Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (47)

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.

SP thomas gainsborough mr and mrs andrews 1749 1

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.

SP bp and shell 2

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.

SP street art

'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.

SP art and regeneration 2

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.

SP shipping containers

 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.

SP community led artwashing

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.

Pan American Unity
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 16 January 2018 13:57

Promoting creativity: towards a socialist cultural policy

Written by

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.

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 11 January 2018 10:42

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture

Written by

‘With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution.’ said the poet Alexander Blok in 1918.

As the centenary year of the Russian Revolution ends and we move into 2018, we have published Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture.

It is widely recognised that the Revolution stimulated a creative and imaginative explosion across all the arts and cultural activities, not only in Russia itself but across the world. It reverberated throughout the twentieth century, and echoes of this cultural revolution still resonate today. The booklet brings together the series of articles published on the Culture Matters web platform in the course of 2017, to mark the impact of the Revolution on art and culture.

We hope you enjoy reading the articles, which look at the momentous, worldwide influence of the Revolution on cinema, theatre, art, sport, science and other topics. And we hope you are inspired to join the modern-day struggle for cultural policies and cultural activities which aim to revolutionise elitist, expensive and inaccessible art and culture and replace it with art and culture which everyone can enjoy - culture for the many, not the few.

Listen to the Revolution – culture matters!

Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture is a free ebook, available from here. If you would like to place a bulk order for a print version of the ebook please contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Framing the Russian Revolution
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 27 November 2017 13:37

Framing the Russian Revolution

Written by

 Dennis Broe takes Western cultural institutions and critics to task for their failure to properly convey the revolutionary energy of Soviet art and politics after 1917.

This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October 25th on the Russian Calendar at that time which was November 7th in the West. The Centennial is being celebrated and/or denigrated with various events, exhibitions, and interpretations here in Europe. What is now emerging as the dominant interpretation is a picture of the event in which the February 1917 overthrow of the Czar in Saint Petersburg is now celebrated as the beginning of a democracy that was brutally extinguished with the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks conspiratorially seized power and which led inevitably to the foundation of an undemocratic regime in the guise of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

DB Cult Leader Vladimir Lenin

Likewise, the art of the period immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, a flourishing of all the arts including photography, graphics, painting, theater, cinema and music, is now for the first time being branded as the murderous expression of a totalitarian regime, and this in the heroic period of 1917 to 1932.

All kinds of former truths are being challenged, with the French magazine Telerama now referring to the “myth” of Franco-English imperialism ready to aggress Russia as an excuse for the Bolshevik takeover and with the supposedly left-wing daily Liberation choosing on the week of the centennial to run instead of a consideration of that event an extensive book review of the political camps, with the caveat that before marking the revolution it is first necessary to read the book The Goulag.

The most prominent anti-revolutionary book though is Berkeley professor Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government which essentially presents the Soviet leadership as a cult that lived in the same state-owned building. The book sees the revolution itself as a secular form of fanaticism and the Soviets as fanatics who took the religious version of the final days and the apocalypse and reinterpreted it as the inevitable coming of a global revolution that would redeem humanity.

To this liberal onslaught must be added the attack by the British newspaper The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones on a monumental exhibition on the “Art of the Revolution” at the Royal Academy claiming that the celebration of one of the most fertile periods in the history of art instead “sentimentalises” a “murderous chapter in human history” and comparing the Bolsheviks in this early period of the Revolution to the Nazis.

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

Alexander Deineka, the Defence of Petrograd, from the RA exhibition

The review appeared before the exhibition opened and functioned as British liberals replaying Churchill’s dictum about the Soviets that he would strangle the baby in its cradle, here strangling the exhibition before it could be seen. It is worth noting that the attack is largely being waged by the liberal press, coinciding with a new McCarthyism being led in the U.S. by the Democrats, in which everything Russian is and now must be demonized.

No doubt the failures of the October Revolution were numerous, including famine and starvation in the Ukraine and a rapid installation of camps for political prisoners, but so were the triumphs. Lenin seized power with the support of the army and the workers on one burning question, an end to the war which was decimating the working classes of Europe. He was nearly the only person to urge what he called “Revolutionary Defeatism,” claiming that a defeat for the capitalist nationalists in the war meant a victory and a halt to the slaughtering of working people by each other in the trenches and by new technologies of increasingly deadly and remote killing machines.

