Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (40)

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 09:02

Cultural nationalism: Brexit and the rise of nostalgia identity

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With the current chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit, Stuart Cartland critiques 'heritage culture' and argues that the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind the expression of a more radical, egalitarian national cultural identity.

The recent release of British nostalgia flick The Book Shop is the latest in a long line of relentless, seemingly endless cultural representations of a backward looking gaze into a mythical sense of nation and place. What we have witnessed over recent years is a nostalgia blitz (pun fully intended), a prevalence and immense popularity of television series and films set within this largely rural and historical traditional utopia. These cultural texts provide a medium through which a crisis of identity based upon the challenges of the present are mediated. In many ways this can be viewed as national escapism on one hand and a form of cultural legitimation on the other.

When the future (or even the present) is uncertain and unclear it can be very comforting to escape into a sense of constructed familiarity. The past is often a place that we create or is created for us, free from the chaos and uncertainty of the real lived experience, one that is also in many ways an ideological creation, one where we airbrush out the inconvenient or unpleasing elements, and create a type of social and cultural utopia far from any sense of reality. Such fantasy fiction set within historical periods play upon, and legitimise, created concepts of the past which in turn inform our understanding of the present, one where nostalgia and sentimentality inform a collective national imagining.

However such an exercise, particularly for the English in a post-Brexit reality, is arguably built upon repetition and melancholy, a longing for a lost age of national exceptionalism, independence and greatness. As pointed out by Mark Easton in a recent BBC/YouGov poll, “there is more than a hint of nostalgia about people’s sense of Englishness. Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future”. Therefore it can be no surprise to witness this expressed in popular television series and movies in recent years. Period dramas are a national industry in the UK, yet we have witnessed a tidal wave of cultural nostalgia set within a context of political chaos, economic uncertainty and the crushing reality of austerity fraying the very fabric of British society.

The unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Call the Midwife, the Crown, Victoria and Poldark are all set in a (largely pre-industrial) bucolic space populated by virtuous citizens, where the working class and women knew their place, and the power and position of the status quo is unquestioned. This can be viewed as a propaganda cult of ideologically constructed national memory and image, where the viewer is transplanted to an age free from supposed political-correctness-gone-mad, gay marriage, health and safety regulations, national decline, multiculturalism and open border immigration.

The construction and use of nostalgia is nothing new, yet the current national situation of a perennial state of anxiety and crisis arguably perpetuates an obsessive gaze back, even to past times of national crisis. Crisis can then be seen as a tool of defensive representation, exceptionalism, and a wilful delve into ideologically constructed notions of the past and perceived ‘golden eras’. The good-old-days and the blitz-spirit is intertwined with Brexit anxiety, and helps perpetuate a surge among the English (in particular) of a sense of defensive and backward looking Englishness and a wave of popular nostalgia. It is a distinctively top-down, traditional and conservative interpretation of history that utilises the use of Churchillian rhetoric and a triumphant and uncritical interpretation of history that has become a dominant conservative narrative of contemporary renewal within a context of disengagement.

One only needs to look at the most popular British films over recent years to see this also played out in the cinema - Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are all based upon this recurring theme. whilst other popular British movies continue the more general clamour for nostalgia and sentimentality such as Another Mother's Son, Murder on the Orient Express and Phantom Thread. There is nothing inherently conservative about these historical periods, however they have been stripped of any radical possibilities and have been re-situated within a longing for a national space set with the past.

This historicised national narrative built upon reconstituted social consensus certainly helped legitimise and justify many to vote ‘leave’ - the Leave campaign was built upon nostalgic pastiche and myth - but also in terms of anxiety of how we cope when we leave. The dominant narrative being that we are in fact the factual evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘sceptred isle’ adrift in the north Atlantic, supremely detached from European politics and problems. These sentiments have always conjured strong mythical images of splendid isolation, that we are a breed apart from those meddling Europeans, that we are not or have never really been European, that we are certainly separate, distinct and of course superior. Again, the symbolic re-purposing of a nation alone, choosing its own destiny yet couched within a language of austerity and images of war fetishism, feed into the symbolic imagery of a national space.

These narratives of crisis and longing for images of a green and pleasant rustic past are not just located on the small or big screen. The recycling of cultural and historical sites, figures, language and myth which have produced such a depth of cultural pastiche and revivalism have been symbolically repackaged within our everyday lives, a process which Owen Hatherley describes as ‘heritage culture’. Imagery of artisan, handcrafted, bespoke, boutique, rustic and vintage have become culturally homogenous as the cozy appeal of the safety blanket of nostalgia and an imaginary social and cultural utopia is spread over us within an over-riding sense of benevolent manufactured nostalgia through the prism of social and cultural conserv-atism. 

The contested meaning of being English in an increasingly globalised world, with a nation trying to come to terms with devolution, EU integration and large scale immigration is clearly problematic but also rich with radical opportunity. However, the England sold to the world (and more importantly to itself) through a cultural obsession with tradition and nostalgia is reinforced through nostalgic paraphernalia such as calendars and tea towels, the cosy, comforting cultural security of the National Trust, Waitrose and farmers' markets. TV banality such as Midsomer Murders, the Great British Bake Off and Location, Location, Location. While movies such as the Iron Lady, Atonement, the King’s Speech, the Queen et al represent an ever present, and social aesthetically pleasing England, one viewed through the gaze of the middle or upper classes, set in rural idyllic English locations and often located within ideologically triumphant historical ‘golden eras’.

Examples such as these point toward a politically and culturally specific construction of nation and heritage, laden with cultural meaning and identity that purposely exclude those who do not fit the traditionalist images or values of the nation. It is a predominantly mythical representation that has no relevance to the majority of the population and one that most could never experience - yet it represents a well-established national, cultural and historical narrative, cleansed of social and cultural relevance. “The danger”, as Kazuo Ishiguro pointed out when discussing his novel Remains of the Day, “lies not only in the fact that politicians would sell this image to their electorate but also that the electorate might buy it”.

However, it is a cultural construction rich with radical possibilities, one which hopefully Mike Leigh’s forthcoming movie on the Peterloo massacre can help redress. Indeed, dominant, hegemonic cultural constructions have been challenged over recent years. Mike Leigh’s Spirit of ’45 being the most obvious example on the big screen, but also on the small screen examples such as Michael Sheen’s retelling of the 1839 Newport Chartist uprising in Valley Rebellion all point to radical alternatives.

Again, there is nothing inherent or or natural to support the claim that historical or rural representations need to be conservative. Indeed, there is a wealth of rich examples that can be utilised to represent and support a more radical and left leaning cultural identity, be it the Levellers or Diggers from the 1640s through to the campaign for the right to roam culminating in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930s.

With the current and ongoing chaos of a Conservative government tearing itself apart over the incoherence of Brexit the time is ripe for Corbyn’s Labour to step in and throw its weight behind a national cultural identity based upon England’s rich cultural heritage of egalitarianism and radicalism and offer a way beyond the anxiety, conflict and crisis which the current Conservative-dominated narrative behind Brexit represents.

Detail from a painting of Christopher Caudwell by Caoimhghin O Croidheain
Wednesday, 02 May 2018 13:27

A brief and breathtakingly brilliant life: Christopher Caudwell, activist and intellectual

Written by

Helena Sheehan reviews the life and work of Christopher Caudwell.

caudwell 188x300 pluto

Christopher Caudwell
Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Pluto, London, 2018. 192pp., £17.99 pb
ISBN 9780745337227

 caudwell MR 195x300 mrp

Christopher Caudwell
Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2018. 192pp., $25 pb
ISBN 9781583676868

Christopher Caudwell was a brief and breathtakingly brilliant presence in the world. Born Christopher St John Sprigg in London in 1907, he published prolifically and died fighting in the Spanish civil war in 1937, before he even reached the age of 30.

