Wednesday, 28 February 2024 19:37

Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy

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Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy

Dr. Fran Lock, shortlisted for the 2023 TS Eliot Poetry Prize, writes about ACE's recent advice to cultural organisations, and the recent pamphlet Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, available to download below.

I began writing this review of CPB's recent short pamphlet, Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy in the wake of Arts Council England's bizarre “advice” to arts organisations to be cautious of: “overtly political or activist” statements made by individuals who may be linked with them; suggesting in typically mealy-mouthed fashion that any expression of those personal political beliefs may expose arts organisations to “reputational risk” that could jeopardize funding arrangements.

This “advice” comes as part of a series of updates made at the end of January to the council’s 2023–26 Relationship Framework policies, which outline the conditions required for ACE support. It goes on to stipulate that “reputational risk” can be generated not only by the organisations themselves, but by staff or by any other individual associated with the organisation “acting in a personal capacity.” Not just a press, say, but their individual authors. In effect, ACE are strong-arming small press publishers (and other struggling arts organisations) to police their current and prospective lists, selecting work and awarding opportunity on the basis of corporate compliance as opposed to passion, originality, or any kind of artistic merit.

Much like the government's disastrous Prevent Strategy – which aimed to root out a poorly defined “extremism” by forcing teachers to spy on and report pupils at risk of “being radicalised” from organisations as diverse as Isis and the Animal Liberation Front – this is a grubby and ill-conceived tactic that can only create a climate of mistrust, close up the space of debate, and smother the legitimate expression of political opinion. It is also a tactic that will do irreparable harm to female, black, brown, queer, trans, crip, gyp, poor and working-class creatives, whose mere presence in the cultural sphere is inescapably politicised before they – before we – even open our mouths.

As many have rightly pointed out, the catalyst for this particular ACE update is doubtless the ongoing humanitarian crisis in occupied Palestine and the urgent moral imperative for artists to speak out against Israeli apartheid. It signals a desperate attempt to regain control of the mainstream pro-Israeli narrative, and to quell – or if not to quell, at least to silence – pro-Palestinian support through the backchannel of arts and culture.

Fewer commentators have made the link between ACE's update and the government's recently announced changes to the Criminal Justice Bill (8th Feb). The Bill further empowers police and criminalises protesters. Under new legislation protesters who cover their face can now be arrested and may face charges of up to £1000 or months in prison. Demonstrators will no longer be able to cite the right to protest in defence of peaceful direct actions such as roadblocks, lock-ons or sit-ins; police are now empowered to stop and search protesters for items such as padlocks and superglue, if – and I quote – they “suspect they are setting out to cause chaos”. I would argue that restricting freedom of political expression through the arts is the other half of a pincer manoeuvre designed to crush both direct and indirect forms of dissent. We should all be deeply troubled by this.

I would also add that hostility from cultural elites, governments, and funding bodies to politically committed art is hardly new. ACE et al. have nothing to gain from supporting people and projects that challenge their traditional business model; most major publishers are wary of any literature that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. A tangential and minor side-effect of the crisis in occupied Palestine is that it has brought into focus for a number of people the political basis upon which opportunities and resources within the arts and literature are awarded or withheld.

The Council's updates to its Relationship Framework policies at such a pivotal cultural moment has rendered their centrist political biases clearly and painfully visible. I feel two ways about this: on the one hand, it allows us, as cultural workers, to collectively acknowledge, name and resist a besetting unfairness. On the other, the fact that ACE felt secure enough to draft and openly announce these updates says something rather worrying about the current state of culture. While it's heartening that ACE's updates met with such spirited push-back, it's concerning that no such push-back was expected.

Class and Culture

All of this by way of preamble to the timely Class and Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, which is an accessible, galvanising, sometimes fascinating exploration of culture, not merely as the medium through which the work of ideology flows, but as a vital, joy-giving force in the lives of working-class people, and as a potential site of radical resistance. As Mike Quille rightly points out in Creating Cultural Democracy, cultural production of all kinds provides a way of bringing people together and offers a place to 'imagine alternatives'. Which is, of course, why elites want us nowhere near it.

