Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and arts editor, and co-managing editor of Culture Matters.

Lugalbanda: lyrical, topical and extraordinarily relevant
Wednesday, 23 August 2017 21:08

Lugalbanda: lyrical, topical and extraordinarily relevant

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille introduces the new version of the ancient Sumerian epic poem Lugalbanda, produced by Doug Nicholls, Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions.

How can a poem 5,000 years old speak to us so attractively, and with such contemporary relevance? The Notes that Doug Nicholls has written to accompany his striking new version of Lugalbanda give clear and detailed explanations of the history of the poem, the literary skill underpinning its lyrical beauty, and its political relevance today. But before you read the Notes, read the poem, and appreciate the world it comes from. Let it charm you with its vividness, lyricism and profound humanism.

Doug suggests that we approach this and all ancient poetry not as mysteries or myths lost in the distance of time, but as examples of poetic engagements with realities that we still encounter. So when reading the poem, think about the similarities as well as the differences between the world of the poem and our world. What is like you and us in the poem, what qualities do we share with Lugalbanda?

He is an heroic figure from the first civilisation to invent writing, the wheel, law, architecture, agriculture, irrigation, and many other human firsts, which developed in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates that are now occupied by the troubled regions of Iraq and Syria. Lugalbanda survives abandonment in the wilderness, where he is left to die after falling sick whilst out with a war party, out marching to invade a neighbouring city and steal its property and its land.

In his desolation he finds the chick of a great monster bird living in the mountains. He decides to pamper and nurture the chick as its parents hunt bulls and other creatures of the mountains. As a reward for nurturing the chick he is offered great powers and riches by the chick’s father, Anzu. Yet nothing Anzu offers will please Lugalbanda, so he requests something even more powerful. He is granted his request of an amazing, creative force and power.

This request and what it symbolises is at the heart of the poem’s insight. It is an incredible choice and in making it and in exercising his new found powers, Lugalbanda changes to embody the most complex  and distinctive of human essences. As you read the poem consider what you think this power is, and then whether the Notes expresses its true meaning.

At one level the poem recounts an episode within a wider epic of adventures about the first city states and their culture. Its diction is delightful, sparkling with images of the natural world as experienced at that time, with its fish, flowers, animals and imagined gods. It is about the first wars and the first longings for peace in the region. It expresses – and embodies – the stupendous power of human beings, both creative and destructive. It speaks to us of the joys of communication and social interaction. It recalls the pre-civilised existence of human beings and the creation of the first agricultural and urban centres.

Above all it identifies something about the nature of human beings that has exceptional importance to us today. Making this discovery anew is one of the great pleasures of the poem, and makes re-reading it today a brilliant experience. You will ask yourself, how can such an ancient poem be so timely?

Read on, study the Notes and see how the voice of an unknown poet or poetess, most likely building on a still older collective oral culture from the dawn of human society, sings with a voice like ours.

This new version by Doug Nicholls of Lugalbanda is attractive, topical and extraordinarily relevant today. It is exactly the kind of cultural project that Culture Matters was set up to publish and promote, and we are proud and privileged to do so.

Lugalbanda is available here.

For the many, not the few: Liars of Earth at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art
Tuesday, 11 July 2017 06:00

For the many, not the few: Liars of Earth at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille reviews the national premiere of Liars of Earth, and interviews the artist.

Review of the Drawing

Chad McCail’s 100-foot long drawing depicts a series of stories from an imagined world in which the many have combined to overthrow the few. The liars are levelled, and the rich and powerful are overthrown and rehabilitated.

In the drawing, class struggle is presented as a parable. On one side are masked, robotic figures – oddly reminiscent of Tory politicians at election time – who have been living in stately homes, exploiting and imprisoning working people, privatising hospitals, slaughtering animals and despoiling the environment.

On the other side there are massive, mythical, avenging figures, who look like they’ve come straight out of Marvel comics. On the far left (!) they include a minotaur, destroying military tanks and aeroplanes. Moving along the drawing, we watch a huge snake devour the rich and poo them out to be re-clothed and rehabilitated. Then there’s a giant lizard which plucks apples from a willing tree that has burst out of the concrete and feeds them to children – who then turn their school into a combat vehicle and join the struggle for liberation.

Liars of Earth 1 resized 286 jpg

The skeleton of Death subdues the military

At the right-hand end of the drawing, in front of prison walls which have been smashed, crouches Jesus, compassionately overlooking a group of liberated prisoners, chatting with their victims.

Towering over it all, in the central section of the drawing and energising the whole series of tableaux, stands the ‘man of men’. He – or it could be a she – is a human giant, a figure built of thousands of people working together to defeat the rich and the robots and build a new order.