He left school at the age of 15 and began his working life as a cub reporter at the Yorkshire Observer, where his father was literary editor, and then as editor of British Malaya. Upon returning to London, he ran an aeronautics publishing company with his brother, edited one of its technical journals and designed gears for motorcars. In addition, he wrote reams of poetry, plays, short stories, detective novels, and aeronautics textbooks. He even edited a volume of ghost stories.

On top of all this, he read voluminously in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, politics, linguistics, mathematics, economics, physics, biology, neurology, literature and literary criticism and much more besides. He did so, not as a dilettante, but as one striving to come to terms with the knowledge of the centuries and to comprehend what it meant for himself and his own age. Despite his lack of a university education, he became a person of very considerable learning.

In 1934, at the age of 27, Caudwell became interested in Marxism and began to study it with extraordinary intensity, discovering quickly that it provided the key to the synthesis he was seeking. In the summer of 1935, he wrote his first Marxist book, originally called Verse and Mathematics, but sent off and accepted for publication by Macmillan as Illusion and Reality.

Upon the completion of this book, he moved to the east end of London and joined the Poplar branch of the Communist Party. He threw himself into all the routine party tasks, fly-posting, street-corner speaking, selling The Daily Worker, as well as joining battle with blackshirts, bravely facing consequent batterings and even arrest.

During this period of intense activism, he also wrote feverishly, producing a body of theoretical manuscripts posthumously published as Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture, The Crisis in Physics, Heredity and Development, Romance and Realism and Poems. Previous selections from his work have been published as The Concept of Freedom and Scenes and Actions. Verso has recently brought out a new edition of The Crisis in Physics.

This new collection called Culture as Politics is a welcome addition to the history of Caudwell publication. It is edited by David Margolies, who wrote The Function of Literature: A Study of Christopher Caudwell’s Aesthetics, the first book on Caudwell, who played a key role in bringing the work of Caudwell to his own generation, the so-called sixties generation. In bringing out this collection, he is continuing his sustained work on Caudwell and bringing his work to the attention of yet another generation.

He has selected passages from Illusion and Reality, Studies in a Dying Culture and Heredity and Development. Although they might not have been the same selections as someone else might have made, they have been chosen carefully and do provide a good introduction to the work of Caudwell that will hopefully lead readers to seek out more from Caudwell’s whole body of work.

Margolies also provides introductions to each section, which locates these selections within the context of Caudwell’s whole body of work as well as the circumstances of his life. Margolies has a thorough knowledge of Caudwell’s work, both published and unpublished, and is currently the executor of the Caudwell literary estate. Among many interesting features of his commentary is his identification of proto-Marxist dimensions in Caudwell’s pre-Marxist fiction.

For Caudwell, culture (in the broadest sense of the word, including science, technology, philosophy, etc) was shaped by the socio-economic conditions of its time. His work was infused with the explanatory force of historical materialism. He saw the dynamic not as a passive one, but as an active interaction in which culture in turn played a role in shaping the socio-economic milieu. He developed his ideas with a sweeping sense of history and his distinctive interpretation of past eras, such as ancient Greece and modern Britain, are really striking. The breadth of his knowledge and depth of his thinking are still remarkable and memorable.

What Caudwell was doing in whatever he wrote, whether it was about literature or anthropology or psychology or biology, was reaching out to conceptualise the world and nothing less than the world. He was determined to work over the whole inheritance of human knowledge from a new point of view. Philosophy, in the sense of an integrating Weltanschauung, was what gathered up all else. No matter what he was addressing, from poetry to politics to physics, he wanted to penetrate to the very core of it, to illuminate it within its full field of forces, to highlight it within its the network of interconnections, to see it within the whole. He sought to identify the world’s most basic patterns, to take the pulse of the world’s most basic rhythms.

Looking to the culture of his time, he saw that there was something at the very core of the social order that inhibited this impulse to integrality, that obstructed the search for synthesis. Everywhere he turned, it was fragmentation that prevailed. He asked why. He remarked: “Either the devil has come among us having great power or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art?”

Despite the magnificent achievements that he saw in his time – relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, psychology, anthropology, art, aeronautics – it was nevertheless an epoch of confusion and dissension. Why, he asked, did each new discovery come as a Midas touch that brought new disappointment? Why did this strange doom hang over bourgeois culture in such a way that progress seemed only to hasten decline? Why was it that the search for a common truth, a common faith, brought only the proliferation of partial, myopic and contradictory views of reality?

At the heart of it all, he argued, was the subject-object dichotomy, that had its basis in the social division of labour, in the separation of the class that generated theory from the class that engaged actively with nature. This dichotomy distorted all realms of thought and activity, and indeed all social relations. It was a disease endemic to class society that had become more acute with its higher development. Only an integrated world view grounded in a vision of a new social order could bring to a higher synthesis what had been severed, to what had grown pathologically far apart.

As he looked around him, he concluded that many theories and many activities were rooted in the basic bourgeois illusion: that man was born free but was crippled through social organisation. In his illusory separation of individual consciousness from the natural and social matrix of its existence, the bourgeois had brought to a new level the dualism inherent in class society, generating in philosophy an ever sharper separation of individual from society, of mind from matter, of freedom from necessity, of history from nature, of emotion from rationality, making the fundamental subject-object relation increasingly insoluble. Instead, he stood in his own light, imagining that he could direct the social process without being directed by it, to determine without being determined, able to conceive only of self-determined mind in a one-way relation to its determined environment, an active subject contemplating a passive object, oblivious to the nexus of natural forces and social relations determining both.

Looking to the philosophical landscape of his time, Caudwell mapped the terrain and characterised the forces contesting the terrain. He took the pulse of the various players and detected the pounding beat of the tensions tearing at all efforts to comprehend. He knew that the history of philosophy throbbed to the rhythm of a wider, deeper process, even if philosophers themselves were oblivious of it.

He traced the history of modern philosophy in terms of the development of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie. The first stage, that of bourgeois revolt against feudal restriction, had sparked a great crescendo into the environment, with the voyages of exploration, astronomy, geometry, gravity, with mechanistic materialism its climactic philosophy. The next stage, as capitalism consolidated, its materialism turned into its opposite, mentalism, turning away from the object toward the subject, reproducing the dualism of subject and object from the opposite direction. The rebirth of idealism came as the philosophy of a ruling class whose distance from its environment was increasing with the growing differentiation of labour.

He analysed the opposite philosophies of mechanism and idealism, as both dichotomising the world into inert matter and creative spirit. Then came positivism, marking the passing of the bourgeoisie from a progressive class to a reactionary one. If mechanism had sacrificed subject to object and idealism had sacrificed object to subject, positivism sacrificed both. Both matter and mind became elusive and unknowable.

Philosophy became increasingly impoverished with escalating and esoteric dualisms. Philosophy, instead of being an integrating force, became a divisive one. In every way, theory was flying apart from practice. Philosophy, even philosophy of science, was becoming increasingly remote from science. Art was drifting away from experience. Theory and practice were sundered in consciousness, because they were divided in social reality.

No longer able to discern the rhythms of the historical process, the bourgeois distorted whatever he beheld. It was not possible to break through the intellectual dissolution, to connect the parts to the whole, without addressing its social matrix and he could not connect the parts to the whole without querying his whole modus vivendi.

