This is a hugely stimulating collection of nine essays of varying length which focus on issues related to the domestic and foreign politics and culture of the Indian subcontinent. Amongst the political ponderings, the world-renowned author explores the process of how the external world merges with the internal psyche for literature to occur. Arundhati Roy discusses the backdrop to her novel-writing and her increasingly powerful political essays, making it clear that both genres blend into one another, and that any supposed binary relationship between the two does not exist for her.
The first essay is from a 2018 lecture called ‘In what Language does Rain Fall over Tormented Cites?’ This was delivered at the W.G. Sebald Literary Translation event at the British Library. Although much of this essay focuses on the political situation in contemporary India, it also asks the question “which language should a non-English writer write in?”. Roy tells of interesting encounters she had while promoting her pioneering first novel The God of Small Things. The writer tells us how the colonial past still haunts the country today:
Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and delivered by Delhi, which for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole (p.11).
Critics of Roy have said traces of colonialism are there for the whole world to see within the writers of India today. Roy, however, sees her writing as a political act of challenging the postcolonial status quo.
The politics of writing and the writing of politics
These essays entwine the domestic politics of India with the art of writing, which she sees as an implicitly political act. This is a book essentially about culture: about the art of writing and how to write whilst living through times of political destruction. Roy has interwoven the personal and political spheres of human existence – a radical stance which also underpins her two great novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She states in the essay ‘Language of Literature’ that:
the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter (p.78).
The act of writing becomes a political one which cannot be separated from fiction, so literature and the political become irrevocably connected. One cannot survive without the other from her perspective. The great Marxist critic, John Berger, once said to her:
Your fiction and non-fiction, they walk you around the world like your two legs (p.79).
Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss and childhood? Not as reportage, but as a form of storytelling? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature? Literature for everybody – including for people who couldn’t read and write, but had taught me how to think, and could be read to? (p.87)
Roy clearly sees her political writings as an important form of narrative which is firmly embedded in the heart of literature. In order to fully appreciate these essays, the reader would be advised to become familiar with her two novels:
I knew that if The God Of Small Things was about home with a broken heart in its mists, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness would begin after the roof had been blown of the home, and the broken heart had shattered and distributed its shards in war-torn valleys and city streets (p.88)
Roy uses her novels to amplify her political voice. She gives a voice to the voiceless – the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts of society surviving in the margins of the Asian sub-continent.
In the novels, Roy addresses the politics of the war-torn region of Kashmir:
The story of Kashmir is not the sum of its human rights report…For a writer Kashmir holds great lessons for the human substance. About power, powerlessness, treachery, loyalty, love, humour, faith. What happens to people who live under military occupation for decades? What happens to language? The narrative of Kashmir is a jigsaw puzzle whose jagged parts do not fit together. There is no final picture (p.89).
Geopolitical hotspots become Roy’s characters and are given voices. She not only inhabits these worlds but almost becomes them, through the process of character-building.
The architecture of Indian fascism
The next two essays, ‘The Silence is The Loudest sound’ and ‘Imitations of an Ending’, explore the dire situation in Kashmir and the rise of Hindu nationalism within the wider Indian state. The recent set of legislation surrounding citizenship known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are compared to the infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1930s Germany. Roy informs the reader of the lives of people living under fascism and the BJP-inspired mob mentality daily. She chillingly writes that:
As the world looks on, the architecture of Indian fascism is quickly being put into place. (p.105)
By directly comparing Modi’s India to Hitler’s Germany, Roy not only jolts the attention of the reader, but also hands responsibility onto the reader to help avert another genocidal catastrophe. She is accusing Western powers of standing by as the Rome of secular India burns in the flames of sectarian hatred.
Roy recounts the case of a young man, falsely accused of a crime, who was murdered in broad daylight by a mob wielding sticks and axes:
The lynching of Tabrez Ansari illustrates just how deep the rot is. Lynching is a public performance of ritualized murder, in which a man or woman is killed to remind their community that it lives at the mercy of the mob. (p.122).
According to government records, lynching is becoming another pandemic in the country. The act of lynching demonstrates a terrifying balance between inclusion and exclusion of the mob and the community.
The smoking debris of Modi’s India
Why does Roy devote so much of her writings to explain in detail the politics of India? The reason which becomes clear is that her surroundings are the backdrop in her novels. Very much like nineteenth-century English writers such as Dickens and Gaskell, who depicted characters with a commentary on the Industrial Revolution, child poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, Roy creates novels out of the smoking debris of Modi’s India.
Another essay is the 2020 Clark Lecture in English Literature which Roy delivered earlier this year. This essay is entitled ‘The Graveyard Talks Back’. It is where her second novel is situated and is also a pun on the influential 1980s study of colonialism, ‘The Empire Writes Back’. Roy discusses how the geography of space can shape a novel. She writes:
I have given about the place for literature in the times in which we live, and about the politics of language, both public and private. (p.151)
In this essay, she shines a light on the physical act of writing. She explains the importance of her view from the window:
Some writers may wish to shut the window or move to another room but I cannot so you will have to bear with me, because it is in this landscape that I hear my stove and store my pots and pans. It is here that I make my literature. (p.153)
In the rest of the essay, Roy describes what is happening on the ground in Kashmir, which is integral to the narrative of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy also explains in detail the caste system, which remains a hugely controversial aspect of Indian society:
The principles of equality, fraternity, or sorority are anathema to the caste system. It’s not hard to see that the idea of some human beings are inherently superior or inferior to others by divine mandate slides easily into the fascism of a master race. (p. 163)
Roy writes in this essay of how the internal and the external worlds of human experience are fundamentally connected:
We keep our complicated world, with all its seams exposed, alive in our writing (p.177)
She talks again of the many similarities of the European fascism in the 1930s to the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 21st century. In her final essay ‘The Pandemic Is a Portal’ Roy, is optimistic for the future, not only for India but the world. She writes powerfully of how:
Covid-19 has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could..…in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves (p.214).
Roy ends this collection on a note of hope or at least the possibility of hope for the post-pandemic future. By referring to this pandemic as a chance for us to ‘let go’ of:
The prejudices and the hatred our dead rivers and smoky skies..(and be)…ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. (p214).
After all the despair and sadness discussed in this highly readable collection, Roy is refreshingly optimistic that a better world awaits us on the other side of the portal.
Dave Lordan continues his series on culture, class and civilisation
About 10,000 years ago, after 3.6 million years of the Stone Age, humanity began to slowly and stutteringly transform itself. A nomadic species made up of small egalitarian groups and surviving (or not) on the given bounty of the Earth, changed into a settled, class-based, accumulative society. It was based on agricultural surpluses, and institutional hierarchies and gross inequalities were to become a permanent feature. The domestication of certain animals such as the sheep and the goat, cultivation of high-yield grains, and improvements in food storage methods, irrigation, and farming methods and technologies, gave humanity for the first time the problem of more than enough stuff to go around - surplus - and what to do with it.
Small groups, perhaps those associated with high status tribal positions such as shamans and or hunt leaders, split off from society as a whole and seized control of the agricultural surplus and of its distribution. We don’t know whether this coup against society - the first, forced division into haves and have-nots - succeeded the first time it was tried, or whether it was beaten back and had to be tried again and again over thousands of years before breaking through.
It may well have been the latter, but it seems from the simultaneous emergence of agriculture and class in several parts of the world with little or no contact with each other that the very existence of the potential for minority wealth-hoarding made such hoarding inevitable - such is the basis of the ongoing human tragedy. The so-called agricultural revolution, once established, rapidly spread and societies based on exploitation of people and nature took deep root across wide swathes of the planet.
The first truly sophisticated civilisations emerged a couple of thousand years after the agricultural revolution in high-yield river valleys in India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. They gave their respective hierarchies enough amassed wealth and concentrated power to rule vast areas, centred on imperial capitals such as Babylon and Thebes.
Archaeologists and anthropologists sometimes refer to these societies as 'hydraulic tyrannies', so called because the areas under cultivation, and therefore the size of potential wealth generation, were massively expanded by irrigation works, and royal prestige often depended upon how much and how well one built up such works. One of the great heroes of Chinese mythology from this time is Yu, combining the skills of an engineer and a wizard to halt and redirect the devastating annual flooding on the Yellow and Wei rivers, thus allowing settled agricultural society to prosper and expand in the Chinese heartlands.
Similarly, the ancient Egyptian macehead of the Scorpion King, roughly dated to about 3100 BC, depicts the king cutting into a ditch that is part of a grid of basin irrigation. The Sumerian God Enki was a God of water and wisdom and was reputed to have raised the City of Eridu from the surrounding watery marshes.