Of the ten areas covered in Class and Culture, my first port of call was Poetry Matters by Kevin Patrick McCann, which outlines not only the way in which working-class people are excluded from access to poetry, but also the methods by which working-class poets are assimilated, de-fanged, and tokenised. As McCann pithily puts it:

You can be a rebel and attack glaring injustices; just don't attack the real causes of those injustices. For example, you can attack racism as long as you don't make the connection between racism and the class system.

I've recently had a real window into how arts organisations laud representational triumphs in areas of gender, sexuality, and race, while ignoring the deep systemic (class-based) inequalities that create (and are inherent and structural features of) sexism, racism and homophobia. It suits elite institutions to position “otherness” as an identity category tied to marketable forms of visible difference, as opposed to challenging the structural production of otherness by and through the class system.

McCann's essay rightly points out how a representational model of inclusion allows institutions to nobble the political effectiveness of individual poets via awards and opportunities. This tactic allows organisations to pay lip service to the idea of diversity by granting limited participation for some inside of the systems that oppress us. It tricks us into thinking that the expansion of those systems to include more of us is a victory, when we would all be better served by working towards their destruction. As the recipient of such an award you serve a double purpose: in the first instance you function as a rebuttal to accusations of institutional inequality. The organisation in question can't be racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ classist because look at the black/ female/ queer/ working-class poet they just gave that grant to!

These are not cheerful thoughts, but the essay contains much enlivening material. Drawing on his vast experience as a teacher in a variety of contexts, McCann offers a persuasive and moving account of the transformational power of poetry in the lives of marginalised people. A key theme in this essay is how simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary poetry is. It is ordinary in that it springs out of everyday experience, and extraordinary in that allows for the authorship and articulation of that experience – often for the first time. McCann's contention is not that poetry provides a catharsis which allows people to endure the unendurable. Rather, that it creates the space and the language in which to resist the unendurable, to put into words both our grievances and our grief. In schools, in community centres, and in prisons, it has the potential to restore dignity and voice to the voiceless.

McCann contrasts the innate radicalism of poetry to the way in which it is often taught in schools, where successive generations of Tory “reforms” have routinised and shrunk the teaching of poetry to a loveless conveyor-belt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and discouraged from developing any kind of lively or critical conversation with and about literature. One of the things that's so great about McCann's essay is that it exposes the ideological basis behind this marginalisation of poetry in education. How it is used to demean and replace the lively and various languages of working-class people with that of their oppressors; how it limits and controls through language what can be thought, and thus robs us of a sense of our own history, our own traditions, aesthetics and identity; and how it confirms the lie that poetry is not for us, is the solely the fruit of middle-class literary production.

McCann's essay contains practical suggestions for countering this theft of art and culture through mutuality and cooperation towards an alternative socialist media, which highlights both the need for and effectiveness of grassroots networks of poets and poetry organisations. This feels significant at a time when the arts – and poetry in particular – is being forced to conform to the logics of the marketplace. An ever greater number of us compete for fewer opportunities, as budgets are slashed, funding withdrawn, and jobs are cut. This essay shows how we might build foundational solidarities upon which to grow an alternative publishing culture. But the essay also makes a pressing case for the need for financial support, and for that to happen organisations such as trade unions and the TUC must recognise the cultural front as not merely a minor or secondary site of struggle, but central to the building of a fairer society.

The mediocrity of millions

I found McCann's essay paired perfectly with Scott Alsworth's Reclaiming Literature, which I read immediately afterwards. Alsworth exposes the mechanisms through which literature has become increasingly marketised. This marketisation permeates every stage of the process, from craft (the formal and thematic choices an author makes, and what guides them) through to publication and promotion. Again, this was an essay that struck a profound chord with me, having seen from up-close the corporate shenanigans he identifies play out in real time. Like McCann, Alsworth is a rousing writer, and his observations have real bite:

Today's bestsellers, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are a pulp testimony to the mediocrity of millions. Literary fame is often engineered.

