Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:18

Wearing their politics on their sleeves: Civil Rights and the art of the jazz album cover

Published in Music

The cultural struggle takes many forms, says Phil Brett, and shows us the aesthetically beautiful and politically challenging art to be found on the sleeves of albums made by black jazz musicians..

A journalist from the New Yorker, who was writing a piece on Duke Ellington, heard a white New York cop say to the great band leader, “If you’d been a white man, Duke, you’d have been a great musician.” Such racism wouldn’t have surprised Ellington because he, like other black musicians, experienced it daily – the segregated travel, clubs, seating and even the toilets. Arbitrary stops on the road and general harassment would have been the norm. Of course as well-known musicians they would have ‘enjoyed’ small level of protection which black non-musicians would not have. For them, assault and murder would have been far from unusual. Perhaps, it shows the level of racism in American society that the cop talking to Ellington, was an enthusiastic fan of his!

It would be wrong, however, to see black jazz musicians merely as passive victims, because in a multitude of ways, they made their voice heard in the struggle. After all, Martin Luther King, addressing the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival said that “jazz speaks for life”. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time or John Coltrane’s Alabama certainly spoke up for life - defiantly, angrily and passionately.


But the struggle for a better society can take different forms. The civil rights movement included a cultural struggle, which affected not just the music but what it came packaged in – the album covers. Look at these and what do you see?

s ellalouis AllCDCovers miles davis milestones 2001 retail cd front

Your answer will depend on a whole range of factors. John Berger wrote, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe.” So take the album cover on the left: if you do not know who they are (there is nothing on the front sleeve to identify them) then they are a black woman and black man sitting on chairs smiling at the camera.

However, the chances are that even if you don’t like jazz, you will recognise Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. That in turn will affect how you see it, including feelings towards their music. But put this album in context: it was released in 1956, less than 12 months after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat for a white man. What might the reaction have been when seeing it on its release? They look like anyone’s relatives. Their humanity shines through. But of course, knowing who they are adds a twist because they possess such fame that their names are not required on the cover to identify them, and the photographer chosen to take the picture was Phil Stern, the lead photographer for Vogue. They have status. It is an image of positive affirmation, something to rejoice in.

Likewise with the other album cover. You might just see a man wearing a rather cool green shirt. It is indeed a fine shirt. But look at Miles Davis (Milestones, 1958) looking at you. In his autobiography, he wrote that whether on stage or on his record covers, he wanted to break from the image of jazz musician grinning purely for the enjoyment of a white audience because he felt it was demeaning – too much of a throwback to minstrels – so he just looks straight at you.

 our music BackatChickenShack

This same focus is true of Ornette Coleman Quartet, on their This is our Music (1961). In the context of a period of history when black people were expected to get off the pavement and walk in the gutter to allow space for a white person, these photographs suggest that these men wouldn’t in a million years consider doing so.
Jimmy Smith on the cover of Back at the Chicken Shack (1963) is also wearing a pretty damn cool shirt, and trousers with a razor sharp crease. You may say, and so what? Photographed by Francis Wolff and with an album design by Reid Miles (one of a series of iconic albums for the Blue Note label) Smith oozes style, wit and sophistication. Yet this was at a time when politicians and the Ku Klux Klan (often being both one and the same) were violently denying that black people could have any such attributes.

The working class have often used clothes as a form of rebellion, for example Teddy Boys, Mods and Punk Rockers. Here they are a contrast with the location. Smith's urban elan is juxtaposed with a chicken coop, with its echoes of the Deep South. The composition though makes it clear that he is no farm slave, not with that style and that look. The shot is taken from slightly below Smith, so he is looking down on us, the viewer. Here is someone who has pride, someone who is his own master. He is in control. So for the black audience, these were images of self-respect, dignity and independence. For the white audience they were a challenge – do you think these people are not your equals?

weinsist Mohawk

However, affirmation and positive images can only go so far. The civil rights movement was also about direct action, with many in the movement demanding a greater militancy. And so does some of the album covers of the period. Max Roach’s 1960 album We Insist recreates a scene at a lunch counter, the focus of that year’s battleground, with the sit-ins in white-only establishments. The title and image are totally unambiguous. Look at the size of the title – in block letters and with an exclamation mark. It's a demand, not a request. The stridency of the cover perfectly matches the mood of the album which was one of the first jazz albums to directly attack racism. Tracks tackled subjects such as slavery, the Sharpeville Massacre, pride in African nationalism and opposition to the racist Jim Crow laws.

