Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (33)

Framing the Russian Revolution
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:37

Framing the Russian Revolution

Written by

 Dennis Broe takes Western cultural institutions and critics to task for their failure to properly convey the revolutionary energy of Soviet art and politics after 1917.

This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October 25th on the Russian Calendar at that time which was November 7th in the West. The Centennial is being celebrated and/or denigrated with various events, exhibitions, and interpretations here in Europe. What is now emerging as the dominant interpretation is a picture of the event in which the February 1917 overthrow of the Czar in Saint Petersburg is now celebrated as the beginning of a democracy that was brutally extinguished with the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks conspiratorially seized power and which led inevitably to the foundation of an undemocratic regime in the guise of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

DB Cult Leader Vladimir Lenin

Likewise, the art of the period immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, a flourishing of all the arts including photography, graphics, painting, theater, cinema and music, is now for the first time being branded as the murderous expression of a totalitarian regime, and this in the heroic period of 1917 to 1932.

All kinds of former truths are being challenged, with the French magazine Telerama now referring to the “myth” of Franco-English imperialism ready to aggress Russia as an excuse for the Bolshevik takeover and with the supposedly left-wing daily Liberation choosing on the week of the centennial to run instead of a consideration of that event an extensive book review of the political camps, with the caveat that before marking the revolution it is first necessary to read the book The Goulag.

The most prominent anti-revolutionary book though is Berkeley professor Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government which essentially presents the Soviet leadership as a cult that lived in the same state-owned building. The book sees the revolution itself as a secular form of fanaticism and the Soviets as fanatics who took the religious version of the final days and the apocalypse and reinterpreted it as the inevitable coming of a global revolution that would redeem humanity.

To this liberal onslaught must be added the attack by the British newspaper The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones on a monumental exhibition on the “Art of the Revolution” at the Royal Academy claiming that the celebration of one of the most fertile periods in the history of art instead “sentimentalises” a “murderous chapter in human history” and comparing the Bolsheviks in this early period of the Revolution to the Nazis.

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

Alexander Deineka, the Defence of Petrograd, from the RA exhibition

The review appeared before the exhibition opened and functioned as British liberals replaying Churchill’s dictum about the Soviets that he would strangle the baby in its cradle, here strangling the exhibition before it could be seen. It is worth noting that the attack is largely being waged by the liberal press, coinciding with a new McCarthyism being led in the U.S. by the Democrats, in which everything Russian is and now must be demonized.

No doubt the failures of the October Revolution were numerous, including famine and starvation in the Ukraine and a rapid installation of camps for political prisoners, but so were the triumphs. Lenin seized power with the support of the army and the workers on one burning question, an end to the war which was decimating the working classes of Europe. He was nearly the only person to urge what he called “Revolutionary Defeatism,” claiming that a defeat for the capitalist nationalists in the war meant a victory and a halt to the slaughtering of working people by each other in the trenches and by new technologies of increasingly deadly and remote killing machines.

It is very easy to make the claim that it was the Soviet takeover and the actual threat of international revolution that ended World War I since the Western powers recognized they no longer had the luxury of slaughtering each other since there was now a real threat to their existence and they, the U.S., France and Britain most prominently, at the time of signing the armistice, sent expeditionary forces to destroy the Soviet state.

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Soviet Poster, 1920.The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.

To this may be added that it was yet again the Soviet “cult” and the Russian people that two decades later halted the next form of Western capitalist barbarity in the guise of the Nazi conquest of Europe. At the height of the Civil War, 1918-22, while battling for their survival, Lenin’s Bolsheviks pursued a policy of combatting illiteracy, teaching reading and writing in the various republics in 40 different languages and dialects and refusing to impose Russian Cyrillic. In 1919, at the worst moment of being attacked and under siege, the Soviets boasted 1200 reading clubs and 6200 political, scientific and agricultural circles and by the end of the war 5 million children were in schools, reversing the Czar’s policy of education only for the elite under which only one child in five was educated.

Along with this new literacy, during the war and after, until the end of the first five year plan in 1932, went a flourishing and democratising of especially the visual and more crucially the graphic arts, particularly posters with elaborate and splashy typography and image and photo collages which appeared in trams, on factory walls and throughout the cities in places where crowds passed.

This was a kind of embracing of popular media which in the West would simply be absorbed into the advertising industry. Theatere began to incorporate popular elements of the circus as Meyerhold countered Stanislavski’s psychological realism with a biomechanical method stressing collective and machine-like movement. Constructivism, likewise an incorporation of the power of the machine into painting and cinema, took the pre-war dynamism of Italian Futurism at a moment when that form was embracing a fascist militarism and instead reinterpreted the machine as a source for good in the service of the people and not as simply a killing machine.

Soviet avant-garde art, the currents of which began before the war and was let loose by the earlier Revolution of 1905, greatly influenced the West in the theatrical experimentation and de-psychologizing of Brecht, in the bringing of abstract notions of design to mass production in the Weimar Bauhaus School, and in the ways Eisenstein’s montage in the films Strike and Battleship Potemkin were incorporated into the cinema of Hitchcock.

The period also featured a rethinking of the purpose of the museum, opposing the collector instinct of museums in the West as being dead archives or conversely as simply presenting art as utterly separated from life and only related to its own history. To counter this, the Soviets proposed open air museums integrated into the community, and a broader definition of what constituted art to include folk art and street design. These innovations are now official policy - uncredited to the Revolution of course - of many museums such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art whose director boasts their incorporation.

The Revolution though in the year of its centenary has in many ways been sidelined. The Royal Academy exhibit was Europe’s most extensive. Paris’s Pompidou on the other hand chose instead to highlight Russian dissident art in its exhibit Kollektsia, which traced extensively the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, an uninspired period which broke down into Sots Art which was the Russian equivalent of Pop Art and various returns to the Constructivism.

Elsewhere, there is a current exhibit at the library of the Museum of the Army titled “And 1917 Becomes Revolution” with examples of this flourishing of the arts alongside Western figurative paintings of the pope blessing and sanctioning the slaughter of the troops. There is also a recounting of how two French members, out of a delegation of four, sent to convince the Soviets to stay in the war instead “went native” and converted to their side in favor of the revolution.

It’s a nice exhibit but very difficult even to find in the museum and overshadowed by the current Army blockbuster about the everyday life of a soldier, an exhibit more in favor of war. And indeed World War I over the last three years is everyday honored in its centennial while the event that halted the war is slighted.

CL Beat the whites with the red wedge by El Lissitzky 1919

By far the most interesting European exhibit was in Venice at the Palazzo Zatere which has been taken over by the V-A-C Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group that staged “Space, Force, Construction” which attempted to update the radical thrust of the arts in this period with contemporary art with a political bent over the last three decades. Here was: Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge,” a geometrical description of the Soviets outnumbered and surrounded but surviving by ingenuity......

DB Tatlins Tower

......and a recreation of Tatlin’s Monumental “Tower of the Future” which was an attempt to address the mistakes of the Tower of Babel.....

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

........and Rodchenko’s design for a worker’s lunchroom/study center, where eating and acquiring of knowledge go on simultaneously.

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

Probably the continent’s most thrilling exhibit of Soviet art though is the currently ongoing French Cinematheque series “The USSR of Cineastes” which covers the period of the 1920s through the end of World War II. Beyond Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, the series contains screenings of the anti-petit bourgeois House on Trubnaya Street, a comedy by Boris Barnet about the maltreatment of a peasant woman by the building’s small business elite; Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, a montage experiment and adaptation of a Jack London short story about how the greed of an international mining expedition in Alaska turns deadly; and The Yellow Ticket, Feodor Ostep’s portrait of a wet nurse, abused by her baronial employer and then cast out into prostitution.

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

Why the downgrading of the Revolution? Is it not because in these times which due to increasing income disparity in the West, the brutalisation of the world by industrial climate change, and the ever disappearing support of the state for any form of worker aid or comfort, Revolution is certainly on the table and discomforting to an increasingly shrinking cadre of elites?

Yet the dissatisfaction in whole deindustrialized areas left for dead in France, the US, and Britain is being channeled into pro-nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment that is the opposite of Lenin’s call for an international joining of the workers across the West and the world to rise up.

Instead the Russian Revolution, which twice halted capitalist barbarity on a global scale, is characterized as merely barbarous itself. At the moment when the world is most in need of it, Western elites have been very careful in this year of the centenary to ignore or deny the energy that inspired one of the great hopes of humanity in the twentieth century.

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:35

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture

Written by

Mike Quille outlines some of the ways the Russian Revolution has influenced art and culture across the world in the last 100 years.

The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 was the world’s first attempt to create a socialist society. It was based on the active support of the majority of the population, workers and peasants alike, and apart from ending Russia’s disastrous involvement in the First World War, it liberated and enfranchised the Russian population politically, socially and economically. It was radically progressive in its social policies – for example towards women and children – and in particular in its truly comprehensive education policies, as outlined in an article by Megan Behrent in this new, commemorative section of Culture Matters.

What about its impact on culture? Unquestionably, the Revolution gave a massive boost to creativity and imagination and led to an explicit recognition, by artists and Bolsheviks alike, that art could serve the general population rather than elites, and thus advance the aims of the Revolution. The natural links between artistic creativity and emancipatory politics were made – not for the first time in human history, but in the strongest way to date.

This explosion of creativity occurred in the visual arts, film, poetry, ballet, children’s literature, music and many more popular cultural pursuits including sport and science, theatre and theology, fashion and clothing. Hardly an area of human cultural activity was unaffected by the Revolution - for an illuminating discussion of its effect on science, see Andy Byford's Revolution and Science under the Bolsheviks.

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Children's literature from the 1920s

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

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Agit-train; Agit-boat with theatre on board

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact on cultural workers

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

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Tatlin's Tower;socialist architecture

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

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

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

Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising; Agrarian Leader Zapata

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

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

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

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

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

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

MQ Coal Face 1935

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

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

MQ Eisenstein Battleship Potemkin  MQ Poster for Vertovs Kino glaz produced by Alexander Rodchenko

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

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

The revolutionary impact on appreciation and enjoyment

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

RR Joan Littlewood 010  RR Peoples Theatre Heaton Newcastle

Joan Littlewood; the People's Theatre, Newcastle

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

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

The revolutionary nature of art

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

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

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

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

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

JF Guernica 2

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

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

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

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

The revolutionary impact through resistance and reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

MQ American postcard 1930s culture card

American postcard, 1930s

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

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

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Poster, Go to the Stadiums!

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

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

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

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

This anti-communism has also manifested itself this year, in various TV programmes and exhibitions. The exhibition of post-revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy, for example, was strikingly reactionary. Funded by the Blavatnik Foundation, a beneficiary of the sell-off of state-owned assets when the USSR collapsed in 1989, the exhibition abandoned the usual liberal approach of trying to provide a balanced historical account of the political background and art of the Revolution. Instead, it promoted an openly hostile perspective, which downplayed, denied and derided links between the progressive politics of the Revolution and the marvellously energetic and powerful art that it inspired. In general, mainstream media coverage of the centenary has been predictably hostile, uncomprehending, tepid, or plainly mistaken - exactly the same problems that characterise its coverage of Corbynism, and for exactly the same reasons. 