It is very easy to make the claim that it was the Soviet takeover and the actual threat of international revolution that ended World War I since the Western powers recognized they no longer had the luxury of slaughtering each other since there was now a real threat to their existence and they, the U.S., France and Britain most prominently, at the time of signing the armistice, sent expeditionary forces to destroy the Soviet state.

DB SovietWoman1920

Soviet Poster, 1920.The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.

To this may be added that it was yet again the Soviet “cult” and the Russian people that two decades later halted the next form of Western capitalist barbarity in the guise of the Nazi conquest of Europe. At the height of the Civil War, 1918-22, while battling for their survival, Lenin’s Bolsheviks pursued a policy of combatting illiteracy, teaching reading and writing in the various republics in 40 different languages and dialects and refusing to impose Russian Cyrillic. In 1919, at the worst moment of being attacked and under siege, the Soviets boasted 1200 reading clubs and 6200 political, scientific and agricultural circles and by the end of the war 5 million children were in schools, reversing the Czar’s policy of education only for the elite under which only one child in five was educated.

Along with this new literacy, during the war and after, until the end of the first five year plan in 1932, went a flourishing and democratising of especially the visual and more crucially the graphic arts, particularly posters with elaborate and splashy typography and image and photo collages which appeared in trams, on factory walls and throughout the cities in places where crowds passed.

This was a kind of embracing of popular media which in the West would simply be absorbed into the advertising industry. Theatere began to incorporate popular elements of the circus as Meyerhold countered Stanislavski’s psychological realism with a biomechanical method stressing collective and machine-like movement. Constructivism, likewise an incorporation of the power of the machine into painting and cinema, took the pre-war dynamism of Italian Futurism at a moment when that form was embracing a fascist militarism and instead reinterpreted the machine as a source for good in the service of the people and not as simply a killing machine.

Soviet avant-garde art, the currents of which began before the war and was let loose by the earlier Revolution of 1905, greatly influenced the West in the theatrical experimentation and de-psychologizing of Brecht, in the bringing of abstract notions of design to mass production in the Weimar Bauhaus School, and in the ways Eisenstein’s montage in the films Strike and Battleship Potemkin were incorporated into the cinema of Hitchcock.

The period also featured a rethinking of the purpose of the museum, opposing the collector instinct of museums in the West as being dead archives or conversely as simply presenting art as utterly separated from life and only related to its own history. To counter this, the Soviets proposed open air museums integrated into the community, and a broader definition of what constituted art to include folk art and street design. These innovations are now official policy - uncredited to the Revolution of course - of many museums such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art whose director boasts their incorporation.

The Revolution though in the year of its centenary has in many ways been sidelined. The Royal Academy exhibit was Europe’s most extensive. Paris’s Pompidou on the other hand chose instead to highlight Russian dissident art in its exhibit Kollektsia, which traced extensively the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, an uninspired period which broke down into Sots Art which was the Russian equivalent of Pop Art and various returns to the Constructivism.

Elsewhere, there is a current exhibit at the library of the Museum of the Army titled “And 1917 Becomes Revolution” with examples of this flourishing of the arts alongside Western figurative paintings of the pope blessing and sanctioning the slaughter of the troops. There is also a recounting of how two French members, out of a delegation of four, sent to convince the Soviets to stay in the war instead “went native” and converted to their side in favor of the revolution.

It’s a nice exhibit but very difficult even to find in the museum and overshadowed by the current Army blockbuster about the everyday life of a soldier, an exhibit more in favor of war. And indeed World War I over the last three years is everyday honored in its centennial while the event that halted the war is slighted.

CL Beat the whites with the red wedge by El Lissitzky 1919

By far the most interesting European exhibit was in Venice at the Palazzo Zatere which has been taken over by the V-A-C Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group that staged “Space, Force, Construction” which attempted to update the radical thrust of the arts in this period with contemporary art with a political bent over the last three decades. Here was: Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge,” a geometrical description of the Soviets outnumbered and surrounded but surviving by ingenuity......

DB Tatlins Tower

......and a recreation of Tatlin’s Monumental “Tower of the Future” which was an attempt to address the mistakes of the Tower of Babel.....

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

........and Rodchenko’s design for a worker’s lunchroom/study center, where eating and acquiring of knowledge go on simultaneously.

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

Probably the continent’s most thrilling exhibit of Soviet art though is the currently ongoing French Cinematheque series “The USSR of Cineastes” which covers the period of the 1920s through the end of World War II. Beyond Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, the series contains screenings of the anti-petit bourgeois House on Trubnaya Street, a comedy by Boris Barnet about the maltreatment of a peasant woman by the building’s small business elite; Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, a montage experiment and adaptation of a Jack London short story about how the greed of an international mining expedition in Alaska turns deadly; and The Yellow Ticket, Feodor Ostep’s portrait of a wet nurse, abused by her baronial employer and then cast out into prostitution.

