Mike Quille

Mike Quille

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

Bakshiram
Monday, 04 January 2016 21:45

Artist and Empire

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille explores the relations between art, politics and empire, in the current Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain.

Has there ever been a more successful engine of global exploitation than the British Empire? And has any other empire been better at reframing that exploitation as benevolent paternalism, moral improvement and the general all-round civilisation of savages?

At its height the British Empire was the largest in history, covering almost a quarter of the world's total land area. It has shrank over the last hundred years to a handful of overseas territories, but its legacy is everywhere. It is most obvious in the statues and monuments all over the country to cruel, thuggish and racist monarchs, admirals, generals, politicians and imperial administrators. They dominate and disfigure our public spaces: hence the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford.

Other legacies of Empire lie in social structures, in the fault lines of contemporary global politics particularly in the Middle East, and in art and culture generally. One of the sad and sobering aspects of this exhibition is the way it reveals how the ruling classes have since the early colonial period co-opted most art and most artists, most of the time. Commissioned by the rich and powerful, artists have themselves been colonised, paid to promote, legitimise, and even glorify Britain's violent and rapacious foreign conquests.

Six rooms at Tate Britain tell the story through art of colonial conquest, collaboration, subordination and resistance. Various items of visual and material culture eg paintings, flags, sculptures, clothing and maps, are used to illustrate various themes.

In the first room, Mapping and Marking, we see how British cartographers and surveyors mapped occupied territory, erased indigenous ownership, imposed new names and new borders, and presented domination as civilisation.

The next room, Trophies of Empire, focuses on the various objects, specimens and other examples of material culture brought back by explorers, sailors, missionaries and traders. It shows how the looting, bartering and purchasing which accompanied the imperial project penetrated museums, elite collections, laboratories and zoos.

Next, Imperial Heroics explores the explicitly ideological mission of most British history painting, which helped shape popular perceptions of the Empire. They include representations of heroic struggle and martyrdom by tiny bands of brave British soldiers, surrounded by crowds of savages. Some of the representations of nineteenth century jihadists resisting Empire are unnervingly topical, and seem prophetic in the light of the current Islamophobia in the media. Just how much has actually changed in the way our mainstream culture views people with other religions and darker skins?

The room on Power Dressing is a fascinating insight into how the Western elite tradition of grand portraiture, developed to convey the power and dominance of representatives of the ruling classes, arrived in colonies along with the gunboats, machine guns and deceitful diplomacy. British diplomats and administrators were often portrayed wearing indigenous clothing such as Native American costume. Colonised peoples, whilst often forced to adopt Western styles of clothing, often modified and resisted it, or knowingly played to imperial expectations by wearing their own. Trans-cultural cross-dressing expressed the tensions and conflicts between homeland, colony, and imperial centre, in striking and sometimes humorous ways.

Face to Face contains some fine examples of portraits of Empire's subjects. Both Charles Frederick Goldie and Rudolf Swoboda paint colonial subjects sympathetically, giving dignity and identity back to them, and revealing elements of doubt, even guilt, about imperial conquest. Swoboda's 'Bakshiram' (reproduced above courtesy of Tate Britain) is one of the finest paintings in the exhibition.

And finally, in the artworks in the Out of Empire room (and occasionally pointedly positioned in the other rooms) we see how post-colonial and contemporary artists developed some effective artistic practices which challenged, ironicised and thoroughly demolished the deceitful ideology and iconography of Empire. Gradually, through long and difficult struggles by Black and Asian artists who were initially marginalised by the art establishment, modern visual art has freed itself from the shackles of misrepresentation and glorification of Empire. Now, it is a much more critical and truthful representation of the political and economic realities which underpinned it.

Artist and Empire is revealing, educational and entertaining, and shows how important it is to present art within its political and economic context. Curating art in this way clarifies how art is rooted in and reflective of its historical and political environment. It shows, sadly, how art sometimes works by supporting and glorifying racism, sexism and other kinds of class-based cultural domination which enable and legitimise the straightforward economic exploitation which is the core project of empire.

You will surely come out of this exhibition, feeling moved and enlightened, as I did, asking questions, like Brecht's Questions from a Worker Who Reads. Why are the relations between art, history and politics not commonly shown in our art galleries? How much more relevant and popular art would become if we were shown, for example, how artistic images of women throughout history are linked to the class-based oppression and exploitation of women from time immemorial?