Liars of Earth 2 resized 580

The minotaur liberates animals from the abbatoir

It’s an updated, modern and witty version of the print accompanying Hobbes’ Leviathan, which shows how during a crisis the many, the entire body politic, has to unite and act as one. With the crucial difference that this time there is no crowned figure symbolising unity – there is just the ‘man of men’.

liars of earth leviathan

The print which accompanied Hobbes's Leviathan

McCail’s work builds on the techniques of comics and video games to imagine, in a playful but deeply serious way, other possible worlds where we unite to overthrow the ruling class. The moral and political lesson from this Marvel-lous work of art is clear. Only by working collectively can we defeat the rich and powerful, and build a fair and equal world where we are all free to develop as individuals and as social beings, and realise the common good – for the many, not the few.

It’s engaging, it’s imaginative, it’s topical – and it’s very, very funny.

At the NGCA, now housed at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland, 24 June - 8 October 2017.

Interview with Chad McCail

What was the inspiration for the drawing?

I worked with local residents to make a mural depicting the history of the Becontree Estate in Dagenham in 2014. I lived in London while we were making it. I hadn't lived in London for 20 years and it seemed a harder, more divided place. I learned at first hand about the city's housing and migration problems and I saw the huge disparities in wealth. When I came back to the village I live in in Lanarkshire I wanted to make something about those issues.

Can you take us through the drawing please, describing the main characters and events depicted?

My idea was to represent a city and to scale people according to their wealth and power. For the very rich the world is like a model. They pick up a factory and move it abroad. They are like giants. The people can only combat them by drawing together. In the picture they have formed themselves into great people of people, even larger than the giants.

I also wanted to suggest that when people do unite together, they discover dormant talents. They are not afraid, their confidence grows and they find hidden qualities and strengths. I think that reflected my experience of working on the mural with the people of Becontree.

Liars of Earth 3 resizedpg

The 'man of men' overthrows the rich and powerful

So I drew figures from myth who help the people to overcome the giants. Death subdues the arms manufacturer. A horned bull god frees animals from outside the abbatoir. A great snake, an ancient symbol of fertility, consumes the rich giants and shits them out reduced to normal size. The tree of knowledge bursts through the church and the biblical serpeant feeds its apples to children enabling them to adapt the school structure into a kind of animated machine/robot which helps the people. Jesus reconciles prisoners and victims.

What political ideas influence your work generally, and this work in particular?

I am interested in the work of Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst who studied with Freud but who sought a mass cure for neurosis. He thought that people's difficulties stemmed from their social conditions and the anti-sexual nature of institutional Christianity. He published The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933 and was a deeply sensitive and instinctive thinker whose articulate analysis does not date.

He was a friend of the pioneering educationalist A.S.Neil who founded Summerhilll School. Neil's understanding of the repressive nature of mass education led him to set up a democratic school where children take responsibility for their own education and where the rules are debated and changed at a weekly meeting where everyone, from the youngest child to the headmistress, has one vote.

Liars of Earth 4

The snake defecates the rich, who are then re-clothed and re-educated by children who've turned their school into a combat vehicle of liberation

I am influenced by the writings of different socialist and anarchist thinkers who believe that people are perfectly capable of organising themselves. And finally, Robert L. Moore gave 4 lectures on masculine archetypes where he refines Carl Jung's ideas. He suggests we are drawn to pleasure like moths to flame. We need pleasure to release the tension that builds in us, but if we surrender utterly to its demands it will destroy us. Culture provides us with structures to approach that flame, draw the energy we need and return renewed and refreshed.

Who and what are the main influences on your artistic practice?

Most of my influences are literary. I read a lot of fiction, science fiction particularly because it's a genre that allows a writer a certain freedom to explore different possibilities, to examine the consequences of our general direction and propose alternatives and to use analogy and metaphor to get at current tendencies. Philip.K. Dick is a great writer who wrote serious fiction in a popular idiom with a lot of humour. Ursula Le Guin I love too.

What's your view of British politics these days, and in particular the Corbyn phenomenon?

 Jeremy Corbyn's manifesto was good and I hope that now the party will support him. I admire his integrity and how he stands by his ideas, whether they are popular or not.  40 years of neo-liberalism have deepened social divisions and inequalities, and there is an enormous amount to be done now. We need to rebuild the union movement, make real provision for immigrants, develop an industrial strategy based on a sober assessment of our needs and resources and an equitable use of our time and energies.  

We need to consider how our children develop a sense of responsibility, because the 19th century  model we use is really only concerned with discipline and pattern recognition. If you deprive young people of any real choice for eleven or twelve years how are they to get any experience of decision-making?