Consciousness tended to gather at one pole and activity at the other, causing distortion of both. This played out, not only in the distance between the pursuit of knowledge and other aspects of the labour process, but even within areas of knowledge. Even the sciences were subject to this rupture, bringing a morass of contradictions, both within and between sciences, with much scientific practice becoming more empirical, narrow, fractured and with theory becoming more remote, diffuse, disconnected. Experiment was generating a growing body of empirical knowledge that could not be fit into a theoretical framework. Without such a framework, scientists fell back on eclecticism, reductionism or mysticism. This process has escalated since his time.

Caudwell’s epistemological position was a critical realism grounded in socio-historical interactionism. Knowledge is generated in a social process, in an interaction between subject and object, which come into being simultaneously. They are mutually constituting and therefore inseparable. We can never know a thing apart from our knowing of it. Breaking with the illusion of the detached observer, he saw knowledge as an active relation, the product of social labour past and present.

The weight of his attention in his various studies in a dying culture was to the mentality of the bourgeois, the dominant ideology of his time and ours. He was, as E P Thompson noted, a superb anatomist of ideologies. He also looked to alternative ideological positions, to outsiders to the dominant world view, primarily the proletariat, but also women and oppressed races and nationalities. His anticipation of feminist consciousness and the dynamics of moving from oppression to liberation through various stages of exclusion, inclusion, critique, rebellion, was most advanced for a male Marxist of his era. As to the proletariat, his view of their active engagement with nature, capacity for critical consciousness and revolutionary transformation may seem idealised now, but it is not hard to see how it seemed to him then. Such optimism does not come so easily to us now.

We live in another time. The dying culture has not died. Indeed, in its way it thrives on a scale beyond anything he could have imagined. Yet his critique of it stands. Its decadence is manifest everywhere, overpowering whatever else struggles for life.

Looking at the philosophical landscape since he vacated the terrain, the battle of ideas for some decades intensified. Universities in the 1960s, 1970s, even into the 1980s, were full of conflicting ideas, contending paradigms, debates that went to the theoretical foundations of all disciplines. Along the same lines as his studies, all these debates in diverse areas ran along parallel lines and expressed deeper lines of cleavage. What has happened since is that this has died down, but without any of the problems raised by these debates being solved.

Theory has flown yet farther from practice in that now theory itself is repressed. The global system functions in such a way that it needs a higher level of education, but education aligned to the precise needs of the market and not oriented to conceptualising the system, let alone contesting it. Theory and theoretical debate is not thriving in this milieu. Unreflective particularity prevails. Where there is theory, it is much debased, mired in every sort of confused dualism, lazy eclecticism, ungrounded and mystified holism. The search for synthesis is more subverted than ever.

It is impossible not to wonder what Caudwell would have written about all this, about all that has unfolded since he died. What insights might he have had into the trajectory from positivism through neo-positivism to post-positivism, into existentialism, phenomenology and postmodernism, into the accelerating commodification of culture and knowledge? What studies might he have produced of film, television and cyberculture? What might he have done during the turmoil in the communist movement in 1956, 1968, 1989? What would he have made of the Moscow trials, the 20th Party Congress, the new left, third world liberation movements, new social movements, Marxism Today, perestroika, the end of the USSR?

We cannot be sure. Various commentators have had their say. When I was first reading Caudwell, I bought the 1971 edition of Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture with an introduction by Sol Yurick, who speculated that he might have become either a bitter cold warrior or a numbed apparatchik. In the margins I wrote: no and no.

His life would have been very different if he had returned. He would have become a major party and public intellectual. His thinking would have been challenged, not least by his own reflections on the world as it unfolded. Whether he would have left the party at some stage, I do not know, but I do believe firmly that, whatever he did, he would have lived by the views and values that he evolved in the last years of his life. Of course, any of us who have ever thought that we got him think that he would have thought what we think. Still, I believe that I am right about this at least.

I have lived now many years longer than he had the opportunity to live. I have looked at the world he never saw with eyes that saw in the way that they did shaped by the way that he saw. It has been no substitute for what the world lost when it lost him, but it has carried him on in the world. He wrote of the half-life of the dead in what they leave behind when they die. In reading him today, he lives on. I commend Pluto, Verso and Monthly Review for publishing these new editions and bringing Caudwell to the attention of new audiences.

This article is republished from Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

‘Dreams to live on’: The Acting Class and working-class diversity in the arts
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 25 April 2018 18:30

‘Dreams to live on’: The Acting Class and working-class diversity in the arts

Written by

Jack Newsinger reviews the documentary film The Acting Class, by Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne, which gives voice to the struggles of actors of working-class origin as they try to make it in an increasingly middle-class profession.

In 2014 Julie Walters worried that "Soon the only actors are going to be privileged kids whose parents can afford to send them to drama school. That’s not right. It feels like we are going backwards.” The response from some was less than positive. Lewis star Laurence Fox, for example, said that Julie Walters should “shut up”. Fox was educated at Harrow public school, as was Benedict Cumberbatch. Damien Lewis, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Dominic West all went to Eton. The 'poshification' of acting has been a topic of public debate, alongside movements to improve BAME and gender representation in the cultural and creative industries, for a number of years. These issues have been forced high onto the agendas of some of our leading cultural institutions such as Arts Council England and the British Film Institute, and many now have official policies and guidelines designed to address the clear unfairness of access to different jobs in the cultural sector. But these initiatives, while potentially signalling a change in the mindset and practices of cultural institutions, are often top-down. There is little to suggest that there has been a transformation (so far) in the social composition of the people who make the decisions about what culture we get to see and hear.

That’s where films like The Acting Class come in. Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne’s documentary follows Tom Stocks as he builds a campaign to improve the opportunities for working class actors. Actor Awareness started online in 2015 and grew like a snowball into a fully-fledged movement, highlighting the difficulties and barriers faced by actors from working-class backgrounds as they enter the profession and providing support and solidarity. The film uses this platform to take a broad look at the barriers built into the system such as the prohibitive costs of drama school education, the scandal of audition fees, the expectations of working for free to build a career, the typecasting that working-class actors suffer, particularly those of colour. (If you wanted to build a system that kept working-class people out, it would be hard to think of a better one.) O’Neill and Wayne have put together a powerful film that represents the experiences of working-class actors at all stages of their careers, from new talent like Andrew Ellis and Amy Stout to well-established stars including Julie Hesmondhalgh, Maxine Peake and Christopher Ecclestone, to dissect the problems, common across much of the cultural sector, that prevent genuine working-class participation.

The stories of raising money for travel to London and audition fees, the feelings of insecurity engendered by entering the rarefied middle-class environment of the London cultural elite, the thrill of being offered a place, then all for nothing as the realisation that drama school is simply unaffordable to those who don’t have parents with enough money to pay for it (around £13,000 per year) are genuinely heart breaking. Dreams dashed. Tom Stocks himself had to twice turn down a place through lack of money. Andrew Ellis describes being recognised for his role in Shane Meadows’ film This is England while working on the check-out at Asda. Presumably this never happened to Fox.

Why is it important that working-class people become actors? As well as an issue of basic fairness – why should the upper-middle classes be able to buy their children a place at the front of the queue for all the exciting opportunities? – the problem is well articulated by Hesmondhalgh: ‘if art is coming from one very narrow part of society, then the stories and the conversations are only going to be coming from that place and they are only going to be about that place.’ Art and self-expression are as important to working-class people as they are to middle-class people. Perhaps more important. As Scott Berry, Artistic Director of Salford Arts Theatre says, ‘when you’ve got nothing else, dreams are what you live on.’