The revolutionary influence today

In complex and deeply interwoven strands across all of human cultural activity in the last hundred years, the Revolution has had a massive effect. Its power and influence can still be detected in debates about the links between politics and economics on the one hand and art, sport and religion on the other. In all these debates, the example of Russia is inescapable.

It has left us with some tremendous and enduring examples of excellence in all forms of artistic and cultural activities, across all the world and across the hundred years since 1917. And because of the resistance of ruling elites, it has also led to a polarisation of debates and of practices.

Ever since 1917, there has been debate about the detailed legacy of the Revolution for art and culture. But one thing we can surely all agree about, at least on the Left, is the way it strengthened the capacity and confidence of art and artists to creatively imagine difference, improvement, and radical alternatives to what is.

This influence is extremely relevant today. We face increasing struggles against the incursions of capitalism into our human culture these days. There are all kinds of different barriers and pressures – financial, geographical, thematic – which tend to twist and corrupt human culture. Naturally healthy and developmental cultural activities such as art, sport, religion, eating and drinking, in all their myriad forms, are facing pressures to become corralled into expensive, inaccessible, privatised and patrolled enclaves for the rich and powerful.

bread and roses

In the current struggles that we face to democratise culture, to make it accessible and relevant and affordable to the mass of working-class people, the example of the Russian Revolution is like a beacon of inspiration. It shows us that things don’t have to be the way they are, that tomorrow may not be the same – and that we can achieve and enjoy a better life.

The team at Culture Matters hope that this piece, and the accompanying articles in this section of Culture Matters, give you some sense of the power and range of global cultural influences which sprang from the Russian Revolution. However, perhaps the most enduring influence of the Revolution lies not just in our appreciation and enjoyment of its tremendous cultural legacy, but in the way it still stimulates and motivates us to act now to fulfil its promise – by replacing the culture, politics and economics of capitalism with a socialist alternative.

Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement: collaborations for the future and celebrations of the past.
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 27 November 2017 11:22

Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement: collaborations for the future and celebrations of the past.

Written by

Dr Rebecca Hillman, University of Exeter, reflects on the importance of rebuilding the cultural wing of the labour movement.

Since 2013, a group of political artists, trade unionists and academics have been meeting to plan events to bring together people from across the UK left, to share information about ongoing industrial action, campaigns and organising drives - and artistic strategies which might strengthen those initiatives.

The idea was partly to provide a platform for a kind of cultural/political matchmaking, if you will. That is, the events would introduce people interested in integrating cultural practice into their day-to-day political work, and artists making politically conscious work that was not yet embedded in the broader movement, to seasoned organisers, activists and artists. The events would also provide space for artists from different backgrounds and with diverse approaches and expertise to exchange ideas, hone their practices and potentially form new collaborations. Furthermore, these events would celebrate and revivify some of the extremely rich histories of culture operating at the core of collective struggle, whose documentation is still relatively sparse.

The hope was that all this would galvanise incentive, provide orientation, and build skills across various cohorts on the left, and, in so doing, would weave strong and colourful cultural threads through broader political structures. The events would also provide space for crucial discussion on challenges and opportunities that the movement faces today, for example: changes in technology and the role of social media; challenges of an increasingly casualised and precarious workforce; the prospect of increased automation; significant shifts in policies and practices of trade unions, and of political parties, and so on.

The following text is a short speech I delivered at the Liberating Arts Festival earlier this month, the second and the largest of the two events that have taken place so far to the ends outlined above. There is so much the speech doesn’t cover in terms of processes, achievements, and areas for development/future plans. However, it marks the event, and begins to sketch some of the contexts and ideas that informed it. For now, the rest is for a longer publication, which will have to follow. 

Speech to participants at the Liberating Arts Festival, Roborough Studios, University of Exeter, 4th November, 2017.

Welcome to the University of Exeter. Thank you for being here today to share this space with us, as well as your rich ideas and contributions for creating, sustaining, remembering, and developing political culture. My name is Rebecca Hillman. I’m a lecturer in the Drama Department here, and have been working on a longer-term project, of which this event forms a part, with Banner Theatre, the General Federation of Trade Unions, Reel News and Townsend Productions, overall, over the course of about 4 years!

I’m thrilled that we’ve been brought together today, from locations across the UK and beyond, to discuss – and celebrate – how art and politics have intersected and functioned in political movements past and present… and, crucially, to build relationships with one another as we talk about, and even begin to practice the development of those relationships and intersections for the future.

Townsend We Are Lions

Townsend Productions, We Are The Lions, Mr Manager! at the Liberating Arts Festival 

I’m pleased, and proud, that we are gathered in the University of Exeter’s Drama Department. Exeter Drama has (for 50 years next year!) been the home of research and teaching with radical and progressive underpinnings. Our students, many of whom were helping out today, continue to undertake exciting political work with insight, passion and curiosity, through critical and practical experimentation in the department, and in the wider community.

As for this event and the overarching project, the aim has always been to strengthen and create new bridges between trade union organising and other left activism, art practice and educational work. It feels like a great achievement to be sharing this platform, and the activities today, with people from different occupations and walks of life, and to have representation across different generations of political artists and organisers. It’s been challenging but important to hold some of these different contingents at the core of the organisation of this project, as well as to reflect this, as far as possible, in the structure of the programme, which offers diverse expertise from those pushing the boundaries of cultural and political practice.

My own interest in these ideas stems from my work as a theatre maker and trade unionist, whose practice has been facilitated and enriched through intellectual exchange, financial support, and comradeship from trade unions and trade councils. Meanwhile, I consider my own most successful attempts at political organising to have happened in the rehearsal room, the performance, and the post-show discussion. That is, it’s happened when people have had the space and time to express themselves creatively and to work with others over a duration, and to discover ways to powerfully communicate their experiences. Many of us in this room will have used artistic forms to amplify our voices to speak back to power, and to communicate with one another. We understand that artistic processes can help us discover that we’re not alone; help us discover our strength as a chorus, or crew, company, or collective. I often think of director/playwright/agitator John McGrath’s words (in relation to theatre specifically), that ‘the basic imperative of solidarity – that what happens to other people matters: these things theatre can embody, in its forms and processes’ (Nadine Holdsworth (ed.) Naked Thoughts that Roam About: Reflections on Theatre).

Political art can help us deconstruct the past and imagine better futures. It can articulate a political problem to us, more clearly than we’ve heard it before. It can win an argument, and encourage us to think critically. It can pack an emotional punch; moving us in ways we can’t quite put our finger on or put into words, but that we carry with us. Maybe it’s something to do with the way the light falls on a performer’s face… or the way she looks you in the eye…. or the way a harmony in song, or sharing a space, physically, with people from your community who you’ve never met before, makes you catch your breath, or cry, or laugh, or shout, or want to leave the room. Art can introduce us to new ideas and feelings, start conversations, and friendships, and strengthen our resolve to undertake, or continue with, the hard graft of making change. It can create powerful infrastructures, and ‘cultures of feeling’. It can begin to intervene in the very structures of our reality, changing our environment, and our behaviour. It has been recognised and used effectively to these ends by political agitators and organisers over centuries.

Many of you will be very familiar with the rich history that cultural workers and trade unionists share; how they’ve tackled collectively ideological, practical and financial challenges (many of which, unfortunately, still resonate today - remarkably closely in some cases). In the 1960s and 1970s in the UK organisations were developed by artists making politically radical work, to provide infrastructure and support for their practice. For example, Agitprop was set up in 1968 to provide (and I quote) ‘a comprehensive information and communications service for all those […] working towards a revolutionary transformation of our society’ (Catherine Itzin, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968). Impressively, this included an Entertainments Booking Agency, a Lawyers’ Group, a Publicity Group, a Music Group, a Special Effects Group, and a Street Theatre Group, as well as publications, libraries and conferences to disseminate information, and coordinate operations!

Meanwhile, the formation in the mid-70s of TACT (The Association of Community Theatres), the TWU (Theatre Writer’s Union) and the ITC (Independent Theatre Council) gave practical, creative and financial support to ‘alternative’ theatre-makers, providing a central base for equipment for hire/loan/sale; helping playwrights win the living wage, and helping groups define their own identities when the Arts Council’s criteria was found to be limiting and exclusive. Supported by such endeavors, collaborative projects evolved between artists, unions and housing associations, for example. Theatre companies performed at meetings, on picket lines and mass protests, in working men’s clubs, and in factories, schools and hospitals. We’re so privileged today to have representation from groups who were involved with, and who continue that work (in fact, I’m speaking through Banner Theatre’s microphone right now!)

Over the last few years, brilliant initiatives have emerged that begin to recall that legacy, in terms of their approaches to engagement and/or their integration into political movements. A few examples of this in terms of groups who are with us today or who presented work at our last event in December 2016, include the Artists’ Union, founded last year; Reel News who have documented strike action up and down the country and disseminated this far and wide; Brandalism’s campaigning through street art in the run up to the general election this summer; and Salford Community Theatre, who have worked with their community to create spaces of political consciousness and solidarity, in the process bringing people together with labour movement activists, and blurring the lines between performance and protest.

Love on the Dole

Salford Community Theatre's production of Love on the Dole, 2016 (Colin Armstrong Photography)

And there are many other examples, of course… like Common Wealth Theatre’s We’re Still Here, which took place a few months ago at the Port Talbot steel works, and which told the story of the Save Our Steel campaign through the eyes of local people; Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake, which premiered at Momentum’s 2016 The World Transformed, before touring community centres, labour clubs and foodbanks to raise money for those whose lives have been carved up by relocation, benefit sanctions, precarious contracts, the running down and the privatization of public services, and a raft of other symptoms of dogged neoliberal governance. The World Transformed itself, of course, which aims to function as the cultural (left) wing of the Labour Party, provides an interesting model with scope for networking and infrastructures to support relevant practice. There have also been various initiatives by Collective Encounters (who today happen to be running an event on kick-starting cultural activism projects!) … I could easily go on.

So, these are exciting times! But, as ever, there’s much work to be done. There’s a case for rebuilding a cultural wing to the labour movement that is far more tightly integrated and more firmly supported than it is presently. What this might look like, and how to make steps towards it are the fundamental questions driving these events. It is an ambitious undertaking, but it is essential if we are to rebuild the strength of our movement so that it can respond with power and dexterity to many current forthcoming changes and challenges.

My general impression over the past decade, though things are beginning to shift, is that there is a disconnect between many - particularly young - political artists and the broader movement. Also, though, that the moment we’re in, slippery as it is to hold onto long enough to define, provides unique opportunities. We have recently witnessed an influx of young people into political consciousness and activity in this country. They have, and will continue (sadly) to respond to privatisation, precarity and poverty, but also to political figures and cultural activists bold enough to carve out a socialist politics in late capitalism. Their response has manifest recently from the doorstep to branch meetings and to the ballot box; from social media to mass protests; through quiz nights, karaoke, boxing clubs, grime, street theatre, strike action, benefit gigs, community theatre projects and hilarious memes - all of which has been facilitated by expert networking.

Those of us involved at the outset of this project - the one we’re part of today - couldn’t quite envision this burgeoning of organised, creative political engagement, which was just around the corner. Or, how young people, and others who were previously disengaged would channel their anger - including, by the way, those who may not fit neatly into conceptions of what ‘the left’ looks like. What we can learn from each other, across perceived differences, so that political culture is something useful and relevant, powerful and integrated, and so it is understood that it is socialism that answers our immediate class interests, should be our greatest priority as we move forwards.