What if the pictures of representatives of the ruling class in the National Portrait Gallery, and in all our local museums and stately homes, were presented in the context of the actual exploitative economic realities underpinning their elite status?

What if all curators – as they do in Artist and Empire – routinely unearthed and exposed the true nature of the relations between art, ideology and the politics of class-divided societies, where wealth accumulates from the economic exploitation of subordinated working people? Would it not be a public service if more art gallery directors, curators and other cultural workers joined the struggle for our cultural liberation?

Artist and Empire is a brave and satisfying exhibition, a great help with that cultural struggle. And its huge popularity with the general public as well as critics suggests that it is high time this kind of approach was adopted more widely.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until April 10. Admission is £16 but concessions are available.

Blake's Jerusalem Frontispiece
Tuesday, 01 December 2015 14:24

Welcome! Thank You! Join In!

Published in Round-up

Welcome to Culture Matters, a website about progressive art, culture and politics.

You'll find more information about us in the About Us section, surprisingly enough.

We hope you enjoy your visit, and are interested, engaged and even inspired by the material to join in the 'mental fight'.

The Home Page has all of our latest articles, you can go here for details on recent material, and you can look at everything using the buttons above.

In particular we recommend the material which is about (and by) Muslims and refugees, such as the poems and short stories of Mohja Kahf, Muhaned Khorshid, and Amir Darwish. And we recommend Salena Godden's post-punk poem on the Paris attacks; Christopher Rowland's insightful article on Blake; John Storey's cogently argued piece on why culture matters; and Andy Croft's lucid yet passionate case for the essentially communist nature of poetry. If you know anyone who can write like Andy about the other arts, please send them our way.

Thanks also to the Morning Star for their assistance and support. Some of the current pieces you see here are taken from that unique paper. They are there not only for their own sake but as examples of the kind of committed writing we hope you are looking for, and which we want to encourage. And thanks to the Communist Party of Britain for providing webspace and technical support for this broadly based artistic and cultural project.

Culture Matters is currently like a first edition, or a skeleton, or a thinly populated country which we have provisionally mapped out but not defined. Many sections need more articles, and more creative material. In the months and hopefully years ahead, we want contributors to populate the country, help put flesh on the skeleton, and clothes on the flesh.

So please do join in, if you want to. You will find some common threads running through a lot of the material, a kind of emerging consensual approach to art, culture and politics. That approach, coming from contributors, is our steer, which we want to build on. Please help shape the site by reading the material, by making comments and suggestions, and by sending proposals and material to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Help build the new Jerusalem, artistically, culturally and politically, throughout Britain and the world as well as in England's green and pleasant land. Enjoy your visit, and please come back. Because Culture Matters!
Mike Quille and Ben Stevenson, Co-Managing Editors

 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015 20:05

Who We Are, What We Think and What We Want

Published in About us
Who We Are

Culture Matters is for everyone interested in the arts, in culture generally and in politics. We are a collective of writers and activists who have come together to provide webspace and editorial and technical support for a  'broad left' cultural struggle for a better society.

What We Think

Culture matters. Enjoying artistic and cultural activities can help develop us and liberate us. They please the senses, stimulate the mind, arouse our emotions, and inspire us.  We have a right to freely access the co-created culture that is our common property. In our class-divided society, our cultural commons is under threat in many ways, and we need to learn how to defend it and enhance it, for the common good.

Let's learn how to resist and oppose enclosure of our cultural commons, and instead expand it.

Culture matters. The arts and culture are linked to politics in many ways. A capitalist market economy creates enormous potential and possibilities for creation, criticism and communication. But at the same time, private ownership of the means of production and the capitalist drive for profit constrain the free creation and consumption of the cultural commons that is so necessary for human development.

Let's work out how to change capitalist culture, through creativity and criticism. 

Culture matters. The arts and culture can resist, oppose and overcome constraint, alienation and oppression. They can promote awareness, arouse indignation, and envision alternatives. Blake's 'mental fight' against the appalling social and political consequences of early capitalism is the same as our cultural struggle now, linked to our economic and political struggle against late capitalism.

Let's continue Blake's 'mental fight' to build a more democratic, equal, and socialist society, a 'new Jerusalem', in the green and pleasant land not only of England, but of the world.

What We Want

Submissions are very welcome, from anyone who has something to say about art and culture which contributes to these aims. We are unable to pay for material, unfortunately.