The new rulers needed bodies of armed men to protect their wealth, and enforce and expand their exploitative rule. They also needed to be able to offer a cosmic explanation as to why aristocracies existed and why they held privilege over all others. Warrior and priest castes thus played an essential role in the new political set-up, and their upper echelons were part of a ruling class centred round a tyrant in hereditary (often incestous) royal families who were often, as in the case of the pharaohs of the Egypt, portrayed as divine beings and unbeatable warriors carrying out the incontrovertible and irresistible will of the gods.
Within the Sumerian city of Uruk, the world’s oldest city, there was a large temple complex dedicated to Innana, the patron goddess of the city. The city-state's agricultural production would be “given” to her and stored at her temple. Harvested crops would then be processed (grain ground into flour, barley fermented into beer) and given back to the citizens of Uruk in equal share at regular intervals.
Reconstruction of the ziggurat erected by King Urnamma
The head of the temple administration, the chief priest of Innana, also served as political leader, making Uruk the first of many ancient world theocracies.
Why trade when you can loot?
With control of this surplus these rulers could therefore exercise a previously unthinkable absolute power over society as a whole - deciding who got fed and who didn’t. They could provide a salary for craftsmen, warriors, and priests, therefore expanding and maintaining a ruling class interdependent with them. They could also trade the surplus with adjacent settlements for luxury goods. But why trade and parley if you can conquer and loot? The acquisitive society is also an expansionist one, and imperialist warfare has been a constant feature ever since. The story of ancient societies around the world is that of constant warfare and the rising and falling of ever more militarist city-states and empires - bloodbaths lasting thousands of years.
Human ingenuity and creativity, the foundations of which were built up over millions of years of egalitarian hominid life, was put to work above all on the arts of war. Everyone from blacksmith to poet was engaged chiefly in the maintenance of war machines and in the service of warrior elites and warrior cultural codes:
Agamemnon the lord of men was glad as he looked at them and in words of graciousness spoke at once to Idomeneus: “I honour you, Idomeneus, beyond the fast-mounted Danaans whether in battle, or in any action whatever, whether it be at the feast, when the great men of the Argives blend in the mixing bowl the gleaming wine of the princes . . . Rise up then to battle, be such as you claimed in time past.” - Iliad 4.255-60 and 264
At this time too we see the emergence of a sense of humanity and nature as enemies, and of nature as something to be conquered and controlled. Thus, the economics and ideology of planetary devastation are set in motion. One of the most widespread motifs in the art of this periods is The Master of Animals, which a King or other high official is portrayed in between two wild animals which he (or occasionally she) has brought to heel.
By way of such endlessly repeated representations of the superior humanity or semi-divinity of the rulers, the achievements of human labour and the common people come to be falsely viewed as the result of the efforts of the King alone, or of the Gods, whose avatar on earth was the King. Millennia later, this paradox of public consciousness found unequivocal expression in poetry:
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ? In the books you will read the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ? And Babylon, many times demolished, Who raised it up so many times ? In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ? Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go? - Brecht, Questions From A Worker Who Reads
These were also slave societies, who looted wealth and labour-power from neighbouring societies with which they were always at war, sometimes winning, other times being defeated by a newly rising imperial power. Thus in quick succession the empires of Sumerians, Assyrians, Akkadians, and Babylonians rose and fell, each eating the other for breakfast, lunch and dinner, before being similarly eaten themselves in turn.
The fundamentals of human existence - food, shelter, protection, cohesion - were now all prerogatives and weapons of power - no longer collectively struggled for and enjoyed collectively, but fought over and accessed only in line with one’s class position.
How does culture reproduce class power?
So, what happened to art and culture generally? In the sense that we think of it, as a distinct sphere of productive activity with its own prerogatives, generating beautiful forms for the sake of contemplation and entertainment, art did not exist. The ancient Egyptian language has no word for art. Almost all art was, back then, quite useful - it served for the praise of and the reproduction of class power.
The skills and technologies needed to produce the art of the time were accessible only to skilled craftspeople, whose easy lives - relative to slaves and field-workers - were paid for by the King-God. There was no material basis for any kind of popular or oppositional art in forms that were likely to have been preserved - such things as protest songs and poems and tales that undermined or belittled the warrior class undoubtedly existed, but were firmly part of the oral tradition, which has not survived except as traces in later written traditions.
Art’s evolutionary role in forging a group identity and as the bridge between the individual and a supra-individual loyalty, does not change. But the nature of the group does change, from one which is united in a common struggle to survive, to one fragmented into classes and divided against itself, with each of the divisions having separate and competing interests. In nomadic egalitarian societies the group identity elucidated and performed by ritual and magic arts had, no matter how mystical its expression, an underlying material truth to it. Everyone was in it together. Everybody did depend upon and prosper from the efforts of everyone else. What little was held, was held in common. Now pressure arises from the minority at the top of society for the elucidation of a false consciousness around group identity that would portray social divisions as in line with a divine and unassailable cosmic order and its rulers as favoured by the Gods above all others.
Art and literature in the new dispensation become the handmaiden of ideology, chiefly through the medium of religion, and associated mythological literature. Many of the aesthetic practices built up in common over thousands of years' worth of collective ritual - techniques from music, song/poetry/chant, self-decoration, performance, dance - were appropriated by new state religions and subsumed into religious worship and observation.
This is an ‘enclosure’ of the cultural commons as unjust as later enclosures of common land. Ever since then, access to the arts and participation in the arts, literature and culture generally, have been deeply and chronically unequal. In an era when religion and politics were fundamentally complementary sets of ideas and institutions serving the same social order, the arts were the means by which this order was expressed, absorbed and reproduced in the realm of forms and ideas. For the most part, the arts did not have any separate meanings or independent existence outside of this.
One of the most important of the new Bronze Age technologies of power is writing. We know a lot about early writing thanks to fire. Writing was done by a special caste of scribes in cuneiform on clay tablets. These were stored in special rooms in palace complexes, which could contain hundreds of years’ worth of tablets. Left to their own devices, the centuries would have turned all these to dust. Thankfully, the palace complexes of the Bronze Age were prone to burning down - whether accidentally or as a result of arson or of natural disaster is a matter of debate. And in some cases, this resulted in the high temperature baking and preservation of the tablets.
Writing to account for the surplus
Writing, including all of the great written literature of the world, is actually a byproduct of accountancy, which is itself a consequence of surplus and accumulated property. Stone Age humans didn't possess much or accumulate anything much to count or keep account of. But as soon as a ruling elite seize a hold of surplus goods it becomes necessary to know exactly how much of these surplus goods they possess.
Counting beads are used for this purpose at first, turning up in all urban archaeological records from 8000BC onwards, and a simple written numbering system - scratches on clay tablets - follows soon afterwards. But as cities and empires expanded and both the number and variety of goods increase at a rapid pace, and large-scale trading relationships between cities and empires evolve, more sophisticated methods are obviously required.
Pharaohs need to know exactly what it is they are owning, buying, selling, consuming, and distributing, as well as how much. They need to know not only how many sheep they have, but also their weight and age, and their cost from a certain trader at a certain date at a certain place, and what they were sold for at a certain other place on a certain other date to a certain other trader for, so that the God-King makes a certain gross profit minus expenses of keeping them, leaving a certain net profit.
Without such detail, fraud and theft are inevitable, and accumulation and trade above a certain primitive level are impossible. Numbers alone are not capable of such detail, so a system of signs, showing ever more detail and sophistication over time - writing - is developed in order that the king or queen know the exact nature and extent of their riches.
A second advantage to writing for commanders of states and of armies is the new and vital ability to transmit precise, sealed orders and other communications, over long distances. Empire-builders needed a guaranteed method of having their dictates expressed throughout vast swathes of conquered territory, of maintaining diplomatic relations with other states, and of conducting negotiations and treaties by distance. Writing served all these novel necessities of power. An abundance of often elaborate royal seals, used to stamp official documents, testifies to the critical importance of writing to early imperialism.
A third function of the new technology of writing was the dissemination of ruling class ideology, by which I mean the set of approved narratives and sanctioned ideas that explain and justify the prevailing social order. In our day the dominant, but not exclusive, ideology of power, is, broadly speaking, a secular and deeply cynical one - capitalist realism, the notion that we have got to accept capitalism, no matter how bad it gets, because there is simply no other system for organising society. In the early days of class society, however, ideologies of power emphasised the superhuman nature of kings and the divine roots of their authority. Secular and religious worlds were intertwined. To disobey the king in any way was to draw the wrath of the gods on one, if you hadn’t been chewed up and spat out by the godlike king himself before then.