And this is the real power of the film: working-class people telling their own stories, in their own accents. The decision to mix together those at the beginning of their careers with the established stars, to show that working-class people have something worth saying and it can’t be dismissed as a few diamonds in the rough. The Acting Class is as good a dissection of the profound class inequality that we have in the cultural sector as any industry or academic report. And I say that as someone who has worked on a few.

You can find a screening of The Acting Class here. Follow Actor Awareness here.

No Them Only Us
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 05 April 2018 18:39

Their walls are our stones

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What would a radical, socialist culture policy look like?

Last September I reported on The World Transformed festival, organised by Momentum alongside the Labour Party conference in Brighton. It included several workshops on culture, looking at what the elements of a radical culture policy might be, building on the commitments in the 2017 Labour Manifesto.

That manifesto was a marked improvement on previous manifestos, and clearly reflected the personal vision of Jeremy Corbyn and his team. He was the only candidate in 2015 to support the role of the arts in nourishing everyday creativity, and its potential for political dissent.

The manifesto also backed policies to improve working class access to culture, both as workers in creative industries – musicians, actors, writers etc. – and as spectators and consumers of culture.

The open, participatory nature of politics which the Brighton workshops exemplified has now become the Movement for Cultural Democracy, with a new website, http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home, and a series of planned regional events to consult on what a radical culture manifesto should look like.

Culture Matters supports this movement. We believe that culture is more than just the arts. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, as Raymond Williams said. It includes all the cultural activities that are essential for our enjoyment, entertainment, enlightenment and exercise as fulfilled human beings.

Cultural democracy is about reclaiming and developing our artistic, intellectual, physical and spiritual commons. It’s about struggling in a democratic and socialist way to overcome the profit-driven pressures which make all kinds of cultural activities expensive, inaccessible or irrelevant. Or even worse, when they facilitate surveillance and manipulation – as in the current Facebook scandal – instead of nurturing human development and liberation.

As Len McCluskey said here a few months ago,

Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, believes that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, be near to them, and be able to enjoy them.
 
Most of all, we believe artists and leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – should seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off.

These radical calls for the democratisation and socialisation of culture should be at the heart of a new culture policy.

Our profit-driven capitalist economy seeks to destroy or co-opt the potential of the arts to express dissent and imagine alternatives. And it shrinks from the spectre of everyday, emerging communism, which is generated naturally when people get together in generous solidarity to enjoy the arts, sport, science, eating and drinking, and so much else. It throws up barriers between social classes, genders, ethnic groups, building divisive walls based on the private ownership of property.

We need to break down those walls. We need to reclaim and renew our artistic, physical, intellectual and spiritual commons. We need to democratise and socialise our cultural institutions – the art gallery, the football club, the newspaper, the church and the laboratory, as well as the economic and political ones – the factory, the corporation, the council, Whitehall and Westminster.

Their walls are our stones.

 

Reading Marx
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 31 March 2018 13:52

Reading Marx

Written by

David Betteridge gives a personal account of reading Marx, with drawings by Bob Starrett.

Fifty years ago, when I was training to be a teacher at Neville’s Cross College of Education in Durham, I had the good fortune to be tutored in Sociology and supervised on school practice by Maurice Levitas (or, to give him his Hebrew patronymic, which he sometimes used, Moishe ben Hillel). Here was a veteran of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War, a stalwart of the CPGB and the Connolly Column of the International Brigade, a former furniture-polisher and upholsterer, a plumber, a latrine-digger (with the Royal Army Medical Corps in India and Burma), a teacher of English (with plenty of Drama, in secondary schools in London and Louth), and now, in his middle age, a teacher-trainer appointed to the staff of the college where I was a student! He was just what we needed.

Seeing how green I was, with my head full of Red, Black, and Green ideas, and also some plain daft ones, loosely cobbled together, if cobbled at all, Morry (as he was widely nick-named) felt moved to educate me, and to educate me in more than Education.

He told me, I remember, in one of our tutorials, to question the Registrar-General’s designation of some workers - those in Social Class V - as “unskilled”. No, said Morry, all Labour requires skill, including mental skill. Try using a pick without knowing what you’re about, or a scythe! He himself had an impressively wide skill-set, acquired in his wide experience of work. He took pride in all of it, keeping into old age, for example, his curved needles (some semi-circular) from his time as an upholsterer, and losing none of his ability in sewing.

He told me also to be wary of the claims of psychometrics. Certain forms of it, he argued, were based on bad science, and served bad politics. Labelling some people sheep and others goats on the evidence of spurious tests was pernicious. He spoke with a mix of academic rigour and passionate engagement, referring me, I recall, to Brian Simon’s critique of Cyril Burt’s famous (or infamous) work on Intelligence, while at the same time citing personal experience. As a prisoner-of war in Spain, in one of Franco’s camps, Morry had been subjected to batteries of tests by visiting Nazis, keen to use him (and others) to further their racist, specifically anti-Semitic anthropology.

Educational failure was another topic that Morry opened up for discussion. When pupils fail an exam, he asked, is it their own failure alone? Could it also be the failure of hostile teachers, or careless schools, or impoverished homes, or an unjust society dedicated to maintaining its class distinctions?

I did not know then that Morry was busy putting his insights and knowledge and combative spirit into a book. This was published in 1974, with the title Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education.

Supplementary to my college curriculum, and just as important, were the demos that Morry took me on, and the lists of public meetings that he said I must attend, and the books on political theory that I must read (and read systematically), starting with Marx’s early MSS dating from 1844 (The Paris Notebooks) and his Theses on Feuerbach from the following year. He thought it best that I start my journey-of-ideas there, where Marx started his.

DB marx cartoon 2. jpg

See how the young humanist stood Hegel’s idealist philosophy on its head, making it materialist, Morry explained; see how he went beyond Feuerbach, committing himself to changing the world, not just interpreting it; see how he identified the deep structures and movements of history, class against class; see how he laid bare the alienation that workers experience under Capitalism, as they lose control of the products of their labour, and even lose contact with their own true selves.

This programme of accelerated learning that Morry set in train coincided with the crisis days of 1968, when the “evenements” in Paris (and beyond) shook Capitalism, and shook Socialism, too. Morry was charged with a great energy by these events, as if they spoke directly to him. He saw in the students’ movement a proto-revolutionary situation that cried out to be joined, and widened, especially through working class solidarity. I heard him argue this case again and again wherever people would listen, cheerfully rebutting the charge made by others in the CP that he was suffering from a rush of ultra-Leftism to the head. He was mistaking Paris for Barcelona, they said, and 1968 for 1936. Unabashed, he himself looked further back, to 1848, and directed me to read The Communist Manifesto and Marx’s other writings from and about that year of revolutions. Reading them was a revelation.

It was as if I had been given a three-dimensional model showing the layers of rock lying beneath a large and complex landscape, and giving it its shape. How swiftly the Manifesto opened up new understandings for me, and established new connections between things I had previously only half-known! How gleefully I embraced its use of strong metaphors, from a “spectre haunting Europe” early on in the book (that is to say, Communism), through “heavy artillery” (commodities being traded overseas), “fetters” (the constraints of the Feudal System), a “robe of cobwebs” (false consciousness), ending with “grave-diggers” (the forces of organised Labour burying Capitalism at some future date).

Before I left college, I was inspired to have a go at crystallising what I had learned so far from Marx and Morry, in the form of a short poem. I did not have the confidence to show it to my tutor, but here it is (below) for Culture Matters readers. Note: the “old mole” motto-text was added later:

Open Sesame

Well grubbed, old mole!

- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Under the furrows of old Europe lay
the ruin and the saving
of its steady, backward way: coal,
coal upon coal.

In banks’ vaults,
as if an ocean underground,
full-fed by trade and the world’s toil,
a second Flood backed up, and broke,
of brutal gold.