A band which was very much involved in the movement was The New York Art Quartet, a free jazz ensemble who would cause some controversy in their brief existence when they included the incendiary black beat poet LeRoi Jones in some of their performances. On their 1965 album Mohawk, Dutch artist Marte Roling’s witty illustration is similarly direct. In it she features a placard reading ‘Freedom now’ in the cut-away brain. Politics, it suggests, was on everyone’s minds.

archieshepp attica blues impulselp MonkUnderground

Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues (1972) is a reference to the Attica prison riots which occurred when the prisoners rose up demanding better conditions, following the shooting of Black Panther George Jackson in San Quentin jail (one track on the album is called Blues for George Jackson). The sleeve shows Archie Shepp working at a piano, his sax slung across it like it was a rifle. He is flanked by books and images of black heroes, including a poster with the iconic image of the African American Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 games, giving the Black Power salute on the medal rostrum. The composition of the photograph evokes militancy: a great cover and a great album.

A trussed up Nazi, hand-grenades on the table and a sub-machine gun slung across his back is not quite the scene you’d usually expect from an album by a jazz pianist. But then, this is Thelonious Monk. His 1968 album sleeve for Underground won a Grammy for its design (photography by Norman Griner and supervised by Columbia Records art director, John Berg) but proved to be controversial with some folks. Maybe it was because this was the same year Martin Luther King was been assassinated, sparking riots across major cities in the States. Although the picture is ostensibly a tableau of the French Resistance, people saw allusions closer to home. It wasn’t a great leap of imagination to see the title as being a reference to the nineteenth century abolitionist network – the Underground Railway. Or conflating the resistance to the Nazis with that of resistance to the racist US state. Or perhaps that at the time of the Black Panthers, a picture of a black man carrying a gun was pretty damn frightening to the establishment.

Nina Simone High Priestess of Soul   MilesDavisBitches

The civil rights campaign spawned a greater interest in black history. The Black Arts Movement promoted African-American art and demanded a higher profile for black artists, authors and musicians and black history in general. High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone’s 1967 album has her as Cleopatra. It, like Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, is an example of how Afro-centrism was influencing 1960s sleeve designs. So whilst fifty years on it may seem a touch cheesy to have Simone as the Egyptian Queen there was however a greater significance beyond wearing fancy dress. (And let’s face it; it is a whole lot less cheesy that the girl from Hampstead, Liz Taylor, who four years earlier had dressed up as Cleopatra). The image here had a clear message – black people, including women, should not be written out of history. Cleopatra, whatever Hollywood might say (and in light of the recent Oscars, it still obviously has issues with race) was a strong black queen, something African-American women could draw strength from.

Both these albums’ designs were overseen by John Berg. The gatefold sleeve has a painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein, with the black African figures in the centre, reflecting the fact that humanity first came from that continent. The double album was one of the first LPs which would be labelled jazz-rock and was a successful attempt to go beyond jazz’s confines and reach the larger rock audience. The artist also provided covers for artists as diverse as Santana and The Last Poets.

Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg in 1932, Klarwein’s mother was an opera singer and his father an architect with the Bauhaus Movement. They fled Germany in 1934 and settled in Palestine. He went on to study with Fernand Leger in Paris and became friendly with Salvador Dali. You can see the surrealism and use of symbolism in his work which derive from these associations. Tellingly, he later added the Muslim name Abdul, which means servant in Arabic, as a statement of his belief that Judaism and Islam needed to understand and respect each other.