King-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry
Broadly speaking, three major forms of overlapping official literature emerge: chronicles in the form of king-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry. However, it is important to note that we do not have anything like a complete record of the written works of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Speculations are based on the available, fragmentary, if ample, evidence and subject to development and revision as new evidence arises, although the fact that writing was an elite technology used for elite purposes of mystification and domination will not alter.
Neither is it possible in the space of an essay to fully represent the riches of the literature of the ancient World. Consider, for example, that the Ancient Egyptian literary tradition lasts from around 3500 BC until around 400 AD, and included dozens of genres we do not have time to deal with here.
King-lists have the names and order of succession of monarchs, including exaggerated accounts of kingly deeds. In general, the farther back the king is in time, the more superhuman his characteristics, with godlike founding monarchs.
The lists provided legitimacy and a sense of dynastic continuity to monarchs, as well as a form of historiography which emphasised the deeds of great men in the shaping of history. Taken as a whole, a king-list provided the present monarch with a guide to the nature and role of a monarch and what needed to be emulated and achieved to go down in history as a great king. The military prowess and the mercilessness of kings, alongside the pointlessness of resisting them is often emphasised, as in this 400 year-old Babylonian account, rendered into modern English by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg:
Mythological narratives were comprised of the various supernatural beings and their innumerable escapades, and had the overall purpose of explaining what could not then be reasonably explained about the world given the low level of scientific knowledge. Mythology is rarely internally coherent and there are often numerous contradictory elements, indicating that the myths we have been handed down were a patchwork, stitched together out of existing oral traditions stretching back thousands of years into the Stone Age. As the oral traditions were stitched together, they were reshaped to reflect the current world and worldview.
So it is not surprising that a polity like ancient Greece, made up of hundreds of quarrelling mini-states, where dynasties rapidly rose and fell and alliances were constantly shifting, produced a mythology full of fickle and callous divinities always at war with each other and always trying to catch each other out.
Epic poems are a combination and repurposing of elements of both the king-lists and the mythological narratives. Figures from an idealised aristocratic past overcome great challenges, performing incredible deeds within lengthy and exciting narratives. These stories are often presented as historical accounts, and work as a kind of moral, political and even military instruction book on how society should be run, who should rule and who submit.
Although there are numerous epic poems produced by ancient societies all over the world, The Iliad is the best known and most influential, having survived 3000 years on the library shelves of the world’s imperialist elites, in their public schools and military academies. In part 3 of this series we will examine the Iliad - a poem which Boris Johnson can perform extended quotes from in the original ancient Greek - closely as a political document and look at its enormous contribution to the ideology and practice of class power.
We can be sure that the working people of the ancient world, neurologically and emotionally similar to ourselves, felt resentment at their treatment. They occasionally rose up in both spontaneous and organized ways, eg the Spartacus rebellion in Italy and the ancient Egyptian general strike. But even these events are only recorded by members of the 1 per cent (at most) who could read and write, who are of course opposed to them, and not from the point of view of the rebels.
This is a huge problem with the historiography of the time - most of what we know about the Celts of Gaul, for example, was penned by their conqueror, Julius Caesar. However, some signs of popular life and even popular resistance survive in the literature of the ancient world. Even the Iliad contains the famous ‘Thersites’ passage, describing the first anti-war and proto-communist mutiny to appear in literature, which we will examine in detail in part 3 of this series, alongside the rebellious and anti-militarist poetry of Sappho.
In addition, the scribes of Byzantium, just like the monks of a later era, sometimes left marginal scribbled notes and verses that tell us something about popular life of the time. So let’s finish this part of the essay with an example, once again resurrected for our time by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg.
Lyndsey Ayre writes about the class problem in publishing
On the inside cover of the 2019 edition of Tove Ditlevsen’s Childhood – the first of her autobiographical Copenhagen trilogy –there is a short paragraph describing the writer’s class and upbringing. It goes something like this: Ditlevsen, one of Denmark’s most important writers, grew up in the early 20th century, in a working-class neighbourhood called Vesterbro. From an early age, she knew she was different, that she was going to be a writer with ‘long, mysterious words crawling across her soul.’ ‘Inevitably,’ the bio continues, Ditlevsen came to the realisation that to pursue this dream she would have to ‘leave the narrow streets of her childhood behind.’ The message is clear: her working-class background was a problem that had to be navigated and escaped before she could blossom into the successful author and poet she was destined to become.
The articles I could find about Ditlevsen online told a similar story. The Guardian in 2019 described her as a ‘dreamy working-class misfit,’ while The Spectator applauded her journey from ‘slum girl to literary prodigy.’ Hers is a rags-to-intellectual-riches story: a young woman with a burning vocation for art who escapes her narrow street and winds up having dinner with Evelyn Waugh.
Yet I wonder how helpful it is for Ditlevsen to be described this way. Why was it inevitable that she would have to leave Vesterbro? Is it always necessary, or helpful, to point out a writer’s class on the blurb of a book? And what about the framing of her class? What if she had stayed living on her narrow street at the same time as being a writer, and it hadn’t been something to be escaped: a rein on her creativity, a hurdle to be jumped over in pursuit of finer interests? Is it really still considered an extraordinary feat for an author to be from a working-class background?
These are complicated questions whose answers I’ve not yet been able to decide upon. My feelings are confused and constantly shifting, not least because I, myself, won an award for working-class writers – the Sid Chaplin award – in 2019. I am endlessly grateful to the panel of judges who read the first chapter of my novel and saw enough in it to award me the prize. I’m thankful for the support I’ve received since, which secured me an agent. I feel an immense amount of pride in my background and was honoured to have won an award in Sid’s name. And I think schemes and awards that help working-class writers and artists to navigate worlds that are largely set up in ways that make them inaccessible are important for communicating that the industry recognises that it needs to effect change.
Still, I’ve never really been sure that I fit into the mould of what a working-class writer is expected to be. I feel that this is, in part, because I’ve been repeatedly told what my class experience should be, via a complex web of texts and codes fed into popular culture by a publishing industry that often seems to have little grasp as to what real life is like for so many of us. I’ve always felt a strong affinity with the kitchen-sink writers of the 1950s and 60s, for their insistence on the everyday nature of class experience. Their characters are smart, witty and funny. They go to work and are frequently frustrated by dead-end jobs, finding release in the lager-drenched pubs and clubs of the weekend. Many of the attitudes of these books have aged badly, but I still think that their portraits of the drama that plays out against the day-to-day business of people’s lives sparkle.
When I think about my class identity, I often think, too, of Alan Bennett’s description of his own childhood. Now in his 80s and referred to – pejoratively, you can’t help but feel – by some as a National Treasure, he is hardly considered to be at the vanguard of class writing. Yet his descriptions of his parents – shy, uncertain, fearing being thought of as ‘common’ – are still some of the most nuanced and relatable class portraits I’ve read.
I didn’t grow up in deprivation: my childhood was mostly quiet and composed of Sunday dinners at McDonald’s, caravan parks, Babysitter’s Club books and bottles of Panda Pop. Class, for me, wasn’t something that I railed against or felt the need to escape from – or that I remember seeing anyone else railing against. I knew that our cousins lived in a more expensive house than we did, that they went to a better school, and had different accents, yet I only knew this vaguely, as a sort of abstract concept. While the inequality gap yawns ever larger for so many people, I cannot claim to have experienced anything like the worst of it myself: only to have worked and earned my own wage since I was 16; to have gone to a struggling school and received middling exam results; to have attended a polytechnic; to have avoided speaking up at readings and conferences, conscious of my regional accent; to have no savings and no financial safety net to fall back on.
As I've grown older, bad experiences of the world of writing and the arts have stacked up: a snide comment made on my glottal stop; a major publisher who wasn’t sure where Newcastle was; a prestigious journalism award I was once shortlisted for, where senior journalists at a major, left-leaning publication expressed surprise that I was there ‘from the North.’ These are comparatively small hardships and slights compared to those faced by many people, and yet, at times, they have been enough to make me feel like giving up. I have written on work lunchbreaks and stayed up until 2am writing, drinking so much coffee on shift the next morning that my hands shake and my vision blurs. I’ve spent my 20s writing articles for various publications – few of which have ever been in a position to pay – in the hope that one day they would lead to something more substantial. I have taken on more hours in my day job and felt the time I have for writing squeezed ever smaller. I have wondered why I continue to put myself in positions and situations where I feel, at best, fundamentally misunderstood and at worst, unwelcome.