Empowered,
the anarch Progress forced its change,
all-consumingly on every land
and every suffering folk
that came within the rampage
of its rule of smoke.

Breaching all norms and bonds,
the iron masters and their human tools
exhausted Europe,
then went on to wreak their marvel
on the other continents of plundered Earth.

Their legacy to us:
they redefined and laid to rest
the past that they inherited,
and brought our doomed dystopia
to the titan fury of its birth.

Getting to grips with Marx’s later works took me longer. I approached them by a zig-zagging route of theory and practice, practice and theory, over a period of several years.

DB marx cartoon

In the case of Capital, I made the initial mistake of trying to speed things up by reading other people’s summaries of Marx’s conclusions, without working through the real-life evidence and explanations and interpretations that Marx himself required, and provided in great quantity in his book. Only after campaigning on issues of economic justice in Scunthorpe, where I went to teach, and helping to organise a cross-party, cross-union Left Action Group, only then did I begin to build up the key-concepts and, just as importantly, the structures of feeling that Capital demanded.

A crucial stage in that process of building-up was attending a WEA class organised by John Grayson, and tutored by Michael Barratt Brown. Michael adopted a quite brilliant teaching strategy. He asked the steelworker members of our class to provide him with information relating to a pay claim then being negotiated with the employers. He showed exactly how certain costs and profits that were essential to a full social and economic audit never found their way into any published annual report. The employers’ so-called “balance sheets” were not balanced. Michael’s book What Economics Is About served as a primer for our class-work. Here was Economics, not as a ”dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle called it - he should have known better, given the great contemporaries of his who were working in that field - but as a weapon in the struggle.

What a broth of a book Capital proved to be, when I came at last to immerse myself in its heights and depths and great length i.e. the teeming volume of Volume One. I found that it was, in some places, to some extent, exactly as Francis Wheen described it in his celebratory Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. It was “a vast Gothic novel... a Victorian melodrama... a black farce... a Greek tragedy... [and] a satirical utopia”. These ingredients were mixed together in profusion, and richly interspersed with hundreds of quotations from (and allusions to) works of World Literature, factory inspectors’ reports, trade statistics, etc. How many square miles of printed matter did Marx have to scan, how many years of sitting and making notes did he have to put in, how many headaches and heartaches did he have to go through, before this epic and epoch-making piece of “congealed labour” was ready for publication?

Wheen reminds us that Marx was a failed poet, a failed dramatist, and a failed novelist, all these failures being accomplished before the end of his student years at Berlin University. “All my creations crumbled into nothing,” Marx wrote; but his literary ambitions did not crumble. He redirected them. The work in which they came to most vigorous life was Capital.

A good example of Marx in novelistic mode is his deployment in Capital of a large and varied cast of characters, reminiscent of Dickens. Here is one, a juvenile worker in the Potteries:

J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.”

Regarding this wretched way of life and place of work, a local doctor, quoted by Marx, observed: “Each successive generation of potters is more dwarfed and less robust than the preceding one.”

Turning to Marx in dramatic mode, we can cite his use of a device similar to that deployed by Dante in his Purgatorio.

Let us leave the noisy region of the market, Marx wrote, casting himself in the same role as Vergil in Canto 5 of Dante’s epic. We shall follow the owner of the money and the owner of labour-power into the hidden foci of production... Here we shall discover, not only how Capital produces, but also how it is itself produced. We shall at last discover the secret of making surplus value.

Just as Dante did before him, Marx summoned up a succession of witnesses, in his case witnesses for the prosecution, from these “hidden foci of production”. His guiding principle was borrowed from Dante: Let the people speak. And speak they did, as in the case of J. Murray (above) and many more. (What a good template we have here, by the way, for readers of Culture Matters to use, by which to present your own present-day selection of witnesses for new prosecutions.)

And what of Marx’s exercise of his poet’s craft in the writing of Capital? We find no shortage of examples of metaphors here, and other forms of poetic imagery. Metaphysical poets of any era would be proud to have used them so creatively. Here is one: vampires. Marx wrote: Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

It does not matter if the vampires, imagined or real, feed on others’ blood or others’ labour, the phenomenon is the same: it is a ceaseless and exponential series of acts of taking, of expropriation, and sometimes of killing cruelty. We see it in the busts and booms of the markets, in the losses that many suffer that others might profit, in the recurrent immiseration of whole sections of a country’s population, sometimes of whole populations, while the elites and their darlings flourish, and we see it bloodiest of all in the almost permanent state of war that so unstable an economic order (or disorder, rather) gives rise to. Marx’s metaphor is precise and complete. It conveys the essential motive force that rages at the heart of Capital.

To sum up: Marx and Morry: two warriors, both engaged in their own times, but aware of all times, past and future; both embattled thinkers as well as thoughtful activists; both possessing a warm-heartedness as well as a hard-headed realism; both exponents of an integrative vision, in which no aspect of human enquiry or interest is deemed alien; internationalists; dialecticians; passionate wordsmiths... Getting to know the former warrior through the good offices of the latter was the best part of my student years.

 DB ML

 Maurice Levitas, Irish academic and communist.

 

 

 

The interplay between base and superstructure
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 27 March 2018 13:53

Marx and culture

Written by

Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.

Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.

Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.

RC article

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911

The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.

For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.

Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.

What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.

During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.

The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008

To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.

To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.

Zodiac Heads
Thursday, 15 March 2018 14:33

Culture's Nice Try

Written by

Sam DeLeo offers an imaginative critique of contemporary American culture. Can the killing of a few sacred cows deliver us from our current bleak circumstances, and usher in a new morning?

The free library box near our Denver apartment building is called the Little Free Library. It sits on a wooden post anchoring a corner of the block occupied by the History Colorado museum. The Little Free Library appeared on the corner not long ago, within a year or so. It is difficult to imagine what has not changed in the country since then.

The miniature wooden house — light green with forest green trim and a matchbook-sized side window — is accessed through a rectangular glass front door that opens to anyone who wants to take a book or donate one. It’s surrounded by a semi-circular garden of young trees and limestone boulders, and, for some reason, there’s a scarecrow behind it all, maybe in the event Denver crows are eyeing dog-eared novels for nest material.

Its location in such an urban corridor, away from any single-family houses or the children who might inhabit them, not to mention only a block from the Denver Public Library, surprised me when I first encountered it while walking down the street. I opened the door and looked inside: a self-help book, children’s science journal, a copy of “Ann of Green Gables,” a Colorado history book, and other nonfiction and fiction selections. I walked away proud of my downtown neighborhood.

Today as I neared the corner on a mild Saturday afternoon in January, a homeless man was busy cleaning out all the books from the little house. He was not inspecting the books for interesting reads, just collectively sweeping them into his backpack. There are thrift stores, even a few used bookstores left in town, where he might be paid a few dollars for his take.

I felt an urge to yell something but stopped, deciding to cross the street and talk to the man. It seemed to my righteously indignant proclivities that the man was not just stealing books from the free library — alright, “stealing” is the wrong word for free items — but besmirching its communal service, and how dare him, darn it. But just as swiftly, before even taking a step in his direction, I was hit by the prevalent truth that the man was right: I was the one in error, the one who had misunderstood.

It had nothing to do with my hypocrisy in forgetting about my shoplifting food when I was homeless for a short time as a teen so many years ago, or that, as a writer, I felt obliged to somehow “save” the books. The man had correctly understood that the words and ideas in the books were products to be sold to the highest bidder. They had no secondary or symbolic meaning beyond that. Any interpretation other than this in 2018 America will encounter obstacles — no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in agreement with the man’s understanding of words and speech as money back in 2010. The homeless man, at least, claimed integrity in reaching his conclusion from necessity, from his struggle simply to survive, a priority that supersedes the basic need to communicate for the rest of us.