We welcome creative material such as poems, and commentary and critical material such as reviews, articles, essays, and interviews. Please write as clearly, concisely and accessibly as possible, avoiding footnotes. Have a look at what's already up on the site, and try and shape your material to fit with our broad aims and perhaps also with topical events, anniversaries etc.

Submissions are subject to editing, in consultation with the contributor. Please provide brief notes about yourself and a pic, and send it to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Our published material is nearly all original work. Feel free to link to or copy our articles, but all bodies must email us for permission first, and we require a contribution from commercial bodies who wish to reproduce or translate one of our pieces in full. All reprinted work must attribute the author, publication and date. 

´╗┐Muslims Say Sorry! The poetry of Amir Darwish
Monday, 14 December 2015 22:48

´╗┐Muslims Say Sorry! The poetry of Amir Darwish

Published in Poetry

Wars rage in the Middle East. The US and its allies pursue their policies of economic and military aggression, regime change, and the deliberate fomenting of chaos, instability and hardship. Refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants are forced to flee, towards the richer countries of Europe, whose wealth has been built on the imperialist exploitation of the rest of the world. There they are met by steel fences, police with dogs, endless paperwork, squabbling politicians and suspicious populations. Random atrocities are committed against civilians, on the ground and in the air, in Paris, Damascus, Jerusalem and Beirut.

That is the world in which we are living, and it is a world familiar to Amir Darwish. Amir was born in Syria in 1979 and came to the UK during the second Gulf War. His poetry has been published in the USA, Pakistan, Finland, Morocco and Mexico.

His recent book of poetry, 'Don’t Forget the Couscous' is in the words of the publisher, 'a book of poetry about exile and home. It is a love-song to the Arab world – Syria, Kurdistan, Morocco and Palestine. It is a memoir of the failed Arab Spring and the civil war that has turned Syria into a ‘fountain of blood’, as Darwish puts it in one of the poems. It’s a bitter account of the demonization of Islam in the West, and the violent interference of the West in the Islamic world. It is about being a Muslim and not a terrorist.'

Here are some poems from the collection, showing Darwish's poetic skills as a light, musical lyricist; as an honest, informative and insightful political commentator; and as a skilled ironist and satirist, capable of both sharpness and warmth.

Sorry!
An apology from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) to humanity

We are sorry for everything
That we have caused humanity to suffer from.
Sorry for algebra and the letter X.
Sorry for all the words we throw at you;
Amber, candy, chemistry, cotton, giraffe, hazard,
Jar, jasmine, jumper, lemon, lime, lilac,
Oranges, sofa, scarlet, spinach,
Talisman, tangerine, tariff, traffic, tulips,
Mattress (yes, mattress) and the massage you enjoy on it:
We are sorry for all of these.
Sorry that we replaced alcohol with coffee for Enlightenment philosophers.
Speaking of hot drinks,
We are sorry for the cappuccino the Turks brought over.
Sorry for the black Arabian race horses,
For the clock,
Maths,
Parachutes.

Abdul in the US is sorry for what so and so did;
He does not know him but he is sorry anyway.
Sorry that we accompanied Columbus on his journey to the States.
And sorry for the Arab man with him
Who was the first to touch the shore and shout ‘Honolulu’
And named the place after him.
Sorry for the architecture in Spain and the Al Hambra palace there.
We apologise for churches in Seville
With their stars of David at the top that we built with our hands.
We say sorry for every number you use in your daily life from the 0 to the trillion.
Even Adnan the Yezidi (mistaken for a Muslim)
Is sorry for the actions of Abu whatever who beheads people in Syria.
Sorry for the mercury chloride that heals wounds,
Please give us some –
Because the guilt of initiating all of the above
Gives us a wound as big as this earth.
Sorry for the guitar that was played by Moriscos in Spain
To ease their pain when they were kicked out of their homes.
Sorry for the hookah as you suck on its lips
And gaze into the moon hearing the Arabian Nay.
Sorry for cryptanalysis and the ability to analyse information systems,
To think what is the heart of the heart of the heart and bring it to the world.
Sorry for painting Grenada white to evade social hierarchy.
Sorry for the stories inThe Arabian Nights.

Every time we see a star, we remember to be sorry for Astronomy,
We are sorry that Mo Farah claimed asylum here
And went to become the British champion of the world.
Sorry for non-representational art,
Pattern and surface decoration.
We are sorry for all the food we brought over:
From tuna to chicken tikka masala,
Hummus,
Falafel,
Apricot,
Doner kebab
Right up to the shawarma roll.
And don’t forget the couscous.

