Pan American Unity
Friday, 23 February 2018 10:23

Promoting creativity: towards a socialist cultural policy

Published in Cultural Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some ideas for consultation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Many not the Few
Friday, 23 February 2018 10:23

For the Many not the Few

Published in Poetry

If All the People Voted for the Many Not the Few

by Zita Holbourne 
 
If all the people who didn't vote used their vote
They'd force politicians to sit up and take note 
The number of young people who didn't vote at all
Outnumbered those voting last election in total

If all the people who said "I don't do politics"
Joined the "all politicians are the same" cynics 
They could hold our political future in their hands
And influence on June 8th what happens in these lands 

If all those who said they like Jeremy Corbyn
But they don't think  he can win so they won't be voting 
Used their vote and voted for  Labour he would win 
If all who won't vote Labour 'cos they don't like him

Voted on policies not his personality 
We could make stopping cuts a reality 
We could save the NHS, reduce inequality 
Lift those struggling to survive out of poverty

End zero hour contracts and earn a living wage
Stop disadvantage based on gender, race and age 
Disability and sexual orientation 
Make a stand against exploitation

Or neglect of the most vulnerable people 
Build a society that's more just and equal 
Invest in social and affordable homes
Get paid a living wage, not turn to payday loans
 
Renationalise energy and Royal Mail 
End the privatisation of buses and rail 
Reverse welfare reforms like the bedroom tax 
And to University tuition fees give the axe

Make education free not a privilege for the rich 
Kick draconian Tory policies in the ditch 
Halt cuts to jobs, services and communities 
That are destroying lives, made with impunity

Stop austerity measures that are ideological 
Reject the myths and lies that they're economical 
If all the people who even though they know full well
These Tory cuts assign them to a living hell

But still in vox pops and polls, when asked will say 
"I'm voting Tory cos I like Theresa May" 
Would see that's just like turkeys voting for Christmas
It makes no sense at all, it's just ridiculous

If all those who say they're voting for May "because she's strong"
Would stop to realise you can be  strong and wrong 
That gentle and peaceful doesn't equal weak 
That being real and caring doesn't make you a freak

If all the people voting on how you look not what you do 
Looked at voting records rather than each leader's shoes 
They'd see that Corbyn's stood up for us from time 
That for decades of time he's had your back and mine

In communities not just in  Parliament
He's meant what he said, said what he meant
Joining rallies and vigils for justice and peace 
Stood on picket lines and protested on the streets 

If elected Labour will invest  in schools and  education 
- An old African proverb gives Corbyn inspiration
"It takes a village to raise a child" he says -
EMA and free school meals because it pays

To invest in the lives and  futures of   our children 
This is what it's all about, the next generation
If all the people who say they won't vote, voted Labour 
Encouraged their friend, colleague and neighbour

We could change the future life chances of  young people  
Build a society that's safe and is stable 
Protect our rights and defend communities 
Focus on building trust and hope and unity

If all the people who say "I don't really know"
Take the time to read the Labour manifesto 
The undecided could be the people who decide 
And together with those who "don't vote" turn the tide 

If all those who don't, decided now that they will 
We could move forward rather than standing still
Just imagine how empowered we could be 
If we stopped thinking I and thought of we
 
If the “don't vote” became the people who do
If we voted for the many not the few
If we acted as a majority
We could  finally see an end to austerity
We could rise up out of poverty
We could achieve true equality
 
If all the people voted for the many not the few.....