OrnetteColemanFreeJazz album mingus ah um

Not everything was figurative though. Elsewhere on this website, Christine Lindey has written how the Russian Revolution gave artists a sense of freedom to explore their art. The civil rights and anti-war movements may have been a less intense class struggle than the Bolshevik Revolution, but they likewise gave space to new artistic and cultural expressions. One grew out of New York, Abstract Expressionism. So it is apt that this 1961 album Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman came in a gatefold sleeve, with a cut-out showing Jackson Pollock’s 1954 drip painting, White Light. Free jazz and modern art – now that’s taking no prisoners! Both art forms were about tearing down conventions and both are here. Berger says of Pollock that his genius was to create a paintings where “continuous surface patterns which are perfectly unified without the use of any obvious motif”. It's a statement which could serve as a good description of Coleman’s music. It gives a sense of freedom in the art, a feeling that Coleman was attempting to achieve with his music, and something which people on the streets, in the schools and in the diners were fighting for.

The sleeve to Mingus Ah Um (1959) is by a Japanese American, Neil Fujita, who was also responsible for another 1950s classic – Dave Brubeck's Time Out. Previous to being a graphic designer he had enlisted in the U.S. Army whilst still having relations in Japan. Which as well as making family gatherings a little tense, might also have given him a sense of being outside the American mainstream. Fujita was also responsible for the paperback cover designs of two books which in different ways would question American values and become immensely popular – Catch 22 and The Godfather.

This marvellous album harks back to the big band sound whilst incorporating the new post-bop. It captures the mood between the certainty of the 1940s and the clear-cut cause of fighting fascism, with the questioning of the 1960s. Who were they fighting now? That sense of in-betweeness is what one gets from looking at the lovely cover, which owes a debt to Miro and Picasso. Look at it at different times and you’ll see something different each time, something which either cannot be articulated or can be so in different ways. Perhaps that grappling for meaning is why Mingus, a highly articulate man, chose an almost nonsensical title. Not that all the album is hidden in codes. There is one track which is very direct – Fables of Faubus. It was written as an explicit protest against Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of nine African-American children into Little Rock Central High School.

There was however a tension in the design for jazz albums which mirrored that of the music itself – what style should they take? A no-nonsense direct approach which confronted the issues head on? But that might alienate audiences, and we should remember that the vast majority of record design teams were white. Or should they play safe with images of the musicians which would make greater commercial sense, and could still make a point with subtlety? The problem was that with the National Guard on the streets, subtlety did not seem an appropriate response. There was nothing subtle about water hoses or police batons. Christine Lindey ends her piece by saying: “the dilemma of creating innovatory art which is accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved”, and this statement is surely true of both album design and jazz music itself.

In jazz music, the cutting edge was seen as free jazz, but as the years rolled on it started to lose its black audience. Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice wrote: “It is the jazz issuing from the friction and harmony of the American Negro with his environment that captured the beat and tempo of our times”. But the fact was that by the mid-sixties many black Americans were moving to a different beat, a soul or funk one. For them the avant-garde of jazz was too abstract, too removed from their daily experiences.

Jazz continues, as does the fight for civil rights, and with the Black Lives Matter campaign for example. As does, even in these digital times, album cover design. However, the albums created by the cross-fertilisation of jazz and civil rights are great examples of music as cultural struggle, with sleeves to match.



Social Class and the Invention of Modern Football
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:18

Social Class and the Invention of Modern Football

Published in Sport

John Storey outlines the relations between football's history and social class.

In the About Us section of this website, cultural activities are described as sites of domination and acceptance, struggle and resistance. And in my featured article, What do we mean by culture and why does it matter, I described culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings. To illustrate these claims, let's look briefly at the relationship between social class and the history of football.

Traditional histories of football present the development of the game as passing through four stages. In its first stage, from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, it existed as a wild and unruly game played by all social classes. The term football referred to ball games that involved both kicking and handling and may have even been used to distinguish ball games played on foot rather than on horseback.

What these games had in common was a ball and the idea of getting the ball to a ‘goal’. But the rules were oral and various. Teams could be any size from 2 up to 2,000, and the playing area could be the whole village, or the space between two villages. A game could last all day and was often played during village celebrations (Shrove Tuesday, village fairs and feasts, etc.).

