of dramatic plot turns, rich humour and tartan noir. Nor should the grown-ups be allowed to have all the reading fun either. Michael Rosen’s latest creation, Uncle Gobb, reappears in  Uncle Gobb and the Green Heads, hours of fun for young readers. Adults can ponder if this Gobb character is really the living embodiment of the marketisation of our chidren’s education.

Making sense of 2017’s political surprises requires both an understanding of the present and the ability to connect this to a theoretical framework. The reissue of Perry Anderson’ s  The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci with a very substantial new preface is a superb sign post towards such an intellectual journey. Unarguably the most significant populariser of Gramsci, and one of the founders of the modern academic discipline of Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall, has been treated to a recent spate of well-deserved books of late. His partial autobiography Familiar Stranger has been published posthumously with the help of his long-time collaborator Bill Schwarz.  

David Scott’s Stuart Hall’s Voice consists of a wonderfully original format, a series of letters written to Hall after his death exploring the significance of his legacy to so many contemporary intellectuals who remain enthralled by his influence. And Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, edited by Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, is also relevant and more than welcome.

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And it is Stuart Hall who post-election provides us with our book of the summer too. Wherever we spend the summer relaxing and recovering, the collection Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and other Political Essays is both a timely and enjoyable read.

Both as a speaker and on the page, Stuart Hall brought the analysis of politics alive in a way which is sorely missed in 2017. These essays show a sharpness of intellect and a warm embrace of marxist analysis that are a positive joy to read.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. His own book, the edited collection The Corbyn Effect is out from Lawrence & Wishart in mid September.

Neoliberalism and Austerity
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 07 August 2017 17:53

Art for and by the many, not the few

Written by

Phil Brett shows how art has often been about power and prestige, argues that art should be not only for but by the many.

The history of Western art has been dominated by artworks created for and by the few. Paintings and sculpture have been associated with power and privilege. In the twenty first century, liberal capitalist democracies may have tinkered around with that fact, but essentially it is still true. 

Leon Trotsky wrote, "Every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art." This can be seen throughout history, from ancient times to the present leaders have liked to have statues, friezes and buildings to show their own glory. Rulers have always loved having their images captured for eternity. There are many examples, like Titian painting the Hapsburgs, oor Henry VIII appointing Hans Holbein the Younger, as the English King's Painter, whose iconic 1536 portrait depicts a powerful and athletic king. Even today, the paintings of Prime Ministers line the staircase of 10 Downing Street, and if the reigning monarch's portrait is being painted, it always makes the 10 o'clock news. Though, with no disrespect for the artists involved, we're not talking Holbeins or Titians here.

Battles have often been a popular subject for the rulers to use art as propaganda. They meant pain and agony for the poor folk actually involved in the fighting, but victory in them gave the rulers added authority and legitimacy. Two examples will suffice: Maria de'Medici commissioning Pieter Paul Rubens to paint a series of paintings depicting her dead husband's (French king Henry IV) victorious battles. In World War I, the Government wanted painters such as Paul Nash and Percy Wyndham Lewis to promote the cause of Britain. Whether their stunning depictions on the horror of trench warfare do so, is open for debate, because good art often exposes the truth and questions dominant ideologies - something the ruling class find troubling.

Even with religious painting, power and prestige are there. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may be a stunning tribute to the glory of God, but it was also for the glory of Pope Julius II. Sometimes, the link is far from subtle. The Medici family were an example of a new class of people, powerful financiers, who used art to help the status of Florence (and themselves). In many paintings they had themselves painted in. In Sandro Botticelli's 1475 painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Medici family are actually the Magi. Keen takers of selfies should take note, that's quite a high bar to beat.

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Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi.

It hasn't always been monarchs and God. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Gainsborough painted the landed gentry, keen to show off their fine clothes, homes and grounds, demonstrating their position and class power for all to see.

Governments of the twentieth century were aware of the power of art. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led to many artists, such as Chagall and Malevich flocking to its support. Many in the early Soviet regime embraced the avant-garde (October 1917 - the spark for great art). However, it did not see its role as to pitch one school against another. Both Lenin and Trotsky argued for the relative autonomy of art and artists, although in practice there was significant state sponsorship, support and influence over art and culture. A fundamental change occurred in the late Twenties and Thirties, with the art of ‘socialist realism’, designed to promote the Soviet model of socialism. In an ironic twist, in the late 1940s, the CIA promoted and funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions - unknown to the artists themselves - to show just how free and exciting the USA was compared to Soviet Russia.

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Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

In the private sector, profit joined prestige and power in the mix, leading to the rise of the collector/dealer. The names of Frick, Guggenheim and Sainsbury are familiar names of galleries. There are others such as Benjamin Altman, with his collection in the New York Metropolitan and Joseph Duveen, who made a fortune from art. Controversies about tax avoidance or the authenticity of paintings he sold did not stop him becoming a Lord and having a gallery named after him in Tate Britain.

This group of people may not have their names on the credits on the paintings we see, but they were very influential in modern art. With eyes and wallets focussed on the market, they helped the growth of isms, serving as brand names to help the sales. One such dealer was Ernest Gambert, the influential art dealer for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti nicknamed him 'Gamble-art' for his interference and keenness for the artists to paint in the Pre-Raphaelite style.  He once argued with John Everett Millais that the horse’s head was too large in his 1857 painting A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford.

Picasso's paintings from his Blue Period stayed in his studio for years because influential art dealer Ambrose Vollard dismissed them as being unsuitable for the wealthy buyers, with their depictions of beggars and street urchins. The few may have got slightly larger than in Holbein's time, but it was still only a tiny minority who could see, let alone own, such art. Ownership conferred status and privilege - and of course profit to the dealer.

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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The art world started to balloon in size, after the war. In 1955, Fortune magazine advised its readers to look to art as an investment, suggesting  De Kooning, Pollack and Rothko as good to start with, being between $500 and $3500 each (they're worth a whole lot more now). Today, the art market (not including the illegal sector, which Interpol have in their top five financial crimes) has been estimated as worth a cool $63.8 billion. In 2015, the UK accounted for 21% of this (behind the USA with 43% and ahead of China with 19%). A growth which has given people like Charles Saatchi enormous influence (and a few bob too).

Alongside the private collections, and following the Enlightenment, public museums began to emerge. The rich would have a monopoly of owning art but the common folk could be allowed limited access to gaze gratefully at masterpieces. As the art critic John Berger said: "Anyone who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity".

Museums may have grown very popular but there is still a separation of art and the majority. How many times have we heard people say, "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like"? Is that not an obvious defensive comment of a (usually) working class person, isolated from art and made to feel inferior to it?

But one might say, are not art galleries more popular than ever?  In the 2017 list of Britain's most popular twenty attractions for the previous year, the National Gallery was at number 2; the Tate Modern at number 3; the National Portrait Gallery at number 11, with the Scottish National Gallery ay number 18. That's a total of 15.59 million visitors, without even considering adding the Royal Academy or Tate Britain or the hundreds of other private and public galleries. That's a lot of people straining to see the pictures.

However, all is not as egalitarian as it seems. There has been much criticism that the artworks on show are from a small (often white and male) clique. For black artists it was for a long time impossible to be shown. Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture said, "The ghetto is the gallery for the revolutionary artist". Graffiti artists continue that tradition.

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The Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist artists who confronted the sexism of the art world, estimated in 1989 that 5% of the Metropolitan Museum were by women whilst 85% of the nudes were women.

Curators might argue that there have been some attempts to address this, but the fact is that the people running them are still from a narrow social base. Look at the patrons of the Royal Academy and you'll see lord and ladies, with the common person occasionally represented by the likes of Stephen Fry.