I've continued partly out of a real passion and love for reading and writing, and partly out of sheer bloody-mindedness and the idea that voices like mine should not be forced out because they don’t easily fit into a publishing industry’s idea of what a working-class voice should be. It has been hard. For many working-class people – people who have more responsibilities than I do, people such as young carers or young, single parents – it is even harder.
So – what can be done about it?
Class diversity in publishing can’t be fixed by simply allowing a handful of working-class voices through, no matter how explicitly and loudly you tell people that that’s what you’re doing. After all, diversity isn’t really diversity until it becomes normality: before that you are simply in the process of attempting to effect change. There are no quick fixes to the problem, which has its roots in wider, societal issues. But perhaps a starting point is to reframe how we think about writing and about culture more broadly.
What is needed is not so much a set of solutions to the ‘problem’ of greater class diversity in the publishing industry, so much as a shift in understanding as to what, and who, reading is for. We might best address the issue by going back to the very basics of how the industry is run, applying socialist principles to the publishing industry as we might apply them to any other resource that everyone should have access to. The narratives that an era produces speak volumes about the time in which they were conceived. Books, plays, films and song have the power to summarise complex societal conversations around race, gender and class struggles. They have the power, also, to speak to people about their everyday lives and to reflect and legitimise their experiences, lending them the permanence of art. Narratives are not superfluous: they are what societies are built on.
The class problem in publishing
But despite schemes from publishers such as Penguin – who, in 2016, took away the requirement of a university degree for job applicants – and the emergence of a number of small, Northern-based publishers, it still remains uncomfortably true that publishing on the whole is populated by people who are predominantly white, predominantly London-centric and predominantly from the middle and upper classes. Entry-level roles in publishing are often low-paid and located in London, where sky-high rents and cost of living effectively block out people without prior means of supporting themselves. Many roles now advertise as remote working, yet still inexplicably require the employee to live in London. Simply moving the seat of publishing from London to Manchester is not the answer to ensuring a greater variety of voices get through. Yes, it is a step in the right direction, but creating a second capital in the North risks creating a sense of complacency that real change has been achieved.
There is clearly a class problem in publishing. In 2019, the Labour Force Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics showed that 43% of workers in the publishing industry (authors, writers, translators, editors, journalists etc.) came from middle-class backgrounds, and only 12% from working-class backgrounds.
This is in contrast to the rest of the population, where around 14% of the population are from higher professional and managerial origins, and around 35% are from working-class backgrounds.
In 2019, a survey in The Bookseller of people who worked in or were connected to the publishing industry found that nearly 80% of respondents from a working-class background felt discriminated against in their field of work due to their social class – particularly because of discrimination based on accent, and nepotism in the industry.
Focussing on the experiences of working-class writers, meanwhile, Common People, a 2020 report between Northumbria University and several regional writing agencies, provided a detailed breakdown of challenges and prejudices faced by a selection of writers in England and Wales. Again, nepotism was highlighted as a major issue faced by working-class writers, alongside impostor syndrome, a lack of peer support and off-putting experiences of inclusivity schemes which paid lip service to change but did little to really help and support attendees. The report made several recommendations: moving publishing outside of London; making routes into the industry more transparent and fairly-paid; investing in regional writing agencies; and learning from the good practice of the third sector.
These are crucial conversations: that we are able to have them at all now signals a real desire for change. And yet, if we are to effect progress for coming generations, the work needs to begin much earlier to improve diversity in the industry. I loved reading as a child: when it came to choosing a degree course, the only option that was ever explained to me was English Literature. For many working-class teenagers who are likely to be the first in their families to go to university, doing a degree in a subject like publishing simply wouldn’t ever be discussed. A drive to make the vagaries of the industry more transparent, accessible and welcoming for young people is one way we might target change for the future.
Meanwhile, the gap between the well-off and those in our society that are struggling the most grows ever wider. A report commissioned by the National Literacy Trust (NTL) in 2018, Literacy and Life Expectancy, found that 44% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds were not at a good level of general development by the time they started primary school. At age 5, their vocabulary was, on average, 19 months behind children from higher-income backgrounds.
Work by charities such as the NTL to localise literacy campaigns and set up regional literacy hubs is one example of how real action is needed inside of our communities to ensure that all children are given an equal start when it comes to language and communication. In Middlesbrough, for example, after the first NTL hub was set up in 2013 the number of children reaching the expected level of communication by age 5 rose by 31%. The trust now has 14 such hubs across the country. Whilst the work that the NTL has done and is doing is invaluable – including sending out 1 million books to children who may not have access to them at home – it has stepped into a space out of necessity where there should be no space at all.
The punishing raft of austerity measures
For it can be no coincidence that the NTL set up its first hub in 2013, three years after the formation of the Coalition government and the punishing raft of austerity measures which began thereafter. The state should be supporting literacy: that 43% of working age adults can be allowed to be without the literacy skills required to make use of health literature is a scandal. Since 2010, 800 public libraries have closed. While much has been made of the crucial role libraries play in providing access to people without the internet at home, I think it is equally as important to consider that children are now growing up without ready access to free books.
What could the labour movement do about the systematic bias in the publishing industry in terms of the workforce, and the lack of affordable and meaningful material for working-class readers? One way of addressing this could be for trade unions to form a not-for-profit publishing house of their own, focusing on using digital technology to maximise accessibility and keep costs low. Free or very cheap e-books could be produced, not only for trade union members but for working people generally. At the time of writing, David Walliams’ latest children’s bestseller is priced at £12.99, well above the National Minimum Wage of £8.72 an hour.
When you consider that this is the case, it is unsurprising that publishing – both for writers and for workers – remains a closed industry. If generations of children grow up without access to books, how can they be expected to want to work in – or indeed write within – a publishing industry whose motives and purpose remains opaque and remote?
Publishing, reading, literacy and writing must be for everyone at every stage: from those children who start school without access to books and reading, to the adults suffering impostor syndrome who feel out of place at misguided inclusivity events. Until it is, working-class people working in the industry will remain in the minority – with those that do feeling their class background has impeded their careers. Working-class narratives should eventually be recognised as narratives that are simply rooted in the various experience of the majority of people. A diverse publishing industry means a diversity of stories: without which, ultimately, we all lose.
David Betteridge writes critically and creatively about the artwork above, Nature writing, Bertolt Brecht, and eco-communism.
The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history - Raymond Williams
What you see above is a lino print called “Leaf of Tree”, by Owen McGuigan.
It hangs on the wall above my computer at home, is mounted on white card, and is surrounded by a broad hardwood frame. It measures five inches across by seven inches tall. Looking at it, as I often do - it draws my attention to it, inspiringly - I find that it invites two kinds of looking: one from above, so to speak, as if I was a bird gliding over a fertile landscape, and the other slower, more detailed, as if I was an insect prospecting this way and that way at close quarters. How does this “Leaf of Tree” image strike you, I wonder?
For most people, probably, the thoughts and feelings that the print arouses will be pleasant ones, and for three reasons. The first reason is physiological: the highest-density part of our eyes’ retina is most sensitive to green, so responds to that colour with greatest acuity. The second reason is aesthetic: the placing of one larger leaf, stylised, within a pattern of smaller leaves is very skilfully handled; we look, and we recognise beauty. The third reason is associative: the image triggers memories in us of previous leafy encounters, whether in the real world, or mediated through art or literature.
Those 35 square inches of art might stand for three or five or 35 acres of green growth, or more, or for the whole world if you think so; or they might stand for some smaller singular Dear Green Place, dear only to you. For me, the fresh green of “Leaf of Tree” conjures up a summer’s day in a wood in Argyll. I hear the waves slapping on Loch Etive, not far from where I stand. The sun is shining directly on, and through, a panoply of sessile oak leaves, highlighting their veins in all their intricacy. I am also reminded of William Morris’s lovely plant designs, particularly “Acanthus”, “Orchard” and “Willow Bough”.
Building on these or similar associations, we might even go on to interpret the colour green and the idea of “green” in a symbolic way, seeing in growing things the very principle of life, as Walt Whitman did when he wrote his Leaves of Grass:
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven... I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic... Growing among black folk as among white... I give them the same, I receive them the same... All goes onward and outward... and nothing collapses...
Having images such as “Leaf of Tree” on display at home, or stored electronically, is pretty commonplace. Looking at them, we can readily feed our senses and our imaginations, for the reasons given above. It is also commonplace to want to read and be reminded of green things, especially in dark times such as we live in now - and when are times ever not dark? Books about Nature are consistently in lists of best-sellers.