In the second stage, from about 1750 to 1840, under the pressures of the industrial revolution the game disappeared as a popular sport. That is to say, the Enclosure Movement and urbanisation removed areas where the game might be played, industrialisation introduced a stricter work discipline, and the new policing system enforced the law more efficiently. What remained of the popular game survived only in the universities and public schools. But even here the game was discouraged because like the game that had once existed outside these institutions it was violent and unruly.

In the third stage, from about 1840 to 1860, the status of sport began to change, it was now seen as good for the sons of the ruling class. Team sports, especially football, were character building, increased physical health, discipline, and moral responsibility. The Clarendon Commission of 1864, established to investigate the public schools, was very clear on the benefits of sport, ‘The cricket and football fields ……..are not merely places of amusement; they help to form some of the most valuable social qualities and manly virtues, and they hold, like the classroom and the boarding house, a distinct and important place in public school education’. During this period the game is supposedly civilised and codified by the public schools.

In the final stage, from about 1850 to 1890, ex-public schoolboys establish the Football Association in 1863 and the FA Cup in 1871 and then, working like colonial missionaries, gradually introduced the new civilised and codified game to the working class. In an account of the development of the game, published in 1906, the author is quite clear of the role played by, in particular, Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Charterhouse, ‘football, in its modern form, is entirely the product . . . of the various public school games’.

The Wanderers were the first winners of the FA Cup. The social make-up of their team tells us a great deal about the game as played in the early days of the FA. The team included four Harrow graduates, three old Etonians, and one each from Westminister, Charterhouse, Oxford and Cambridge. Football, it seemed, was a game intended for the ruling class, but despite this it very quickly grew to become the ‘people’s game’.

The initial challenge to the public school hegemony came from Blackburn, Lancashire. In 1882 Blackburn Rovers got to the FA Cup final, losing 1-0 to Old Etonians. However, the following year Blackburn Olympic not only reached the final, they actually won the cup, beating Old Etonians 2-1. The Blackburn Times (1883) understood very well how Blackburn Olympic’s victory was entangled with social class. 

'The meeting and vanquishing, in a most severe trial of athletic skill, of a club composed of sons of some of the families of the upper class in the Kingdom . . . as the Old Etonian Club is, by a Provincial Club composed of entirely, we believe, of Lancashire Lads of the manual working-class, sons of small tradesmen, artisans, and operatives.'

Blackburn Olympic’s team consisted of three weavers, a dental assistant, a gilder, a plumber, a clerk, a loomer, a licensed victualler, and two iron-foundry workers. A team of ex-public schoolboys would never again win the FA Cup.

From the 1870s football as a socially organised sport developed rapidly amongst the working class of the Midlands and North. Football clubs were established in different ways: through existing sports clubs (for example, Burnley, Sheffield Wednesday, Preston North End, Derby County, Notts County); promoted by religious organisations (for example, Aston Villa, Barnsley, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Manchester City, Birmingham City); representing workplaces (for example, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, Coventry City, Crewe Alexandra); and by teachers and ex-pupils (for example, Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City, Sunderland).

The establishment of the Football League in 1888 was an inevitable consequence of professionalism. In order to pay wages clubs needed reliable and regular fixtures. In 1884 Preston North End were expelled from the FA Cup because it was claimed they had used professional players. An inquiry was inconclusive, but it did discover that they had arranged jobs for players (i.e. sinecures that allowed them to be in effect full-time players). Preston got support from forty clubs from the North and Midlands. Together they threatened to form a British FA. In January 1885 professionalism was legalized. The Football League was founded three years later in 1888. Of the eleven founding teams, six were from Lancashire (Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Accrington, Everton, Burnley) and five from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke City).

Why did the game develop so quickly in the industrial North and Midlands? One compelling answer is that it had never really gone away. As we noted earlier, according to conventional accounts there was pre-industrial football, which disappeared as a popular game under the pressures of the industrial revolution. However, the public schools held on to the game, codified and civilised it and introduced it to the world with the establishment of the FA and the FA Cup. But there is another possibility: it did not disappear but, as in the public schools, it continued to evolve in the new industrial towns and cities.