The influence of the private art world ,with such figures as Saatchi in public galleries should not be underestimated. With the costs of art rocketing, most of the public galleries cannot compete, they feel that they have do deals with the private world. The Tate receives 70% of funding from non-Governmental sources. Public galleries have found one way to compensate this by getting sponsorship from big business. The Victoria and Albert exhibition of You Say You Want a Revolution included sponsors such as Levis, and the Royal Academy show Abstract Expressionism boasted the sponsor: 'BNP Paribas: The bank for a changing world'.

If that isn't ironic enough, then consider that one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 was the Blavatnik Foundation. Its founder, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, may not be that well know, but he perhaps should be. In 2015 he was named as Britain's richest man, worth an estimated £17.1 billion. It is perhaps a brief look at his history: 1978, he emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. He built an international conglomerate, which entered the commercial stratosphere, when it made billions after the collapse of the Soviet Union from the petrochemicals and oil industries. Considering that many people were unhappy at the political impartiality of the exhibition - see Great Art, Shame about the Curating - one can legitimately ask how much influence, direct or otherwise, did the foundation have on the exhibition. See also Corruption of Art and Culture.

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Poster advertising V. and A. exhibition - and its sponsors

So why do these multinationals get involved? The answer is from our old friends, power and prestige. Those attendance figures of galleries means that they are now goldmines for tourism. Bilbao used the Guggenheim Gallery, opening in 1997, to regenerate the area. It worked. One survey found 80% of the visitors at the airport had arrived to visit it. Big money then, which cannot but affect the direction of the museum - not only the acquisition policy but its display. In 2011, a BBC Freedom of Information request found that the Tate only shows 20% of its permanent collection. To be fair, that contrasts well with the international average of 5%. The removal of art has been termed, "deaccessioning". It is estimated that MoMA has thirty Picasso paintings 'deaccessioned'. Galleries are as much like banks, storing valuable assets, as museums to entertain, educate and interest people.

Curators wield considerable influence on cultural and art policy. So John Berger's view that, "as a professional group, their character is patronising, snobbish and lazy" should cause us to worry. Certainly, Royal Academy show on the art of Russian Revolution with its lack of historical and indeed artistic understanding, would give some credence to such an accusation. The concern being that, even in the twenty first century, curators, gallery directors and critics all seem to come from a very narrow social base.

In recent months, articles in the Guardian, the Morning Star, and various other professional periodicals as well as in the social media, have discussed the whole issue of the running and funding of arts. The Government body with overall responsibility for the arts is the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who in turn fund and oversee Arts Council England (ACE). ACE gets its funding partly directly from the Government and partly from the National Lottery. This is public money and there has been a concern that essentially it is still art for a few, by a few – but with the many paying for it.

Laura Barton, feature writer of the Guardian, raised concerns that 85% of ACE funding for music goes to classical and opera. A growing number of people have attacked the National Portfolio (basically the list of organisations which ACE funds) as being London-centric, biased against the working class, being too focussed on middle class taste and not diverse enough, e.g. in terms of gender and ethnic background. The balance between community and premier league art establishments leans towards the latter. ACE is institutionally biased towards the middle classes who see arts management as a good career path. Worries have been expressed just how transparent the decision process is, with the issue of a £2 million grant being given to as yet unformed theatre company, whose director appears to have links to senior figures of ACE.

With the Government policy of austerity, money (for some areas) is tight. So such uses of public money are legitimate ones to raise and socialists should do so. However, the Tories use this as cover to attack the very status of art. In the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto did have a few words about the importance of art but set beside the fact that in the last five years money spent on the arts has been cut by £165million, they don't really amount to much.

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Simon Wren-Lewis: Neoliberalism and Austerity

Tom Watson rightly states that, "Lottery money is plugging holes where Government funding has been cut". Tories will argue that hospitals and schools matter more than galleries (whilst cutting these in any case). Of course, money can be found when they want to: £7 billion for the Parliament refurbishment or £370 million for Buckingham Palace, for example. What they really mean is that art is for them, not us – for the few, not the many.

Here’s John Berger again: "the fundamental division between the initiated and the uninitiated, the loving and the indifferent, the minority and the majority has remained as rigid as ever." This is especially true in education. In primary schools, especially in working class areas, a major concern are the SATs results, which in turn lead to league tables. Failure to meet the school's targets set could lead to failing OFSTED and thus academisation. Fundamentally, even with some tokenistic nods towards child happiness and creativity, Government policy is all about reading, writing and maths (and mechanical versions of them at that). The squeeze is being put on the arts.

The same is true in secondary schools, with the focus on the EBacc, when students achieve Grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, a science and a language. If budgets are tight because of education cuts, the curriculum is narrowed, with subjects dropped, and the arts get squeezed out of the curriculum. Ditto in further education and university.  And of course, with tuition fees, the chances for working class students to attend university or art college are narrowing. Whatever the Tory manifesto might say, the policy is that we proles just don't understand, or need to understand, the arts.

As a result the social base of the artists is narrowing. To an extent the artist, certainly the successful one, has always come from a particular stratum of society. One of Britain's greatest artists, Turner, faced snobbery from his fellow Royal Academians because of his lowly birth. Damien Hirst is from a working class background but he is now in a very different world. His latest exhibition, in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is impressive. I was lucky enough to visit it and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I note that it cost Hirst personally £50 million to create it; not many artists could do that! 

All gloomy then? Well, not quite. It is heartening that Jeremy Corbyn has launched a comprehensive arts policy, with a number of excellent initiatives which includes introducing an £160 million arts pupil premium, which would "support cultural activities in schools". Scholarships would be introduced. They would also "consider demands of those working to maintain our public museums to challenge corporate influence".  The policy also promises to 'consider' including an art element in EBacc.

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Labour Policy for Art: http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/arts

The policy is a good starting point art moving away  from the few to the many. I think that any Corbyn Government should be bold. There does not have to be a choice between galleries or schools, museums or hospitals. Whatever indicator you use, Britain is always in the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. Britain can afford galleries and schools, museums and hospitals.

The choice in reality is tax cuts for the rich, or galleries, hospitals, and schools for the many. A Corbyn government can challenge the notion of art as a luxury just a for a few. He has committed to scrapping tuition fees - good. But there should also be a commitment to scrapping SATS, EBacc and league tables, to create a freedom to learn. Pump funding into education so the widest possible curriculum is offered, from the nursery to university and evening classes. Be totally upfront that art is important, it can enrich and change lives.

Labour could involve the public in decision making more. Not just in making ACE more transparent but also why not make regeneration projects, really that, regeneration and not just social cleansing? In areas such as the North East, housing could be built, with input from local residents, deciding on what they need and want. There are plenty of vacant industrial buildings - why not renovate them alongside the new homes and use the stored art collections of the Tate, RA, National and Imperial War Museum (which has over 200,000 paintings, most, yep, hidden away!) to create new wonderful galleries? Let's 'accession' them! After all, they are ours. Ask people what sort of gallery they would like. New schools and hospitals? Get local artists and community groups to decorate them. That is what an art policy for a Government should be: to fund, facilitate and support. It does not need to be prescriptive, we don't need instructions.

That would be a great start, it would be an arts policy which could help transform this country, creating a place for people to live in. I am a revolutionary socialist, and believe that people's creativity will only be allowed to fully blossom in a class-less society. Whilst we live in a capitalist society we shall still have the haves and have nots – those with power and those without. It is difficult to be creative when you are working long hours, paying the bills and looking after the kids. In a socialist society, in the words of Trotsky, "The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

In other words - art for, and by, the many.

