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Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (93)

Reading Marx
Saturday, 31 March 2018 13:52

Reading Marx

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB marx cartoon 2. jpg

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

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

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

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

Open Sesame

Well grubbed, old mole!

- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB marx cartoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Maurice Levitas, Irish academic and communist.

 

 

 

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

Marx and culture

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

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

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

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

Zodiac Heads
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 15 March 2018 14:33

Culture's Nice Try

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 "Culture is BAE Systems Britain", appropriated government overseas advertising image, Stephen Pritchard, 2018.
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 06 March 2018 17:12

The Great North Exhibition and BAE

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must say no! Please sign the petition now.

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

55 Degrees North

by Keith Armstrong

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

 

Time to take art back from the capitalists: a brief history of art and artwashing
K2_PUBLISHED_ON 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
K2_PUBLISHED_ON 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
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
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
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.

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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.

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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
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.

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Children's literature from the 1920s

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

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Agit-train; Agit-boat with theatre on board

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact on cultural workers

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

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Tatlin's Tower;socialist architecture

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

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

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

Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising; Agrarian Leader Zapata

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

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

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

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

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

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

MQ Coal Face 1935

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

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact on appreciation and enjoyment

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

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Joan Littlewood; the People's Theatre, Newcastle

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

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

The revolutionary nature of art

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

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

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

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

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

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Pablo Picasso, Guernica

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact through resistance and reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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American postcard, 1930s

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

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

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Poster, Go to the Stadiums!

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

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

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

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

This anti-communism has also manifested itself this year, in various TV programmes and exhibitions. The exhibition of post-revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy, for example, was strikingly reactionary. Funded by the Blavatnik Foundation, a beneficiary of the sell-off of state-owned assets when the USSR collapsed in 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.

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