Please keep in touch. Thanks for being here. Have a fantastic night.

banner theatre Rise Like Lions

Rise, Like Lions! Performed at the Liberating Arts Festival

A full list of the sessions, which included a wide range of workshops, discussions and performances is available here.

Culture for the many, not the few
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 31 October 2017 15:53

Culture for the many, not the few

Written by

Culture for the Many, not the Few

The world transformed! Quite a heady claim, isn’t it? But a few weeks ago in Brighton, there were some glimpses of a new and better world: a new and better approach to art and culture.

The World Transformed festival is run by volunteers from Momentum, the political movement formed after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. In 2016 they staged their first event alongside the Labour Party conference, a four day festival of politics, art, theatre, music and cultural workshops.

It was hugely successful and this year The World Transformed came to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, bigger and better than last year. Over 5,000 people attended 100 events, run in 10 venues across Brighton – churches, theatres, cafes, meeting rooms – from late morning to late evening. Big names like Ken Loach and Peter Kennard spoke alongside less well known but equally inspiring grassroots and local voices, such as Becka Hudson and Kemmi Morgan from Grime4Corbyn.

The excitement, the buzz, the sense of anticipation and determination, were palpable. Long queues for places at the events snaked round the streets, and most events were full up. All the events I attended were efficiently run but also relaxed, informal, and very inclusive.

The arts and culture generally were treated in an accessible and democratic fashion. There is often an elitist and metropolitan drift in definitions, discussions and events about culture, which ignores or downplays the activities valued and enjoyed by large sections of the population.

Activities such as sport, religion, watching TV, clothing and fashion etc. get little attention compared to what goes on in art galleries, concert halls and theatres.

But as Raymond Williams said, ‘culture is ordinary’ and here, a wider definition of culture was being put into practice.

An outstanding example of this approach was an event called ‘Football from Below’. This workshop was run by Mark Perryman, a regular writer for Culture Matters and co-founder of Philosophy Football, together with several others including Suzy Wrack from the Guardian Weekly and Kadeem Simmonds from the Morning Star. Not to mention Attila the Stockbroker, veteran punk poet and musician and Brighton’s most famous football fan.

Together, they focused on the need to reclaim the game from capitalist culture – from the corporate, commercialising forces which are threatening to corrupt and kill it off as an accessible, affordable entertainment and activity for legions of fans and players.

Contributors spoke of the groups of militantly anti-racist fans organised as ultras in many clubs, and the rise in community ownership across all the League’s divisions. Attila used spoken word to describe the fifteen year fan-led campaign to keep their local football club playing in Brighton, which has now culminated in the club joining the Premier League.

Above all, contributors pointed to the growth of the women’s game, and the need to challenge entrenched gender bias. Why can’t more clubs, they asked, follow the example of Lewes FC in allocating equal budgets for women and men players?

The workshop was entertaining and inclusive, involving open discussion as well as poetry, visuals and song. It was itself a model of the kind of grassroots cultural activity being presented and promoted.

Clearly, football can be viewed as a political metaphor for capitalism. The unequal relations of ownership; the grotesque contrast between players’ wages and those of cleaning staff; the commodification and branding of the club’s identity; the price of tickets; the corporate sponsorship and privileged seating; the culture of celebrity; the use of drugs; the over-emphasis on winning and losing rather than the quality of the game played – all these corrupting and antisocial developments are a consequence of capitalist economic relations, and reflect and express capitalist culture. They contradict and undermine the genuine, playful and communal spirit of the game, both for players and viewers.

But here’s the main point which came out of the workshop and indeed the whole festival. All of our cultural activities, all of the topics covered by Culture Matters – poetry, film, theatre, visual art, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, the media – show the same kinds of contradictions.

Consider how institutional religion – not only Christianity, but Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – has served the interests of ruling classes throughout history, by muting or silencing essentially revolutionary philosophies.

Religions have a tremendous capacity to present moral, spiritual and political challenges to all class-divided societies, including capitalist ones like our own. This is precisely why they have been suborned by ruling elites, made to focus on individual sin rather than structural injustice, and on the hereafter rather than the here and now. Christian religious beliefs and practices, originally developed to help liberate the poor, have become ways of generating submissiveness, obedience, and resignation amongst the exploited and oppressed.

Consider how all of the arts are, in one way or another, inaccessible through cost and geographical location, and incomprehensible to large sections of the population who are increasingly denied an education which would help them understand the arts, an education which is barely enough to prepare them for a lifetime of exploitation under capitalism. And how they can be used – for example in most Hollywood movies – to express reactionary, sexist and anti-socialist values which maintain consent for an exploitative, class-divided society.

All these cultural activities and many more should be wonderfully liberating, enjoyable and developmentally valuable to us as social human beings. Yet we are witnessing the growing privatisation of the cultural commons – those cultural activities and expressions that belong to all of us – by capitalism.

We need to resist the commercialisation and ideological manipulation of the arts. We need to democratise the access, affordability and content of all our arts and cultural activities, and show how a bottom up, DIY ethos can work. We need to reclaim our common cultural heritage from the few, for the many.

Next year, let’s hope The World Transformed festival in Liverpool is even more ambitious. Momentum can reach out even further and help us understand, develop and put into practice the socialist ideas of the Labour leadership across a range of cultural topics.

Progressive forces in the labour movement need to start local cultural struggles to transform the world outside Parliament, outside local councils, and outside the workplace. We need to challenge the authorities and the institutions – sports clubs, churches, supermarkets, pubs, and broadcasters, as well as art galleries, opera houses and concert venues – that legitimise capitalist exploitation and throw up barriers to us enjoying cultural activities that help us develop and enjoy our lives as fully human, social beings.

That’s how to achieve a world transformed, and a culture for the many, not the few.

Os Semeadores
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 14 October 2017 16:38

What Do Marxists Have To Say About Art?

Written by

Richard Clarke introduces some of the main Marxist insights into the nature and value of art, and its links to political and economic realities.

Most Marxists would say that the value of a work of art such as a painting, or the pleasure they get from it - in its original or as a reproduction - is above all else an individual matter, not something that ‘experts’ (Marxist or otherwise) can or should pronounce upon. At the same time experts can enhance that pleasure, for example by explaining the technique and methodology of the composition of a painting. Again, this is no more the exclusive province of a Marxist than (for example) a commentary on the technical skills embodied in the design or manufacture of a washing machine.

However a Marxist approach may help to deepen the appreciation or understanding of an art work by revealing the historical context of its production and the relation of a work of art or of an artist to society. Art, just as any other human activity, is always created within a specific social and historical context, and this will impact on the art work itself. This is why Marxists argue that one can only begin fully to appreciate and understand a work of art by examining it in relation to the conditions of its creation.

Here a fruitful starting point for discussion is a materialist view – looking at the production and consumption of art, the position of artists in relation to different classes, and the conflicts embodied in a work of art and in the history of which it is a part. For example, Ernst Fischer’s seminal essay The Necessity of Art (1959) is a Marxist exposition of the central social function of art, from its origins in magic ritual through organised religion to its varied and contradictory roles within capitalism and its potential in building socialism.

The Marxist art critic John Berger in his Ways of Seeing (a 1972 four-part television series, later adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing) was hailed by many people for helping to deepen their understanding of art. Berger argued that it was impossible to view a reproduction of ‘old masters’ (generally paintings by European artists before 1800) in the way they were seen at the time of their production; that the female nude was an abstraction and distortion of reality, reflecting contemporary male ideals; that an oil painting was often a means of reflecting the status of an artist’s patron; and that contemporary advertising utilises the skills of artists and the latest artistic techniques merely to sell things for consumption in a capitalist market. 

Berger’s work remains controversial and has been revisited many times, particularly since his death in January 2017. Many have argued that he over-simplifies and that he incorporates the deeper perceptions of others such as Walter Benjamin, working at the interface between Marxism and cultural theory. Some have asked (for example) why there is no reference to feminist theorists in Berger’s chapter on the ‘male gaze’. However Berger’s work needs to be seen in context as a polemical response to the ‘great artists’ approach which characterises much establishment art history and ‘art appreciation’ typified by Kenneth Clark’s (1969) Civilisation television series.

What is clear is that cultural expression (art, lower case) is characteristic of all human societies and that while art and society are intimately connected, the former is not merely a passive reflection of the latter. The relationship is a dialectical one. As Marx declared in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘The object of art, like any other product, creates an artistic and beauty-enjoying public. Production thus produces not only an object for the individual, but also an individual for the object’. 

A distinction is often made between the performing arts (including music, theatre, and dance) and the visual arts (such as drawing, painting, photography, film and video). Performing arts are of their nature ephemeral, and as Robert Wyatt, the communist percussionist of the ‘60s psychedelic rock group Soft Machine, declared, ‘different every time’. The performance is the initial product, although it may be recorded, reproduced and subsequently sold.

‘Art’ (as in painting, on canvas) is sometimes presented as the highest point in the development of ‘civilised’ culture. Jean Gimpel, an historian, diamond dealer, and expert in art forgery, attacked the concept of ‘high art’ in his book The Cult of Art (subtitled Against Art and Artists). He argued that the concept of Art - especially oil paintings, on transportable framed canvas - is specifically a product of capitalism, personified in the Florentine artist Giotto ‘the first bourgeois painter’ of the Renaissance and his successors.

Under the patronage of the Medici and other nouveau riche Italian patrician families, the ‘artisan’ workmanship of frescos on church walls or decorated altarpiece was superseded by the movable (and marketable) canvas. In short, it was commodified. ‘People no longer wanted a 'Madonna' or a 'Descent from the Cross' but a Leonardo da Vinci, a Michelangelo or a Bellini.’ The cult of art and the artist was born.

Yet it was not until the eighteenth century that the distinction between ‘artisan’ and ‘artist’ became fixed. Even today people can be heard asking – of everything from the Lascaux cave paintings to some suburban topiary — ‘but is it Art?’ High art of course also produced its supposed antithesis - the artist in his garret (women artists were to a degree excluded from the equation), suffering, sometimes starving in the cause of art unless they are lucky enough to be ‘discovered’, often only after death. With capitalism, for the first time the artist became a ‘free’ artist, a ‘free’ personality, free to the point of absurdity, of icy loneliness. Art became an occupation that was half-romantic, half-commercial.

Dire Straits’ ‘In The Gallery’ is a song about the conversion of use-value (the worth the artist or her audience see in an art work or the pleasure they get from it) into exchange value. Harry is an ex-miner and a sculptor, ‘ignored by all the trendy boys in London’ until after he dies, when, suddenly, he is ‘discovered’ (too late for Harry, of course) – the vultures descend to make profit from his work.

In The Gallery

Don Mclean’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ carries a similar message. The principal difference (beyond the tempo of the songs) is that Harry is politically engaged, very much of this world whereas tormented Vincent (Van Gogh) was ‘out of it’ - unlike his post-impressionist erstwhile friend, Paul Gauguin, who asked his agent what ‘the stupid buying public’ would pay most for and then adjusted his output accordingly.

Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

Irrespective of their recognition or fame, art and artists are frequently presented as apart from, sometimes above, society. For Marxists it is clear that the arts and artists are an integral part of society. In terms of aesthetics and policy however, Marxists would suggest caution - the history of art within socialism is a mixed one. The early flowering of post-revolutionary Soviet avant-garde art is well known. Constructivism strived to put art at the service of the people. The subsequent rise of socialist realism as ‘official’ art was an attempt to make art more accessible (and it existed alongside a flourishing variety of unofficial art forms).

constructivist image

Left: Gustav Klutsis – Workers, Everyone must vote in the Election of Soviets! Right: Russian Propaganda Poster

In the United States modern art was promoted as a weapon in a cultural cold war with the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist realist’ art forms. In the 1950s and 1960s, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Farfield Foundation, and other covers, the CIA secretly promoted the work of American abstract expressionist artists - including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - in order to demonstrate the supposed intellectual freedom and cultural creativity of the US against the ideological conformity of Soviet art.

jackson pollock autumn rhythm number 30

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Even when art is oppositional, capitalism has an uncanny knack of appropriating it. The Royal Academy’s 2017 exhibition of Russian revolutionary art was accompanied by vicious and ignorant curating – presumably to disabuse any who might otherwise have been inspired by the works on display. Banksy’s graffiti, a determinedly uncommercial form of art ‘for the people’ (maybe a modern equivalent of the Lascaux cave paintings?) is now ‘in the gallery’ – decidedly a collector’s item with a price tag to match. Another (dead) graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 depiction of a skull was auctioned in May this year for more than $100 million. Banksy’s own comment on this is conveyed on a wall of the Barbican where a posthumous exhibition of Basquiat’s work runs until January 2018 (admission £16). City of London officials are currently considering whether (and how) this fresh graffiti might be preserved.

banksy tribute jean michel basquiat

Within capitalism, as its crisis deepens, ‘high art’ (provided it is portable, saleable, in a word, alienable) is – next to land and other property – one of the best investments that there is. A recent example is Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, ‘saved’ for the nation in March 2017 at a cost of £4 million, through a fund raising exercise to pay its owner, Diageo. This multinational drinks conglomerate (profits last year £3 billion on net sales of £10.8bn, 15% up on the previous year; CEO Ivan Menezes’ salary £4.4m) graciously agreed to accept just half of the paintings ‘estimated value’ of £8 million. More than half of this money came from the National Lottery - itself sometimes described as a ‘hidden tax on the poor’. 

The Monarch of the Glen Edwin Landseer 1851

Edwin Landseer,The Monarch of the Glen

Gaugin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (‘When Will You Marry’?), painted in 1882 and, like his others, presenting a romanticised view of Tahiti, sold for $300 million in 2015 — just topped by de Kooning’s Interchange the following year. A 24ct gold bracelet, designed by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese ‘dissident’ and ‘champion of democracy’, inspired by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (the deadliest earthquake ever, 90,000 dead, between 5 and 11 million homeless) sells for a modest £45,500 from Elisabetta Cipriani, (ElisabettaCipriani). The majority of artists and their artworks of course, never reach such dizzy heights.

The role of the artist in society remains a controversial subject. In the meantime it is clear that art and artists can and do play a vital role and that artistic freedom and license are crucial. Perhaps a good model is that followed in the former Yugoslavia and other socialist countries (as today in Cuba). Artists were not paid or employed as such by the state, although the arts in general were and are given generous state support. As in capitalist countries artists had to make their living through commissions, though these would be more likely to come from community associations, trades unions, local councils and the like, rather than from wealthy patrons or investors. Many would have to supplement their incomes by teaching, or by doing other jobs. But their social position was recognised and their social security contributions were paid so that on ill-health or retirement they would not suffer.

In both the appreciation, understanding and, indeed, production of art, and whether you love or loathe his own designs, one assertion that all socialists would surely agree with is that of the communist William Morris, who declared ‘I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few...’, (Hopes and fears for art). What is certain is that art - of all types - can enrich our lives. It can also be galvanising, a force for social progress. But it is also clear that art that is subject to capitalist market forces involves a chronic distortion of the artistic product and process in which art works are valued for their price tag rather than their intrinsic quality. A Marxist approach can deepen our understanding of art provided that we avoid dogmatism and accept that this is an area of debate - one to which we can all contribute.

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Morning Star on 14 August 2017.

 

Postcard from Theresamayienstadt
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 22 August 2017 20:02

Postcard from Theresamayienstadt

Written by

Marc Nash issues a provocation to all the arts communities - artists, performers, authors, poets, dramatists, film directors, and empty emptors. They have all settled cheaply, and become enervated.

Behind the unbarbed wire upon which vellum, parchment and ink lay drying, an unplugged quartet of guitar, double bass, tom-tom and vocalist gave a recital. With all the mechanical passion of the figures striking the hour on Prague’s Anatomical Clock. Marking time. Beating time. Passing time. Killing time. The youthful rebellion and insurgent energies of rock and roll now contained by executive moguls and derisive Svengalis, with the volume turned down so as not to wake the ghetto Kinder. There is no whiff of any kulturkampf within the palings of the UK’s culture camp.

The stand up comedians are to be found sitting down, before the Pathétique cine cameras that serve the internment with a lensed record of the entertainment within its walls. Participating in panel quizzes conflating news with comedy and comedy with news. Placing the emphases in the wrong places for laughs. Save for certain of their Celtic brethren who still rail through microphones. For they know who they are at least. Standing in opposition to the majority tribe in the penal colony, a different coloured badge sewn into their stripey pyjamas. And in between the panel shows, when the mirthsters do perform live, they celebrate shared dispositions with their audience. Comedy (not humour) drawn from spotlighting quotidian quirks. Captive audience recognition, sagely sitting on their hands in canny agreement, affirming how uncanny détentional life is.

In the next barrack block along, conceptual artists working with materials found around the camp, such as elephant dung, condemned houses, unkempt beds, dead sharks and diamonds. The children of the artists’ colony are asked to stick their hands in paint and then press their palms up to the wall to render an image of Camp Commandant Savile. What other choice do they have? In the inceptive Theresienstadt, a painter who refused to paint a portrait of the ghetto’s doctor was shipped off to an extermination camp. The art produced here is beyond the reach of all bar the Kapos’ patronage. Instead it is displayed in museums and galleries, for empty emptors to ogle. Passively queuing round the shower block, as if waiting for a glimpse of cadavers lying in state. Coffin art. Coffer art.

The dancers at least were pushing the boundaries of their confined bodies, a sub-rosa escape committee. But since their language was abstruse and non-lingual, no one could understand the urgent messages their bodies were conveying. They weren’t seen around the camp very often. It was presumed they were underground, quarrying a breakout tunnel. Leaving the above ground stage clear, for serving up ballroom peacock mating displays accompanied only by Grub St. pecking personal narratives.

Dramatists put on performances for the inmates in cold concrete 1960s monoliths. Plays that are a tourist version of Albion. Period pieces. Museum GB pickled in aspic. Revival Britain, when sleeping dogs should be let lie. Or shot. Oooh we’re staging Romeo and Juliet in 1950s seaside Margate, with the Montagues as Mods, the Capulets as Rockers and we’ll have Lambrettas and Vespas, Triumphs and Nortons on stage at the end of the pier show. On ice. Any playwright worth their sea salt, ups and leaves this barracks for the privileges of the log-burning studios in the film and television production blocks. Where the stamp of ‘funded by the UK Film Council’ in the opening credits, reflexively causes audiences’ heads to drop in anticipation of inevitable disappointment and defeat.

And then the largest bloc of all, the authors and poets. Of which I am one, according to my camp tattoo, number 202,500. In a world of propaganda, post-truth and fake news, what better gladiators to duel with the concept of truth than us fiction writers? For we supposedly apprehend the relationship of fiction to reality. Our screeds billowing among the untended weeds growing between the stakes, are far stronger a restraint than any Krupp razor wire. The flimsy fences are actually constructed from market forces. The watchtowers are unmanned, the panopticon formed by a reticence to rock the boat. To startle the horses. To cause offence. Fence without offence. An off fence. Unelectrified and unelectrifying. Therefore the writers were penning themselves in. Those who wrote escapist yarns and those who gazed at their navels trying to extract precisely where they extracted from. For the former fail to ask themselves, why life is such that one needs an unending diet of escapism in order to continually veer away from it (as they too dream of a better life in the television and film bunker)? For the latter, nothing wrong with examining the dimensions and hue of the camp badge worn over one’s heart, except they overlook the rest of the rep of their striped pyjamas shared by every inmate in here. Atomising art both. Making wraiths of us all. Ghostwriters with their primaries in absentia.

There are no guards in Theresamayienstadt. No censors. The inmates at the Czech Theresienstadt couldn’t see beyond the walls, so they wrote poems and painted pictures of their lives inside the ghetto. Our artists can freely view outside the fenceposts of their hipster ghetto, yet they abjure depicting the scenes beyond the gossamer chicken wire. Staring them in their averted faces, the privations and assaults on the non-combatants. Whereas the Red Cross visited the Czech Theresienestadt and deemed it satisfactory, in our time they have proclaimed the National Health Service as being on the point of representing a humanitarian disaster. Where was the protest of any of this? From artists who had meekly accepted the commodification and profit accountability of their own professions back in the 1980s. The erection of the cash nexus stringers and pickets behind which they currently labour. Or from creatives who had politics conferred on them in the 1990s, when they took tea at Number Ten and were thanked for endowing Cool Britannia.

Where even are the triumphalist artists of now? Those who have secured their political and cultural revolution, where is any celebration of the fact of their vision in art? Where are erected any monumental architecture, giant statues, the huge canvases and murals? Nowhere that’s where. Not because they are all philistines. Some are barbarians. They do possess a modicum of an expressionistic form of their own. A folk art of Union Jacks, bulldogs and silhouettes of some of their country folk framed as no-entry signs. Tea cosies and towels. Tattoos and T-shirt designs. Commemorative pottery. The occasional spitefuelled comedian who never gets invited on to the same bills as the rest of the recumbent stand ups resisting on their laurels.

And so our artists willingly present picture postcard images. ‘Love from Theresamayienstadt UK’. ‘Wish you were here’. That all is right with the world in the thousand year obscurantist Reich. Our lords and masters nod, satisfied at their dolls’ house and count the export dollars and tourist roubles it generates. We fail to appreciate our own power. For we have Stockholm Syndromed ourselves. We don’t even have to break through the palisades, we could just walk through without any snagging of our corduroy.

I saw the best minds of my generation, and they had settled cheaply and become enervated.

Summer reading for a radical revival
Wednesday, 09 August 2017 14:52

Summer reading for a radical revival

Written by

Mark Perryman recommends some radical summer reading, to help us grapple with interesting times.

The audacity of hope versus the mendacity of the weak ’n wobbly. 20 years ago it took until the early hours before that ‘were you still up for Portillo?’ moment established the sheer scale of the Tories’ meltdown. Two decades on this was different. Firstly, the indicator, the exit poll, came a whole lot earlier, leaving viewers with hour after hour of ‘surprise’ results to look forward to. Secondly, Labour’s triumph, despite missing the overall majority, was both unexpected by the mainstream media and clearly based on a radical appeal. 

Of course nothing stands still in politics. Yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s consensus while new issues arise to challenge us to change pre-ordained positions. Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth were both published prior to 8th June – now they are both required summer reading for Labour politicians and activists who might mistakenly believe that ‘one more heave’ will be sufficient to dislodge the Tories and effect progressive change.