We need to recognise that real pleasure lies in our relationships with one another rather than things. The isolated way of life we have developed has destructive consequences for us as a society but also for all the animals and plants we so casually disregard.

Liars of Earth 5

The lizard plucks apples from the tree for the children, and Jesus oversees reconciliation between prisoners and victims

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017
Tuesday, 04 July 2017 15:30

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017

Published in Poetry

The Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite in partnership with Culture Matters, was instituted this year. The idea is to stimulate the writing of poetry about working class lives and communities, by people who otherwise might not write or enter competitions.

We're very pleased that it has been a tremendous success, although we were almost overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of submissions. Several hundred poems were sent in, of all kinds and from a wide range of writers across Britain and indeed across the world: America, India, Nigeria and Australia, to name just a few. Many entries were accompanied by notes saying how grateful the writers were to Unite and to Culture Matters for opening up what can seem a very exclusive and elitist artistic practice.

Two judges kindly agreed to the difficult task of studying, sifting, and judging the poems. They were Andy Croft, the poet and publisher of Smokestack Books, and Mary Sayer, an official from Unite working in the field of cultural education. In the light of the high quality of so many of the entries, the judges decided to divide the prizes equally between three poems, submitted by Helen Burke, Mair De-Gare Pitt, and John Wright. They will each receive £285.

The judges were extremely impressed by the entries. Here's what Mary Sayer wrote to us afterwards:

What a delight this has been – reading my way through the hundreds of remarkable poems entered into this competition. None of us had any idea there would be so many entries of such a high standard.

All of the poems were very readable and most of them were a real pleasure to read. I felt genuinely humbled having to 'choose' between such passionate and interesting poems. All were political and heartfelt - often funny and deeply moving - inspiring; I had no idea that there were so many articulate politicos out there.

But more than anything, as I read - I began to appreciate what a privilege it was to share the outpourings of so many committed and caring individuals. It was almost impossible to shortlist, and we did so on the understanding that we could highly commend a long list of entries and do justice to the rest by publishing as many as possible, in an anthology.

Thanks to Culture Matters for involving me in this competition and to my union Unite for sponsoring it. As co-ordinator of 'Unite in Schools' programme, this has inspired me to run a similar poetry competition in schools and colleges, around the campaigns and political issues chosen by students in our sessions.

 We will be publishing many of the poems sent to us, both online and in a printed anthology. We are very grateful to Unite for sponsoring the Award; to the judges, for all their hard work; but most of all to the hundreds of poets who sent in such wonderful poems. Please continue to send us poems that you wish to be considered for publication, especially on topical issues.

Here is one of the poems sent in, by Fred Voss. Fred works as a machinist in a metalworking shop in Long Beach, California, and has been published by Bloodaxe Books and by Culture Matters.

Billie Holliday Crooning a Rose Opening

by Fred Voss

All our lives we have known about great men
Teddy Roosevelt
on Mount Rushmore Paul Revere
riding his horse the marble eyes
of Lincoln looking out so wisely from his monument
but can standing at a grinding wheel 10 hours a day until your fingertips are scraped raw
be great
can holding onto a jumping pounding jackhammer
until your spine rattles
be great
Napoleon
in his 3-cornered hat is great Orville Wright gliding
over the sands of Kitty Hawk is great the top
of the Empire State Building and the Rock of Gibraltar
and Lindbergh stepping out of his airplane to ride down Broadway in his tickertape parade
are great but can oil cans
and concrete floors and twisted backs and crane hooks and whoops
of crazy delight from the throats of men who have run machines in the corners of tin buildings
for 40 years be great
can missing the dawn sun
as 2-ton drop hammers explode behind tin walls at 6 am and fists
that never give up closing around monkey wrenches and hammer handles and spirits
of men that can never be broken even after 7
layoffs and a thousand screams
of foremen in their faces
be great
can gnarled hands and ticking time clocks and greasy shop rags hanging out of back pockets
and men
who’ve clawed their way out of prison cells straightjackets
skid row gutters gangs and grabbed
machine handles and smiled again
be great
John Barrymore crossing a stage Caesar in a helmet Shakespeare holding his quill pen the tiger
leaping through jungle moonlight
are great but are the 3 teeth
left in the head of the engine lathe operator who lifts his wrench and laughs like he’s the luckiest
man on earth great is the man
who took the heroin needle out of his arm and learned to dial the razor-sharp edge
of a cutting tool into brass round stock and shave it
to a finish beautiful
as any solo
Miles Davis ever blew out of his trumpet
great
how can the sun a Joe Louis punch a marlin hanging in the air
above the sea Billie Holiday crooning a rose
opening any man
who ever worked his heart out to feed his child not
be great?