In other words, the public school version was just one version, but a version with the power to impose itself on the formal organisation of the game and on the writing of the game’s history. But alongside this version there existed another, which we might call working-class football. The existence of this second version would also help explain how what is presented as the public school game was able to develop so rapidly in the industrial North and the Midlands.

An article published in 1838 in Bell’s Life in London, at a time when the game had supposedly disappeared as a popular sport, offers evidence for the existence of a working-class version of the game, ‘A match at football will be played at the cricket ground, Leicester, on Good Friday next, between eleven (principally printers) from Derby and the same number of Leicester. The winners to challenge an equal number from any town in England, for a purse not exceeding £25’. In 1842 a witness at a Parliamentary inquiry into the conditions of working-class children in the mining areas of the North of England wrote:

'Although Christmas Day and Good Friday were the only fixed holidays in the mining region of Yorkshire, children had at least one day off a week and a fair portion of time in the evening. This they could use to play sport on the considerable areas of wasteland in the neighbourhood. Their games included cricket, nur and spell [a bat and ball game] and football.'

Of course children working long hours in the mining industry and then playing on wasteland offers little to celebrate, but it does present evidence that football had continued to exist outside the universities and public schools. Therefore, although the middle class established the FA and the FA Cup, the game’s rapid development from the 1870s onwards in the industrial North and Midlands suggests that the popular game had not disappeared. Rather, it had simply changed in ways quite similar to what had happened to it in the public schools. Put simply, it is impossible to fully understand the complex history of the development of the game, and how this history has been written, without including as part of the explanation the important role played by social class.
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:18

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.

Building Jerusalem
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:18

Building Jerusalem

Published in Arts Hub

Christopher Rowland discusses William Blake's visionary approach to art, religion and culture generally, and how his 'mental fight', or cultural struggle, inspires us to build a new Jerusalem, a better society.

William Blake was a visionary poet and artist, whose works have achieved a central place in British culture. Some of his verses, widely known as 'Jerusalem', which he wrote at the opening of one of his longer poems, ‘Milton’, have become an unofficial national anthem, and a very necessary alternative to the English national anthem for those of us with republican commitments. As with so much else in his writings, these verses are full of biblical themes, like a ‘chariot of fire’, and 'building Jerusalem', used in Blake’s own way. The words stress the importance of people taking responsibility for change and building, through cultural struggle or 'mental fight', a better society ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’.

Although he was a visionary, he was not a dreamer cut off from the realities and complexities of experience, particularly the poverty and oppression of the urban world in which he lived for most of his life. He had an amazing insight into contemporary economics, politics and culture, and was able to discern the effects of the authoritarianism of church and state as well as what he considered the arid philosophy of a rationalist view of the world which left little scope for the imagination.

He abhorred the way in which Christians looked up to a God enthroned in heaven, a view which offered a model for a hierarchical human politics, which subordinated the majority to a (supposedly) superior elite. He also criticised the dominant philosophy of his day which believed that a narrow view of sense experience could help us to understand everything that there was to be known, including God. Blake’s own visionary experiences showed him that rationalism ignored important dimensions of human life which would enable people to hope, to look for change, and to rely on more than that which their senses told them. All people needed to be aware of and allow to flourish the ‘Poetic or Prophetic character’ latent in them.

Blake had no time for conservative Christianity’s infatuation with the Bible as the ‘supreme authority’ in the life of the church and society. Such sentiments were a symptom of false religion, which contracted out responsibility for biblical interpretation to priests and scholars. All God’s people, inside and outside the churches, have the responsibility to attend to the energetic activity of the Spirit in creation, in history, and in human experience. The Bible had to be seen for what it was – a mixed collection of texts which might make a contribution to human betterment.

Blake loved the Bible because it acted as a stimulus to an imaginative engagement with society and also with theology. But Blake wasn’t just an interpreter. To paraphrase his own words, he wanted through his words and images to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’. Changing how one looked at the world and behaved in it were central for him. Blake’s comment that what he wanted to do in his work was ‘rouze the faculties to act’ parallels Marx's famous dictum on philosophy, 'Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it'.