Naomi Klein’s latest, No Is Not Enough sets the necessity for an evolving, always more radical, project in the context of how being against things is never, ever, sufficient – we need to be for something, too.  This is one of our brightest thinkers, writing at her very best.

Rules for Revolutionaries has a similar US bias to Naomi’s book, but is no less necessary to read. Co-authors Becky Bond and Zack Exley draw lessons – what they call ‘big organising’ – from their hands-on experience in the Bernie Sanders campaign. No serious Labour activist can afford to ignore these lessons if a decent second place in the key 66 marginals is to be turned into a runaway victory next time.

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The Thatcherite Offensive by Alexander Gallas is an important new contribution from an older perspective – the work of Nicos Poulantzas – towards an analysis of an era most of us would prefer to forget. Taking an admirably internationalist look at the  potential to challenge neoliberalism, the edited collection The Left, the people, populism ranges over a wide range of subjects and European countries, a vital antidote to the parochialism of the English Left.   

Of course such inwardness does get punctured from time to time, recently the #blacklivesmatter movement in the USA has been one such source of inspiration. Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All is the riveting tale of how this movement exploded on the US political terrain and helped begin to shift the boundaries worldwide of debates on race, class and policing to good effect. 

Jess Phillips is best known perhaps for her explosive interventions to burst the Westminster Bubble. Too easily pigeon-holed simply as an arch anti-Corbynite, her book Everywoman reveals instead a grassroots activist-feminist turned MP who more than anything else wants to upset the status quo, whoever or whatever is defending it.

Jamie Bartlett would certainly recognise the necessity of such an opening-up. In Radicals he provides a hugely original account of how outsiders across the globe, not easily placed on the traditional left to right spectrum, are forcing changes on the mainstream.

Leon Rosselson’s short memoir That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority provides a sense of one such source of this radicalism, an important rejoinder to the current febrile debate over what is, and is not, anti-semitic.  But of course outsiders, radicals, can originate from all variety of sources. The English Defence League for a period posed a real challenge to what it was assumed were settled notions of a multicultural and diverse society, fomenting an unapologetic racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration into a street-fighting weekend army.  Loud and Proud by Hilary Pilkington, is a vital study of the EDL in preparation for any revival of a similar type of movement.    

In contrast what might frame an enduring revival on our side? Most would argue that this will depend on the continuing popularisation of the anti-austerity message. Few books will do this better than Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Dismembered, a fact-filled polemical description of the scale and depth of our public services’ starvation of resources.

Housing was a hugely important issue to many of the millennials who cast their vote in such numbers for Corbyn. Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj combines an analysis of the growth of the private rental market and alternatives which would put the needs of tenants first and the profit margins of greedy landlords second. 

There is nothing worse than failing to look back to the past for lessons for today’s and tomorrow’s Left.  Unfortunately, looking to the past often becomes a recipe of being trapped by yesteryear’s models. Don Watson’s Squatting in Britain 1945-1955 is a textbook avoidance of that trait, and it also deserves a wide reading post-Grenfell. Another book useful for those reflecting on Grenfell is Justice Denied, a powerful reminder that righting wrongs is never anything less than a battle – Orgreave and Hillsborough are more than enough testament to that.

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Gregor Gall’s Bob Crow, Socialist, Leader, Fighter is described as a ‘political biography’ which neatly sums up its appeal. The story of not just a forceful personality who fought his way to the top of his trade union, but the values he sought to protect and promote via the campaigns he helped lead. A very different story is Jonathan Lerner’s autobiographical Swords in the Hands of Children . This is the era of ’68, all that hope, liberation and revolt and when all of that came to nothing, the self-destruction that came next.

Twentieth Century Communism is an uncanny read for those interested in rediscovering the range, content and meaning of perhaps the most important radical tradition of the past century. The latest edition is a special issue dedicated to the literature of communism.

But of course it is 1917 which is attracting the most attention in the Russian Revolution’s centenary year. The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali is not a hagiography, yet the message of the enduring case for revolution shines through, whatever the changes in circumstances. 

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For a short and very readable account of the movements that produced the Russian Revolution, read Dave Sherry’s Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed.  Written with a style few other authors would even attempt to match, October by China Miéville is novel, yet politically compelling, a book to appeal to those who remain drawn to the romance of the revolutionary ideal.

For an insight into the culture the Revolution helped produce and then propel on to a world stage 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dalyuk, is the perfect accompaniment.

Over the decades a culture of resistance has taken many forms, the latest #grime4corbyn being too recent to have very much written about it yet. Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps trace the English tradition of folk music in their book Performing Englishness. Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers is a magnificent account of skiffle which along the way Billy claims helped change the world.

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Two books that cover more recent collisions of music and politics are Fightback: Punk, Politics and Resistance edited by The Subcultures Network, and the collection edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher called Post Punk: Then and Now. Dave Randall’s Sound System: The Political Power of Music is an unforgiving call to guitars, drums, keyboards, sax, by any instruments necessary to change the world. 

Of course no summer would be complete without the joys of salads, picnics, barbecues with ice-cold chilled drinks on the side. Be overwhelmed with ideas to sparkle the appetite – and without a sniff of meat in sight – in Sam Murphy’s superb Beautifully Real Food.

MP Mike Rosen

And the other treat no summer would be complete without is of course a decent thriller. Chris Brookmyre’s latest Want You Gone certainly won’t disappoint with his customary mix of dramatic plot turns, rich humour and tartan noir. Nor should the grown-ups be allowed to have all the reading fun either. Michael Rosen’s latest creation, Uncle Gobb, reappears in  Uncle Gobb and the Green Heads, hours of fun for young readers. Adults can ponder if this Gobb character is really the living embodiment of the marketisation of our chidren’s education.

Making sense of 2017’s political surprises requires both an understanding of the present and the ability to connect this to a theoretical framework. The reissue of Perry Anderson’ s  The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci with a very substantial new preface is a superb sign post towards such an intellectual journey. Unarguably the most significant populariser of Gramsci, and one of the founders of the modern academic discipline of Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall, has been treated to a recent spate of well-deserved books of late. His partial autobiography Familiar Stranger has been published posthumously with the help of his long-time collaborator Bill Schwarz.  

David Scott’s Stuart Hall’s Voice consists of a wonderfully original format, a series of letters written to Hall after his death exploring the significance of his legacy to so many contemporary intellectuals who remain enthralled by his influence. And Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, edited by Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, is also relevant and more than welcome.

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And it is Stuart Hall who post-election provides us with our book of the summer too. Wherever we spend the summer relaxing and recovering, the collection Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and other Political Essays is both a timely and enjoyable read.

Both as a speaker and on the page, Stuart Hall brought the analysis of politics alive in a way which is sorely missed in 2017. These essays show a sharpness of intellect and a warm embrace of marxist analysis that are a positive joy to read.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. His own book, the edited collection The Corbyn Effect is out from Lawrence & Wishart in mid September.

Neoliberalism and Austerity
Monday, 07 August 2017 17:53

Art for and by the many, not the few

Written by

Phil Brett shows how art has often been about power and prestige, argues that art should be not only for but by the many.

The history of Western art has been dominated by artworks created for and by the few. Paintings and sculpture have been associated with power and privilege. In the twenty first century, liberal capitalist democracies may have tinkered around with that fact, but essentially it is still true. 

Leon Trotsky wrote, "Every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art." This can be seen throughout history, from ancient times to the present leaders have liked to have statues, friezes and buildings to show their own glory. Rulers have always loved having their images captured for eternity. There are many examples, like Titian painting the Hapsburgs, oor Henry VIII appointing Hans Holbein the Younger, as the English King's Painter, whose iconic 1536 portrait depicts a powerful and athletic king. Even today, the paintings of Prime Ministers line the staircase of 10 Downing Street, and if the reigning monarch's portrait is being painted, it always makes the 10 o'clock news. Though, with no disrespect for the artists involved, we're not talking Holbeins or Titians here.

Battles have often been a popular subject for the rulers to use art as propaganda. They meant pain and agony for the poor folk actually involved in the fighting, but victory in them gave the rulers added authority and legitimacy. Two examples will suffice: Maria de'Medici commissioning Pieter Paul Rubens to paint a series of paintings depicting her dead husband's (French king Henry IV) victorious battles. In World War I, the Government wanted painters such as Paul Nash and Percy Wyndham Lewis to promote the cause of Britain. Whether their stunning depictions on the horror of trench warfare do so, is open for debate, because good art often exposes the truth and questions dominant ideologies - something the ruling class find troubling.

Even with religious painting, power and prestige are there. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may be a stunning tribute to the glory of God, but it was also for the glory of Pope Julius II. Sometimes, the link is far from subtle. The Medici family were an example of a new class of people, powerful financiers, who used art to help the status of Florence (and themselves). In many paintings they had themselves painted in. In Sandro Botticelli's 1475 painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Medici family are actually the Magi. Keen takers of selfies should take note, that's quite a high bar to beat.

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Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi.

It hasn't always been monarchs and God. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Gainsborough painted the landed gentry, keen to show off their fine clothes, homes and grounds, demonstrating their position and class power for all to see.

Governments of the twentieth century were aware of the power of art. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led to many artists, such as Chagall and Malevich flocking to its support. Many in the early Soviet regime embraced the avant-garde (October 1917 - the spark for great art). However, it did not see its role as to pitch one school against another. Both Lenin and Trotsky argued for the relative autonomy of art and artists, although in practice there was significant state sponsorship, support and influence over art and culture. A fundamental change occurred in the late Twenties and Thirties, with the art of ‘socialist realism’, designed to promote the Soviet model of socialism. In an ironic twist, in the late 1940s, the CIA promoted and funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions - unknown to the artists themselves - to show just how free and exciting the USA was compared to Soviet Russia.

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Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

In the private sector, profit joined prestige and power in the mix, leading to the rise of the collector/dealer. The names of Frick, Guggenheim and Sainsbury are familiar names of galleries. There are others such as Benjamin Altman, with his collection in the New York Metropolitan and Joseph Duveen, who made a fortune from art. Controversies about tax avoidance or the authenticity of paintings he sold did not stop him becoming a Lord and having a gallery named after him in Tate Britain.

This group of people may not have their names on the credits on the paintings we see, but they were very influential in modern art. With eyes and wallets focussed on the market, they helped the growth of isms, serving as brand names to help the sales. One such dealer was Ernest Gambert, the influential art dealer for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti nicknamed him 'Gamble-art' for his interference and keenness for the artists to paint in the Pre-Raphaelite style.  He once argued with John Everett Millais that the horse’s head was too large in his 1857 painting A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford.

Picasso's paintings from his Blue Period stayed in his studio for years because influential art dealer Ambrose Vollard dismissed them as being unsuitable for the wealthy buyers, with their depictions of beggars and street urchins. The few may have got slightly larger than in Holbein's time, but it was still only a tiny minority who could see, let alone own, such art. Ownership conferred status and privilege - and of course profit to the dealer.

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Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The art world started to balloon in size, after the war. In 1955, Fortune magazine advised its readers to look to art as an investment, suggesting  De Kooning, Pollack and Rothko as good to start with, being between $500 and $3500 each (they're worth a whole lot more now). Today, the art market (not including the illegal sector, which Interpol have in their top five financial crimes) has been estimated as worth a cool $63.8 billion. In 2015, the UK accounted for 21% of this (behind the USA with 43% and ahead of China with 19%). A growth which has given people like Charles Saatchi enormous influence (and a few bob too).