Provocations for a Culture Strategy
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 29 June 2017 07:28

Provocations for a Culture Strategy

Written by

Harry Giles contributes his ideas on Scottish arts and culture policy.

For reasons opaque to me, I was invited to a Scottish Government workshop on Culture Strategy recently. It gave me an occasion to write down some thoughts on how the arts are and could be funded. What follows are some poorly-thought-through provocations for arts funding policy.

SOME MAJOR PROBLEMS FOR ARTS FUNDING

1) Most artists I know cannot make a living wage from their work. The younger they are, the more likely they are to be indebted, precariously-employed, and private renters, unable to access the social and economic capital of previous generations. Whereas previous generations of artists were to some degree subsidised by unemployment and other benefits, these routes have been cut off to most. This has a knock-on effect on diversity, as racialised and other minoritised people are even less likely to access support for their work economically, and face other social barriers as well. The result is an arts scene dominated by middle- and upper-class white people, still, at all levels of production and management, but increasingly-so further up the hierarchy.

2) This means in turn that marginalised voices are tokenized and put into their own boxes: the queer artist is only able to get paid to make art about being queer, for example, or the organisation that does good accessibility work is shunted from the “Performance” panel to the “Diversity” panel (this happened to one of mine). Marginalised voices are more likely to have to rely on crowdfunding, self-exploitation, non-arts jobs and so on in order to make the work they want to make.

3) Publicly-funded arts do not command mass public support. We are luvvies. We are seen as an indulgence. Not enough people see the link between publicly-funded arts, community and education arts, and private sector arts (e.g. an actor in a West End musical may make most of their money in the public sector; a school poetry workshop is only possible thanks to a public support infrastructure). Some of the blame for this must lie in which arts are funded: arts enjoyed broadly by richer people, such as opera and ballet, get the most funding support, whereas arts enjoyed broadly by poorer people, such as hiphop and videogames, get the least public support and are expected to survive in the commercial sector alone. The result is that when public spending cuts come the arts are often the first to go and the worst punished.

4) Arts organisations are riven by multiple economic inequalities. The gap between the wage earned by the Artistic Director of a national theatre and that earned by an actor in that theatre is shameful. Those in administration and management have the most stable jobs and wages, while those actually making art have the least access to jobs and stability, with producers somewhere in the middle. That is, the arts model the inequalities of the wider employment sector, with executives consolidating their power, trickling up wages to the top, and exploiting the labour of those who actually make the commodity. This is also linked to and runs through the problems of points one and two, meaning that those marginalised by factors like disability and race are also hit by these inequalities.

5) There is no clear understanding of or approach to the gradients between “professional” and “amateur” arts. Far more people want to be involved in the arts than can currently find employment in the arts. Submitting your art to a wage-relation also destroys the pleasure of art for some. By necessity or choice, there is a large unpaid arts sector, from community drama groups to volunteer orchestras. This is a vital part of cultural life, but who has access to capital to support that culture is shaped by all the factors previously discussed: the more marginal your voice, the more likely your art will be seen as amateur and undeserving of support. It also creates a greyzone for all artists: as one moves from amateur to professional, because there is no formal apprenticeship (even arts qualifications usually do not lead to immediate employment), one takes on many free and underpaid gigs, and institutions are liable to exploit this to sell art and undercut wages. Support for “community” and “professional” arts is intertwined in fact but not in practice.

6) The ability to earn a living as an artist depends on a number of skills and capacities entirely unrelated to artistic ability, e.g. networking, application-writing, volunteering availability, interview technique, &c. These skills are also distributed along vectors of marginalisation, reinforcing social hierarchies. In particular, public funding is closed off to independent artists who cannot speak the language of funders and write a funding application; at present, support for them is mostly available through other freelance artists lending help. Meanwhile, full-time organisations often employ fundraising officers to help them access both public and private funds. The result, again, is that power and capital consolidate to themselves: it’s easier to get money if you have money, and the cycle continues.

7) In Scotland, and most of all in Edinburgh, the festival model dominates the arts. In this model, employment for artists and art for audiences is made available only seasonally in order to concentrate a marketing push. In some cases, festivals market themselves as an opportunity artists must pay to be part of. As a result, the precaritisation of the arts, and the ability of landlords and financiers to be parasitic on the labour of artists to the point of emptying it entirely of wages, is deepened, while the ability to create year-round arts institutions and community-embedded arts practice is weakened. Moreover, the arts become a special thing that happens in a specific place and time, rather than something threaded through life.

8) We don’t know what arts funding is for. Is it to support art that cannot survive in the commercial market?–To make the art that doesn’t sell? Is it to enure artists can make a living? Is it to diversify the cultural scene?–To enable anyone from any background to access any artform, as artist or audience? Is it to strengthen the sustainability and economic potential of the Creative Industries? –To invest for a greater return? Because these different and sometimes mutually-exclusive aims are muddled together, we have a muddled and directionless approach to arts funding.

SOME IDEAS WHICH ARE NOT SOLUTIONS BUT MIGHT HELP FIND SOME

1) Artists’ unions to negotiate pay rates with funding bodies, and funding bodies to refuse funding to any organisation which does not meet those rates at every level.

2) Arts executive pay for funded organisations to be capped at a 3:1 ratio to that of the lowest-paid worker (including maintenance staff).

3) For every administrator or producer employed by a funded organisation, an artist must also be given a full-time job making art. Alternatively, funded bodies must dedicate at least 50% of their annual budget directly to artists.

4) Professional and community arts to be managed by the same public agency, with a ratio of funding to be determined following research (but 50:50 seems like a good one to aim for to me). That is, for every £1 spend employing someone within a professional arts organisation (i.e. one that employs artists), £1 is given in to a community arts organisation (i.e. one that provides free/supercheap access to creative activities).

5) Funding bodies to have explicit policies to favour workers’ co-operatives, i.e. arts organisations which are owned and democratically-managed by their workers. At least, as an interim stage, funding bodies to support the development of workers’ co-operatives through training, starting with their own staff.

6) Artists’ unions to establish new closed shop venues and publishers, &c., or to negotiate with existing organisations to establish closed shops, where only union members can work and pay and benefits are fixed.

7) Funded organisations to meet robust diversity quotas for employees, artists and audiences or face defunding. Quotas should be in excess of demographic proportions..

8) Funding bodies to make at least a third of their funds small grants (£1-5k) directly available to artists, with ultra-low entry requirements and monitoring. The “failure” of many of these grants to be accepted and celebrated.

9) Governments to invest in rent-free housing available to artists on application with ultra-low entry requirements.

10) Government-backed arts apprenticeships established, whereby one works at subsidised wages for 1-3 years learning acting or marketing with a guaranteed job at the end of it.

11) Any funding officer in a publicly-funded organisation is seconded for 25% of their time to an organisation any freelance artist can access to help write their funding applications.

12) Arts organisations and non-governmental funders to have an explicit policy of campaigning for unemployment, disability and other social benefits, in recognitionn that these are a crucial form of arts subsidy.

13) No festivals.

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This article first appeared in Bella Caledonia, http://bellacaledonia.org.uk

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times
Thursday, 22 June 2017 20:13

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times

Written by

Sandy Grant proposes that in times like these, it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all. Her article is followed by a poem by Chris Norris.

‘Tell us that line again, the thing about the dark times’. So begins the most recent of many ‘dark times’ poems written since Bertolt Brecht uttered the words. His poem ‘To Those Born Later’ was written from exile during the early years of the Third Reich. And he used the metaphor ‘dark times’ to evoke a problem about speaking when obscuring language abounds. It is a language that conceals, and by which people acquiesce in injustice. And it need not be by lies, but also by the mundane ways of talking used in everyday life. ‘Dark times’ subsequently became a recurring metaphor. But what does a poet do by using it?