The republican democracy that’s defined America since its founding is dismantled every week now, from the removal of voter protections and ushering in of voter suppression tactics, to the targeting of people of color and immigrants, the undermining of our judiciary with appointees loyal to party instead of the rule of law, to the takeover of public lands and so much more it staggers one to consider the transformation occurring. But the constant politicization of our words and language has turned them into intercedents, outside invaders, neutering their social value. As we allow them to separate us from our experience, the world becomes flat again. We crown ourselves the center of the universe once more, slavish to ideas of our gods and our pursuit of power.

Words once found grace in how they defined and connected us to our experience. Now they unleash emotions in the service of power, often for the political or financial gain of specific groups. And yet, ultimately, language cannot be delegated by party, faith or celebrity, it is a human trait, an acute weapon to those in power, a rope to those in despair, it can be manipulated but never extinguished, and it spreads like a virus.

We tell ourselves that they are only words, not sticks and stones, and this makes it easier to counterfeit the words we disagree with, pull the rabbit out of the hat to make the facts fake and the fake facts — how Orwellian chill. And we’ll not stop our reckless crossing of boundary after boundary until we locate the honesty to admit we’re crossing them. All this is to say that while these are crucial, even existential issues, they’re no fucking excuse for thinking you have the right to berate a homeless man who grasps the currency of language in our society.

I often wish the books I’ve read could mitigate all of this. But they can’t.

I said nothing to the homeless man taking the books from the Little Free Library, I kept walking. A few blocks away I reached Civic Center, a park between the state capitol and city and county building. The status of the people who spend their afternoons here is dire in terms of their mental and physical health, and their lack of means. Their population is nothing on the scale of other countries in the world or places like L.A.’s Skid Row, but none among them appears to own either the energy or the desire today to visit the latest art exhibit lined along the circular wading pool at one end of the park.

The “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is part of the larger exhibit, “Art & Social Change,” which continues inside the park museum. The display’s large bronze animal heads are replicas Weiwei made of designs from an old Chinese garden, and they are spaced in a semi-circular arrangement around the pool — Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. “Everything is art,” said Weiwei. “Everything is politics.”

The original heads were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits as a gift for Emperor Qinglong and placement at Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat of the Qing dynasty in current-day Beijing. Since the heads were ransacked by French and British troops in 1860, some Chinese have accused Weiwei’s exhibit of opening the cultural wounds of a lost national treasure. “It was designed by an Italian and made by a French for a Qing Dynasty emperor, which, actually, was somebody who invaded China,” said Weiwei when queried about this criticism in an interview. “So, if we talk about ‘national treasure,’ which nation are we talking about?”

Weiwei’s artistic statements cut across national borders to the idea of nations. To maximize profits, corporations transgressed national borders generations ago. So, what now is the purpose of a nation, if not to serve its people?

To my right, a woman was taking photos of the bronze heads with her phone, smiling. We were both apparently enjoying the close access to the art, the unseasonably warm temperature just beginning to drop. To our left, a young addict on a park bench had been scratching his face until it flushed and began to bleed. He had a thin blanket over his lap. He was maybe 19 or 20. Was he picking the same wounds Weiwei was metaphorically picking at — or, have we reached a point now where such comparisons fail to even make sense?

Soon, the sun fell beneath the line of the capitol and the sunny afternoon waned. Blue leaked from the sky as a blank slate slowly replaced it. A chill in the air released, reanimated from its dormancy beneath the ground.

Shadows drew in, disappearing into the concrete. The horizons collapsed. It looked as if a gray dawn was descending. But, it was hard to tell.

 

 

 "Culture is BAE Systems Britain", appropriated government overseas advertising image, Stephen Pritchard, 2018.
Tuesday, 06 March 2018 17:12

The Great North Exhibition and BAE

Written by

Stephen Pritchard protests with a blog against the involvement of BAE Systems in the Great Exhibition of the North, and Keith Armstrong protests with a poem.

This blog is a brief response to the artwashing of the Great Exhibition of the North, particularly the inclusion of BAE Systems as a "premier partner" of the event, which is billed as the UK's biggest event for 2018. There's a campaign to force event organisers to remove BAE Systems from the list of sponsors and I'm a member, but I want to consider the following questions in relation to the scandal: a) Who really organises the exhibition? b) Where is the money coming from? c) Who decides on sponsors? I suggest the arts community in the North East may have had little, if any choice in the decision to brand the event with a weapons manufacturer with a terrible reputation.

Just what on earth is going on with the Great Exhibition of the North? An event dreamt up by the Tories to showcase their outlandish vision of the Northern Powerhouse has become the site of artwashing on an epic scale! The biggest cultural event on the UK calendar this year, the exhibition has revealed its three "premier partners" - each of which will benefit significantly from massive media exposure across the UK and around the world. It was bad enough to find that two of the three exclusive partners - Virgin and Accenture - are renowned tax-avoiders and well-versed in exploiting and privatising our public services, but to find that weapons manufacturer BAE Systems are set to benefit from their association with the Great Exhibition of the event left me absolutely dumfounded!

I mean, the decision to accept sponsorship from BAE Systems simply beggars belief. The company has made billions from the sale of weapons and mass surveillance technologies to oppressive regimes and has been widely criticised for doing so. Its weapons have been used by Saudi Arabia to kill innocent men, women and children in Yemen. The company's weapons have also been used by Israel against innocent Palestinian families. How can exhibition organisers legitimately defend their decision to attach such a brand to the event? Are artists and organisations involved in the event aware that their names are being used by BAE Systems to sanitise their image as symbols of their commitment to corporate social responsibility? This is artwashing on a grand scale: the artwashing of the North of England - its communities, its artists, its people. It is absolutely outrageous!

Some artists have already withdrawn. I am part of a group of artists and arts professionals calling for the Great Exhibition of the North to #dropBAE. Our petition had almost 800 signatories at the time of writing this blog. It is deeply unethical to have BAE’s name associated with the exhibition and it taints the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North. Artwashing works by using brand association with arts events, like the Great Exhibition of the North, to create what appears to be a caring image to the general public. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a PR exercise in false claims of "corporate social responsibility" to disguise unsavoury corporate activities - in this case the wholesale export of arms and advanced surveillance equipment that murder people and spy on them. BAE Systems are the antithesis of social justice. Their products kill innocent people and take away human rights.

So why would anyone want to associate such an important festival of arts, heritage, culture and creativity with a producer of mass destruction and control? It is all too easy to blame the organisers - the NewcastleGateshead Initiative - or the arts organisations, or the artists, or the other board members, for that matter. We must remember that this event is primarily paid for by the Tories - by the UK government. The Great Exhibition of the North is a government initiative. And BAE Systems are a tax-payer subsidised company. So is it really that surprising that they were chosen to benefit from this festival? They employ many people in the North East. For the Tories, that's a "no-brainer". They wouldn't think twice about ethics or about brand identity. This is just a vehicle for their own Conservative notions of "the North" and neoliberal enterprise.

So this is a political issue. The artwashing of BAE Systems at the Great Exhibition of the North is a political issue. It is another example of the state-supported corporate takeover of the arts, just like the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the national council of Arts Council England.

I would not be at all surprised to learn that the DCMS and Government Office forced exhibition organisers and participants to accept the prominent branding of BAE Systems. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that BAE Systems had contributed little, if anything in terms of financial sponsorship. I wouldn't be surprised if all the sponsors were selected by the Tories. And all this in a part of the country firmly committed to the principles of community, hard work, and solidarity: a Labour heartland. THEY are trying to tear out our hearts and turn the North East into a sales event for weapons and tax-avoidance. Artists are once again used as pawns, with precarity used against them at every opportunity.