One of the most disheartening things about being a working-class writer within elite literary space is the realisation that you are beholden to chance – and to whims and trends you have no hope of influencing – in a way that your middle-class peers cannot and will never understand. Literary success is not a meritocracy, but a lottery. If you cannot or will not submit to the operating logics of the marketplace, then “success” inside that system becomes vanishingly unlikely. As a practical for instance, I frequently have conversations with horrified students who cannot conceive of a career path that doesn't involve a literary agent. I've had occasion to be frustrated, watching young, middle-class people attempt to leap-frog the stages myself and other working-class writers had to grind through so painfully; getting their collection in front of publishers before they'd submitted to more than a handful of magazines, or honed their craft as an open-mic reader. We inhabit a literary culture marked by incestuousness and nepotism; working-class presses often have zero distribution, no funding, no hype, and no connections to leverage. We're forced to take the long way round, which costs us an enormous amount of extra, invisible labour.

How heartening, then, to read Alsworth writing that 'Great ideas don't die' and exhorting us to 'reclaim the creative high-ground', to remember that 'some of the greatest writers in this country have been card-holding communists.' and that 'Ours is a proud cultural legacy, and it's one we can leverage'.

This idea of an alternative communist tradition of literature feels important. It is a reminder that we are not, in fact, powerless; that the game can be played by an entirely other set of rules. Alsworth has useful suggestions for building and strengthening our own coterie of writers: I like the idea of a communist journal of creative writing, but I'm also very taken with his and McCann's notion of accessible workshops and lectures from left-leaning practitioners and academics. It seems that teaching is at the core of developing a strong, active communist literature.

What would happen, I wonder, if were able to make available, not just creative writing workshops that dealt with the nuts and bolts of participants' writing, but short lectures on pivotal figures within our own radical literary traditions? What about online communist reading groups, teaching ways of looking at text, and reclaiming them from the often arid and ahistorical tedium of the classroom? I'm getting ahead of myself, but both essays contain exciting provocations that certainly deserve further conversation.

The radical potential of video games

Having quickly exhausted my area of expertise I moved off into more unfamiliar territory, sticking with Alsworth, who's writing I find immensely engaging, and who turns his attention to the virtual/ digital world in A Virtual World to Win. As an outsider to the sphere of gaming, this essay contained much that was new and surprising to me, not least gaming's originating and ongoing link with the military-industrial complex, via the US Department of Defence in ways that eerily echo Hollywood's relationship with the same. Alsworth writes about the exploitation of games industry workers, but also about the direct and indirect militarisation of video games, and their increasingly worrying status as vehicles for neoliberal – particularly anti-Marxist – ideology.

This is a grounded essay, rooted in deep insider knowledge and a clear love of the genre. It usefully triangulates political ideology, economics, and creative cultural output, bringing into focus the causal relationships between the dominant (capitalist) ideology, the conditions of the workplace, and the creative decisions of the studios. It also does much to convincingly highlight the radical potential of video games, an active and interactive art-form with the power to stimulate ethical engagement, but which is currently being hijacked, diverted and distorted along commercial and politically dubious lines.

What I found especially interesting, however, was the note of hope this essay sounded, citing the strides being made by cooperative studios to model alternative forms of work that have relevance outside the gaming industry as well as within it; I was excited to read about the activism of the Games Workers Union to open the way for a combined, collaborative pooling of skills in order to 'establish at least one video games studio, run as a workers' collective for peace and socialism'. The message is very much that the tools are already at our disposal, it only remains for us to seize them.

Precarity in the creative industries

The other essay in the pamphlet that really spoke to me was Ben Lunn's Arts Funding In Britain For Classical Music, which sounds dry, but is in fact an incisive case study on inequality of access and provision across the UK. More than this, it shows how the same funding bodies hijack and repurpose the language of 'anti-elitism' to their own ends, using it to justify closures and cuts to struggling projects and institutions – Lunn cites both Glyndebourne and Britten Sinfonia (which recently lost the entirety of its NPO funding) as examples of this 'insidious' tendency (Lunn's word, but an entirely appropriate one, I think). Lunn cares passionately about classical music, and the desire to restore to working-class people an aspect of cultural production from which they have been disinherited is clearly a powerful driving force in this essay.