This latest use of the phrase comes from Marilyn Hacker in ‘Ghazal: The Dark Times’, but a month ago. She begins as though recounting a familiar tale, repeating the now customary recourse to such speech at times like these. But nothing about the poem comes off as reassuring. Indeed there is a bitter ennui to it. Perhaps you can hear it in her recognition of some stolid, time-worn figures of speech:

The traditional fears, the habitual tropes of exclusion

Like ominous menhirs, close into their ring about the dark times

Like ‘menhirs’, which are standing-stones, the idiom of the past returns to the fore.  But it is almost as though the words ‘dark times’ might be impotent, become exhausted in their iteration down the years.

This alone is worthy of notice, for poets are those alert to the complacent use of words. What then of these ones? For even the most pithy of phrases can become platitudes, bandied about until dull and spoken heedlessly. ‘Dark times’ could be one such, a worn-out metaphor. So can these words, ‘dark times’, still do something amid the obscuring language of our day?

The question invites us to consider what kind of speech acts poems accomplish. This is to propose that poetic speech is ‘performative’, that the poet utters words by which she does something. And it is to take on the philosopher J.L. Austin. In How to Do Things with Words he notoriously claimed that poetry cannot be ‘serious.’ There is a somewhat weak species of reply to him, which holds that actually some poetry can be serious. Such an approach tries to make poetic speech conform to Austin’s picture of how users of ordinary speech achieve that mundane way of doing things with words.

But this kind of response to Austin rather eviscerates the provocation of poetry, and belies its special way with words. So is it possible to say something more audacious? I think so. Perhaps in times like these we can see that poetry is where the action is, and this by the making of extraordinary speech acts. For if poets do something with words, they do so in some special way. They use extraordinary speech. About that Austin was right. But he erred in thinking that the special nature of poetic speech means that it cannot accomplish speech acts.

Brecht’s poem is a cracking example. For in saying ‘Truly, I live in dark times’, Brecht is doing something. But what is it? What does he do? The very first word, ‘truly’, emphatically marks the commitment to attempt serious speaking. And it is immediately followed by a metaphorical assertion, ‘I live in dark times.’ And Brecht does not merely back up that assertion, but raises the stakes of making it. If you can excuse for a moment my own rather dull prose, I will explain my view that he is both asserting, and questioning whether he can assert.

What I take Brecht to be doing is this: he sees that what speech there is, is darkening, and refuses to repeat it, but worries that speaking otherwise cannot be heard. So he tells us that he declines the old shibboleths, those uttered in order to lay claim to virtue despite the suffering of others. ‘I would gladly be wise’, he says, living a life of indifferent virtue. But this he cannot do. ‘I cannot heed this’, he says. He is asserting that he lives amid obscuring language, and that he- at least- will not acquiesce in it.

But this is not all that his words do. In virtue of its title, ‘To Those Born Later’, Brecht addresses us, and others in posterity. He says that in his time to speak as he does is folly, and so he must speak to those yet unborn. The subsequent ‘dark times’ poems make these kind of metaphorical assertions about the obscurity of everyday speech, and question whether they can be heard as doing so. And, as I have mentioned, they do this by an extraordinary way with words. These poems call attention to their constituent speech acts, using words by which their speakers do something and ask us to attend to it. To put it bluntly, there is both asserting and questioning whether one can assert anything.

Poetry seems an apt way to pose that quandary, for poetic speech is a way of using words that draws attention to itself as such. And it is precisely in this manner that the poet undertakes a commitment to the use of serious speech. This may be seen in Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem ‘Keine Delikatessen’ (No Delicacies). In this, her last poem, Bachmann declares her refusal to use beautiful adornment, to ‘dress a metaphor with an almond blossom’, or ‘crucify syntax on a trick of light’. Instead we are shown a struggle within speaking, as she stretches out across the page words ordinarily left unspoken:

‘hunger

                                    disgrace

                                                                        tears

and

                                                                                                            darkness’

The eyes must rove all the way across the page before they can reach that last word, ‘darkness.’ It is a long, long way down, there right at the edge of the speaking. And the depth of the metaphor, ‘darkness’, does not preclude the force of the utterance, its power to both assert and to question whether one can assert. Instead, it heightens it. It stands out against the obscure speech that she is contending with. It calls for attention, and in a remarkable way. So the poet does something differently, something rather extraordinary, when she speaks in metaphors and references ‘dark times.’ She is struggling to break out of her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

But the use of metaphoric utterances also invites hearers to see that they too are participants in the work done by words. This feature of what is done by ‘dark times’ poems is crucial. For the poet is trying to speak in a way that can be heard as serious by others. The special usages of poetic speech have some special power to ask hearers to recognise themselves as the addressees of these speech acts. For hearers are involved with the poet in the possibility of achieving serious speech. So yes, what is done in speech acts is done in an extraordinary way. But, contra Austin, this does not provide that no speech act is accomplished through poetry.

If the poet speaking of ‘dark times’ does something extraordinary, she also something strikingly serious. Suppose that our mundane acts of speaking foreclose attention to what we are doing in our use of words, that they obscure to us the very form of talk that we are using as we go about our everyday life. This would be a carelessness in talking, as to how one is talking. Suppose that it routinely happens in ordinary speech, although we don’t see that we are doing it. A good example would be parroting speech, in which a person merely repeats what is said, rather than making assertions that are genuinely their own. Glaring examples might be parroting political or advertising slogans. But suppose that we see parroting more generally in everyday speech.

The obscuring character of parroting comes from how it merely apes speech acts of assertion. What you do in asserting something is to put yourself behind what you say, to sort of personally guarantee its truth and ask the hearer to accept what you say on the basis of your say-so. In parroting however, you don’t do that. You just repeat what is being said.  Speaking thus would involve an indifference as to one’s proper role as backer of one’s assertions. They would be uttered because they are what is said, and not because one believes them. Suppose then that as indifferent utterances, others don’t hear them as genuinely our own, or believe them on that basis. But nevertheless they repeat them, for after all they are what is said, what ‘everybody’ in one’s group is saying. So you get utterances that look like assertions, but do assert. Instead, they merely parrot. In fine, our everyday talk would be an irresponsible way of using words.

Such a way of speaking would not be ‘serious’ in Austin’s sense of that word, but spoken anyway, and as a matter of course. In claiming that it is poetic speech that is not serious, Austin said that performatives, utterances that constitute acts, are ‘hollow or void’ if introduced in a poem. But what if it is ordinary speech that is ‘hollow or void’, and poetry that is deadly serious? Perhaps it is in everyday living that we find speech like that deemed non-serious by Austin. And perhaps it is the poets who are the serious ones.

And perhaps it takes poems, with their extraordinary ways of speaking that call attention to themselves as speech acts, to confront us with this? For poets can expose these hollow ways of using language. Consider Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Poem’, from The Speed of Darkness. There is the opening assertion about one’s own times. This is followed by the evocation of an irresponsible way of speaking, which the poet wishes to oppose:

I lived in the first century of world wars

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen…

And here comes the appeal to absent addressees again:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn…

Rukeyser juxtaposes her use of speech to the ‘careless’ words that issue from the authorized ‘devices’. But she also writes of her struggle to grasp her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

..We would try by

any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

In that last line, a personal struggle is evoked by ‘these wars’. And it is one, it seems, that is germane to the world wars amid which she lives.