We must say no! Please sign the petition now.

Great North Exhibition 2018 from Great Northern on VimeoThis article is republished from Stephen Pritchard's blog.

55 Degrees North

by Keith Armstrong

They're going to illuminate Scotswood,
make missile entrepreneurs in Elswick.
Someone's set fire to our Arts reporter,
it's another Cultural Initiative.
Sting's buying the Civic Centre,
they're filling the Great North with tanks.
The Sage is changing its name to BAE,
Shane's pissed on the Royal conductor.
They're floating quangos down the Tyne,
the bonfire will be at Shields.
They're bringing tourists to witness miracles,
the Chief Executive will strip for money.
They're blowing up the Castle Keep
to build an installation.
They're giving the locals more top down Art,
it's something to silence our kids with.
They're taking live theatre to the cemetery,
the vicar will write an Arts Council poem.
Steve Cram's taken up painting
to stop his nose from running.
The river will be made into an ice rink,
we can play with our boats in the bath.
Let this Great Nation bomb the Middle East,
they're making a museum of our politics.
Stuffing glass cases with old principles,
the head hunters are out and about.
It's cultivated jobs for the boys and the girls,
they're putting the Arts into centres.
Drain the music from our souls,
we have to be grateful to be patronised.
Their self righteousness grins from on high,
let the bombs fly and rockets rip.
We can enjoy some more tamed Art,
say cheerio to your history.
They've wrapped it up in moth balls,
thank God for the boys from the south.
They've saved us from self government,
we've missed out on the Joy Parade.
This City of Culture got lost in the end,
the Angel glowers over us though.
Thanks again City Fathers,
your office blocks look uglier each day.
You've reinvented our culture for us,
you've rendered it meaningless.
Guts ripped out,
we touch our forelock to your glorious Lords.
From the orifice of the House of Commons
leaks the corrupt emptiness of your Tory manifesto.
The aching past of the working man
has become the death of England.
Let us hail you from NewcastleGateshead,
a city you made up for yourselves.
Let us watch your empty schemes plummet,
let us learn to dance in community again.
We are Geordies naked with a beautiful anger to burn.

 

Time to take art back from the capitalists: a brief history of art and artwashing
Thursday, 15 February 2018 11:08

Time to take art back from the capitalists: a brief history of art and artwashing

Written by

Stephen Pritchard outlines a brief history of art, property and artwashing, and calls on us to take art back from the capitalists – in all their guises.

Art has always been a form of property. During the Renaissance, art was the property of Royalty, the nobility and the church. It was a symbol of property, of ownership, status, influence, power, wealth. The advent of oil painting reinforced art’s status as an object to be owned. Gilding and gold framing paintings hung on wealthy people’s walls – sometimes entirely covering them. Artists were commissioned by their rich patrons to produce more and more art: portraits, landscapes, busts, sculptures, etc. all reinforcing the image of power and wealth and ownership. Art and artists became the property of the rich. Interior decoration reflecting external decoration, all serving to cement the status of patrons and the servitude of artists. Art became something to buy, to own, to sell. Artists struggled to make a living as the rich exploited their skills and their labour in return for meagre pickings.

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Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750

Even the relatively elevated status of artists, increasing slowly from the late 19th century to now, did nothing to change the status of art objects as symbols of property, ownership, wealth and power. Appropriation of objects as art objects failed to change the status quo. The establishment has always been quick to appropriate even the appropriation of objects as art. Art as process rather than product attempted to avoid recuperation by the art market and by those who sought to instrumentalise art for economic and social agendas. It too failed. Processes can also be subsumed by the art world as art. They are ready-made for instrumentalisation. And art also became a means of reproduction of images and desires that made it the perfect tool for publicity – for advertising, marketing, media, self-promotion and, ultimately, as a way of reinforcing state propaganda and corporate “social responsibility” agendas.

Art has always been used as a veneer for property – for capital. It’s development perfectly mirrors the development of capitalism and, indeed, the complexities of neoliberalism. Art’s development also reflects the development of empires, the division of labour, free market economics, social “improvement” and “inclusion” agendas, individualism, etc., etc. This is, of course, a brief overview of art that ignores alternative histories, radical uses of art that avoided appropriation, amateur and “outsider” art, creativity which is not classed by experts as art, Sholette’s notion of dark matter, etc. It is also a picture of the development of art as property that is most closely mapped by visual art and, more recently, by participatory and socially engaged forms of art. My approach to arguing that art always was and is more now than ever an object or product that represents wealth, power and property – in short, capital – is firmly based on the work of people like Walter Benjamin and John Berger. It is rooted in an understanding of art as a social product, and as representing social relations and individual relationships.

And it is this understanding that leads me to consider how art is today used to artwash a myriad of different property relations by a broad cohort of capitalists – from state to corporations, property developers to NGOs, advertising agencies to big arts organisations and cultural festivals and competitions. Artwashing seems like a catch-all term. A cheap hook to hang complexity on. It is! But artwashing is a complex deception. Artwashing does not only intend to deceive, it also makes untruthful assertions. Artwashing is nothing short of a breach of trust. Artwashing uses art to smooth and gloss over capitalism – it hides capitalism’s primitive aggression and acts of oppression that underwrites accumulation of capital by dispossession. Artwashing hides truths with false imagery and misleading or partial narratives. Artwashing can function as advertisement, “social licence”, public relations tool, and a means of pacifying local communities. Artwashing cleanses grimy, exploitative property relations and power.

Artwashing is used in the service of tangible capital and intangible capital. I have identified how it functions in at least five forms:

Corporate artwashing - corporations such as BP and Shell use artwashing as a form of sponsorship and PR, and many other brands now employ the arts in this way.

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Developer-led artwashing – property developers open their own galleries, cover their developments with specially commissioned public art, street art, etc., and build entire “cultural quarters” that function to advertise areas as “up-and-coming” places.

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'Passionate about more than property': LondoNewcastle's Street Art Programme, 'allowing London's creative community to express and showcase their passion for art'

Government-led artwashing – state and local authorities use art to reinforce social agendas, notions of social and civic engagement, and to promote major regeneration programmes, creative visions and cultural competitions, etc.

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Arts-led artwashing – arts organisations and artists’ studios use artists’ labour and properties (including ex-public buildings like libraries, etc.) to make claims about economic and social benefits for everyone in the neighbourhood, when, in fact, the benefits only really extend to artists, arts professionals and board members. Interestingly, many arts organisations have board members from across the spectrum of property and capital and it is impossible to put their vested interests to one side when considering how and why they are involved in arts-led regeneration.

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 Community artwashing - Artists become Social Capital Artists: the harvesters and monetisers of the intangible elements of people’s lives and the bonds and ties that once held vulnerable communities together. Once their social capital has been sifted, it is used as corporate PR and case studies for arts funders and the state; used as evidence of community engagement and consultation by local councils and property developers alike, validating the displacement of the very people who, by taking part in these ‘creative engagement processes’, gave their social capital away for free. This is the most divisive and pernicious form of artwashing and the most flagrant abuse of trust.