During the recent Covid-19 lockdown, my “Leaf of Green” took on especial significance for me. It inspired me to wrestle some green thoughts into a chapbook of poems, including the one given below:
While the pot boils
(Looking out of my kitchen window during the Covid-19 pandemic)
Even in these dark days, the world does not forget to green and grow.
My neighbour’s apple-tree progresses well, no longer bare twigs, but leaves and flowers.
With fruit to come, it gives sanctuary to a pair of nesting wrens, who get on busily with everything that their lives demand, heedless of what we humans know, or do not know.
The tree waves and bends in the frequent wind. I note it does not break. Like the wrens, it is industrious.
How readily Earth’s habitats renew, recycle, and remake!
A critic of puritanical bent might argue that such “nature worship” or “nature wallowing” as is found in the above poem - and in Nature writing generally, perhaps - is a deplorably “escapist” habit, a turning away from the “real” business of dealing with the world. George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) was an early example of this stern and restrictive school of criticism. In 1670, or thereabouts, he wrote to his followers as follows:
And therefore, all friends and people, pluck down your images; I say, pluck them out of your houses, walls, and signs, or other places, that none of you be found imitators of his Creator, whom you should serve and worship; and not observe the idle lazy mind…
Later, and famously, from a secular, communist standpoint, Bertolt Brecht wrote as follows, apparently as puritanically as Fox, but significantly not quite:
To those born later
Truly, I live in dark times! The guileless word is folly.
A smooth forehead Suggests insensitivity.
The man who laughs Has simply not yet had The terrible news.
What kind of times are they, when To talk about trees is almost a crime Because it implies silence about so many horrors? That man there calmly crossing the street Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends Who are in need?
Being a great poet, and a man fully alive, Brecht carefully avoided the extremism that was found in Fox, who went so far as to prefer grey to all other colours. “Almost a crime,” Brecht declared; therefore not a crime, although some on the Left might still think it is, trapped in the notion that tree-talk can only be a turning aside from the realities of the class struggle, and therefore a holiday from the building of socialism. No, Brecht was careful to keep for himself a certain licence to talk about trees, and write about them, and delight in them. These things he did throughout the years of the Second World War and Cold War, up to his swan-song Buckow Elegies. Consistently, he used trees as an emblem for pleasure, well-being, and for continuity across generations.
“Lovely trees,” he exclaimed in “Finnish Landscape”, and “Such scents of berries and of birches there!” He saw no need to repress his delight in Nature. It resurged again and again, gaining expression in other poems that he went on to write, often about gardens, including, most luxuriously of all, his friend Charles Laughton’s garden on the Pacific coast near Los Angeles. Brecht singled out the fuchsias for praise: “Amazing themselves with many a daring red”.
Always the dialectician, Brecht contrived to plant negatives among his positives, creating a complex context for his celebration of green beauty. So, in “Finnish Landscape”, written in 1940, with war spreading from country to country and across continents, he wrote:
Dizzy with sight and sound and thought and smell The refugee beneath the alders turns To his laborious job... [He] sees who’s short of milk and corn... And sees a people silent in two tongues.
And in the Californian “Garden in Progress” (1944), he added to his picture the fact that there was “crumbling rock” destabilising the garden. Even as the gardeners worked to finish their planting, “Landslides / Drag parts of it into the depths without warning.” Meanwhile, the poet was aware of the gunfire of warships exercising off the coast, and thought of “a number of civilisations” ready to collapse.
The same delight in the things of Nature as Brecht’s, again voiced in communist terms, and again set in a complex context, is found by the wagon-load in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). Near the end of this imagined visit to a future commonwealth, Morris’s alter ego William Guest is told by his guide, Ellen, that:
O me! O me! How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it...
Here Morris’s green utopia is used as a method of criticising capitalism, of opposing it, and of rejecting it, while at the same time re-imagining how a society might better function in future. His utopia is as much a dramatising of a communist “structure of feeling”, as defined by Raymond Williams, as it is an outlining of a political programme. It is an early example of eco-communism, where Green and Red go hand in hand, albeit simply.
There is an eloquent passage in Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art where he quoted Brecht regarding the same critical use of utopia as Morris deployed:
Dreams and the golden “if” Conjure the promised sea Of ripe corn growing...
To Brecht’s “Dreams and the golden ‘if’” we might add our own corollary: “Hope and the green leaf”.
So far, we have looked at the “Leaf of Tree” image as a finished product, its only context being provided from our own store of memories of similar green things, and images of things, and writings about them. Your store will be different from mine, of course, although I guess - I hope - that there will be enough commonality between them for us to agree that “Leaf of Tree” is well worth looking at, and looking at many times, and that doing so is a rewarding experience: in a nutshell, that it is life-affirming.
Now it is time, in the second half of the essay, to show the process by which “Leaf of Tree” came into being, and to put it in its full context - a context that includes its artist, its time and place of production, and the culture out of which it came and into which it feeds. Knowing these extra things about the image is unlikely to change our first opinion of it, but may give depth and confirmation to that opinion, and increase the range of associations that the image prompts in us. “Oh no,” a formalist critic might protest, narrowly, “we should only be concerned with what lies within the frame.” We, preferring a cultural materialist perspective, will not be deterred. As when we get to know anything or anyone new, so with “Leaf of Tree”: we want to ask of it, Where are you from?
Here is where “Leaf of Tree” is from: namely a garden shed on the very boundary of Glasgow and Clydebank. The artist is Owen McGuigan, a former shop-fitter, now retired. He is well known in Clydebank and beyond as Clydebank’s best archivist and celebrator. His principal medium is photograph and video, although latterly he has also used drawing, print-making, jig-saw and wood panel burning as media for his vision. Visit his website here, and be bowled over by its very great volume, beauty and range of reference. All in all, there are sufficient images archived on Owen’s website to satisfy legions of social historians and Bankies wanting a visual record of their hometown, legions of art-lovers, and to inspire legions of poets.
I have picked out a few examples of Owen’s work below, to keep his “Leaf of Tree” company: -
Trees in winter, Dalmuir Park
A garden game, devised for grandchildren during the Covid-19 lockdown
Cleaning up the Forth & Clyde Canal: a recent photo
The Clydebank blitz: a jigsaw composition
Elegy for Glasgow School of Art: aftermath of its second fire, June, 2018
Profit & Loss: Ship-building anatomised
Dogwood and spider
Even these few examples give a good impression of Owen’s range of styles and subject matter. What unites them is a strong shape, a clear content, and skill. They are all labours of love, produced in Owen’s leisure time. This fact gives them a special significance, rescuing them, and rescuing Owen, from any nexus of commodities and marketplaces. In Raymond Williams’s words:
The real dividing line between things we call work and the things we call leisure is that in leisure... we make our own choices and our own decisions. We feel for the time being that our life is our own.
The garden shed that is pictured above is only one of Owen’s favoured workshops. That is where he works when he works alone. On other occasions, when he works with others, sometimes as a tutor, sometimes as a learner, always collaboratively, then he has two other places to go to, both close to home. One of them is an arts centre in Dalmuir Park, in an old park superintendent’s house; the other, rejoicing in the name “The Awestruck Academy”, is in a defunct snooker hall in Clydebank’s pedestrianised town centre.
Ten thousand such cultural hubs across the land, for community use, sited wherever “To Let” signs are commonest, would serve the people there in the way rising sap serves a tree. Ten thousand such hubs devoted specifically to socialist and trade union work would specifically serve the labour movement. There are several pieces on the Culture Matters website exploring this notion, notably Rebecca Hillman’s “Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement” (27 November, 2017), Mike Quille’s “Culture for the Many, Not the Few” (13 December, 2018), and Chris Guiton’s “Profound New Visions of a Better World” (10 June, 2019). They underpin the argument being advanced here.
Regarding the two cultural hubs in Clydebank that Owen favours, and is fostered by, he mentions them in a contribution he has written for this essay, giving the “Leaf of Tree” back-story. From it, you will realise that the image that is at the heart of this essay is unique: it is the first, and so far the only print made from Owen’s linocut:
I have had a fascination about trees since I was a boy, from climbing them in Whitecrook Park with my two sisters in the 50s, and our mum taking us berrypicking at Blairgowrie during the school holidays, where on our day off my two sisters and I would go to the forest around the loch and light camp fires. I can still smell that. Later in life, my nephew David and I did a lot of hill walking. We walked the West Highland Way together, and I loved walking inside a silent forest. The family and I even built a cabin up at Carbeth, in the hills, which we had for twelve years before vandals set fire to it.