 

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

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille traces the links between corporate sponsorship and the distortion of history and art, in two recent exhibitions.

How do the ruling classes manipulate art and culture to secure political consent for oppression and exploitation? Two exhibitions on the 1917 Revolution in Russia go some way to providing an answer.

Most historians of Russian history in 1917 accept that both the February and October Revolutions in 1917 were both clear improvements on the Tsarist autocracy that preceded them.

Most cultural historians also recognise the explosion of creativity and the widespread democratisation of culture which followed the October Revolution. Art and cultural activities suddenly became exciting, accessible and relevant to many ordinary Russians.

But these are uncomfortable facts for our current rulers, who must crush any hopes for political or cultural progress if they are to stay on top. And there are two ways they can undermine those facts and hopes. One is to construct a biased and misleading narrative which ignores historical evidence and downplays artists’ support for the Revolution. This is the strategy which was followed in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, in its openly one-sided and distorted presentation of the politics and art of the Revolution.

The second way is to create a monumental fudge which obscures the real historical and cultural achievements of 1917, through a kind of chaotic eclecticism. This is the strategy followed by the British Library in its current exhibition of ‘a wide range of objects’ and in the mistaken, banal and often meaningless ‘guided tour’ offered by its curator in the Morning Star recently.

Let me take three examples from the curator’s article. The first is this statement:

‘Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world.’

How on earth anyone can write this in the middle of an election campaign in which the Labour Party are quite clearly trying to address the faults of a capitalist society which concern us all, is beyond belief.

The second is the individualistic focus on the ‘personal stories’ of those involved, and reliance on the ‘individual interpretations’ of visitors to the exhibition, rather than providing a broader historically-based understanding of Russian history, which is left for ‘academics to analyse’. Frankly, this is a cop-out, because curatorial practice, including the type of contextual and supporting material supplied, is bound to influence visitors’ perceptions.

It is also disingenuous, because the curators do have a message. They believe that the exhibition ‘can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response’. This is sloppy and simplistic thinking.

History is full of instances where individuals and classes have violently seized control of commonly held resources, and have been unwilling to give them up peacefully. They have had to be challenged, defeated and restrained by force as well as by peaceful argument, in order that most people can have a fair share of the earth’s resources. Of course peaceful persuasion is best, but what alternative is there to force if that doesn’t work to end exploitation? Would slaves, peasants and serfs have ever been freed without their violent, illegal rebellions?

The ‘violence breeds violence’ message conceals a defeatist political agenda. When the law itself is nothing more than a codification of unjust and oppressive social and economic relationships, it has to be challenged and changed by every means at our disposal.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – both exhibitions have been sponsored by the Blavatnik Foundation. This foundation is the beneficiary of Britain’s second richest man, Leonard Blavatnik, who made a huge fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying legalised robbery by private individuals and corporations of the wealth built up by the Russian people since 1917.

So money stolen from the Russian people is used to fund cultural exhibitions which – guess what? – distort the truth about Russian history. That is how dominant classes manipulate art and culture to secure consent for exploitation and oppression.

Have there ever been more obvious examples of the increasing corruption of our cultural institutions by corporate capital, masquerading as philanthropic or charitable foundations? A key demand of any progressive arts and culture policy must now be the complete abolition of private sponsorship of our common culture and heritage.

This article is also published in the Morning Star.

Thursday, 12 October 2017 16:27

What do you think of it so far?

Published in Round-up

 We're reviewing Culture Matters and would really like some feedback from our readers and supporters. What is your overall impression of the website? How well are we fulfilling our mission of promoting a socialist and progressive approach to the arts and other cultural activities, where culture is organised for the many, not the few? What do you think of the quality and range of the material we publish? Have you considered joining the Culture Matters co-operative? If not, why not? How can we encourage involvement in our work? Please take a few minutes to click on the title above and complete this survey:

Survey Monkey/Culture Matters Supporter Survey

Thanks to those who have already responded.

The struggle never ends
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 18:25

The struggle never ends

Published in Music

Like all artists, musicians enhance the quality of our lives, and expand the cultural commons which we need as much as the air we breathe. Chris Wood has developed into one of the most socially aware songwriters in Britain, and Mike Quille caught up with him during his latest British tour.

MQ: Who are the people who've influenced you most, musically and politically?

CW: The answer to both those questions is - Anon. I grew up listening to folk song and I have to say, it's all there. Our folk songs are a vast repository of wisdom, and are about a history that has largely escaped the airbrush of the establishment. In fact the establishment works quite hard to have us believe that our folk music is not cool, that it is silly and naïve, which a great deal of it is.