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So, today, artwashing takes forms as seemingly (but perhaps not actually) diverse as the movement of art galleries into Boyle Heights in LA, the take-over of libraries by V22 in London, the use of artists as live/ work property guardians by Bow Arts Trust and Poplar Harca in Balfron Tower in London, the use of “not-artists” to garner media attention for Granby 4 Streets CLT in Liverpool by “surprisingly” winning the Turner Prize, the use of artists as part of Creative City strategies in Hamburg and the Fjord City, the use of school children by property developers to document the demise of their own council housing and turn their art into advertising hoardings that hide the luxury properties replacing what was once their homes. On and on and on. The London Borough of Culture competition is another example. Glasgow City Council’s artist in empty properties scheme is another. On and on.

Artwashing is complex and has a multitude of applications. It is growing both as a practice and a term of opposition because our society, governments and corporations are so thoroughly invested in property that they are desperate to use art as a property to hide their insatiable lust for property. Art has cast-iron ties to capital – to capitalism.

Understanding and opposing artwashing is crucial to the urgent need to explode the notions that art is benign and serves as a “public good”. It is a way of opening up a debate that can unravel and rethink art’s insipient relationship to capital and neoliberal governance. Artwashing gives art a bad name. Art can, and mostly is, a way of freely expressing our personal experiences and feelings.

It is time we took art back from the capitalists – in all their guises.

This article was first published in Stephen's highly recommended blog, Colouring in Culture.

The need to free ourselves from capitalism
Tuesday, 16 January 2018 12:56

Another cog in the machine of capitalism: the right wing, corporate takeover of the arts

Written by

Mike Quille finds more evidence of the corporate takeover of the arts.

What is art for? Is it just another form of social control?

A crucial part of the ability of a class to politically dominate society, and to justify its economic exploitation of the labour of working people, is the imposition of a matching set of cultural values on that society – and that includes art.

It’s why the late John Berger said in Ways of Seeing that ‘The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class’. The ruling class uses the state to influence and channel the arts in this direction, just as it uses the state to discipline the population and fight its wars, at home and abroad.

For the Tsars of pre-1917 Russia, state patronage of the arts was crucial. It funded and supported policies, activities and artefacts – in theatre, opera, music, art, statues and monuments – which expressed and instilled the cultural values of autocracy, hierarchy and social superiority. Along with the more forceful expressions of state power – police, courts, prisons, army –  state-sponsored art and culture (including religion) facilitated the exploitation of Russian peasants and workers. Court officials, relatives, friends and supporters of the Tsar were handsomely rewarded for implementing this policy, in the various cultural institutions that they controlled.

However, many writers, artists, dramatists and sculptors resented this elitist mission, and these undemocratic and opaque ways of legitimising injustice. That is why there was such an explosion of cultural creativity and imagination alongside the Russian Revolution, across all the arts. For the first time in human history, artists had large-scale, official backing from the Bolshevik state to support, enhance and help lead the creation of a new society and a better world for everyone.

Now fast forward 100 years, to Britain in the twenty first century. The neoliberal ideology which has dominated our culture for half a century is crumbling to pieces, like the statue of Ozymandias. The government is desperately trying to patch together support for its reactionary, oppressive policies. In amongst the chaos, conflicts and injustices of Brexit, Grenfell Tower, gender inequality, and sexual harassment, Arts Council England, which exists to provide public subsidy to cultural institutions, decides it needs new Council members.

So who do you think is appointed by the Tory government, in order to defend and promote the imposition of corporate, capitalist values in art and culture? Who might have the relevant qualifications and experience at privatising the arts, and preventing the creation and consumption of art from becoming a communal, anti-capitalist, politically liberating force?

Step forward Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of Rupert Murdoch, media mogul and promoter of a global, right-wing, union-busting, tax-avoiding corporate capitalist agenda.

She’s unlikely to face much opposition within ACE to promoting an elitist arts agenda. Historically, ACE has always been focused on channelling state subsidies for the arts to the well off, particularly in the London area. Funding per capita for the arts in London is 10 to 15 times the funding received elsewhere. The kind of expensive arts favoured by the rich and powerful, often precisely because they are badges of elitism, exclusivity and expense, are mostly on offer in London. They are heavily subsidised by ACE, from public funds off taxpayers and Lottery players in the rest of the country.

It is also unlikely that ACE will change its own elitist culture, as it is now chaired by Nicholas Serota, former director of the Tate for an overlong 28 years. On his departure, staff were asked to contribute towards the purchase of a new boat – for a man who introduced zero hours contracts, would not recognise trade unions, and privatised some of Tate’s staff. He is one of the main figures in the arts world facilitating the ongoing corporate capitalist takeover of the arts.

The new Blavatnik Building in Tate Modern, for example, was part-funded by and named after the Ukrainian billionaire Len Blavatnik, the UK’s richest man in 2015. Blavatnik is a Trump supporter and donor. He recently funded a £5m extension to the V and A (named Blavatnik Hall, of course), and in 2017 helped fund one of the most spectacular but politically biased art exhibitions that the Royal Academy has ever mounted, of Russian revolutionary art. It is of course a complete coincidence that Blavatnik made his fortune from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There are more complete coincidences. While at Tate, Serota oversaw the appointment of Ms. Murdoch as a Tate Trustee from 2008 to 2016, and Chairman of the Tate Modern Advisory Council from 2009 to 2016. During that time, The Freelands Trust (founded and chaired by Ms. Murdoch, and endowed with the unethical dividends of the Murdoch media empire) gave hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Tate.

Furthermore, Serota’s wife, Teresa Gleadowe – who sits on the Freelands Foundation advisory committee, of course – runs the Cornubian Arts and Science Trust, which funds the Groundwork arts project in Cornwall. This project is also supported by – guess who? – the Freelands Trust, and the Arts Council.

Gleadowe is also chair of Nottingham Contemporary, a company which won this year’s £100,000 Freelands Award, as judged by a selection panel which included – you’ve guessed – Elisabeth Murdoch and Teresa Gleadowe. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Of course no law has been broken by these nefarious, opaque and potentially corrupt entanglements. But is it any wonder that, just like Russia in 1917, so many artists, performers and others (including no doubt employees of the Arts Council) are unhappy on a scale of everything from unease to outrage?

The Artists’ Union England has said this:

‘Artists' Union England's public call to reverse the appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to ACE National Council has been supported by artists, trade unionists and workers in the arts and cultural industries.  This appointment exposes what is becoming an endemic culture of privilege and power within the art world that needs challenging and changing. The message to DCMS and Nicholas Serota is clear, Elisabeth Murdoch is neither qualified nor suitable for such a position.’

And artist Alice Gale-Feeny, one of the many signatories to the petition against the appointment, said this:

‘The art world has lost its sense of authenticity, purpose and agency and instead become just another cog in the machine of capitalism. Please reconsider your decision.’

So let us return to the question: what is art for? Does it have to be just bread and circuses, an instrument of ideological deception, diversion? Does it have to be so unequally funded, and so inaccessible geographically and financially for most people? Does it have to be run by a clique of bureaucrats who follow the agenda of the corporate capitalist ruling class?

No, of course it doesn’t. The Russian poet Alexander Blok, writing about the political and cultural revolution of 1917, said this: 

'With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution.'

Alice and Alexander are surely right. Art and all the other cultural pursuits like sport, religion, eating and drinking etc. are naturally enjoyable, liberating activities, which bring us together to share and celebrate our common humanity.

We desperately need far more democratic, transparently managed arts and cultural activities, which are truly meaningful, accessible and affordable for everyone, everywhere in the country. It is part of the social wage – like health and education and welfare benefits, it is our right. All of us – artists and other cultural workers, leaders of arts institutions, the general public – need to join in the cultural struggle, and create an anti-capitalist cultural revolution for the many, not the few.

We need bread, and we need roses, too: because culture matters.

See Stephen Pritchard's blog here for more details on Ms. Murdoch's appointment.

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