By the kind of speech acts that they venture these poems do not inform, report or describe. They assert, and they question. ‘I am trying to say this… can you hear me?’ They involve struggles to speak other than irresponsibly. And they evince a quest to be heard, for a speech act does not succeed absent uptake from its hearers. The hearers must attend to the speech act, actively taking notice of it. And they must comprehend it as the kind of speech act that it is. They needn’t agree with what is being said. But they must attend to it, and grasp what the speaker is trying to do: to assert, and to question whether such an act is even possible now.

Perhaps it is this possibility, of reaching those who might notice and comprehend, of finding co-participants in serious speech, that arises amid such poems? Consider then ‘What Kind of Times Are These’, from Dark Fields of the Republic. In that poem Adrienne Rich asks ‘why do I tell you anything?’ And her only answer is ‘because you still listen’. But perhaps the conjunction, ‘because’, is a sort of summons to be attentive. In any case, to understand what it is that these poems do we can see them as efforts on the part of poets to speak responsibly. But beyond the speaker’s commitment we might also see them as a call to listen. In this sense they issue a request to participate in the accomplishment of serious speech.

Achieving serious speech in these times is raised as a possibility, but a fraught and risky one, in these poems. And the extraordinary character of poetic speech lends this a piquant urgency. For here the poets are those who plumb the prospects of serious speech. Contra Austin’s claim that in poetry we see only ‘the etiolations of language’, the effort to undertake serious speech acts is heightened in these poems. But they utter, and quite properly, something of a faltering appeal. The poets, like the rest of us, are mired in the difficulties of undertaking serious speech. So perhaps in times like these it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all.

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************

The Provocations of Philosophy: Bert Brecht’s message for the age of Trump

by Christopher Norris

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This tutelage is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment. - Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in political events. He doesn’t know that the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of shoes and of medicine, all depend on political decisions . . . . From his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupt flunky of the national and multinational companies - Bertolt Brecht

Before it happened you were in no doubt.
'Unthinkable' you said, and then,
Lest they suspect you'd not quite ruled it out,
'Just inconceivable', again.

'Again', I wrote, but let's not be too quick:
Those words 'think' and 'conceive' don't mean
The same thing, and we're apt to miss a trick
By suturing the gap between.

Of course you'll say it's just semantic stuff,
All this, and the last thing we need
When you've real-world catastrophes enough
For 'act, then think' to be your creed.

Yet ask yourself: which line's the one to take
When those wise-after-the-event
Types say: 'It's happened, so you'd better make
Think-room for how things really went'.

Well, you can either field it with a flat
Though feeble apologia: 'got
Things wrong that time, alas!', or try to bat
It back with a semantic shot.

Then you might say: yes, sure enough, 'conceive'
Trump president I can and must
Since it's a claim that's true, that I believe,
And that has duly earned my trust.

That's knowledge as it figures on the view
Proposed with sundry minor tweaks
From Plato down, though lately just a few
Have differed with the ancient Greek’s

Account of it. Still, you lot have no choice
But to conceive the man as now
Your sworn-in president despite the voice
Inside you that just won't allow

The thought. For thinking brings a sharpened sense
Of that rock-bottom line below
Which politics can't sink lest it dispense
With all the semblances that go

To keep the folk on board. That's why I say
You needn't feel the wise-guy's won
Or pipe down when the hindsight-seers play
Their cynic games by making fun

Of you for thinking it 'unthinkable' that such
A bunch of rogues and fools should come
To occupy high office. There's a much
More hopeful way than acting dumb

And that's to say that lots of things we thought
Or think could never happen did
Or do, which means reality falls short
Or fails to match our starting bid

By throwing up some Bullingdon buffoon
As Foreign Secretary, or fool
Like Donald Trump as fittest to fine-tune
The harmony of states. Then you'll

Do best to keep in mind the point that 'think'
And 'know' are words that come apart
Most truth-revealingly when any link
Between them's always apt to start

A thought-rebellion as it twists and snaps
Under the strain. If you apply
Yourself you’ll find out the truth-value gaps
That show up where the facts defy

All presentations that would have them square
With thought’s demand, or all the best
State-sponsored tricks and ruses to repair
Those tell-tale cracks. Then every test

For truth that's thinkable as well as borne
Out by appealing to some fact
Or other is the surest way to warn
The populace that what they've lacked

Thus far is means or motive to enquire
Why crooks and fools so often reach
High office. Then they'll see how things conspire
So often as if meant to teach

A crash-course in the need for you to steer
Not only by the guiding lights
Of factual truth but by what first comes clear
When knowledge of that sort unites

With thought's refusal ever to accept
A bad reality as all
There is of truth. It's by that lie we're kept
From seeing how far short they fall,

Those villains of this latter age whose sole
Distinction is to far surpass
All previous contenders for the role
Of most corrupt or else outclass

The Borgias and the Krays in every vice
That flesh is heir to. Still they tend
To fester worst, as Trump and Co. suffice
To show, most often through the blend

Of those twin motives, greed for power and lust
For all its cash-back benefits,
That make the turn to politics a must
For any billionaire whose fortune hits

A satisfaction-ceiling. Then he feels
A growing need to exercise
The kind of power that brooks no vain appeals
To business-law but just relies

On getting cronies into place who’ll fix
The rules through a Supreme Court that’s
Itself so packed with cronies (politics
And wealth checked out: all plutocrats)

That your incumbent Pres need entertain
No fear that rule of law might thwart
His family business in its plans to gain
More wealth with their confirmed support.

Just think of this, then think how much it hurts,
That sense of a reality at odds
Not only with what counts as ‘just deserts’
Or once was deemed to please the gods

But with each latest thought-affront that tells
Us, in reflective mode, that there’s
More to reality than that which spells
Out what’s the case yet hardly bears

Such dwelling on. For if it once became
Your habit to keep well in mind
And each time thinkingly review what shame
Those home-truths of a factual kind

Had brought upon you citizens who let
The perpetrators bring it off,
That veritable coup d'état, and get
Themselves safely in place to scoff

At you poor suckers then the chances are
The thought would either drive you mad
With the injustice of it all or jar
On any remnant faith you had

In their ‘democracy’. Then you’d resolve
To pass from thought to act and strive
To square the two, although this might involve
No end of failures to arrive

At other life-goals that required no loss
Of those life-chances premised on
Your up-to-now unwillingness to cross
A certain line. So you’d have gone

Along with conscience and its sudden urge
To strive at last against the old
Conformist drive that recommends we merge
Our purposes with what we’re sold

As virtue by some gang of thieves installed
In the White House or other seats
Of power world-wide. Time, then, to do what’s called
Thought-crime by them and say it meets

The needs of truth and justice only if
Its counter-push against the pull
Of habit and self-interest’s not a tiff
In thought alone but takes the bull

Straight by the horns and vows to overturn
All those unthinkably bad states
Of factual circumstance. From which you learn
What kind of action best translates

Your outrage into something Marx would count
As truly setting out to change
The world, not spinning ideas that amount
To just one tick-box in the range

Of world-interpretations. These then serve
Most usefully to help deflect
More thought-brigades from working up the nerve
To think with practical effect,

Reject the given, emphasize the rift
Between plain fact and thought’s demand,
And so bring better times within the gift
Of you who seek to understand

More adequately how you’ve all been screwed
By those in power. It’s this that made
So many give up fighting and conclude
That there’s too high a price that’s paid,

By their sort mostly, when the facts confront
A counterfactual realm of hope
Renewed. Let’s grant, you’d better make a blunt
Assessment of how far its scope

For action’s always subject to the check
Of a shrewd reckoning that takes
Due stock of stubborn facts that might just wreck
Its long-term project. Where the stakes