While the essay maintains a detail-oriented focus on classical music throughout, Lunn's conclusions have far-reaching implications across the arts. One point that particularly struck me was the need for equality of access to education across the regions, and to 'a variety of idioms, aesthetics, styles and sensibilities'. This last feels especially significant to me, having witnessed firsthand the shoehorning of working-class creativity into one or two narrowly predetermined forms. Full cultural participation means a free choice from a range of options, not selectively editing which art forms are for poor and working-class people, and which are beyond the scope of our enjoyment or understanding.

Lunn also rightly calls for more fully contracted work that protects those working in the cultural industries. Again, there's not a working-class creative practitioner alive who would argue with that, working, as we tend to, at least one none-creative job to make ends meet. And name me one other sector where (true story) you are paid “if possible” at the end of April for a job you did at the beginning of March. The precarity of creative (and academic) jobs, the cost-of-living crisis, the continued utilities and rent hikes all contribute to our having to prioritise stable, paid work, effectively excluding us from and exhausting us for the practice of our art. This situation needs to be redressed urgently.

Lunn's other major contention is that any future vision for the arts needs to be led by artists and not by “arts managers”, who are guided by financial as opposed to artistic concerns. Again, I read in this a call to leverage the knowledge we already possess as artists, activists and workers and take control of our own cultural production.

Marxist approaches to the cinema and television

While I enjoyed Nathan Le-Bas' People's Modernism: A Marxist Approach to Cinema I would have welcomed perhaps a companion essay, looking at the visual culture of contemporary cinema, and reflecting on the position of cultural workers within the industry. How do the big studios co-opt the visual language and thematic concerns of dissenting cultures and social justice movements, only to reduce them to empty tropes? How does the narrative message of much neoliberal cinema sit awkwardly with many its employment practices – I'm thinking particularly here about the language of “empowerment”? I'd have been interested to read something along those lines too. Le-Bas' essay offers us a template for critically engaging with the history and language of the cinema; it reinvigorates a Marxist method of reading cultural texts that is in itself valuable, but I do think it would be greatly enhanced by a sister essay covering a few or more of the topics I just mentioned.

Similarly, Brent Cutler's piece, A Marxist Critique of Television left me wanting more. Cutler absolutely nails the increasingly negative portrayal of left-leaning (let alone communist) causes and characters in both drama and documentary strands of mainstream television. I have also been greatly troubled by this. In drama, communism is often presented as – at best – an anachronistic class-war agenda that detracts from neoliberal identitarian struggles such as the oppression of women or of black people. Never mind (once more with feeling) that racism and sexism are inherent and structural features of the class system and vis-versa.

My most uncomfortable brush with this tendency came while watching ITV's heavily fictionalised biopic of Kim Philby called A Spy Amongst Friends, where their ordinary-woman insert character was used to hammer home the message – with all the subtlety of a lump hammer – that you don't need communism because you can apply to join the system that abuses you and change it slowly from the inside over a period of decades, and all it will cost you is a lifetime's dedication to a soul-destroying corporate and political structure that hates you. This is presented as some kind of fabulous victory. I digress, but Cutler's essay is sharp on how ideology shapes narrative in line with neoliberal/ capitalist ideology and aspirations, and he rightly holds up the BBC's recent output for special criticism in this regard.

What's missing, however, is an account of the socialist creatives currently working in television who do amazing work. How effective are they at pushing back against this trend? To what extent have they been co-opted, compromised or tokenised by the system in which they work? Where can we go to find truly positive representations of working-class people and of communists?