But in amongst the fol-de-rols there are works of exquisite genius and great wisdom. Tales of cruelty and injustice, inventiveness and stoicism, love and fortitude. Above all folk music reminds me that, whatever is thrown at us, we abide.

MQ. You won the BBC Folk Award for the song None the Wiser, a melancholy but devastatingly insightful song about the way things are these days. Can you tell us something about the background to the song?

CW: None The Wiser was written on the Joan Armatrading tour bus during a 60 day tour. I remember Elvis Costello saying that he quickly realised if he didn't learn to write while touring he wasn't going to get anything written.

Every morning we'd wake up in a different town and I'd have the whole day to hang out in town centres and coffee shops. I soon realised I was getting a privileged opportunity to observe Britain in the throes of Austerity. Much more immersive than any politician on a 'battle bus' - with or without a lie painted on the side.

I remember a guy whose job was as a 'first on the scene' aircraft crash specialist. He said the first crash he attended he couldn't see any bodies and then, he started to realise there was a piece of something there and another piece of what looked like something there, a smear here and a shape there, the horror that slowly came upon him as he 'got his eye in' was a moment he'd never forget.

Well, without attempting to sound too dramatic, I had a similar experience as I spent time hanging out in town centres the length and breadth of the British Isles. I started to get my eye in, and my ear too. I'm sorry if it's a bit gritty for some people but pretty much all of what takes place in that song happened.

MQ. The way  you've arranged and sing Jerusalem is unusually downbeat and reflective. How far do you identify with Blake’s ‘mental fight’ to ‘build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’?

CW: I woke at 4am one day, with Blake's half-remembered words in my head, so I looked them up. For the first time in my life I encountered the words, not sung by the crowd at the Last Night of the Proms, but as the poet had intended, on the page. It was an epiphany, and two things struck me.

Firstly, the first verse consists not of triumphal statements, but of four questions, to which the answers are all No.

And secondly, that this was a 4am poem. It's not the voice of many, it is a solitary voice. It's the voice of a human reaching into himself to find a reason to carry on. The voice of a man shaken by the depth of indifference the world has for him and all that he believes in.

I managed to get back to sleep but I awoke with a new tune in my head. I'm not trying to sell my thinking or my work here but this setting seems to me to more closely honour the poet.

I know what Blake means – the struggle never ends.

MQ. What’s the music business like these days, for working musicians?

CW: The business is brutal, but I think it always has been. That said, I wouldn't want to do anything else. I asked a fellow music biz worker what would he do if he won the Lottery, and he replied ‘exactly what I'm doing now, but ruder! I love what I do but love is, as they say, blind.

If I could click my fingers and make one change I would have loads more women in the business. It's far too blokey. I'm not so much talking about the principal artists but the backing musicians, crew, producers, promoters, mix engineers etc. Whenever I encounter women in these areas of the industry they are not only, of course, highly accomplished but have a hugely positive effect on the men around them.

MQ: How's your current tour, the So Much to Defend Tour, going?

CW: Well, a few years ago the industry decided to make music available, effectively, for free. The public responded wholeheartedly and now we find we have an industry which is, how shall we put this... fluid.

But you still find people talking like nothing has really happened. So an innocent question like, "When's the album out?" actually means – when will we be able to get what you've been pouring your heart, soul and life savings into for the past three years, for free?

This of course is not isolated to musicians. Driving jobs employ the most males in the western world, and yet the driverless car is only about 4/5 years away. Even lawyers, god bless ‘em, are looking over their shoulders as legal search sofware becomes ever more refined.

So the perfectly reasonable question ‘How's the tour going?’ actually translates as something like - now that your recordings are worthless I expect you're playing every gig you can get?

MQ. Finally, in ‘Trespasser’ you lament the Enclosures, the process of privatising and commercialising the commons, which as you say happens with cultural products like music as well as land. So what’s your thinking on what the way forward should be?

CW: It’s a human fault to always feel that the times through which we’re living are somehow special. There’s nothing particular or special about where we are at the moment. All of history’s archetypes are present – the avaricious, the ignorant, the helpless, the blind, the unquestioning, the naive, the cynical, the jaded, the selfish, the acquisitive, the self-righteous and so on.

Personally, I try to vote with my money. I’ve never been in debt to anyone but a building society. I avoid multinationals, I try and source my needs from my community and keep the VAT down to an absolute minimum. The allotment is a massive part of our life.

And of course there’s the songwriting!

Chris Wood is currently on tour, for dates and venues see http://chriswoodmusic.co.uk/gigs/. This is an extended version of an interview published by the Morning Star.