Are highest is where commonsense insists
Most loudly, since with all the force
Of thought repressed, that only fabulists
Or crazed ideologues endorse

The notion that mere mindfulness might bring
A switch of some world-aspect as
It strikes the thinker, then new hopes that spring
In quick response, and then what has

The power of energizing thought and will
To act in their pursuit. So don't
Give up that word 'unthinkable', or drill
Yourself in fact-routines that won't,

Since close-patrolled, allow for thought's revolt
Against contingent evils. Keep
In mind how thinkers sometimes need a jolt
To wake them from the placid sleep

Of reason or of propositions framed
In forms that perfectly accord
With logic’s rule. Thus Aristotle named
Them ‘practical’, those smorgasbord-

Type syllogisms that were rightly classed
Among the licit kinds despite
Their purely formal defects since they passed,
In rational if not in tight-

Linked logical array, from certain facts
About the world to certain ways
In which to view and justify such acts
As follow when we reappraise

The case more thoughtfully. Again, this goes
To make my point: that facts which rank
Below what’s thinkable – concerning those,
Let’s say, who ultimately bank

On moneyed interest and on sheer extent
Of public ignorance to hide
Their guilt – are facts that amplify dissent,
Or should, until the rising tide

Of outrage brings the barrage to a head
Of pressure fit to blow the top
Clean off their lie-machine. If what I’ve said
Strikes you as misconceived, just stop

And think: what might it take to power the jump
Of thought that comes to find it down-
Right flat unthinkable, the fact of Trump
As president, or such a clown,

Crook, liar, narcissist, and imbecile
As placed to launch the nukes and wipe
Us all out should he some day wake and feel
That way inclined. If you’re the type

Who says ‘That’s how things are – just learn to live
With it’, then I’ve no further bone
To pick with you or argument to give,
Beyond what I’ve already shown,

As ample grounds for rising up against
This monster and his entourage
Of conspecifics. But if you’re incensed
To think of it, then let this charge

Your anger-levels up until the stress
Arrives at breaking-point and thus
Makes way for actions that alone express
Thoughts once too painful to discuss.

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

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital

Written by

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.

Proletkult banner
Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:23

'Culture is not a luxury!': the Proletkult in revolutionary Russia

Written by

 Lynn Mally tells the story of Proletkult, the experimental Soviet artistic institution which was in the vanguard of Russia's cultural revolution in 1917.

Two years after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Petrograd, home of the revolution, was a devastated city.  Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population.  A general opposing the new regime began an assault on the city, bringing his troops to the suburbs.  But this did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations.  At the same time, the Proletkult theatre was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution written by a Red Army soldier.

LM play

Members of the Petrograd drama studio performing a collective reading of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Europe,” in 1918.

Revolutions invariably challenge the cultural foundations of society, whether the participants consciously acknowledge this or not. Many Russian revolutionaries, like their Jacobin predecessors, welcomed the challenge.  They were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and social order.  They hoped to create a new cultural order as well.  But how?  All the key elements were open to dispute—the meaning of culture, the revolution’s power to change it, and the consequences that such change would have for the new social order taking shape.

In the early years of the revolution, the Proletkult (an acronym for Proletarian cultural-educational organizations) stood at the center of these debates.  It began just before the October Revolution of 1917, starting as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers’ theaters, and educational societies.  By 1918 it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a uniquely proletarian culture that would inform and inspire the new society.  At its peak in 1920 the national leadership claimed some four hundred thousand members, organized in three hundred groups distributed all across Soviet territory. 

The Proletkult’s vocal advocates believed that rapid and radical cultural transformation was crucial to the survival of the revolution.  The leadership also insisted that the state support independent artist, scientific, and social programs that would express the values and principles of the victorious working class.  While skilled artists and intellectuals could help in the process, one of the organization’s core values was autonomous creation.  The ideas about art, science, and daily life should emerge from workers themselves.  Another bedrock principle was institutional autonomy, a demand that would soon put the organization on a collision course with the Communist Party.

LM presidium

First Presidium of the national Proletkult organization, 1918. The poster in the background says “Proletkult.”

Although created by the revolution, the Proletkult drew on preexisting programs designed to educate and inspire the Russian working classes. The most radical was articulated by the Bolshevik intellectual, Alexander Bogdanov, who had been an outspoken opponent of Lenin after the revolution of 1905. He believed that it was essential to educate a proletarian intelligentsia that would be prepared to take over a guiding role once the socialist revolution came.  Bogdanov and his allies formed several small exile schools in Western Europe where they trained gifted workers in science and cultural history.  Several of these students became national Proletkult leaders after the revolution.

Factory committees and unions formed another faction with a large stake in the new organization.  Legalized in the wake of the Revolution of 1905, these workers’ groups quickly became involved in cultural activities.  They sponsored clubs, lecture series, artistic classes, and small theatres.  They also opened up libraries stocked with the Russian classics and socialist literature.  Newspapers and fliers came out of this milieu, where aspiring writers published their first poems filled with imagery about life in the factory.  Groups like these formed a natural base for the new organization.

Participants in adult education classes and open universities also flocked to the Proletkult.  Founded by charity groups and educational societies long before the revolution, these groups offered literacy courses and lectures in science and the arts for a broad audience.  They were staffed by artists and intellectuals sympathetic to mass educational projects.  For them, the Proletkult appeared to be a continuation of their original goals.

LM banner

Created for the first celebration of the October Revolution, the banner reads “Proletkult—Proletarian Creation Guarantees the World Commune.”

The first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment (or Minister of Culture) was Anatolii Lunacharskii, an ally of Bogdanov.  He gave the Proletkult an independent budget to begin work.  That money went first to the national organization, which set up a rudimentary bureaucracy and started a journal called Proletarian Culture (Proletarskaia kul’tura).  As the new government took over the possessions of the old ruling class, the Proletkult claimed part of the spoils.  When the Soviet government moved to Moscow, the central Proletkult took over a large mansion on the city’s main boulevard.  This process was repeated in the provinces, where local circles occupied public buildings and manor houses for their operations. 

During the years of the Russian Civil War, from 1918-1920, the Proletkult expanded in a chaotic fashion across the country.  Bolshevik power was tenuous, and the shape of the new state hardly fixed.  This contributed to a kind of free-for-all, where local participants decided who would join and what their group would do.  Proletkult organizations drew in seasoned workers, peasants, and office employees. Some directed outreach programs to housewives. The Tula organization even opened a short-lived children’s group, led by a teenager, whose stated aim was to free children from the petty-bourgeois family structure. In its early years the Proletkult was more plebeian than proletarian. 

The organization’s activities were as diverse as the membership.  Several circles were simply renamed people’s universities, where the same teachers continued their classes with little interruption. While some art studios made posters to support the Bolshevik cause in the Civil War, others focused on color theory.  In many literature workshops, participants tried their hands at worker-centered poems and stories, recounting their experiences in the factory.  In others, they learned to recite the Russian classics.  While most music groups attempted to put new, revolutionary words to familiar melodies, a Moscow circle became attached to the musical avant-garde and began to experiment with a seventeen note scale.  Rather than serving as a catalyst for a new revolutionary culture, the Proletkult was a mirror reflecting the heterogeneous cultural world of the early Soviet years. 

This period of exuberant expansion came to an end with the conclusion of the Russian Civil War. With the Bolsheviks now firmly in charge, the central government began a sober evaluation of how best to spend its scarce funds.  The Proletkult was particularly vulnerable. Associated with an opponent of Lenin, it appeared to have oppositional tendencies. Its initial demand for complete independence underscored that view.  Lenin personally took on the organization, denouncing its leadership and its goals.  He chose to focus on the very small part of the organization’s work that tended toward the experimental and avant-garde. All of this was petty bourgeois nonsense, Lenin claimed.