If we forget to apologise for something, never mind,
We are sorry for it without even knowing it.
Most of all we are sorry for Rumi’s love poems,
And we desperately echo one of them to you:

Oh Beloved,
Take me.
Liberate my soul.
Fill me with your love and
Release me from the two worlds.
If I set my heart on anything but you
Let that fire burn me from inside.
Oh Beloved,
Take away what I want.
Take away what I do.
Take away what I need.
Take away everything
That takes me away from you.

Please forgive us.
We are sorry and cannot be sorry enough today.

Palestine

Palestine is a rose that rose
To refresh the air as it enters the nose.

There must be a light at the end of this tunnel

There must be a light at the end of this tunnel
At a point where
So many eyes look into darkness
Cut through a bone and
Shine it.

There will be a creature there
A strange one
With no hands
No lips
No arms
No ears
No body
And only eyes
Eyes and soul.

That being will find a light from within you
And strike it out to the world.

Over there
In that place
The river of sadness dries
Melancholy waves hush and
The Sorrow garden
Reflects an Arabian desert moonlight
Shining the universe.

There
You sit with your hand back and forth
Playing the water of a Damascus fountain.

I interviewed Amir about his past, his poetics and his politics. Amir asked me to make it clear that he is not speaking on behalf of all poets, nor does he intend offer advice to others on what to think or write. His views are his and his alone.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself to start with, please?

I am a British/Syrian poet of Kurdish origin, born in Aleppo in 1979, and I came to the UK in 2003. I started writing at the age of 16 or 17. My poetry has now been published in the USA, Pakistan, Finland, Morocco and Mexico and in the anthology Break-Out. I recently completed an MA in International Studies at the University of Durham, and prior to that I gained a BA in history from Teesside University.

The book you've chosen the poems from, 'Don't Forget The Couscous' is a collection of poetry about exile and home, love and loss. My next book will be an autobiographical work, 'From Aleppo Without Love', touching on themes of pain and agony felt by myself and my sisters, Shaza, Rana and Layla.

Can you tell us something about your approach to writing, about why and how you write?

As a child and as a teenager, I experienced oppression both in the private and public spheres. I was both a subject and witness to violent acts for several years, and those memories have inspired my writing. My writing has become an outlet, to channel some awful experiences and redeem their pain.

Inspirational moments, for me, often arrive while on a journey. At stations and airports, poems are born, and then later on rise and mature, in quietness. The first stage of the process, the poem's conception, is more important than the second. I am constantly ready with pen, paper, phone and laptop, to put down words and thoughts when on the road. I am a writer who starts big and then goes small, small, small until the word is loud and clear. Nonetheless, the increase and decrease of thoughts is sometimes done as an experiment. Clarity, a sense of simplicity, and fluency are continuous aims.

How do you find living in Britain, on Teeside?

Living on Teesside gave me a good start on the poetry road here in England. The poetry scene is lively and dynamic, with new faces often coming to light. Particularly through the MA Creative Writing course at Teesside University, led by two local poets, Andy Willoughby and Bob Beagrie.

I appreciate what Britain offers in terms of safety, shelter and an atmosphere to write fearlessly. These aspects are particularly relevant to my next work, “From Aleppo without Love” which is scheduled for publication in 2017. Not many places on earth are available to write such work bravely and feel safe. Britain is one.

Can you give us your thoughts on the current refugee crisis, and the troubles in Syria and the Middle East?

A poet is not a politician for sure, but more someone who can guide public opinion so that politicians are directed onto certain paths. When a poet tries to become a politician, there is a danger for him/her of restricting the imaginative self to intellectual certainties. Nothing kills creativity at the cradle more than adherence to one sole, specific view. As a poet, I try to stay free of specific political thought as much as possible, like a bird who visits nests but never resides forever in one of them. Not sure if I do that successfully! I do perhaps still exhibit partisan views, like everyone I have certain biases.

As for what goes on now in the region, I still feel traumatised by what went on, what goes on now and what might happen next. I don't have the ability to take up a pen and write properly on recent events. Maybe the next generation can. Possibly that is why some of my attempts to write poems about the refugee crisis are weak, powerless and tend to fail as poems. Humanity, and here I mean worldwide not specific governments or locations, will need to examine itself after such a crisis. The current Syrian refugee crisis is the largest since WWII, who would have thought the world would see such a massive refugee crisis?