Bread, roses and the cultural commons
Monday, 30 January 2017 15:24

Bread, roses and the cultural commons

Published in Arts & Cultural Policy

‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’ said the aptly named Rose Schneiderman early in the last century. She was right, we all need bread – fair material rewards for our labour – but we also need roses. We need a popular and extensive cultural commons, including free or cheap access to cultural activities, to develop and enjoy our essentially social natures.

The Culture Matters website aims to contribute to the cultural struggle, what Blake called the ‘mental fight’ for a new Jerusalem, for a more democratic and socialist society. The struggle will be long and hard. Over time, capitalism has penetrated our culture more and more. And culture, as Raymond Williams pointed out, is not just highbrow art but consists of all our ideas, values, beliefs and customs, including all the arts but also sport, religion, eating and drinking, watching TV, etc.

It’s true that capitalism’s dynamism and innovation has helped create a massive expansion in opportunities for cultural education and enjoyment. Think of the number of TV and radio channels, books, art galleries, films, music festivals, and sports facilities there are these days. But there is also a relentless drive for profit in capitalism. Every human activity, including art and cultural activity, has to be measured by its contribution to profitability. It is also fundamentally exploitative, as demonstrated in the famous passage of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where the Great Money Trick is explained. This transfer of value from workers to owners is divisive and unjust, so in order to lessen social conflict there has to be an ideological drive to generate a culture of submission and acceptance of exploitation.

Capitalism shapes culture, and culture expresses capitalism, in many different ways. It’s why sport is so commercialised and corrupt, why so much organised religion is so uncritical of exploitation and injustice, why we have TV programmes like The Apprentice glorifying selfishness and ruthless competitiveness, and why the supermarkets encourage a culture of overconsumption of food and drink.

And it’s why we have a huge and long-term problem of unequal funding by the state for the arts in Britain today. The inequalities are of staggering, Dickensian proportions. Vast swathes of the arts and cultural activities are virtually impossible for most ordinary people – particularly poorer people – to access and enjoy, for reasons linked to social class, geography and education.

On top of these structural problems, we’re suffering massive cutbacks to support for arts and cultural activities across the country, particularly outside London and the South East. These are happening through cuts in funding, directly and through cuts in general support for local authorities – particularly in poorer areas. Critical and creative engagement with the arts is also being shunted out of the educational curriculum.

Culture Matters seeks to expose the Great Culture Trick, the shocking inequalities in the way the arts and cultural activities are currently funded and managed. It will also campaign for more progressive policies. Because we know that the arts and cultural activities can resist, oppose and help overcome alienation and oppression. They can increase awareness, arouse indignation, and imagine alternatives. Robert Tressell’s novel is a good example of that potential. But it’s also there in sports clubs, churches, supermarkets and pubs, as well as in art galleries, concert halls and poetry readings.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which triggered one of the most significant, popular artistic and cultural explosions of the twentieth century. Let’s make 2017 the year of campaigning for bread and roses.

If you think you can help with relevant material for this section of the website, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This is an edited version of an article first published in the Morning Star.

Monday, 14 November 2016 00:11

Welcome to Culture Matters

Published in About us

Welcome to Culture Matters


20de757c22c223669137e452488fb41e L

I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.

- William Blake

                    

 

Culture Matters is part of our cultural struggle or ‘mental fight’ against class divisions, to achieve a cultural commons in a socialist society – a new Jerusalem, as William Blake called it, and not only in England, but across the world. As you can see from the About Us section, we aim to promote a progressive political approach to the arts and all other cultural activities.

You'll find recent material on this Home page, and every piece sent in since our launch a couple of years ago is available under the relevant topic sections in the Arts and Culture Hubs.

Everything on Culture Matters – articles, poems, images, editorial and technical support – has been contributed freely. We are a registered co-operative, firmly rooted in the labour movement, and we're planning to publish more books, deliver cultural education packages, run arts awards in partnership with trade unions, and develop other progressive cultural projects. If you would like to help with this work by joining the co-op and buying shares, please visit Shop & Support. You're also welcome to contribute articles, essays, poems and artworks to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

We hope you enjoy browsing the site, and that you find it entertaining, enlightening and inspiring. Culture Matters!

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary
Thursday, 10 November 2016 15:43

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: Heretical, Subversive and Revolutionary

Published in Visual Arts

A radical cultural struggle against the established order: Mike Quille reviews the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.

Curators sometimes overuse the word revolutionary when promoting exhibitions but it is an apt description of the six paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio which hang alongside those of his admirers, rivals and imitators at the National Gallery. The show Beyond Caravaggio demonstrates just how innovative, oppositional and subversive his paintings were — and are.