The attack on the Proletkult was part of a massive policy shift by the Communist Party.  The working class was always a small minority in Russia, and the government now had to find a way to reach out to the peasant majority.  The new state program begun in 1921, the New Economic Policy, was designed to do just that.  Organizations like the Proletkult that aimed (at least in theory) to serve the proletariat alone were out of step with the changing direction.  The government slashed the Proletkult’s budget. Any activities that could be accomplished through regular educational channels disappeared from the curriculum.  Groups that operated in areas where there were few or no industrial workers closed. Very quickly the network of hundreds shrunk to a handful.

The Proletkult now had to strike a new direction.  It turned to work in clubs, and focused especially theatrical work as a way of instilling pro-Soviet messages. Ironically some groups that survived tended towards avant-garde experimentation.  That was particularly the case in Moscow, where film director Sergei Eisenstein led theater workshops in Moscow.  The group there also took part in musical experiments, like a concert of factory whistles.  Art circles gave up easel painting and began designing posters, book jackets, and union emblems.  Many other more visible associations claiming to articulate a distinctly proletarian culture sprang up during the 1920s.  They used Lenin’s critique to elbow the Proletkult to the sidelines.

In its reduced form, the Proletkult lasted until 1932.  In that year the government disbanded all independent cultural organizations, particularly those that claimed to represent the proletariat.  Instead it planned large cultural unions and began to formulate an official Soviet aesthetic, “socialist realism.” The new aesthetic was presented as the expressions of a more advanced state of historical development, a move toward a classless society.  The state’s adoption of this new direction turned proletarian culture, supposedly the harbinger of the future, into the culture of the past. Through these new organizations the doctrine of socialist realism would take shape.

“Culture is not a luxury” might serve as the motto of the Proletkult organization.  Participants’ ideas on cultural creation were expansive and participatory, different from the emerging Soviet state program favoring basic education and labor discipline. The Proletkult embodied the euphoric optimism of the early years of the revolution, an optimism that fostered the belief that any cook could run the state, any union could manage the economy, and any worker could write a sonnet. 

Currently, the U.S. government is preparing to rescind funding from local theatres, orchestras, and news outlets that are trying to formulate their own paths to cultural participation. In the UK, the Tory government’s policy of austerity economics, combined with the massively unequal funding for arts and culture in the London area compared to the rest of the country, continue to make the arts and culture generally more and more inaccessible to most of the population. In these reactionary times, Proletkult is a brave and shining example of participatory and emancipatory cultural democracy for working people.

The cultural commons belongs to all of us
Monday, 30 January 2017 16:40

The cultural commons belongs to all of us

Written by

Chris Guiton analyses and discusses the importance of the concept of the cultural commons.

In the 21st century we are witnessing the rapid encroachment by capitalism on what is often referred to as the ‘cultural commons’. These are the shared resources in the cultural sphere which belong to all of us rather than a wealthy or privileged minority. This goes beyond specific works of art to the broader cultural sphere identified by Raymond Williams, the Marxist writer and academic, as our “whole way of life - the common meanings…the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort” (Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture). For Williams, “culture is ordinary”. It is not the preserve of a cultural elite, but a democratic right for everyone.

In recent decades, however, the cultural hegemony of neoliberal capitalism has expanded and deepened its economic, political and intellectual control over us. In Britain, this process has been sharpened by the deployment of the 2008 recession to justify austerity policies designed to erode public services, cut wages and deepen inequality. These policies are not only having an unequal, and adverse, economic effect on the less well-off and working people generally, they are having an unequal effect on arts and cultural provision. The consequence of this process is a poorer public realm, stunted human development and the diminution of the common good.

At Culture Matters we want to help defend and enhance the cultural commons and make as much art and culture available, as cheaply as possible, to as many ordinary working people as possible.
But let’s take a bit of time to look at how the concept of the ‘commons’ evolved and what it offers to us today. Early humanity lived in a state of primitive communism, characterised by shared ownership of all but a limited number of individual possessions. Art, music and story- telling in primitive communist times were almost certainly public, shared activities, which had the effect of developing and maintaining a sense of social solidarity.

With the development of class society, first slave society, followed by feudalism and then capitalism, came the appearance of private property based on an increasingly systematic appropriation of the means of production. The term ‘commons’ developed as a way of referring to those natural resources – for example, land and water – where people in class-based societies either have common rights to access and use those resources or where the land is communally owned and controlled rather than held in private ownership. The rights were available to defined groups of people in a particular community, under commonly understood arrangements that reflected customary use. As such, they reflected the society they were located within and its material conditions at a given historical point.

The experience of a tenant in 14th century feudal England would be rather different from that of a herder in the Mongolian grasslands in the 16th century or a Maine lobster fisherman in the 19th century. Many readers will be familiar with the feudal system that applied in England. Commons arrangements, including things like grazing rights, fishing rights and the right to collect firewood, developed to allow tenants access to manorial lands to help meet their reproductive needs. While this provided people with access to much-needed resources, it existed within the framework of a rigidly hierarchical society. A society’s structure clearly limits the benefits of common-pool property rights. In addition, these rights are often based on closed groups which themselves limit access. But what they demonstrate is both the opportunities and the constraints offered by the commons concept as an inherently political perspective, subject to historical processes as well as providing oppositional space to create new ways of living.

The economic pressures faced by the commons were exemplified by the enclosures that took place in England, as feudalism was replaced by first nascent then more assertive capitalism. These started to rise dramatically in the Tudor period as open-field, arable land was fenced off and converted to pastureland for sheep grazing by the landowners as they sought to increase the profits that could be derived from the rapid growth in the cloth trade. This inevitably meant the loss of common rights, created significant unemployment and led to the displacement of now impoverished rural labourers. This resulted in considerable social unrest, riots and a series of revolts across the country, typified by Kett's Rebellion in 1549, as the rural populace fought back and sought to restore the stability of the traditional commons system.

Cultural commons

The process of enclosure was given a significant boost in the 18th and 19th centuries as Parliament, via a series of Inclosure Acts, enforced consolidation of strips in the open field system into larger, unitary landholdings. Commons rights were extinguished, much of the remaining pasture commons lost and people who had previously subsisted on the land became part of the new, rapidly growing urban proletariat. By the early 19th century, the medieval peasant community had been virtually destroyed. As E. P. Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class, “Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery.”

But what are the implications of all this for us now? The late 20th and early 21st centuries are providing multiple examples of the very modern forms that enclosure takes today. It is seen to worrying effect, for example, in the corporate encroachment on the internet commons.

The internet was originally based on an open architecture system of communication, publicly available to all, developed over a period of years by collaboration and information sharing amongst scientists and engineers, and, crucially, developed with government support for the significant public investment required to make it happen. It offered an open forum for ideas and allowed innovation to flourish. But since its launch, it has fallen prey to a corporate ‘landgrab’ as the major computer software and services corporations sought to replace open technical standards for the web with closed, proprietary standards for browsers and operating systems, securing huge profits in the process. In the meantime, online media corporations have asserted virtual monopoly control over TV and high speed internet access, as they have grown, and merged, and fight to limit subscribers to their own services.