So, over the years, trees have been a recurring theme in my work. More so when I joined the Dalmuir Park Art Class in 2013. We did a lot of nature-themed projects. Last year we all did a big tree mural, and over the year we added various elements to it reflecting the seasons. I made a video of this project:
Usually, when I sat down at the art class to start a lino- cut, I never planned what I was going to do. An idea of a tree inside a leaf popped into my head. The final title was a play on the words “Tree of Life”, an image that has always fascinated me. I made some Christmas decorations of it, although it was a lot of work, as they were handmade.
The first linocut that David saw was at the Awestruck Academy in Clydebank, on a board that someone had set up with several linoprints. David was taken by the image, and I said I would print one for him. I looked through all my linocuts, and, as usual, it was the one that was missing! Then I remembered that Sandra Anton, the Community Ranger that runs our art class, liked the linocut herself and wanted to display it at home, so I let her take it. I asked her, but she had been decorating and stored it somewhere, and couldn’t find it. I then did a new linocut especially for David and printed it for him. This was the inspiration for David to create his latest poetry book.
Looking again at Owen’s “Leaf of Tree”, taking into account both the context and the process of its making, we can agree that the image suggests much more than a bit of green growth. We can agree, in reality and metaphorically, that a leaf - any leaf, anywhere and everywhere - is sustained by a twig, and the twig is sustained by a branch, and the branch by a tree’s bole, and the bole by a system of roots, and the roots by the soil into which they dig down and spread. And we can agree that the tree - any tree - might well not stand alone, but is part of a greater habitat.
So Owen, by analogy, is a vigorous part of a pretty extensive living, growing and interdependent People’s culture, rooted in Clydebank, but reaching further by means of the internet. The culture that he and his co-producers spring from, and feed back into, is a foreshadowing of the greater culture to which Socialism will lead; but it is not only a foreshadowing. It is also a preparation for that greater culture, sharing good practice and educating desire now.
Brecht, as we have noted, kept an appreciative eye open for trees wherever he went. He was speaking equivocally when he commented that, during political crises, “To talk about trees is almost a crime.” No! On the evidence of Owen’s image of a green leaf, and all the associations it carries for us when considered in context, as in this essay, we can state, unequivocally, that not to talk about trees is almost a crime.
The green leaf delights the eye, and leads the mind to a hundred habitats where it may either rest or roam.
Hope and the green leaf inspire the wish that such green habitats - where humankind keeps step with Nature’s ways - might be for all of us our proper home.
Labour and hope, if only shared world-wide, and people-wide, will make at last that vision real, bringing to detailed life the concepts of our commonweal.
Theresa Easton, Northern Organiser for Artists' Union England, shows how the Covid crisis should be tackled by applying the principles of cultural democracy. The image above is by David Shrigley
The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the cracks in the arts sector, which is supported by a freelance workforce that has few employment rights and protections. Many supplement their poorly paid freelance art practice with part-time jobs, zero-hour contract work and precarious, casual employment. Artists’ average annual income from their art is only around £6,000.
The lockdown resulted in all work being halted. Members of Artists’ Union England have reported that all exhibitions, projects, and commissions were abandoned, delayed indefinitely or cancelled. Government support packages excluded many artists – because so many artists are forced to seek other kinds of paid work, they fall outside the government’s categories for self-employment. So many artists have been forced to sign on to the pitifully inadequate Universal Credit scheme.
Arts Council England’s emergency financial support of £20 million for creatives turned into a lottery. Keep it Complex, an artist-run group of cultural workers described the response from ACE as ‘business as usual’, creating competition between cash-strapped freelancers in a time of crisis. Keep it Complex kicked back against ACE’s proposal, organising artists into syndicates, working collaboratively to share any winnings. AUE recently launched its Solidarity Fund to support those in financial hardship, supported by artists contributing some of the proceeds from sales of their work.
Overall support from government for freelance and self-employed artists has been inadequate, with many falling into debt, struggling to pay bills and worrying about the future.
The announcement of a ‘rescue package’ for arts, culture and heritage has been launched to much fanfare. Typically, comments from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden about preserving the ‘crown jewels’ of the arts sector, along with similar statements from Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, have revealed the limits of ministers’ understanding of the arts, and their inability to look beyond buildings and institutions.
There is only 7% grant support for freelancers to apply for, after larger institutions take their cut of the pie from an allocated grants budget of £880 million. Some of these institutions are currently making staff redundant while receiving handouts from government.
Tackling precarious employment in the arts
So what are the answers to this crisis? One suggestion from one of our members to tackle a long-standing problem was for more equity in spending between London and the rest of the country. The arts and culture are not funded adequately or fairly, and so have become irrelevant to many people’s lives – particularly outside London and in less well-off communities everywhere.
Trade unionists from Yorkshire and Humberside TUC have highlighted “the disparity of DCMS and Arts Council England funding, at £69 per head for Londoners and £4.58 per head for the rest of England”. Investment in the arts, they argue, should not be driven by economic considerations, but by its social benefits, and it should be accountable to local communities, not imposed on them.
We need to tackle precarious employment in the arts sector. A group of Northern based AUE members have been working on a charter of minimum standards of employment for visual arts freelancers working in the sector, which needs to be widely promoted and adopted by employers.
Work in the creative and cultural industries should be accessible and feasible for everyone. But there is plenty of evidence that the precarity of contract work, the informal networks of institutional gatekeepers, and discrimination on the basis of class and race make it harder for people from working-class and BAME communities to access and progress equally in the arts and culture sector.
Working-class voices and experiences are increasingly absent from the professional arts sector. The most recent official analysis of employment in the cultural sector finds only 13% working in the sector to be from working-class backgrounds. Social mobility in the arts, as in many other areas of British life, has stalled.
The fundamental problem is that years of cuts to local authorities, austerity, and ongoing privatisation have created a sector with an unsustainable, capitalist business model. It relies far too heavily on commercialisation, corporate sponsorship and market forces to fund people’s cultural experiences. But the arts and culture, like health and education, are just too important to be left to the market.
The pandemic has meant that institutions are struggling to cover building costs and management roles, while cutting the jobs of creative workers. And the reality is that apart from TV and cinemas, most people have limited access to the arts, both as consumers and as creative workers.
Shared ownership and control
So Covid-19 is also a chance for us all to rethink what kind of culture we want.
It's time to radically change the way that cultural provision is planned, managed and delivered. Democratic principles of shared ownership and control need to be applied.
We need a radical rebalancing of provision towards less well-off communities. Local authorities and communities need the funding and power to develop culture hubs which can stimulate and encourage local cultural production. We need democratic accountability of cultural institutions.
Finally, there needs to be close involvement of trade unions in the strategic planning and delivery of cultural experiences, so that working people, both as producers and consumers of culture, have fair access to all the benefits that the arts and culture can deliver.
Artists’ Union England is a relatively new trade union representing visual artists which emerged from the 2012 anti-austerity and anti-cuts movement. The trade union is a grassroots, members-led organisation campaigning for better working conditions, pay and equality in the arts sector. This article is the latest in the series of articles on Covid-19 and culture, jointly published with the Morning Star.
Adam Stoneman explains how the Covid crisis is an opportunity to share digital cultural experiences more freely. The image above is 'Hands', by Theresa Easton
Kneeling on Mount Alvernia in prayer, hands and feet freshly pierced with stigmata, St. Francis faces the apparition of Christ. Zoom in and you see his eyes fixed in stoic determination, lines of flesh in furrowed brow, a body transcending mortal pain. Zoom in further and spidery lines of cracked paint appear, flecked and damaged. Zoom in further still until shimmering waves of light disturb the vision; rows and rows of LEDs break the surface. Zoom out, blink and rub your eyes, sit back in your chair.
During the long days and nights of lockdown, many of us reached through our screens for culture, quenching our emotional and intellectual thirst in isolation. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions and tours (you can see St. Francis in glorious macrophotography as part of a virtual Van Eyck exhibition); theatres and opera houses streamed archive performances; JSTOR expanded free access; the Internet Archive created a National Emergency Library of free e-books. UNESCO, which launched a #ShareCulture campaign to promote online exhibitions of world heritage sites, proclaimed that culture must be “accessible to all, and that the full diversity of humanity’s cultural expressions can flourish, both online and offline.” The proliferation of initiatives like this during lockdown arose from a recognition of the important role that art plays in sustaining us and the universal right to culture.
Knowledge, art and culture held in common
Despite the limitations of experiencing certain forms of culture through digital interfaces, along with the individualised nature of online engagement, digital access to art is enriching. From the confines of our houses, access to performances, films and music was a lifeline to a world of ideas and emotions that helped to guard against the darkness of isolation. The sharing and free access to digital culture during the lockdown provided a glimpse of a future in which knowledge and art are shared freely and in common.