Rome in the early 17th century was a city deeply divided by class, with a tiny minority of very rich and powerful people and large numbers of poor. It was also dominated by the Church which then, as now, often served to legitimise the exploitation of the many by the few. Art was commissioned and deployed by the popes and cardinals to provide conformist devotional images, part of the ideological justification for an unjust social order.

But Caravaggio’s art was both heretical and revolutionary. Long before thinkers were articulating theories of how religion expressed and inverted worldly suffering, he took religious themes and, visually, brought them down to earth. In Supper at Emmaus, the scepticism and shock on the careworn faces of peasants in their tattered work clothes gives a resolutely human and mundane perspective on sacred events - see how the man on the right of the picture stretches out his arms, like Christ on the cross. Imagine the reactions of poor pilgrims from all over Europe, streaming past these paintings, seeing themselves depicted realistically in sacred scenes for the first time!

The striking realism and “tenebrism” of Caravaggio — strongly contrasting tones, piercing light and vast pools of inky shadows — heightens the emotional challenge and drama in the images, as exemplified in The Taking of Christ.

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, 1602, Dublin


Like the noir film genre, surely part of his legacy, it is a visual expression of the uncertainties, contradictions and obscure, violent terrors of the precarious social existence around him. We can also interpret the painting as depicting the way artistic culture, represented by Judas and Caravaggio himself on the far right of the picture, holding the lamp, betrays truth and justice by allying itself with the violent, armour-clad forces of social domination. It's a prophetic parable of cultural hegemony, centuries before Gramsci was born. 

Caravaggio’s art also has a democratic force: it includes, involves and empowers. In Supper at Emmaus, the disciples’ hands stretch out, drawing us into the composition. For the first time in the history of Western art, the space between viewer and scene has been destroyed. And, in contrast to traditional religious art, the meanings in Caravaggio’s paintings are challenging, ambiguous and negotiable, liberating us from a lazy, deferential consent to the dominant ways of thinking and feeling so omnipresent in class-divided societies.

In paintings such as Card Players, depicting a foppish, soft-skinned aristocrat being cheated at cards by a lowlife character, whose side are we supposed to be on? Is this not a painting of resistance and rebellion, of playfully imagined expropriation by the lower classes from the rich thieves who rule them?

caravaggio cardsharps1

Cardsharps, Caravaggio, 1594, Kimbell Art Museum

In the light — and dark — of Caravaggio’s amazing achievement, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the other paintings in the exhibition are nowhere near as good. There are some technically good imitations but generally his admirers and imitators reverted to the mainstream aesthetics of devotion, awe and pity in religious art and a relatively anaemic realism in secular art.

The upheavals of 20th-century modernism are what make Caravaggio’s art look incredibly of the here and now. The enduring power of his paintings shows us that truly great art is intrinsically opposed to class-divided societies. Now, we are used to subversive ambiguity, social awareness and uncomfortable challenges to the viewer. Then, it was truly revolutionary — a radical cultural struggle against the established aesthetic and ideological order.

And because our unequal world is not so different from his, we can still feel the strength of his challenging, complex and oppositional art. In that sense art has not, in fact, gone beyond Caravaggio.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Beyond Caravaggio runs at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until January 15, and then tours to Dublin and Edinburgh.

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90
Friday, 04 November 2016 15:36

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90

Published in Poetry

John Berger was born on 5th November 1926. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we republish some of his poems, an interview, and some of his quotations.

One of the people who was due to attend the Teeside International Poetry Festival in 2015 was John Berger, the Marxist art critic, essayist, novelist, artist and poet. He could not come in the end, due to severe arthritis, but he appeared via Skype at one of the sessions, and recited some poems from his recent collection, published by Smokestack Books.

Collected Poems reflects Berger's longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, and the life of the peasantry around him (he used to live in the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps). They demonstrate an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

You can tell from the poems that the writer is a fine draughtsman and artist. Each one of them is like a perfectly framed image, a painted still life, sensual, honest and plain. They are sketches of hard lives, caught between the provisional nature of language and the permanence of things. Here are five of the poems.

16.45h The Firing Squad

The dog carried the day in her mouth
over the fields of the small hours
towards a hiding place
which before had been safe.

Nobody was woken before dawn.

At noon
the dog sprawling in the shade
placed the pup between her four paws
and waited in vain
for it to suck.

A line of prisoners
hands knotted
fall forward
into the grave they have dug.

Belly to the earth
the dog carries the day
which has never stirred
back to its dark.

Under the stars the bereaved
imagine they hear
a dog howling too
on the edge of the world.

This piteous day was born
stone-deaf and blind.

Napalm

Mother let me cry
not letterpress
nor telex
nor stainless speech
bulletins
announce disaster
with impunity -
but the pages of the wound.