Alongside the private collections, and following the Enlightenment, public museums began to emerge. The rich would have a monopoly of owning art but the common folk could be allowed limited access to gaze gratefully at masterpieces. As the art critic John Berger said: "Anyone who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity".

Museums may have grown very popular but there is still a separation of art and the majority. How many times have we heard people say, "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like"? Is that not an obvious defensive comment of a (usually) working class person, isolated from art and made to feel inferior to it?

But one might say, are not art galleries more popular than ever?  In the 2017 list of Britain's most popular twenty attractions for the previous year, the National Gallery was at number 2; the Tate Modern at number 3; the National Portrait Gallery at number 11, with the Scottish National Gallery ay number 18. That's a total of 15.59 million visitors, without even considering adding the Royal Academy or Tate Britain or the hundreds of other private and public galleries. That's a lot of people straining to see the pictures.

However, all is not as egalitarian as it seems. There has been much criticism that the artworks on show are from a small (often white and male) clique. For black artists it was for a long time impossible to be shown. Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture said, "The ghetto is the gallery for the revolutionary artist". Graffiti artists continue that tradition.

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The Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist artists who confronted the sexism of the art world, estimated in 1989 that 5% of the Metropolitan Museum were by women whilst 85% of the nudes were women.

Curators might argue that there have been some attempts to address this, but the fact is that the people running them are still from a narrow social base. Look at the patrons of the Royal Academy and you'll see lord and ladies, with the common person occasionally represented by the likes of Stephen Fry.

The influence of the private art world ,with such figures as Saatchi in public galleries should not be underestimated. With the costs of art rocketing, most of the public galleries cannot compete, they feel that they have do deals with the private world. The Tate receives 70% of funding from non-Governmental sources. Public galleries have found one way to compensate this by getting sponsorship from big business. The Victoria and Albert exhibition of You Say You Want a Revolution included sponsors such as Levis, and the Royal Academy show Abstract Expressionism boasted the sponsor: 'BNP Paribas: The bank for a changing world'.

If that isn't ironic enough, then consider that one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 was the Blavatnik Foundation. Its founder, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, may not be that well know, but he perhaps should be. In 2015 he was named as Britain's richest man, worth an estimated £17.1 billion. It is perhaps a brief look at his history: 1978, he emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. He built an international conglomerate, which entered the commercial stratosphere, when it made billions after the collapse of the Soviet Union from the petrochemicals and oil industries. Considering that many people were unhappy at the political impartiality of the exhibition - see Great Art, Shame about the Curating - one can legitimately ask how much influence, direct or otherwise, did the foundation have on the exhibition. See also Corruption of Art and Culture.

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Poster advertising V. and A. exhibition - and its sponsors

So why do these multinationals get involved? The answer is from our old friends, power and prestige. Those attendance figures of galleries means that they are now goldmines for tourism. Bilbao used the Guggenheim Gallery, opening in 1997, to regenerate the area. It worked. One survey found 80% of the visitors at the airport had arrived to visit it. Big money then, which cannot but affect the direction of the museum - not only the acquisition policy but its display. In 2011, a BBC Freedom of Information request found that the Tate only shows 20% of its permanent collection. To be fair, that contrasts well with the international average of 5%. The removal of art has been termed, "deaccessioning". It is estimated that MoMA has thirty Picasso paintings 'deaccessioned'. Galleries are as much like banks, storing valuable assets, as museums to entertain, educate and interest people.

Curators wield considerable influence on cultural and art policy. So John Berger's view that, "as a professional group, their character is patronising, snobbish and lazy" should cause us to worry. Certainly, Royal Academy show on the art of Russian Revolution with its lack of historical and indeed artistic understanding, would give some credence to such an accusation. The concern being that, even in the twenty first century, curators, gallery directors and critics all seem to come from a very narrow social base.

In recent months, articles in the Guardian, the Morning Star, and various other professional periodicals as well as in the social media, have discussed the whole issue of the running and funding of arts. The Government body with overall responsibility for the arts is the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who in turn fund and oversee Arts Council England (ACE). ACE gets its funding partly directly from the Government and partly from the National Lottery. This is public money and there has been a concern that essentially it is still art for a few, by a few – but with the many paying for it.

Laura Barton, feature writer of the Guardian, raised concerns that 85% of ACE funding for music goes to classical and opera. A growing number of people have attacked the National Portfolio (basically the list of organisations which ACE funds) as being London-centric, biased against the working class, being too focussed on middle class taste and not diverse enough, e.g. in terms of gender and ethnic background. The balance between community and premier league art establishments leans towards the latter. ACE is institutionally biased towards the middle classes who see arts management as a good career path. Worries have been expressed just how transparent the decision process is, with the issue of a £2 million grant being given to as yet unformed theatre company, whose director appears to have links to senior figures of ACE.

With the Government policy of austerity, money (for some areas) is tight. So such uses of public money are legitimate ones to raise and socialists should do so. However, the Tories use this as cover to attack the very status of art. In the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto did have a few words about the importance of art but set beside the fact that in the last five years money spent on the arts has been cut by £165million, they don't really amount to much.

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Simon Wren-Lewis: Neoliberalism and Austerity

Tom Watson rightly states that, "Lottery money is plugging holes where Government funding has been cut". Tories will argue that hospitals and schools matter more than galleries (whilst cutting these in any case). Of course, money can be found when they want to: £7 billion for the Parliament refurbishment or £370 million for Buckingham Palace, for example. What they really mean is that art is for them, not us – for the few, not the many.

Here’s John Berger again: "the fundamental division between the initiated and the uninitiated, the loving and the indifferent, the minority and the majority has remained as rigid as ever." This is especially true in education. In primary schools, especially in working class areas, a major concern are the SATs results, which in turn lead to league tables. Failure to meet the school's targets set could lead to failing OFSTED and thus academisation. Fundamentally, even with some tokenistic nods towards child happiness and creativity, Government policy is all about reading, writing and maths (and mechanical versions of them at that). The squeeze is being put on the arts.

The same is true in secondary schools, with the focus on the EBacc, when students achieve Grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, a science and a language. If budgets are tight because of education cuts, the curriculum is narrowed, with subjects dropped, and the arts get squeezed out of the curriculum. Ditto in further education and university.  And of course, with tuition fees, the chances for working class students to attend university or art college are narrowing. Whatever the Tory manifesto might say, the policy is that we proles just don't understand, or need to understand, the arts.

As a result the social base of the artists is narrowing. To an extent the artist, certainly the successful one, has always come from a particular stratum of society. One of Britain's greatest artists, Turner, faced snobbery from his fellow Royal Academians because of his lowly birth. Damien Hirst is from a working class background but he is now in a very different world. His latest exhibition, in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is impressive. I was lucky enough to visit it and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I note that it cost Hirst personally £50 million to create it; not many artists could do that! 

All gloomy then? Well, not quite. It is heartening that Jeremy Corbyn has launched a comprehensive arts policy, with a number of excellent initiatives which includes introducing an £160 million arts pupil premium, which would "support cultural activities in schools". Scholarships would be introduced. They would also "consider demands of those working to maintain our public museums to challenge corporate influence".  The policy also promises to 'consider' including an art element in EBacc.

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Labour Policy for Art: http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/arts

The policy is a good starting point art moving away  from the few to the many. I think that any Corbyn Government should be bold. There does not have to be a choice between galleries or schools, museums or hospitals. Whatever indicator you use, Britain is always in the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. Britain can afford galleries and schools, museums and hospitals.

The choice in reality is tax cuts for the rich, or galleries, hospitals, and schools for the many. A Corbyn government can challenge the notion of art as a luxury just a for a few. He has committed to scrapping tuition fees - good. But there should also be a commitment to scrapping SATS, EBacc and league tables, to create a freedom to learn. Pump funding into education so the widest possible curriculum is offered, from the nursery to university and evening classes. Be totally upfront that art is important, it can enrich and change lives.

Labour could involve the public in decision making more. Not just in making ACE more transparent but also why not make regeneration projects, really that, regeneration and not just social cleansing? In areas such as the North East, housing could be built, with input from local residents, deciding on what they need and want. There are plenty of vacant industrial buildings - why not renovate them alongside the new homes and use the stored art collections of the Tate, RA, National and Imperial War Museum (which has over 200,000 paintings, most, yep, hidden away!) to create new wonderful galleries? Let's 'accession' them! After all, they are ours. Ask people what sort of gallery they would like. New schools and hospitals? Get local artists and community groups to decorate them. That is what an art policy for a Government should be: to fund, facilitate and support. It does not need to be prescriptive, we don't need instructions.

That would be a great start, it would be an arts policy which could help transform this country, creating a place for people to live in. I am a revolutionary socialist, and believe that people's creativity will only be allowed to fully blossom in a class-less society. Whilst we live in a capitalist society we shall still have the haves and have nots – those with power and those without. It is difficult to be creative when you are working long hours, paying the bills and looking after the kids. In a socialist society, in the words of Trotsky, "The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

In other words - art for, and by, the many.

Provocations for a Culture Strategy
Thursday, 29 June 2017 07:28

Provocations for a Culture Strategy

Written by

Harry Giles contributes his ideas on Scottish arts and culture policy.

For reasons opaque to me, I was invited to a Scottish Government workshop on Culture Strategy recently. It gave me an occasion to write down some thoughts on how the arts are and could be funded. What follows are some poorly-thought-through provocations for arts funding policy.

SOME MAJOR PROBLEMS FOR ARTS FUNDING

1) Most artists I know cannot make a living wage from their work. The younger they are, the more likely they are to be indebted, precariously-employed, and private renters, unable to access the social and economic capital of previous generations. Whereas previous generations of artists were to some degree subsidised by unemployment and other benefits, these routes have been cut off to most. This has a knock-on effect on diversity, as racialised and other minoritised people are even less likely to access support for their work economically, and face other social barriers as well. The result is an arts scene dominated by middle- and upper-class white people, still, at all levels of production and management, but increasingly-so further up the hierarchy.

2) This means in turn that marginalised voices are tokenized and put into their own boxes: the queer artist is only able to get paid to make art about being queer, for example, or the organisation that does good accessibility work is shunted from the “Performance” panel to the “Diversity” panel (this happened to one of mine). Marginalised voices are more likely to have to rely on crowdfunding, self-exploitation, non-arts jobs and so on in order to make the work they want to make.

3) Publicly-funded arts do not command mass public support. We are luvvies. We are seen as an indulgence. Not enough people see the link between publicly-funded arts, community and education arts, and private sector arts (e.g. an actor in a West End musical may make most of their money in the public sector; a school poetry workshop is only possible thanks to a public support infrastructure). Some of the blame for this must lie in which arts are funded: arts enjoyed broadly by richer people, such as opera and ballet, get the most funding support, whereas arts enjoyed broadly by poorer people, such as hiphop and videogames, get the least public support and are expected to survive in the commercial sector alone. The result is that when public spending cuts come the arts are often the first to go and the worst punished.