What other poets do you admire, and would recommend to our readers?

Humanist poets in the Middle East are now necessary more than ever. The Syrian poet Adunis is a great example, tightly embracing the humanist ideal when the Arab Spring/revelation/uprising/ unrest (or whatever you prefer to call it) started. For an intellectual from the region to hold such views is not an easy task. Adunis consistently provokes us away from the thought of taking sides, whether that's Arab nationalism or another system of thought. The Middle East needs more poets like Adunis and wise words like these:

Do you remember how I followed that war? And how once I turned to time and said,
'If you had two ears to listen with
You too would have walked the universe, deluded and dishevelled,
no beginning to your end'

The second poet and writer who comes to mind instantly is Muhammed Shukri. Moroccan and of Berber origin, Shukri's writing breaks down social barriers that are put into place to hide the unknown. That 'unknown' is at the heart of what goes on now in the Middle East. Shukri speaks about Arab society with micro details. He does it with openness, frankness and insight into the 'how' and the 'why'. After all, rulers of the Middle East come from the region’s social fabric, not from Mars.

For Shukri to give us such a detailed vision is a luxury. Unfortunately, he is yet to find adequate echo from other writers in the region, and yet to be given the status he deserves. That is possibly due to the culture of shame, which still shackles the process of liberation in the Arab world.

Thanks very much, Amir. Which poem from your collection would you like us to end with?

I would like you all to read and enjoy 'It's All About Love'. And thank you very much!

It's All About Love

Be grateful for everything written about love
From the first ink humanity slaughtered in Syria

To this very last exact word right now on this page: LOVE.

Love is a misbaha:

Full of beads
Suddenly
Cut loose on the world
To drown lovers up to their ears
Leaving only the brain
To think of love.

Love like a red wall in the Al Hambra

Blushes when you enter.

It is an Andalusian hammam

A scar left for ever on the face of Granada.

Love is a palm tree in Fes

Taaaalllllll with a nest at its top
Grass on grass assembled by lovebirds.

Love is a poem you perfect for months

And like an ardent and sexually demanding young lover
Always wants more of you.

So follow the fine line of the curve

Then rest your head in deep sleep.

Love is a tear

About to explode
In the middle of an eye.

It’s a Barkouk with wrinkles.

The squeeze let its remnants come out of the fist
The way runny butter does.

Love rises with every virgin who keeps herself intact only for one.

Love is a pair of naked lovers in a pickle jar

Twisted on one another and promising to stay this way forever.

And this life must go on to have more of love

Be in and out of it,
Fall for it,
Around it,
Because of it.

Finally

One refuses to call love it
Or he,
Or she,
Or they,
We,
Us,
Them,
Love is different.
It is a ferry crossing between lovers’ eyes.
It’s in trees,
Water,
Sky,
Rivers.

It’s an ember as lovers embrace

By a fire in the Atlas mountains.

And as the story goes in The Arabian Nights:

Love becomes a red rose that jumps into the Nazareth palace
And gives it colour
While lovers sent to the moon kissing
Stay there forever.

Love gives itself to everyone

Everywhere,
But since Eve’s arrival
What it gave so far nothing but this:.................

Love is a religion

So follow its scripture
Make love at certain times a day
On Friday,
Saturday,
Or Sunday,

Or even make your own new holy day and call it:
Loveday.

Love is a wave between Tangier and the sweetheart’s eyes
Daily it sails between the two.

Or maybe love is a stream of milk between a nipple
And the world to feed it tranquillity.

Love has one flavour

One colour
And no country.
Its inhabitants are everything that moves
including this pen as it writes.

It’s even in the sand clock that appears in a pupil,
Dropping endlessly as you watch it nonstop.

Love is the three quarters of the earth
Which is water,
You swallow it all

And your stomach can contain more if that is what love wants.

Love is a high mountain shadow

It appears and disappears on your lover’s back nightly
As he rises up and down in the act of making love.

Love is pure and never mixes itself with hate,

Yet it is part of it
The way an oil-slick moves in the sea.

Love is beautiful
So beautiful

That when you see it
You fall into a love-coma.

Love is the best form of government that political philosophy can offer

Where you have no duty but one:
To make love.