Throughout the first few months of the lockdown, most moves to extend free access to online culture were billed as temporary, ‘emergency’ measures in response to the crisis and most have since ended as institutions have opened up again. Emergency or not, copyright holders were not slow to act when they felt their intellectual property was being infringed. The Internet Archive’s free library of e-books was shut down after only a few weeks on threat of a lawsuit from publishers.
As with changes to remote working, the extension of access to digital culture is unlikely to disappear now that it has been established. Though the crisis has accelerated the trend, digitising and opening up collections had started long before the virus struck (Europeana, for example, is an online platform that hosts over 10 million cultural artefacts from 3,000 European institutions for educational and non-commercial use). The question is how expanded digital access can be integrated within a rehabilitated cultural sector. Facing a cultural industry ravaged by the virus, if not quite a “cultural wasteland”, institutions are under enormous pressure to increase revenue, and subscription and paywall models are already being trialled. The Met Opera in New York, which had streamed archive performances for free during lockdown, is now testing a pay per view model.
The success of Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - and other streaming platforms is held up as a model for emulation. But the commercial logic of algorithmically designed streaming services like Netflix and Spotify privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘binging’ and repeated playbacks and therefore trades better in mood and affect than intellectually demanding culture. At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.
It is clear the Covid-19 crisis will be used by corporate interests as an opportunity to further entrench the neoliberal privatisation of the cultural sector. The Southbank Centre recently announced plans to make 400 of its 577 staff redundant this week and when it reopens in 2021, to model itself on a start-up enterprise, with 90% of its spaces for rent and only 10% for art. While these moves must be resisted, there is the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding and democratise access to and participation in the arts. Indeed, this pandemic has helped arguments for a publicly funded cultural sector. The model of private arts funding dominant in the United States, in which institutions rely on philanthropy and earned income rather than government funding, has left cultural institutions especially vulnerable; the American Alliance of Museums reported to Congress in March that as many as a third of museums could fail to reopen their doors - compared with one in ten globally.
Reward the artists, not the shareholders
Rather than finding new ways of monetising digital culture, our recent collective experience of free online art can lead to fundamental questions about access and ownership. Copyright is usually framed in terms of the individual artist or author; in practice, copyright is typically ceded to publishers or studios, who exercise these powers and get most of the benefits, sharing only a small portion with the creator. It is usually publishers that lobby to increase copyright powers. Yet corporations spin and hide behind the image of the penurious artist to defend their extraordinary profit ratios. It is not illegal file sharing that has increased that has made the cultural sector so precarious, but a system which rewards the shareholders of Spotify while the company pays artists as little as $0.0032 per play.
The paradigm of free digital culture can challenge and expose the lie of neoliberalism. The internet has opened up new possibilities for cultural exchange, both in terms of sharing existing content and also finding platforms for one's own work that are not mediated by institutions or corporations. The persistent popularity of file sharing networks demonstrates a social desire to share and exchange culture; as filmmaker Shekhar Kapur quipped, "In India we see copyright as the right to copy".
Cultural producers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic cultural landscape is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. In France the system of financial support for artists and technicians, known as intermittents du spectacle, has just been extended into 2021, despite years of government attempts to end it (after one such attempt in 2003 actors and technicians went on strike, leading to the cancellation of a major festival in Avignon and sacking of the culture minister). The artists' unemployment insurance system, paid for by employers and workers' contributions, an artist or technician must work for a certain number of hours during high season to gain benefits for the fallow periods between intermittent contracts. Models such as this can be taken up by artists’ unions to shift the balance of power back towards artists and cultural producers.
Free access to digital culture need not threaten cultural producers; digital culture is not a replacement for the physical experience of art but complements and enhances it. Rather than build walls around online culture and knowledge, we must work on expanding free access. Let the harm of the pandemic spur us to build a society in which culture and knowledge are freely shared in common.
Fran Lock writes about poetry and class, in the latest in the series of jointly published Morning Star/Culture Matters articles on the effects of the pandemic on cultural activities
During this Covid crisis, poetry is being asked to do a lot of good: to offer consolation and catharsis, to carry some kind of vague universal experience, to speak truth to power. But whose experiences, and whose truth? These are pressing questions.
Everyone, from practitioners to pundits, has an opinion, the same opinion: poetry is a 'contemplative' form, productive of comfort and of empathy; what poetry does singularly well is negotiate between subjective feeling and mass social concern. True, but whether contemplation is likely to provide solace or to further empathy rather depends on what you're being asked to contemplate, doesn't it? And we might be equally involved in global events, but we are not all equally affected by them. The virus does not discriminate. Humans do.
This is where our current definitions of poetry fail, at a disparity so great it can never quite be broached; at the edge of an ONS report that says there are fifty-five deaths for every one-hundred-thousand people in the poorest parts of England compared with twenty-five in the wealthier areas. For BAME communities the situation is even bleaker. Class dictates which of us will feel the effects of coronavirus the deepest, and who will be left to endure its legacy the longest. Under such conditions what should poetry do or be?
Poetry doesn't stand outside of capitalism's brutalising power structures speaking in. It is enmeshed and beholden to those structures; subject to and scarred by them. Artists are also workers: art is work, and the large majority of us do other jobs to support ourselves and our families. When the welfare state is failed by government, it fails us too, when jobs are cut, they're our jobs too.
The idea that art is an adequate salve to these wounds is ludicrous. 'Feeling better' should not replace collective, active and organised social change. This is the limit and the danger of 'consolation': we shouldn't have to find ways to 'cope' with an unacceptable situation; pressure should be applied to those who engineered it.
Catharsis is ripe for exploitation. The deep swell of feeling a poem prompts may seem profound, momentous even, but it is interior, entirely subjective, the oppositeof true sympathy, true solidarity. This kind of poetry, and the idea that it connects people through some golden thread of fellow feeling conceals the fatal extent of the inequality existing between us.
Catharsis makes a fetish of working-class resilience; it ties that suffering to a marketable performance of identity, where your pain has meaning and value only in so far as it elicits a profound emotional response in your audience. Writing the poem may help us, but its efficacy in challenging the attitudes and conditions that produce those feelings is limited.
I live – we live – a continual, exhausting negotiation with and within language; with and within capitalism. Our use of language is both an organic response and a purposeful riposte to the non-language of bureaucracy, the populist sloganeering of governments, and the reductive stereotyping of the mainstream media.
I want to fight back against the misuse of lyric; against the easy absorption it sometimes fosters. Capitalism uses ease of assimilation to slide its most toxic messages past us on the sly. Those are the enemy's tactics. Our poetry must do more. If the state were a body, then poetry should tell us where it hurts; to keep pointing to the sites of failure and neglect and saying 'Look! Listen!'
They don't listen. If they did funding bodies and publishers would have already moved past the tokenistic representational model of working-class inclusion to make real changes to the way in which financial support for artists is allocated and accessed.
Applying for assistance - before coronavirus and during - is a bewildering process. Many give up. In poverty you're asked to account for yourself in a variety of ways every day, just to access what you need to survive. We live with a level of scrutiny and required 'proof' that is intrusive and stressful. Impenetrable bureaucratic processes are not helpful. Funding bodies frequently assume a familiarity with their processes, but often people are unaware of what's out there, what they're 'entitled' to. And there are talented artists who don't have the vocabulary to present the 'best case' for their vibrant and necessary work. Who, among the working classes, can afford to expend time and attention on a process they feel sure will fail?
Attention to diversity means reaching out, talking about the opportunities for disadvantaged artists with those artists. Regularly. Systematically. People new to funding processes may have no previous experience navigating these systems. It is about making space for them, even if their work does not conform to some preconceived idea of how a working-class person writes or sounds. It means recognising that a middle-class audience is not the default. It means making money available to forms of art that the working class can actually practice.
To occupy the same spaces as our middle-class peers we are performing a phenomenal amount of extra labour; it's labour we shouldn't have to perform. But if we do, if this is really the best system our cultural gatekeepers can come up with, then we should be allowed to be angry. The idea that art should or indeed can be apolitical is patently ridiculous, and it's a fiction that serves those already comfortably ensconced in places of privilege.
Dave Lordan, in the first of a three part series, explores creativity, the arts and cultural activities before the development of class-based societies.
Poetry is indispensable - if only we knew what it was for. - Jean Cocteau
Before any major hunt the women of the Baka family group will sing "yelli". This they will do in the early morning before dawn and while the men and children are in their huts. One voice starts - a beautiful, haunting melody reverberating through the trees. After a few minutes another voice joins in, then another. Each voice will sing their own repeating melody, each one with its own rhythm and cycle, and yet all of them sitting together as one song composed of magical polyphonic harmonies that carry far into the forest, blending in with the unending night-time songs of the insects.