4) Arts organisations are riven by multiple economic inequalities. The gap between the wage earned by the Artistic Director of a national theatre and that earned by an actor in that theatre is shameful. Those in administration and management have the most stable jobs and wages, while those actually making art have the least access to jobs and stability, with producers somewhere in the middle. That is, the arts model the inequalities of the wider employment sector, with executives consolidating their power, trickling up wages to the top, and exploiting the labour of those who actually make the commodity. This is also linked to and runs through the problems of points one and two, meaning that those marginalised by factors like disability and race are also hit by these inequalities.

5) There is no clear understanding of or approach to the gradients between “professional” and “amateur” arts. Far more people want to be involved in the arts than can currently find employment in the arts. Submitting your art to a wage-relation also destroys the pleasure of art for some. By necessity or choice, there is a large unpaid arts sector, from community drama groups to volunteer orchestras. This is a vital part of cultural life, but who has access to capital to support that culture is shaped by all the factors previously discussed: the more marginal your voice, the more likely your art will be seen as amateur and undeserving of support. It also creates a greyzone for all artists: as one moves from amateur to professional, because there is no formal apprenticeship (even arts qualifications usually do not lead to immediate employment), one takes on many free and underpaid gigs, and institutions are liable to exploit this to sell art and undercut wages. Support for “community” and “professional” arts is intertwined in fact but not in practice.

6) The ability to earn a living as an artist depends on a number of skills and capacities entirely unrelated to artistic ability, e.g. networking, application-writing, volunteering availability, interview technique, &c. These skills are also distributed along vectors of marginalisation, reinforcing social hierarchies. In particular, public funding is closed off to independent artists who cannot speak the language of funders and write a funding application; at present, support for them is mostly available through other freelance artists lending help. Meanwhile, full-time organisations often employ fundraising officers to help them access both public and private funds. The result, again, is that power and capital consolidate to themselves: it’s easier to get money if you have money, and the cycle continues.

7) In Scotland, and most of all in Edinburgh, the festival model dominates the arts. In this model, employment for artists and art for audiences is made available only seasonally in order to concentrate a marketing push. In some cases, festivals market themselves as an opportunity artists must pay to be part of. As a result, the precaritisation of the arts, and the ability of landlords and financiers to be parasitic on the labour of artists to the point of emptying it entirely of wages, is deepened, while the ability to create year-round arts institutions and community-embedded arts practice is weakened. Moreover, the arts become a special thing that happens in a specific place and time, rather than something threaded through life.

8) We don’t know what arts funding is for. Is it to support art that cannot survive in the commercial market?–To make the art that doesn’t sell? Is it to enure artists can make a living? Is it to diversify the cultural scene?–To enable anyone from any background to access any artform, as artist or audience? Is it to strengthen the sustainability and economic potential of the Creative Industries? –To invest for a greater return? Because these different and sometimes mutually-exclusive aims are muddled together, we have a muddled and directionless approach to arts funding.

SOME IDEAS WHICH ARE NOT SOLUTIONS BUT MIGHT HELP FIND SOME

1) Artists’ unions to negotiate pay rates with funding bodies, and funding bodies to refuse funding to any organisation which does not meet those rates at every level.

2) Arts executive pay for funded organisations to be capped at a 3:1 ratio to that of the lowest-paid worker (including maintenance staff).

3) For every administrator or producer employed by a funded organisation, an artist must also be given a full-time job making art. Alternatively, funded bodies must dedicate at least 50% of their annual budget directly to artists.

4) Professional and community arts to be managed by the same public agency, with a ratio of funding to be determined following research (but 50:50 seems like a good one to aim for to me). That is, for every £1 spend employing someone within a professional arts organisation (i.e. one that employs artists), £1 is given in to a community arts organisation (i.e. one that provides free/supercheap access to creative activities).

5) Funding bodies to have explicit policies to favour workers’ co-operatives, i.e. arts organisations which are owned and democratically-managed by their workers. At least, as an interim stage, funding bodies to support the development of workers’ co-operatives through training, starting with their own staff.

6) Artists’ unions to establish new closed shop venues and publishers, &c., or to negotiate with existing organisations to establish closed shops, where only union members can work and pay and benefits are fixed.

7) Funded organisations to meet robust diversity quotas for employees, artists and audiences or face defunding. Quotas should be in excess of demographic proportions..

8) Funding bodies to make at least a third of their funds small grants (£1-5k) directly available to artists, with ultra-low entry requirements and monitoring. The “failure” of many of these grants to be accepted and celebrated.

9) Governments to invest in rent-free housing available to artists on application with ultra-low entry requirements.

10) Government-backed arts apprenticeships established, whereby one works at subsidised wages for 1-3 years learning acting or marketing with a guaranteed job at the end of it.

11) Any funding officer in a publicly-funded organisation is seconded for 25% of their time to an organisation any freelance artist can access to help write their funding applications.

12) Arts organisations and non-governmental funders to have an explicit policy of campaigning for unemployment, disability and other social benefits, in recognitionn that these are a crucial form of arts subsidy.

13) No festivals.

HG edinburgh festival1

This article first appeared in Bella Caledonia, http://bellacaledonia.org.uk

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times
Thursday, 22 June 2017 20:13

The Power of Poetry in Dark Times

Written by

Sandy Grant proposes that in times like these, it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all. Her article is followed by a poem by Chris Norris.

‘Tell us that line again, the thing about the dark times’. So begins the most recent of many ‘dark times’ poems written since Bertolt Brecht uttered the words. His poem ‘To Those Born Later’ was written from exile during the early years of the Third Reich. And he used the metaphor ‘dark times’ to evoke a problem about speaking when obscuring language abounds. It is a language that conceals, and by which people acquiesce in injustice. And it need not be by lies, but also by the mundane ways of talking used in everyday life. ‘Dark times’ subsequently became a recurring metaphor. But what does a poet do by using it?

This latest use of the phrase comes from Marilyn Hacker in ‘Ghazal: The Dark Times’, but a month ago. She begins as though recounting a familiar tale, repeating the now customary recourse to such speech at times like these. But nothing about the poem comes off as reassuring. Indeed there is a bitter ennui to it. Perhaps you can hear it in her recognition of some stolid, time-worn figures of speech:

The traditional fears, the habitual tropes of exclusion

Like ominous menhirs, close into their ring about the dark times

Like ‘menhirs’, which are standing-stones, the idiom of the past returns to the fore.  But it is almost as though the words ‘dark times’ might be impotent, become exhausted in their iteration down the years.

This alone is worthy of notice, for poets are those alert to the complacent use of words. What then of these ones? For even the most pithy of phrases can become platitudes, bandied about until dull and spoken heedlessly. ‘Dark times’ could be one such, a worn-out metaphor. So can these words, ‘dark times’, still do something amid the obscuring language of our day?

The question invites us to consider what kind of speech acts poems accomplish. This is to propose that poetic speech is ‘performative’, that the poet utters words by which she does something. And it is to take on the philosopher J.L. Austin. In How to Do Things with Words he notoriously claimed that poetry cannot be ‘serious.’ There is a somewhat weak species of reply to him, which holds that actually some poetry can be serious. Such an approach tries to make poetic speech conform to Austin’s picture of how users of ordinary speech achieve that mundane way of doing things with words.

But this kind of response to Austin rather eviscerates the provocation of poetry, and belies its special way with words. So is it possible to say something more audacious? I think so. Perhaps in times like these we can see that poetry is where the action is, and this by the making of extraordinary speech acts. For if poets do something with words, they do so in some special way. They use extraordinary speech. About that Austin was right. But he erred in thinking that the special nature of poetic speech means that it cannot accomplish speech acts.

Brecht’s poem is a cracking example. For in saying ‘Truly, I live in dark times’, Brecht is doing something. But what is it? What does he do? The very first word, ‘truly’, emphatically marks the commitment to attempt serious speaking. And it is immediately followed by a metaphorical assertion, ‘I live in dark times.’ And Brecht does not merely back up that assertion, but raises the stakes of making it. If you can excuse for a moment my own rather dull prose, I will explain my view that he is both asserting, and questioning whether he can assert.

What I take Brecht to be doing is this: he sees that what speech there is, is darkening, and refuses to repeat it, but worries that speaking otherwise cannot be heard. So he tells us that he declines the old shibboleths, those uttered in order to lay claim to virtue despite the suffering of others. ‘I would gladly be wise’, he says, living a life of indifferent virtue. But this he cannot do. ‘I cannot heed this’, he says. He is asserting that he lives amid obscuring language, and that he- at least- will not acquiesce in it.

But this is not all that his words do. In virtue of its title, ‘To Those Born Later’, Brecht addresses us, and others in posterity. He says that in his time to speak as he does is folly, and so he must speak to those yet unborn. The subsequent ‘dark times’ poems make these kind of metaphorical assertions about the obscurity of everyday speech, and question whether they can be heard as doing so. And, as I have mentioned, they do this by an extraordinary way with words. These poems call attention to their constituent speech acts, using words by which their speakers do something and ask us to attend to it. To put it bluntly, there is both asserting and questioning whether one can assert anything.

Poetry seems an apt way to pose that quandary, for poetic speech is a way of using words that draws attention to itself as such. And it is precisely in this manner that the poet undertakes a commitment to the use of serious speech. This may be seen in Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem ‘Keine Delikatessen’ (No Delicacies). In this, her last poem, Bachmann declares her refusal to use beautiful adornment, to ‘dress a metaphor with an almond blossom’, or ‘crucify syntax on a trick of light’. Instead we are shown a struggle within speaking, as she stretches out across the page words ordinarily left unspoken:

‘hunger

                                    disgrace

                                                                        tears

and

                                                                                                            darkness’

The eyes must rove all the way across the page before they can reach that last word, ‘darkness.’ It is a long, long way down, there right at the edge of the speaking. And the depth of the metaphor, ‘darkness’, does not preclude the force of the utterance, its power to both assert and to question whether one can assert. Instead, it heightens it. It stands out against the obscure speech that she is contending with. It calls for attention, and in a remarkable way. So the poet does something differently, something rather extraordinary, when she speaks in metaphors and references ‘dark times.’ She is struggling to break out of her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

But the use of metaphoric utterances also invites hearers to see that they too are participants in the work done by words. This feature of what is done by ‘dark times’ poems is crucial. For the poet is trying to speak in a way that can be heard as serious by others. The special usages of poetic speech have some special power to ask hearers to recognise themselves as the addressees of these speech acts. For hearers are involved with the poet in the possibility of achieving serious speech. So yes, what is done in speech acts is done in an extraordinary way. But, contra Austin, this does not provide that no speech act is accomplished through poetry.

If the poet speaking of ‘dark times’ does something extraordinary, she also something strikingly serious. Suppose that our mundane acts of speaking foreclose attention to what we are doing in our use of words, that they obscure to us the very form of talk that we are using as we go about our everyday life. This would be a carelessness in talking, as to how one is talking. Suppose that it routinely happens in ordinary speech, although we don’t see that we are doing it. A good example would be parroting speech, in which a person merely repeats what is said, rather than making assertions that are genuinely their own. Glaring examples might be parroting political or advertising slogans. But suppose that we see parroting more generally in everyday speech.