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

Why the downgrading of the Revolution? Is it not because in these times which due to increasing income disparity in the West, the brutalisation of the world by industrial climate change, and the ever disappearing support of the state for any form of worker aid or comfort, Revolution is certainly on the table and discomforting to an increasingly shrinking cadre of elites?

Yet the dissatisfaction in whole deindustrialized areas left for dead in France, the US, and Britain is being channeled into pro-nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment that is the opposite of Lenin’s call for an international joining of the workers across the West and the world to rise up.

Instead the Russian Revolution, which twice halted capitalist barbarity on a global scale, is characterized as merely barbarous itself. At the moment when the world is most in need of it, Western elites have been very careful in this year of the centenary to ignore or deny the energy that inspired one of the great hopes of humanity in the twentieth century.

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 27 November 2017 13:35

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture

Written by

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

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

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

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

MQ childrens book.jpg  MQ childrens.jpg

Children's literature from the 1920s

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

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

Agit-train; Agit-boat with theatre on board

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact on cultural workers

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

MQ Tatlins Tower maket 1919 year  MQ socialist architecture

Tatlin's Tower;socialist architecture

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

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

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

Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising; Agrarian Leader Zapata

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

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

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

MQ shaw MQ RR Auden and Britten

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

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

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

MQ Coal Face 1935

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

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

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact on appreciation and enjoyment

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

RR Joan Littlewood 010  RR Peoples Theatre Heaton Newcastle

Joan Littlewood; the People's Theatre, Newcastle

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

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

The revolutionary nature of art

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

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

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

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

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

JF Guernica 2

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact through resistance and reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

MQ American postcard 1930s culture card

American postcard, 1930s

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

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

GE Go to the stadiums

Poster, Go to the Stadiums!

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

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

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

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

This anti-communism has also manifested itself this year, in various TV programmes and exhibitions. The exhibition of post-revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy, for example, was strikingly reactionary. Funded by the Blavatnik Foundation, a beneficiary of the sell-off of state-owned assets when the USSR collapsed in 1991, the exhibition abandoned the usual liberal approach of trying to provide a balanced historical account of the political background and art of the Revolution. Instead, it promoted an openly hostile perspective, which downplayed, denied and derided links between the progressive politics of the Revolution and the marvellously energetic and powerful art that it inspired. In general, mainstream media coverage of the centenary has been predictably hostile, uncomprehending, tepid, or plainly mistaken - exactly the same problems that characterise its coverage of Corbynism, and for exactly the same reasons. 

The revolutionary influence today

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

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

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

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

bread and roses

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

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

Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement: collaborations for the future and celebrations of the past.
Monday, 27 November 2017 11:22

Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement: collaborations for the future and celebrations of the past.

Written by

Dr Rebecca Hillman, University of Exeter, reflects on the importance of rebuilding the cultural wing of the labour movement.

Since 2013, a group of political artists, trade unionists and academics have been meeting to plan events to bring together people from across the UK left, to share information about ongoing industrial action, campaigns and organising drives - and artistic strategies which might strengthen those initiatives.

The idea was partly to provide a platform for a kind of cultural/political matchmaking, if you will. That is, the events would introduce people interested in integrating cultural practice into their day-to-day political work, and artists making politically conscious work that was not yet embedded in the broader movement, to seasoned organisers, activists and artists. The events would also provide space for artists from different backgrounds and with diverse approaches and expertise to exchange ideas, hone their practices and potentially form new collaborations. Furthermore, these events would celebrate and revivify some of the extremely rich histories of culture operating at the core of collective struggle, whose documentation is still relatively sparse.

The hope was that all this would galvanise incentive, provide orientation, and build skills across various cohorts on the left, and, in so doing, would weave strong and colourful cultural threads through broader political structures. The events would also provide space for crucial discussion on challenges and opportunities that the movement faces today, for example: changes in technology and the role of social media; challenges of an increasingly casualised and precarious workforce; the prospect of increased automation; significant shifts in policies and practices of trade unions, and of political parties, and so on.

The following text is a short speech I delivered at the Liberating Arts Festival earlier this month, the second and the largest of the two events that have taken place so far to the ends outlined above. There is so much the speech doesn’t cover in terms of processes, achievements, and areas for development/future plans. However, it marks the event, and begins to sketch some of the contexts and ideas that informed it. For now, the rest is for a longer publication, which will have to follow. 