That meant empowering the readers and hearers of texts and pictures to have the courage of their convictions and not be dependent on the experts to tell them what a text or picture meant. Too much study of the Bible is, he thought, either completely dismissive of it or excessively reverential and doesn’t allow for creative, imaginative, engagement with it.

The Bible for him was a resource to stimulate understanding, and not a book of moral precepts. Blake is indignant about those elements in the Bible which have been used to condone injustice. He doesn’t attempt to make the Bible internally consistent, or universally benevolent, and he fully embraces its problematic elements as a means to question dominant readings within politics and religion.

In particular, he challenges its depiction of God as a remote monarch and lawgiver, and the use made of such imagery to justify patriarchy and authoritarianism. His astonishingly diverse array of poems, engravings, and paintings, permeated as they are with biblical themes, make Blake simultaneously both England’s greatest Christian artist, and also one of its most radical biblical interpreters.

‘Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets’, he wrote, thereby including all in the task of speaking out about what they saw. Prophecy for Blake, however, was not the prediction of the end of the world, but telling the truth as best one can about what one sees, fortified by insight and an ‘honest persuasion’ that if 'the doors of perceptrion were cleansed, things could be improved.

One observes, is indignant and speaks out. It’s a basic political maxim which is necessary for any age. Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful.

The beautiful little poems which make up 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' contain some of Blake’s most profound political insights, in deceptively simple verses. Three poems, one entitled ‘London’, the other two a contrasting pair entitled ‘Holy Thursday’, exemplify the way in which Blake engaged his politics. He didn’t do this by grand pronouncements but by attention to what he termed ‘minute particulars’.

In ‘London’ he imagines himself like the biblical prophet Ezekiel, walking round the streets of Jerusalem, and seeing people marked with ‘marks of weakness and marks of woe’, because of the poverty, injustice, hypocritical social convention, and the stranglehold of emerging capitalism. And he observed what he called the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ of cultural conformity which stopped people comprehending the injustices around them.

In the two 'Holy Thursday' poems we have contrasting perspectives on the social situation in England. On the one hand, the poet describes a festive event in St Paul’s Cathedral, in which children who are recipients of charity come to thank God. On the other, there is a hard-hitting critique of what life is actually like for most children, in ‘this green and pleasant land’ -

‘Babes reduc'd to misery. Fed with cold and usurous hand’

The ‘Holy Thursday’ poems offer readers the opportunity to meditate upon late eighteenth century England through the lens of a particular social event.

All people, inside and outside the churches, according to Blake, have the responsibility to attend to the energetic activity of the divine spirit in creation, in history, and in human experience. He wouldn’t have wanted his words to become a sacred text, any more than the words of the Bible, but an ongoing stimulus to politics and religion in the struggle to realise that (as he puts it in ‘Jerusalem’) ‘every kindness to another is a little Death In the Divine Image nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood’.

His work has enabled ordinary people to recognise that culture matters, and that there are mental and cultural chains, as well as economic chains, which bind us. He sought to affirm the importance of everyone in the struggle for community and human betterment. I feel sure he would have been sympathetic to the aims of this website, and proud to see his verses used to help 'build Jerusalem'.

Christopher Rowland is the Dean Ireland professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture Emeritus at the University of Oxford.

About Us
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:18

About Us

Published in About us

We are a group of writers, artists and activists who think that culture matters.

Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire.

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.

Culture matters. The arts (films, plays, paintings, music etc.) and culture generally (sport, religion, the media, eating and drinking etc.) can be wholesome and liberating. They please the senses, stimulate the mind, arouse emotions, and feed the soul. But class-based divisions in society, founded on unequal property ownership, constrain and prevent our enjoyment of cultural activities, which are essential to enjoy life and be fully human.

Culture matters. Cultural activities and experiences can promote awareness, arouse indignation, inspire creativity and imagination, create a sense of equality, community and social justice. They can help us in the 'mental fight' to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a more democratic, equal, socialist society – not only in England but across the globe.

So the Culture Matters website aims to publish relevant creative material (poems, images, music etc,) and critical material (reviews, articles, interviews etc.) We also run Bread and Roses Arts Awards, publish books and pamphlets, and work with the labour movement through workshops and campaigns on culture issues.