The obscuring character of parroting comes from how it merely apes speech acts of assertion. What you do in asserting something is to put yourself behind what you say, to sort of personally guarantee its truth and ask the hearer to accept what you say on the basis of your say-so. In parroting however, you don’t do that. You just repeat what is being said.  Speaking thus would involve an indifference as to one’s proper role as backer of one’s assertions. They would be uttered because they are what is said, and not because one believes them. Suppose then that as indifferent utterances, others don’t hear them as genuinely our own, or believe them on that basis. But nevertheless they repeat them, for after all they are what is said, what ‘everybody’ in one’s group is saying. So you get utterances that look like assertions, but do assert. Instead, they merely parrot. In fine, our everyday talk would be an irresponsible way of using words.

Such a way of speaking would not be ‘serious’ in Austin’s sense of that word, but spoken anyway, and as a matter of course. In claiming that it is poetic speech that is not serious, Austin said that performatives, utterances that constitute acts, are ‘hollow or void’ if introduced in a poem. But what if it is ordinary speech that is ‘hollow or void’, and poetry that is deadly serious? Perhaps it is in everyday living that we find speech like that deemed non-serious by Austin. And perhaps it is the poets who are the serious ones.

And perhaps it takes poems, with their extraordinary ways of speaking that call attention to themselves as speech acts, to confront us with this? For poets can expose these hollow ways of using language. Consider Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Poem’, from The Speed of Darkness. There is the opening assertion about one’s own times. This is followed by the evocation of an irresponsible way of speaking, which the poet wishes to oppose:

I lived in the first century of world wars

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen…

And here comes the appeal to absent addressees again:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn…

Rukeyser juxtaposes her use of speech to the ‘careless’ words that issue from the authorized ‘devices’. But she also writes of her struggle to grasp her immersion in the extant practices of speaking.

..We would try by

any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

In that last line, a personal struggle is evoked by ‘these wars’. And it is one, it seems, that is germane to the world wars amid which she lives.

By the kind of speech acts that they venture these poems do not inform, report or describe. They assert, and they question. ‘I am trying to say this… can you hear me?’ They involve struggles to speak other than irresponsibly. And they evince a quest to be heard, for a speech act does not succeed absent uptake from its hearers. The hearers must attend to the speech act, actively taking notice of it. And they must comprehend it as the kind of speech act that it is. They needn’t agree with what is being said. But they must attend to it, and grasp what the speaker is trying to do: to assert, and to question whether such an act is even possible now.

Perhaps it is this possibility, of reaching those who might notice and comprehend, of finding co-participants in serious speech, that arises amid such poems? Consider then ‘What Kind of Times Are These’, from Dark Fields of the Republic. In that poem Adrienne Rich asks ‘why do I tell you anything?’ And her only answer is ‘because you still listen’. But perhaps the conjunction, ‘because’, is a sort of summons to be attentive. In any case, to understand what it is that these poems do we can see them as efforts on the part of poets to speak responsibly. But beyond the speaker’s commitment we might also see them as a call to listen. In this sense they issue a request to participate in the accomplishment of serious speech.

Achieving serious speech in these times is raised as a possibility, but a fraught and risky one, in these poems. And the extraordinary character of poetic speech lends this a piquant urgency. For here the poets are those who plumb the prospects of serious speech. Contra Austin’s claim that in poetry we see only ‘the etiolations of language’, the effort to undertake serious speech acts is heightened in these poems. But they utter, and quite properly, something of a faltering appeal. The poets, like the rest of us, are mired in the difficulties of undertaking serious speech. So perhaps in times like these it is poets who speak the most serious words of them all.

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************

The Provocations of Philosophy: Bert Brecht’s message for the age of Trump

by Christopher Norris

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This tutelage is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment. - Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in political events. He doesn’t know that the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of shoes and of medicine, all depend on political decisions . . . . From his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupt flunky of the national and multinational companies - Bertolt Brecht

Before it happened you were in no doubt.
'Unthinkable' you said, and then,
Lest they suspect you'd not quite ruled it out,
'Just inconceivable', again.

'Again', I wrote, but let's not be too quick:
Those words 'think' and 'conceive' don't mean
The same thing, and we're apt to miss a trick
By suturing the gap between.

Of course you'll say it's just semantic stuff,
All this, and the last thing we need
When you've real-world catastrophes enough
For 'act, then think' to be your creed.

Yet ask yourself: which line's the one to take
When those wise-after-the-event
Types say: 'It's happened, so you'd better make
Think-room for how things really went'.

Well, you can either field it with a flat
Though feeble apologia: 'got
Things wrong that time, alas!', or try to bat
It back with a semantic shot.

Then you might say: yes, sure enough, 'conceive'
Trump president I can and must
Since it's a claim that's true, that I believe,
And that has duly earned my trust.

That's knowledge as it figures on the view
Proposed with sundry minor tweaks
From Plato down, though lately just a few
Have differed with the ancient Greek’s

Account of it. Still, you lot have no choice
But to conceive the man as now
Your sworn-in president despite the voice
Inside you that just won't allow

The thought. For thinking brings a sharpened sense
Of that rock-bottom line below
Which politics can't sink lest it dispense
With all the semblances that go

To keep the folk on board. That's why I say
You needn't feel the wise-guy's won
Or pipe down when the hindsight-seers play
Their cynic games by making fun

Of you for thinking it 'unthinkable' that such
A bunch of rogues and fools should come
To occupy high office. There's a much
More hopeful way than acting dumb

And that's to say that lots of things we thought
Or think could never happen did
Or do, which means reality falls short
Or fails to match our starting bid

By throwing up some Bullingdon buffoon
As Foreign Secretary, or fool
Like Donald Trump as fittest to fine-tune
The harmony of states. Then you'll

Do best to keep in mind the point that 'think'
And 'know' are words that come apart
Most truth-revealingly when any link
Between them's always apt to start

A thought-rebellion as it twists and snaps
Under the strain. If you apply
Yourself you’ll find out the truth-value gaps
That show up where the facts defy

All presentations that would have them square
With thought’s demand, or all the best
State-sponsored tricks and ruses to repair
Those tell-tale cracks. Then every test

For truth that's thinkable as well as borne
Out by appealing to some fact
Or other is the surest way to warn
The populace that what they've lacked

Thus far is means or motive to enquire
Why crooks and fools so often reach
High office. Then they'll see how things conspire
So often as if meant to teach

A crash-course in the need for you to steer
Not only by the guiding lights
Of factual truth but by what first comes clear
When knowledge of that sort unites

With thought's refusal ever to accept
A bad reality as all
There is of truth. It's by that lie we're kept
From seeing how far short they fall,

Those villains of this latter age whose sole
Distinction is to far surpass
All previous contenders for the role
Of most corrupt or else outclass

The Borgias and the Krays in every vice
That flesh is heir to. Still they tend
To fester worst, as Trump and Co. suffice
To show, most often through the blend

Of those twin motives, greed for power and lust
For all its cash-back benefits,
That make the turn to politics a must
For any billionaire whose fortune hits

A satisfaction-ceiling. Then he feels
A growing need to exercise
The kind of power that brooks no vain appeals
To business-law but just relies

On getting cronies into place who’ll fix
The rules through a Supreme Court that’s
Itself so packed with cronies (politics
And wealth checked out: all plutocrats)

That your incumbent Pres need entertain
No fear that rule of law might thwart
His family business in its plans to gain
More wealth with their confirmed support.

Just think of this, then think how much it hurts,
That sense of a reality at odds
Not only with what counts as ‘just deserts’
Or once was deemed to please the gods

But with each latest thought-affront that tells
Us, in reflective mode, that there’s
More to reality than that which spells
Out what’s the case yet hardly bears

Such dwelling on. For if it once became
Your habit to keep well in mind
And each time thinkingly review what shame
Those home-truths of a factual kind

Had brought upon you citizens who let
The perpetrators bring it off,
That veritable coup d'état, and get
Themselves safely in place to scoff

At you poor suckers then the chances are
The thought would either drive you mad
With the injustice of it all or jar
On any remnant faith you had

In their ‘democracy’. Then you’d resolve
To pass from thought to act and strive
To square the two, although this might involve
No end of failures to arrive

At other life-goals that required no loss
Of those life-chances premised on
Your up-to-now unwillingness to cross
A certain line. So you’d have gone

Along with conscience and its sudden urge
To strive at last against the old
Conformist drive that recommends we merge
Our purposes with what we’re sold

As virtue by some gang of thieves installed
In the White House or other seats
Of power world-wide. Time, then, to do what’s called
Thought-crime by them and say it meets

The needs of truth and justice only if
Its counter-push against the pull
Of habit and self-interest’s not a tiff
In thought alone but takes the bull

Straight by the horns and vows to overturn
All those unthinkably bad states
Of factual circumstance. From which you learn
What kind of action best translates

Your outrage into something Marx would count
As truly setting out to change
The world, not spinning ideas that amount
To just one tick-box in the range

Of world-interpretations. These then serve
Most usefully to help deflect
More thought-brigades from working up the nerve
To think with practical effect,

Reject the given, emphasize the rift
Between plain fact and thought’s demand,
And so bring better times within the gift
Of you who seek to understand

More adequately how you’ve all been screwed
By those in power. It’s this that made
So many give up fighting and conclude
That there’s too high a price that’s paid,

By their sort mostly, when the facts confront
A counterfactual realm of hope
Renewed. Let’s grant, you’d better make a blunt
Assessment of how far its scope

For action’s always subject to the check
Of a shrewd reckoning that takes
Due stock of stubborn facts that might just wreck
Its long-term project. Where the stakes

Are highest is where commonsense insists
Most loudly, since with all the force
Of thought repressed, that only fabulists
Or crazed ideologues endorse

The notion that mere mindfulness might bring
A switch of some world-aspect as
It strikes the thinker, then new hopes that spring
In quick response, and then what has

The power of energizing thought and will
To act in their pursuit. So don't
Give up that word 'unthinkable', or drill
Yourself in fact-routines that won't,

Since close-patrolled, allow for thought's revolt
Against contingent evils. Keep
In mind how thinkers sometimes need a jolt
To wake them from the placid sleep

Of reason or of propositions framed
In forms that perfectly accord
With logic’s rule. Thus Aristotle named
Them ‘practical’, those smorgasbord-

Type syllogisms that were rightly classed
Among the licit kinds despite
Their purely formal defects since they passed,
In rational if not in tight-

Linked logical array, from certain facts
About the world to certain ways
In which to view and justify such acts
As follow when we reappraise

The case more thoughtfully. Again, this goes
To make my point: that facts which rank
Below what’s thinkable – concerning those,
Let’s say, who ultimately bank

On moneyed interest and on sheer extent
Of public ignorance to hide
Their guilt – are facts that amplify dissent,
Or should, until the rising tide

Of outrage brings the barrage to a head
Of pressure fit to blow the top
Clean off their lie-machine. If what I’ve said
Strikes you as misconceived, just stop

And think: what might it take to power the jump
Of thought that comes to find it down-
Right flat unthinkable, the fact of Trump
As president, or such a clown,

Crook, liar, narcissist, and imbecile
As placed to launch the nukes and wipe
Us all out should he some day wake and feel
That way inclined. If you’re the type

Who says ‘That’s how things are – just learn to live
With it’, then I’ve no further bone
To pick with you or argument to give,
Beyond what I’ve already shown,

As ample grounds for rising up against
This monster and his entourage
Of conspecifics. But if you’re incensed
To think of it, then let this charge

Your anger-levels up until the stress
Arrives at breaking-point and thus
Makes way for actions that alone express
Thoughts once too painful to discuss.

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