Thanks to Amir Darwish, and thanks to his publisher Smokestack Books for permission to publish the poems.
The poems are taken from Don't Forget the Couscous, by Amir Darwish, Smokestack Books, 2015.
The Third Man
Monday, 14 December 2015 21:32

The Third Man

Published in Films

Mike Quille unearths the radical politics and art in Carol Reed's great thriller.

In an uncanny parallel with today, many in the Britain of 1949 were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party’s policies for economic austerity at home and support for US imperialism abroad. Those concerns rumble below the surface in The Third Man, first screened that year. Written by Graham Greene and starring Orson Welles, the film is set in a post-war Vienna divided into zones of influence by the victorious but mutually suspicious Allies. It is a bombed-out, rubble-strewn city of darkness and disorder, emphasised by unsettling camera tilts and the distorted, wide-angle shots of landscapes, interiors and characters.

The film’s central character Harry Lime (Welles) is a US businessman criminally responsible for the death and chronic ill health of patients through diluting penicillin in the search for greater profits. Like transnational corporations, his business activities are lucrative and lawless — he avoids detection by using the city’s sewer system.

In a key scene, he literally employs high-flown rhetoric from the top of a Ferris wheel to justify making profits at the expense of the people far beneath him. Renaissance wars produced great art and philosophy, he argues, whereas “brotherly love, peace and democracy” in Switzerland brought “nothing but the cuckoo clock.” His words are a clear allegory of post-war US big business, a voracious, cynical capitalism cloaked — like its British forebear — in a veneer of culture and civilisation.

Writer Holly Martins, the film’s other main character, is a friend of Lime’s. The scripts he pens, where the classic cowboy strategy of solving problems with guns and calling it morality always prevails, implicitly reference US cold-war policy. Meekly followed by the Labour government, it dashed post-war hopes on the left that alliances with working people across Europe and the Soviet Union would be the best guarantee of lasting peace.

Lime has invited him to Vienna to write promotional publicity for his criminal enterprises — again, an allegorical expression of how advertising copywriters and other cultural workers were being commercialised and suborned to the US post-war project of promoting consumer capitalism while claiming the moral high ground of “freedom of the individual” over attempts in Europe to build fairer, socialist societies.

The Third Man is the Cold War in microcosm and a critique of its politics, accurately capturing the tension, mistrust and fear characteristic of Europe post-1945. Characters and their relationships assume the symbolism of economic and political forces without losing dramatic credibility as people in any way. The camerawork, the jaunty ambivalence of the music and the sombre shadows all create a sense of tension and uneasiness and the menacing, noirish atmosphere of betrayal and disappointment powerfully expresses the disappointment, disillusion and dissent amongst the British working class as the government drifts rightwards in its foreign policy and fails to challenge and change Britain’s rigid class structure.

Reed’s direction and all of the actors are outstanding but the most memorable performance is Welles’s brave portrayal of Lime, informed by his own radical politics and artistry, as was also the case with Greene. Lime’s persona brilliantly encapsulates the arrogance and violence beneath the surface of smooth-talking, charismatic capitalists. He’s a conscious recreation by Greene and Welles of Kurtz, the cynical and persuasive trader and tyrant in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lime, who makes money from mutilated children in Vienna, personifies the predatory capitalism of post-war US big business just as Kurtz, who enslaves and mutilates workers in the Congo rubber plantations, personifies the murderous colonialism of European empires.

The Third Man’s protagonist is thus the perfect symbol of the rising power of US post-war corporate capitalism. It’s no wonder that the US authorities bundled Greene out of the country in 1952 as a suspected communist or that right-wing Hollywood studio bosses regarded Welles as box-office poison and blacklisted him for years afterwards. By behaving in fact as Lime does in fiction, they could not have chosen a better way of demonstrating the truth of the radical politics and art behind this great film.
Unofficial War Artist: Peter Kennard at the IWA
Friday, 11 December 2015 00:00

Unofficial War Artist: Peter Kennard at the IWA

Published in Visual Arts

“The people’s peace museum” is Peter Kennard’s suggested name change for the Imperial War Museum, where his stunning images are currently on display. If Kennard ever does get his way on that one, it will be partly thanks to his 50-year artistic campaign of militant anti-war and anti-capitalist activism, the subject of this well-designed retrospective exhibition of over 200 of his artworks.

They make their impact through the cutting, pasting and juxtaposition of photographic images in ways which deliver striking and unsettling artistic and political messages.