In the United States, this process has inevitably been accompanied by a decline in public interest broadcasting as time allotted to public affairs and local programming has declined, and opportunities for political bias in programming and advertising have increased. This is reflected in the UK which has seen a significant drop in recent years in spending on news, current affairs and children's television. The original BBC mandate to "inform, educate and entertain", whatever its original limitations given the elitism and authoritarianism implicit in its approach to mass education (and the fascist sympathies of its first Director-General, John Reith), looks increasingly fragile as commercial funding structures are introduced or threatened, overt political interference grows and pressure increases from commercial rivals.

The detrimental impact of corporate moves to control previously accessible resources is also seen very clearly in the intellectual property rights and copyright field covering literature, film and music, where the law is steadily being extended in duration and scope. Originally intended to balance the creators’ rights to control their artistic outputs with the public right to access once the copyright term had expired, we are now witnessing a surge in efforts by major corporations to protect and monetise ‘their’ property. These efforts focus on the supposed originality of an artistic creation while neglecting its foundation in general culture, a common property of all of us, from which it was derived.

snow white

An obvious example here is Disney’s success in securing a trademark for the name ‘Snow White’, from a story first published by the Brothers Grimm but based on a much older folk tale. The trademark covers all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction. So, while even Disney understand that extending their ownership to literature would be a step too far, they clearly see no problem with asserting a broad-based proprietary ownership of a name considerably older than them – and in doing this are backed by the law.

Copyright provisions have been steadily extended over time and, in the UK, now stand at ‘life plus 70 years’ for most works (in the United States it was recently extended to 95 years from publication date as a result of extensive corporate lobbying). Unsurprisingly, the beneficiaries are usually not the authors, long since departed from this world, but the corporations who often own the copyright.

There is a fundamental contradiction between the enabling power of new internet-based technologies, creating the potential for a publicly available archive of all the art and culture ever produced and distributed publicly, and the application of an increasingly restrictive copyright law which seeks to control and monetise ‘creative property’, and which acts as a barrier to free expression.

Lawrence Lessig, a American professor of law, has written extensively on the subject, demonstrating how cultural monopolists seek to shrink the public domain of ideas, with the big media and technology corporations using technology and the digitisation of culture to control people’s access to it and what can we do with it. As he puts it in his book Free Culture:

We live in a “cut and paste” culture enabled by technology…Using the Internet and its archives, musicians are able to string together mixes of sound never before imagined; filmmakers are able to build movies out of clips on computers around the world. An extraordinary site in Sweden takes images of politicians and blends them with music to create biting political commentary…All of these creations are technically illegal. Even if the creators wanted to be “legal,” the cost of complying with the law is impossibly high. Therefore, for the law-abiding sorts, a wealth of creativity is never made. And for that part that is made, if it doesn’t follow the clearance rules, it doesn’t get released.

This is a sad but inevitable consequence of the turbo-charged capitalism that dominates the world today and which seeks to commodify everything it can, including culture.

Another field in which the theft of the cultural commons is very visible is sport. Sports such as football provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people. But the steady commodification of such sports is plumbing new depths. Grossly inflated player wages and transfer fees; increasingly unaffordable ticket prices; the increased role of advertising and sponsorship; the money earned by the Premier League through selling airtime (linked to the formation of the Premier League itself); the growth of merchandising; and top clubs’ preference for buying players on the international transfer market rather than nurturing home-grown talent are all contributing to the degradation of the sport itself as a game played for reasons other than the pursuit of profit.
The result is a poorer experience for the consumer as the quality of the game declines, particularly at a national level, barriers grow for aspiring players, and a ‘winner takes all’ culture develops for the top players and the enrichment of a small group of clubs and their (often billionaire) owners.

The same processes are happening in all fields of culture, very obviously in the visual arts, which are scarred by elitism and commodification. Works by major artists, promoted by a self-serving network of art dealers engaged in what is effectively price-fixing, sell for astronomical sums to the super-rich, unable to think of anything socially useful to spend their ill-gotten gains on. They then often disappear from public view but are used as a mechanism to demonstrate the distance between the financial and social elite and ordinary people. The artwork may have little genuine artistic merit but this is almost irrelevant as self-referential emptiness and banality replaces any effort to mirror and interrogate the world around us. This bizarre process has reached its apogee in the work of Damien Hirst, where his brand identity has become the commodity, supplanting the artwork itself.

How have political parties in Britain reacted to this process? In his recent book Cultural Capital, Robert Hewison offered a well-pitched critique of culture policy under New Labour. He describes how a significant increase in funding for art and cultures was accompanied by the marketization and monetisation of culture. Funding became contingent on alignment with Government policy objectives, target-driven and reduced to a short-sighted instrumentalism. This led to the disastrous decision to build the much-mocked Millenium Dome. Since then, of course, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, funding has been significantly reduced by successive governments. Crucially, Hewison notes that the New Labour objective of widening social access to the arts did not succeed. Audience levels barely increased at all. And the demographic make-up of those regularly enjoying the arts remained largely white, better educated and elderly.

The limited access that most working class people have to art and culture is a real issue for anyone interested in the struggle for a fairer, more just society. Enjoyment of the arts and cultural activities, as both producer and consumer, is an essential part of the ‘social wage’ for all workers. By social wage, we mean the amenities and services provided within a society from public funds. All members of society are as entitled to fair, equal and adequate ‘terms and conditions’ for culture as they are for their labour. Promoting recognition and understanding in the labour movement of the central contribution made by the struggle for a better ‘cultural commons’ to the quality of life of everyone is a core objective of Culture Matters.

Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist, has done a lot of valuable work on the role of the commons in providing an alternative to market economics and government intervention. She defined it as a general concept that refers to a resource shared by a group of people, built on principles of self-governance, community and local action. David Bollier, a noted writer and activist in this field, has identified the scope for the commons concept to provide “a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture.” He defines the commons as:

A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. It is a self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State. The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.

He goes on to say that,

There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit. Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied. And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons. The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun. A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

This relates directly to our aspirations at Culture Matters to provide a broad-based platform which arts and culture producers and consumers can use for their benefit, sharing knowledge, ideas and resources, and creating an open – and oppositional - space which challenges the dispossession and commodification of our cultural resources. Which reclaims these resources for us all, and facilitates opportunities for collaborative artistic and cultural expression.

sandinista the clash

Encouragingly, there are always people ready to fight back and demonstrate the essentially social nature of culture. Think of performance poetry delivered in pubs, cafes and at festivals around the country rather than unnecessarily obscure poetry produced for the page and for the edification of a small elite readership. Think of the visceral power of punk rock as an anti-authoritarian rejection of mainstream music and stadium rock. Or the impact of FC United of Manchester, a club established and owned by its fans, which deliberately sets out to build strong links with the local community and democratise access.

What links these cultural expressions, consciously or unconsciously, is the legitimate desire people have to do things for themselves, make culture real, work within their communities and challenge the status quo. As we know, capitalism is very good at co-opting dissent, by turning radical images and ideas into marketable commodities. But this is all the more reason to develop a counter-culture which, as Antonio Gramsci described in his Prison Notebooks, seeks to create a new hegemony, presenting new ideas and new forces which challenge and disrupt capitalism’s dominant definition of what is ‘normal’ and ‘legitimate’.

We aim to develop Culture Matters as a countervailing force to the profit-centred, neo-liberal, market paradigm that developed under capitalism, challenging assumptions, articulating new visions and encouraging and promoting oppositional cultural perspectives and activities. This means identifying new ways of working and new structures that cut across traditional boundaries and, in effect, helps create a socialist and progressive cultural ecosystem, which develops new networks and new inter-actions between people. Let’s join William Morris, who declared in Art, Wealth and Riches:

All who assert public rights against private greed are helping us; every foil given to common-stealers, or railway-Philistines, or smoke-nuisance-breeders, is a victory scored to us.

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