Submissions are very welcome, from anyone who has something to say about art and culture which contributes to these aims. Please write as clearly, concisely and accessibly as possible, avoiding footnotes. We are currently unable to pay for material, unfortunately. If you want to contribute, look at what's already on the site and try and shape your material to fit with our broad aims. Submissions are subject to editing. Please provide brief notes and a jpeg of yourself, any preferred accompanying images, and send to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Our current team of Associate Editors and support staff is as follows: Jim Aitken, Dennis Broe, Jenny Farrell, Sally Flint, Martin Gollan, Judith Gordon, Gillian Grant, Brett Gregory, Gemma June Howell, Michael Jarvie, Mike Jenkins, Fran Lock, Rebecca Lowe, Alan Morrison, Mike Quille and Ben Stevenson.


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What do we mean by culture and why does it matter?
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:18

What do we mean by culture and why does it matter?

Published in Cultural Commentary

What is culture and why does it matter? To help us answer those questions, Professor John Storey outlines a neo-Gramscian approach to culture. It exposes culture as a site of struggle, equips and empowers us to resist cultural domination, dissolves the barriers between 'high' and 'popular' culture, and thus helps us build the 'new Jerusalem'.

If we want to make the claim that culture matters politically, and be able to illustrate this claim against those who want us to see it as something quite distinct from the political, we need to be clear what we mean by culture. What I propose in this article is a working definition that will provide a way to think politically about all the things we call culture.

To claim that culture matters because it is ultimately political compels us to move beyond all definitions that reduce culture to the arts with a capital A. In other words, it is a definition that rejects the arbitrary – and elitist – distinction between culture and popular culture. The politics of culture involves all of us because it is about the making and circulation of meanings, meanings which affect all of us.

For example: meaning is produced by a play by William Shakespeare, but it is also produced by the latest episode of Coronation Street. If both produce meaning, and the production of meaning is how we are defining culture, it makes no sense to value one as culture and dismiss the other as popular culture. This does not mean that we cannot judge one as better than the other, but it does mean that we cannot rely on arbitrary categories of pre-judgement to make the decision for us. And of course ‘better’ always implies the questions: better for what and better for whom?

We must also reject the idea that the meaning of a play or television drama is the sole property of the text itself. Undoubtedly, they produce meaning but they are also sites for the production of meaning. And these meanings are variable, and often contested by those who consume them. Culture is a 'mental fight', as Blake wrote in 'Jerusalem'. It is a site of struggle between competing ways of making the world meaningful to us. And that cultural struggle therefore becomes a political struggle.

For the commodities produced by the culture industries (books, CDs, films, theatre, television programmes, etc.) to become culture, they have to be consumed and how they are consumed is always, ultimately, a question of politics. To paraphrase Karl Marx, a house only becomes a home when it is inhabited. So in a similar way a novel that no one reads is barely an example of culture. Culture involves both production and consumption. Both text and audience produce meaning: in political terms, a text can help change how we see the world, but so can the meanings we find in it.

There are two conclusions we can draw from a definition of culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings. First, although the world exists in all its enabling and constraining materiality outside culture, it is only in culture that the world is made meaningful. In other words, signification has a ‘performative effect’; it helps construct the realities it appears only to describe. As Antonio Gramsci once pointed out,

'It is obvious that East and West are arbitrary and conventional (historical) constructions, since every spot on the earth is simultaneously East and West. Japan is probably the Far East not only for the European but also for the American from California and even for the Japanese himself, who, through English political culture might call Egypt the Near East … Yet these references are real, they correspond to real facts, they allow one to travel by land and by sea and to arrive at the predetermined destination.'

In other words, East and West are cultural constructions, directly connected to the imperial power of the West, but they are also forms of signification that have been realized and embedded in social practice. Cultural constructs they may be, but they do designate real geographic locations and guide real human movement and organize real political perceptions of the world. As Gramsci’s example makes clear, meanings inform and organize social action. To argue that culture is best understood as a terrain of shared and contested meanings is not, therefore, a denial that the material world exists in all its constraining and enabling reality, outside signification.