Kennard turned to photomontage as a young art student because, he says, he could “rip into images and get at an unrevealed truth” for maximum aesthetic and political impact. Interventionist and activist, he has doubts about art “so layered with complex conceptual ideas that it only speaks to others in the art world.” Instead, he’s opted for an art form which he wants to use “to help build a mass movement.”

The exhibition’s powerful opening statement Decoration is a series of massive digital and painted prints of British and US war decorations from 2003, their ribbons ripped and their medallions replaced with images of bandaged heads, explosions and hooded Iraqi prisoners.
Following on, there are early montages referencing the Vietnam war, the “Prague spring” and the student riots of the late sixties and they have that provocative, deliberately disorienting and distancing effect which runs throughout his work.

On display in an “archival store” are his works Crushed Missile, Haywain with Cruise Missiles and Warheads in the form of posters, T-shirts, pamphlets, badges and placards.

These and other direct, simple and sardonic images are what Kennard described as “a toolkit of protest” which are reworked and used freely by the peace movement, student activists and anti-corporate groups. Kennard has always tried to make his art accessible and useful to Britain’s protest movement, in its form and in the way it is distributed.

Reading Room, an installation where lecterns are laid out with faces smudged onto the stock market reports from the financial pages, graphically illustrates the growing dominance of finance capitalism in the 1990s and the resulting social inequalities. On the walls financial pages are ripped and defaced in anger, frustration or, perhaps, revolutionary destructiveness.

A side corridor, lined with some of Kennard’s latest paintings, contains subtle, indistinct images of faces with no mouths, expressing his desire to “give voice to the speechless and marginalised.”

The concluding display Boardroom is a new installation. It’s an ambitious attempt to convey anti-capitalist, anti-militarist political messages through a series of 3-D montages of photographs, models and images, interspersed with facts and figures showing the connections between war, capitalism and poverty.

Their impact is akin to Bertholt Brecht’s “alienation effect” by engaging and shocking the viewer into seeing the truth by stripping away dominant ideological mystifications and denying comfortable illusions. Kennard’s work invokes astonishment and outrage by placing and re-placing images and events in unfamiliar contexts.

This is work exposing the ugliness of corporate capitalism, including its sponsorship of art. “Now we’ve got the unmentionables back in power,” Kennard says, “sponsorship will become much more important in the arts. And sponsors like bland and unthreatening messages, not focused, political artwork.”

In a sense, art itself is anti-capitalist, he asserts. But “self-expression is being pushed out of us by big corporations. Creativity can help us resist that, so it’s important for all of us to make and use art to resist and undermine corporate culture. Through changing consciousness, art can help create revolution.”

The best example of such politically effective art is probably the famous image — made jointly with Cat Phillipps — of Tony Blair grinning as he takes a selfie in front of a blazing oilfield in Iraq. Recently animated and projected onto the venue housing the Chilcot inquiry, it is an image which has helped define an understanding of Blairite foreign policy.

Confined as it is to a museum, the exhibition can’t possibly include all of Kennard’s site-specific interventions such as that projected image, the graffiti on the Palestinian Wall that he did with Banksy or the huge amount of work given to the Occupy movement and to student activists a couple of years ago.

Yet the very presence of this free exhibition for the next 12 months in the country’s main war museum, where it will be seen by thousands of people who may not otherwise visit an art gallery, is surely the most effective intervention possible by Britain’s most important, influential and inventive political artist. And regular reader of the Morning Star, of course.

The exhibition runs till May 2016

Billy Bragg on tour 2015
Thursday, 10 December 2015 23:20

Socialism of the Heart: an interview with Billy Bragg

Published in Music

 How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?

The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.

Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.

It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.

We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.

I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.

You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?

I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.

Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.

Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.

Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?

Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.

We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.

The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.

Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.

How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?

The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.

More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.

Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.

I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?

Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?

The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.

What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?

Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.

That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.

Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.

Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?

It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.

Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.

Thursday, 26 November 2015 01:38

The Communist Vision of Ai Weiwei

Published in Visual Arts

Is Ai Weiwei the most famous artist in the world? If so, it’s not because of his art but because of his celebrity status as a political dissident who’s been carefully shoehorned by the media — and sections of the cultural establishment, judging from some of the accompanying notes to this exhibition — into the liberal stereotype of the heroic individual artist defying communist tyranny.

To some extent, the question of whether this is a fair interpretation of his art gets a response in this large and varied exhibition, some of it site-specific, which provides an opportunity to assess the aesthetic and political qualities of Ai’s art.