It was also striking that the essay included no mention of the proliferation of (predominantly American) streaming services, and how this shapes engagement with and expectations of mainstream television. Do we take our lead from popular American TV shows, and does this slant narrative bias toward a neoliberal consensus? Is there a perception that older (thus supposedly more conservative) people are the only ones watching mainstream/ terrestrial television, and how does this influence thematic and narrative content? Finally, I'd also have been interested to read something about the role television plays in either opening the past to greater scrutiny, or in creating revisionist versions of our history in line with current centre-right mores. It's sound stuff, I just wish there was more of it!

The heart of a heartless world

James Crossley tackles the often thorny issue of spirituality in Religion and Culture, and I read this piece with great interest, especially as a current project of Culture Matters is a collection of poems on the insurrectionary nature of Christ's teaching, and the radical (revolutionary) love espoused by Christ and Mary Magdalene. I came to this essay hoping to be inspired.

And mostly I was. Crossley does a great job of teasing apart the way organised religion in particular has been used by elites to advance or obfuscate various political agendas, and I found myself nodding vigorously to this passage in particular:

It's in the interests of the ruling class to stress religious motivations for acts of terror (usually worded in terms of a 'perversion of Islam' or the like) at the expense of discussing the complexity of causes. This is because a primary focus on 'perverted' forms of religious motivation avoids implicating the actions of the ruling class.

While Crossley cites the example of radical Islam, this tactic is achingly familiar to me from the conflict in the North of Ireland, which even now is frequently presented in purely religious and sectarian terms. Crossley also writes with great clarity about how religion had been harnessed towards both reactionary and progressive ends, and he quotes one of my favourite passages of Marx, writing that religious suffering can be:

…the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

I was happy to read this passage in full. Often it is abbreviated to that last sentence alone, which is then misapplied to heap scorn on the spiritual aspirations of poor and working-class people. This is not what Marx meant. Rather, as Crossley writes, religion in a heartless world can represent a search and a striving for something better; religion points to a pressing need to 'understand the material conditions which give rise to its role'.

I certainly endorse the suggestion at the end of the essay to bolster and continue a lively critical discourse around religion and the way in which it is used to mobilise support and to justify the political decisions of various regimes. If anything, I feel this point might have been made with even greater force, given the rise of an increasingly intolerant, increasingly empowered religious right in both America and Europe. I also agree that it's time to acknowledge and promote the progressive role religion has played in shaping British history, but again this feels more pressing and potentially valuable than the essay gives credit for, especially given how many of our earliest radical and dissenting communities grew out of religious movements. Somewhere down the road I'd love to see a practical discussion about how we might bring this kind of education into schools and social/ community spaces.

Something else I thought might be useful for future discussion is the rise of various online wellness brands and spirituality/health gurus. I've been particularly struck over the last five years or so, by the ways in which these charlatans link spiritual seeking to the neoliberal cult of self-improvement via the worst aspects of predatory capitalism. Clearly, there is an unmet spiritual need, particularly amongst young women. I've been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of socialist fellowship that might offer an appealing alternative.

The economic, political and cultural struggles

Finally, with all these different thoughts swirling in my head I returned to the essays Misinformed: Monopoly Press and Bourgeois Hegemony by Alan McGuire and the final piece Culture Matters to State Monopoly Capitalism by Ron Brown, both of which are needle-sharp on exposing the nuts and bolts of ideological manipulation through various media channels, and offering practical suggestions to resist and counter these manipulations. What is heartening in both essays is that resistance is based upon mutual support across three key fronts – economic, political, and cultural – and builds on work already underway to recognise and integrate the cultural field into the struggle more broadly. While these essays provide a sense of the work still to do, they also offer encouragement in acknowledging how far we have come.

And that's where I'll leave things, for now. To sum up, 'provocations' feels like the most useful word here: while there are some areas that seem to beg further, deeper, more detail-oriented discussion, and while I would have welcomed more women's voices/ perspectives, what the pamphlet does provide is useful, timely and energising. All in all, it’s a great base to build on.


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Read 459 times Last modified on Wednesday, 28 February 2024 19:53
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.