Mother let me speak
not adjectives
to colour
their maps of wretchedness
nor nouns to classify
the families of pain -
but the verb of suffering.

My mother tongue taps
the sentence
on the prison wall
Mother let me write
the voices
howling in the falls.


History

The pulse of the dead
as interminably
constant as the silence
which pockets the thrush.

The eyes of the dead
inscribed on our palms
as we walk on this earth
which pockets the thrush.


Seven Levels of Despair

To search each morning
to find the scraps
with which to survive another day.

The knowledge on waking
that in this legal wilderness
no rights exist.

The experience over the years
of nothing getting better
only worse.
The humiliation of being able
to change almost nothing,
and of seizing upon the almost
which then leads to another impasse.

The listening to a thousand promises
which pass inexorably
beside you and yours.

The example of those who resist
being bombarded to dust.

The weight of your own killed
a weight which closes
innocence for ever
because they are so many.


Ladle

Pewter pock-marked
moon of the ladle
rising above the mountain
going down into the saucepan
serving generations
steaming
dredging what has grown from seed
in the garden
thickened with potato
outliving us all
on the wooden sky
of the kitchen wall

Serving mother
of the steaming pewter breast
veined by the salts
fed to her children
hungry as boars
with the evening earth
engrained around their nails
and bread the brother
serving mother

Ladle
pour the sky steaming
with the carrot sun
the stars of salt
and the grease of the pig earth
pour the sky steaming
ladle
pour soup for our days
pour sleep for our night
pour years for my children


Art and Politics

As well as being a major poet, John Berger is a cultural critic who has challenged and changed the way we see the world, in countless essays and in books such as Ways of Seeing, Permanent Red, Pig Earth, and the novel G.

During the Skype session at the Festival, he answered some questions about art and politics. I followed this up with a telephone interview with him, and exchanged some texts, and below I set out the questions he was asked, and the answers that he gave.

Q. What constitutes good art?

A. Good art is like a lorry: it transports.

Q. Are poets, as Shelley famously suggested, the unacknowledged legislators of the world?

A. Poets are not legislators themselves, but they can be great agents of change. They evoke the need for a new politics by being able to envision the world, to summon up the past and future, to make them present, thus making it clearer how things could be different.

Q. Auden said that poetry changed nothing, and Brecht said that art is a hammer with which to change reality. Can poetry make useful political interventions, and change reality?

A. Well you have to remember that reality is not just some outside, fixed given, it includes our experience of what’s out there. With that in mind, it seems to me that poetry can indeed change people, because we all know how a good poem alters, no matter how slightly, our perceptions of the world around us. Those perceptions lead to us making hundreds of different choices, including political choices. So its effect is continuous, and multiple.  It can also encourage disobedience, and demonstrate that language is not necessarily the meaningless crap by which we are surrounded!

Q. You have produced many kinds of writing, including art criticism, novels, essays, and poems. Which discipline do you prefer the most?

A. Nearly all my work has involved collaborations with other people. For example, Ways of Seeing, for which most people know me best, was a collaboration with several others, and this tends to get forgotten.  So I would say that I don’t have a preferred genre as such, but I do have a preferred mode of creativity, and that is collaboration. For me, collaboration is a kind of solidarity, in fact it creates solidarity, and that is for me a very important principle of working.

Q. You spoke of the ability of poetry to envision the world. How should teachers and academics approach poetry, what should they do with it, and how should it be taught?

A. Students and people generally should be encouraged to surround themselves with poetry, with the sounds and forms and silences that are in poems.

Q. What impact do you think the internet has had on the arts and society generally?

A. The internet is a fast, effective way of sharing a lot of information. It thus helps expose and clarify the present structures of power in the world. It makes it clearer how globalised capitalism works, how the world is run by decisions taken by giant transnational corporations, by tiny elites of capitalists.
I think many young people see this clearly, partly because of the ease with which they handle new technology, but also because they are one of the main victims of unemployment, low pay and insecure employment.

Politicians have lost power, or perhaps it has become clearer how little power they ever really had. But they won’t admit it, and this leads to great folly and doublespeak in the use of language, which alienates people, it makes us feel lost and desperate. But we can resist it when we realize where power comes from, and as I say, the internet and new technology generally can help clarify where real power lies.

Q. What would be your parting message be to us?

A. We live in a dark age. Art has existed for at least 30,000 years. Another age of hope will come.

Work for it!

Some Quotes from John Berger


'the issue is between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialised experts, who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. In decline, not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.'

‘I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or art and state property, unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can be developed any further.'

'My aim has been to try and destroy this bourgeois society'

'The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.'

Page 1 of 4