Curiously, the least successful pieces are the most directly political ones focusing on Ai’s own disputes with the authorities. There are handcuffs, camcorders and CCTV cameras crafted from marble and a porcelain map of China’s regions with the slogan “free speech” on each of them. They show skilful craftsmanship but their deliberate uselessness as objects and superficial political content make them seem bombastic and crude.

Marble surveillance camera

Six iron boxes with dioramas of half-size, lifelike figurines tell the story of his imprisonment on suspicion of tax evasion a few years ago. While it must have been very stressful to live for several weeks under the gaze of guards, the literal, “cute” way the scenes are depicted drains them of any disturbing effect.

The echoes of the kitsch and jejune styles of official art under Mao undermine their power as political protest.

Some other pieces show similar strands of self-glorification and half-hearted, unconvincing conformity to certain well-worn Western artistic and political tropes.

In one triptych of photographs, Ai vandalises a Han dynasty vase by smashing it on the ground. Other ancient vases are dipped in bright industrial paint and daubed with the Coca-Cola logo and echoes of Duchamp. Crudely iconoclastic Dadaism and the more nihilist elements of Warhol-inspired art are painfully obvious in these derivative pieces.

Dropping a Han Dynasty urn 1

Yet there are other much more authentic and heartfelt artworks. One room is dedicated to the 2007 earthquake in Sichuan which killed 5,000 schoolchildren, partly due to the shoddy building materials and techniques used by corrupt local authorities. The victims are memorialised, not only in videos, photographs and lists of their names on the gallery walls, but most strikingly through Straight, a 50-foot-long installation laid across the floor of the gallery.

It’s a massive, beautiful construction using the reinforcing bars from the badly built school buildings. They were crumpled and twisted by the earthquake but have been straightened and then laid in gently undulating but unsettled waves, reminiscent of the seismic movements which caused the tragedy. It is a sombre, grieving and dignified monument to the victims and a particularly sensitive kind of artistic and political activism. As Ai says: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”

Straight 1

Another of his aphorisms, “I want people to see their own power” is expressed in much of his previous work. He helped design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, whose interlocking beams evoke fairness, mutual interdependence and social equality.

His installation of millions of sunflower seeds, supposedly China’s historic symbol of life and hope in adversity, in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall a few years ago was similarly memorable — a brilliantly original affirmation of hope and belief in the communist vision of similar yet separate individuals, living and growing together in a class-free society. The same feelings of respect for history, delight in craftsmanship and worked materials and an underlying faith in communal harmony are expressed in several brilliantly conceived and executed pieces in this exhibition.

The most abstract and imaginative expression is Fragments, a structure of intersecting beams taken from temples, sometimes driven through antique chairs and tables. The beams are fixed together without nails or screws, using traditional Chinese joinery methods and represent a kind of 3-D map of China, both formally geographical but also psychosocial. It invites the spectator to walk around and through it and it exudes history, strength and anxiety, along with a certain disquiet and subversive discontent, together with an exuberance at the power of the social, the joined and the co-operative.

Fragments 1

Other pieces, more straightforwardly representative, conform with another of Ai’s sayings, that “ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anyone else.” In one room, a sparkling and uplifting chandelier made of bicycles rotates very gently in the air, a wonderful homage to all the ordinary working people who have contributed their labour to building the modern Chinese republic. In another, vibrant tufts of grass are given a monumental quality by being carved out of marble. Like the sunflower seeds, they are all similar yet subtly different — a confident and empowering vision of Chinese people and society.

Bicycle Chandelier 1

Kippe is a stack of old and beautifully mellowed pieces of wood, salvaged from ancient temples. Fashioned into a tightly fitting, smooth-faced and harmonious block, strengthened and supported by gymnasts’ parallel bars, they reference the leading role of the Communist Party in maintaining and developing social harmony amongst the common people of China.

“My art becomes more and more political,” says Ai and it’s clear that his activist art is designed not just to interpret the world but to change it. It’s also clear from this exhibition that his political critique is not limited to repressive features of the Chinese state but is implicitly opposed to societies divided by class wherever they are. Ai’s best work summons up and celebrates the age-old communist vision of individuals living in egalitarian social harmony. By doing so in such an invigorating, empowering and pleasing way, it surely helps us achieve a society where we will indeed be “people who see their own power.”
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