Speech to participants at the Liberating Arts Festival, Roborough Studios, University of Exeter, 4th November, 2017.

Welcome to the University of Exeter. Thank you for being here today to share this space with us, as well as your rich ideas and contributions for creating, sustaining, remembering, and developing political culture. My name is Rebecca Hillman. I’m a lecturer in the Drama Department here, and have been working on a longer-term project, of which this event forms a part, with Banner Theatre, the General Federation of Trade Unions, Reel News and Townsend Productions, overall, over the course of about 4 years!

I’m thrilled that we’ve been brought together today, from locations across the UK and beyond, to discuss – and celebrate – how art and politics have intersected and functioned in political movements past and present… and, crucially, to build relationships with one another as we talk about, and even begin to practice the development of those relationships and intersections for the future.

Townsend We Are Lions

Townsend Productions, We Are The Lions, Mr Manager! at the Liberating Arts Festival 

I’m pleased, and proud, that we are gathered in the University of Exeter’s Drama Department. Exeter Drama has (for 50 years next year!) been the home of research and teaching with radical and progressive underpinnings. Our students, many of whom were helping out today, continue to undertake exciting political work with insight, passion and curiosity, through critical and practical experimentation in the department, and in the wider community.

As for this event and the overarching project, the aim has always been to strengthen and create new bridges between trade union organising and other left activism, art practice and educational work. It feels like a great achievement to be sharing this platform, and the activities today, with people from different occupations and walks of life, and to have representation across different generations of political artists and organisers. It’s been challenging but important to hold some of these different contingents at the core of the organisation of this project, as well as to reflect this, as far as possible, in the structure of the programme, which offers diverse expertise from those pushing the boundaries of cultural and political practice.

My own interest in these ideas stems from my work as a theatre maker and trade unionist, whose practice has been facilitated and enriched through intellectual exchange, financial support, and comradeship from trade unions and trade councils. Meanwhile, I consider my own most successful attempts at political organising to have happened in the rehearsal room, the performance, and the post-show discussion. That is, it’s happened when people have had the space and time to express themselves creatively and to work with others over a duration, and to discover ways to powerfully communicate their experiences. Many of us in this room will have used artistic forms to amplify our voices to speak back to power, and to communicate with one another. We understand that artistic processes can help us discover that we’re not alone; help us discover our strength as a chorus, or crew, company, or collective. I often think of director/playwright/agitator John McGrath’s words (in relation to theatre specifically), that ‘the basic imperative of solidarity – that what happens to other people matters: these things theatre can embody, in its forms and processes’ (Nadine Holdsworth (ed.) Naked Thoughts that Roam About: Reflections on Theatre).

Political art can help us deconstruct the past and imagine better futures. It can articulate a political problem to us, more clearly than we’ve heard it before. It can win an argument, and encourage us to think critically. It can pack an emotional punch; moving us in ways we can’t quite put our finger on or put into words, but that we carry with us. Maybe it’s something to do with the way the light falls on a performer’s face… or the way she looks you in the eye…. or the way a harmony in song, or sharing a space, physically, with people from your community who you’ve never met before, makes you catch your breath, or cry, or laugh, or shout, or want to leave the room. Art can introduce us to new ideas and feelings, start conversations, and friendships, and strengthen our resolve to undertake, or continue with, the hard graft of making change. It can create powerful infrastructures, and ‘cultures of feeling’. It can begin to intervene in the very structures of our reality, changing our environment, and our behaviour. It has been recognised and used effectively to these ends by political agitators and organisers over centuries.

Many of you will be very familiar with the rich history that cultural workers and trade unionists share; how they’ve tackled collectively ideological, practical and financial challenges (many of which, unfortunately, still resonate today - remarkably closely in some cases). In the 1960s and 1970s in the UK organisations were developed by artists making politically radical work, to provide infrastructure and support for their practice. For example, Agitprop was set up in 1968 to provide (and I quote) ‘a comprehensive information and communications service for all those […] working towards a revolutionary transformation of our society’ (Catherine Itzin, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968). Impressively, this included an Entertainments Booking Agency, a Lawyers’ Group, a Publicity Group, a Music Group, a Special Effects Group, and a Street Theatre Group, as well as publications, libraries and conferences to disseminate information, and coordinate operations!