Such a concept of culture does not deny the existence of the materiality of things, but it does insist that materiality is mute: it does not issue its own meanings, it has to be made to mean. Although how something is made meaningful is always enabled and constrained by the materiality of the thing itself, culture is not a property of mere materiality. It is the entanglement of meaning, materiality and social practice, variable meanings in a range of different contexts and social practices. In other words, culture is always social, material and semiotic and always in a direct or indirect relation with the prevailing structures of power.

The second conclusion we can draw from seeing culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings concerns the potential for struggle over meaning. Given that different meanings can be ascribed, for example, to the same novel or film, the making of meaning is always entangled in what Valentin Volosinov identified as the ‘multiaccentuality of the sign’. Rather than being inscribed with a single meaning, a book or a film can be made to mean different things in different contexts, with different effects of power. Contrast, for example, the interpretation of the film 'The Third Man' in the review elsewhere on this site, with the standard, mainstream interpretation.

Culture, understood as the making of meaning is, therefore, always a potential site of ‘differently oriented social interests’. Those with power often seek to make what is multi-accentual appear as if it could only ever be uni-accentual. In cultural terms, this is the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

The different ways of making something signify are rarely an innocent game of semantics, rather they are a significant part of a political struggle over what might be regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ – an example of the politics of signification. What are the class politics of Downton Abbey, or the gender politics of Game of Thrones? Is Trident a weapon of mass destruction, the use of which is impossible to envisage, or is it a necessary means of self-defense in an uncertain world? Is austerity a reasonable way to ensure we live within our means or is it a political choice that forces many people to rely on food banks and to become vulnerable to the Victorian diseases of malnutrition, scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough? In each example there is a struggle over meaning, a struggle over who can claim the power and authority to define social reality; to make the world (and the things in it) mean in particular ways and with particular effects of power.

Dominant modes of making the world meaningful are a fundamental aspect of the processes of hegemony. But hegemony is not something imposed that people passively accept. It is always a terrain of struggle between dominant and subordinate ways of understanding the world. While it is true that the forces of incorporation tend to be more powerful than the forces of resistance, this should not lead us to think of the consumption of culture as something always and inevitably passive. It is certainly true that the culture industries are a major site of ideological production, constructing powerful images, descriptions, definitions, frames of reference for understanding the world. However, we should reject the view that the people who consume these productions are ‘cultural dupes’, unable to resist the prevailing ‘common sense’.

People make culture (including popular culture) from the repertoire of commodities supplied by the culture industries. Consumption understood as ‘production in use’ can be empowering to subordinate understandings of the world. And it can be resistant to dominant understandings of the world. But this is not to say that consumption is always empowering and resistant. To deny the passivity of consumption is not to deny that sometimes consumption is passive; to deny that consumers are cultural dupes is not to deny that the culture industries seek to manipulate. But it is to deny that culture, especially popular culture, is little more than a degraded landscape of commercial and ideological manipulation, imposed from above in order to make profit and secure social control.

What is produced and how it is consumed can also challenge the taken-for-granted that always underpins hegemony. A progressive cultural analysis should insist that to decide these matters requires vigilance and attention to the details of the production, distribution and consumption of the commodities from which culture is made. These are not matters that can be decided once and for all (outside the contingencies of history and politics) with an elitist glance and a condescending sneer. Nor can they be read off purely from the moment of production, by locating meaning, pleasure, ideological effect, the probability of incorporation, the possibility of resistance, in, variously, the intention, the means of production or the production itself.

We need also to consider how meaning is generated through consumption, which should be understood as ‘production in use’. Because it is, ultimately, in ‘production in use’ that questions of meaning, pleasure, ideological effect, incorporation or resistance can be (contingently) decided.

This, I suggest, is a more optimistic, empowering approach to defining culture than traditional approaches. It enables us to engage with cultural products on more equal terms, and it enables us to break down the elitist divide between 'high' culture and 'popular' culture. I believe that if contributors to this website apply this approach, a wealth of meanings will be discovered which will help us build 'the new Jerusalem'.

The review of 'The Third Man' mentioned above is on the film section of the arts hub.