Meanwhile, the formation in the mid-70s of TACT (The Association of Community Theatres), the TWU (Theatre Writer’s Union) and the ITC (Independent Theatre Council) gave practical, creative and financial support to ‘alternative’ theatre-makers, providing a central base for equipment for hire/loan/sale; helping playwrights win the living wage, and helping groups define their own identities when the Arts Council’s criteria was found to be limiting and exclusive. Supported by such endeavors, collaborative projects evolved between artists, unions and housing associations, for example. Theatre companies performed at meetings, on picket lines and mass protests, in working men’s clubs, and in factories, schools and hospitals. We’re so privileged today to have representation from groups who were involved with, and who continue that work (in fact, I’m speaking through Banner Theatre’s microphone right now!)

Over the last few years, brilliant initiatives have emerged that begin to recall that legacy, in terms of their approaches to engagement and/or their integration into political movements. A few examples of this in terms of groups who are with us today or who presented work at our last event in December 2016, include the Artists’ Union, founded last year; Reel News who have documented strike action up and down the country and disseminated this far and wide; Brandalism’s campaigning through street art in the run up to the general election this summer; and Salford Community Theatre, who have worked with their community to create spaces of political consciousness and solidarity, in the process bringing people together with labour movement activists, and blurring the lines between performance and protest.

Love on the Dole

Salford Community Theatre's production of Love on the Dole, 2016 (Colin Armstrong Photography)

And there are many other examples, of course… like Common Wealth Theatre’s We’re Still Here, which took place a few months ago at the Port Talbot steel works, and which told the story of the Save Our Steel campaign through the eyes of local people; Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake, which premiered at Momentum’s 2016 The World Transformed, before touring community centres, labour clubs and foodbanks to raise money for those whose lives have been carved up by relocation, benefit sanctions, precarious contracts, the running down and the privatization of public services, and a raft of other symptoms of dogged neoliberal governance. The World Transformed itself, of course, which aims to function as the cultural (left) wing of the Labour Party, provides an interesting model with scope for networking and infrastructures to support relevant practice. There have also been various initiatives by Collective Encounters (who today happen to be running an event on kick-starting cultural activism projects!) … I could easily go on.

So, these are exciting times! But, as ever, there’s much work to be done. There’s a case for rebuilding a cultural wing to the labour movement that is far more tightly integrated and more firmly supported than it is presently. What this might look like, and how to make steps towards it are the fundamental questions driving these events. It is an ambitious undertaking, but it is essential if we are to rebuild the strength of our movement so that it can respond with power and dexterity to many current forthcoming changes and challenges.

My general impression over the past decade, though things are beginning to shift, is that there is a disconnect between many - particularly young - political artists and the broader movement. Also, though, that the moment we’re in, slippery as it is to hold onto long enough to define, provides unique opportunities. We have recently witnessed an influx of young people into political consciousness and activity in this country. They have, and will continue (sadly) to respond to privatisation, precarity and poverty, but also to political figures and cultural activists bold enough to carve out a socialist politics in late capitalism. Their response has manifest recently from the doorstep to branch meetings and to the ballot box; from social media to mass protests; through quiz nights, karaoke, boxing clubs, grime, street theatre, strike action, benefit gigs, community theatre projects and hilarious memes - all of which has been facilitated by expert networking.

Those of us involved at the outset of this project - the one we’re part of today - couldn’t quite envision this burgeoning of organised, creative political engagement, which was just around the corner. Or, how young people, and others who were previously disengaged would channel their anger - including, by the way, those who may not fit neatly into conceptions of what ‘the left’ looks like. What we can learn from each other, across perceived differences, so that political culture is something useful and relevant, powerful and integrated, and so it is understood that it is socialism that answers our immediate class interests, should be our greatest priority as we move forwards.

Please keep in touch. Thanks for being here. Have a fantastic night.

banner theatre Rise Like Lions

Rise, Like Lions! Performed at the Liberating Arts Festival

A full list of the sessions, which included a wide range of workshops, discussions and performances is available here.

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

Culture for the many, not the few

Written by

Culture for the Many, not the Few

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Os Semeadores
Saturday, 14 October 2017 16:38

What Do Marxists Have To Say About Art?

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In The Gallery

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

Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

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

constructivist image

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

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

jackson pollock autumn rhythm number 30

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

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

banksy tribute jean michel basquiat

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

The Monarch of the Glen Edwin Landseer 1851

Edwin Landseer,The Monarch of the Glen

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

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

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

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

 

Postcard from Theresamayienstadt
Tuesday, 22 August 2017 20:02

Postcard from Theresamayienstadt

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 2 of 4