To paraphrase the Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, creativity is putting things together to make new things. It is the modality by which humans shape the material world to meet their various needs and serve their various purposes. In the broadest sense then, it is similar to the Marxist conceptions of labour or work. Creativity is work and work is creativity.
The nature and conditions of work change over time and according to the dominant system of production. Factories, call centres, and now ‘working from home’ - alongside commodity production and the profit motive - are all extremely recent phenomena. For most of humanity’s time here on Earth (300000 years of Sapiens and millions more years if we include predecessor creative/labouring hominids) work (of hunting, gathering, sheltering, and tool production) was entirely dedicated to meeting basic survival needs. It was undertaken in common, and benefited all who participated. Things could not have been otherwise - in a hostile environment humans had no option but to work together on a more or less egalitarian basis to survive.
The efforts of each member of the nomadic band were required to keep all others safe and alive. No doubt petty rivalries and intra-group tensions existed, but, in the absence of significant surplus wealth for one faction to hoard, these tensions did not solidify into permanent hierarchical divisions or structural inequalities. Humans were chained to each other for good or for ill, and everything they had to do to stay alive, they had to do together.
The subset of creativity which we think of as artistic creativity evolved in this Palaeolithic context of endless struggle and scarcity and throughout the prehistoric period is also entirely dedicated to meeting the survival needs of the primal group. ‘Art’ is not in any way a distinct or indeed superior form of work to any other. Songs, for example, may have arisen as part of the work process, co-ordinating activity through call and response structures, as well as uplifting morale and increasing stamina during hard tasks and long treks.
Cave paintings undoubtedly contributed in some way to hunting culture and activities, perhaps to magically increase the chances of hunting party success, or to conjure into being herds of large mammals during times of scarcity or declining herds, or as a way of ‘contacting’ or honouring the souls of dead animals by way of apology for killing them. The very first statues we find in the archaeological record mostly appear to be fertility or female-worshipping icons dedicated to the generative power of women and The Earth - they too were aids to reproduction and would have had no meaning or purpose outside of such putative magical aid.
Only with the emergence of class societies does art become distinct from other kinds of work and become subject, overall, to the dictates of class power, inter-imperial competition, and commodity production - against which of course many kinds of art and artist from the very beginning struggle and contradict. Only in the contexts of class and commodity does the artist eventually become a mystical figure unlike other kinds of workers, with insights and abilities inaccessible to most, interdependent not with society as a whole but with the profit motive and/or bureaucratic state patronage.
This epochal shift from the art of common purpose to mystified and commodified art can still be traced in the etymology of later ages. The Latin Creare, ancient root of the the English word Creativity, means ‘to make or to produce or to grow’ - the artist is like a farmer or craftsperson who makes socially useful things. By the late Middle Ages, however, when artists were firmly attached to aristocratic courts, the english word create had come to mean ‘form out of nothing’ and is ‘used of a divine and spiritual being’. The artist as demigod, beyond the apprehension of the commoner, aligned with and determined by those similarly heavenly things such as kings and queens and popes - and som-time later, the market.
Creation and creativity
Humans emerge from nature and consist of combined elements drawn from the natural world, in which creation and creatures exist, but not creativity. Nature is the process whereby, within geological time frames, things blindly combine with other things to make new things. The tendency of natural things is to gravitate out of chaos and towards form and equilibrium. But, due to the cosmic law of entropy, all material forms and cosmic equilibriums are temporary and subject to decay and reformation into fresh new things. In nature each creation is a temporary node in an always unfolding metamorphic chain. Thus atoms become elements, elements become stars and stars become galaxies. Tree-rats become monkeys become hominids become homo sapiens become....
Creatures, themselves new things unwittingly created by nature out of combinations of other things, create many new things out of other, pre-existing things. All of these creature-created things - consider nests, webs, burrows, anthills, hives - are purposeful and answer a direct question with regard to survival and reproduction. Some of them, from the human perspective are also beautiful and aesthetically pleasing: consider birdsong and the symphonic effect of a dawn chorus in woodland.
But this is not creativity or work in the human sense, but blind instinct at play, however impressive it is. Animals do not know what they are doing, cannot describe or analyse what they are doing, cannot imagine in advance what they are about to do, cannot in real time alter their plans or intentions to meet new needs or changing circumstances. For sure, the designs of nests, or the hunting behaviours of hyenas, change through time and metamorphosing environments, but this is a result of chance forces operating over hundreds of thousands of generations. Creativity on the other hand, introduced to the universe by the hominid genus of which Homo Sapiens is the latest and sole surviving iteration, is not blind but visionary - working towards a goal imagined in advance. It is not accidental but intentional.
Marx puts it succinctly:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. - Capital, Vol. I, Chap. 7, Pt. 1
Somewhere between the higher primates and the early hominids consciousness - another word for imagination, or, indeed, for language - emerges and is added to creation. Thus is creativity created and invention invented, out of which spills everything from epic poetry to poison gas, from Beethoven’s symphonies to the Big Brother household. But hundreds of thousands of years elapse in the era of creative Homo before the need arises for any of these civilised creations.
For the vast majority of the human story, our creativity has been employed to serve fundamental natural needs that are distinct in degree, but not in kind, to those of other mammals. The key difference between us and other higher animals lies in our sophisticated generation of tools. The transformation of natural objects into tools with which nature is purposefully and intentionally shaped to suit our needs is the great leap forward from nature into culture, initiated by higher primates, and refined by a metamorphic hominid succession including Erectus, Australopithecus and Neanderthal, and lately accelerated into the space age by Homo Sapiens.
Humans are no different to animals in that our primary purpose is to cheat death in the short term as individuals and in the long term as a species, to survive against each and every obstacle and threat. To succeed in this never-ending challenge, certain fundamental needs have to be constantly provided for. Food and shelter are fundamental needs without which we die. Our food sources and our shelters need to be protected from environmental threats, therefore protection is another fundamental human need. None of these needs can be met by individuals alone - only cohesive groups working together can feed, shelter, and protect both individual and group. Therefore group cohesion is also a fundamental need.
Language is the principal means by which group cohesion is achieved by humans. It tells us who we are and what we must do. It is the tool par excellence, the mother tool without which no other sophisticated tool could exist. The development of language by (at least) Neanderthals and Sapiens allowed for de-grees of collective labour and knowledge transfer previously unimaginable, enabling humans to accelerate development at an exponential speed. With the acquisition of language, humanity emerges from its pre-linguistic infancy into something like its childhood. Now all the members of a community, and all its succeeding generations can be taught the elements of hunting, cooking, shelter-building and group preservation.
This supreme tool of language allows us not only to repeat a-quired knowledge formulae, but also to build upon the already-acquired knowledge of the past by adding new layers of adaptability and innovation. Tools and techniques can be improved and new tools and techniques invented in real time for the first time. Thus, fuelled by the infinite adaptability of the word, the evolutionary processes of nature enter hyperdrive - within a geological instant the earth is cleared of forest and covered in cities and roads. Language speaks us, as the philosopher Heidegger puts it. Our societies and everything in them are created by language, our greatest creation, which creates us.
As Ernst Fischer puts it:
It was not only a question of prehistoric man believing that words were a powerful tool - they actually did increase his control over reality. Language not only made it possible to coordinate human activity in an intelligent way and to describe and transmit experience and, therefore, to improve working efficiency, it also made it possible to single out objects attaching particular words to them, thus snatching them out of the protective anonymity of nature and bringing them under man’s (sic) control. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959
Individual human beings graduate from nature to culture, from animal being to human being, through primal acts of creativity enabled by language. Each infant that (finally and after an im-mense struggle) manages to combine meaningless noises into a word, and soon after a sentence, directed at the attention and for the instruction of another human being, is demonstrating incredible genius unknown on earth for its first five billion years. The first and best poem is was and always will be Ma-Ma!
The forms of work we know as the arts emerge from nature too, and, as in all other spheres, humans repurpose the natural inheritance to suit a fundamental need of their own. In the case of the arts, this fundamental need the arts satisfy in these prehistoric times is group cohesion, both in real time (synchronically) and down through the generations (diachronically). The ritually inter-related and overlapping arts of music, song, chant, dance and poetry base their varying and modifiable rhythms and melodies on those of the human body and of the surrounding elements - the footstep, the heartbeat, the breath, the beating or crashing of the sea against the shoreline, birdsong, wind noises, mammalian mating cries, and so on.
Chants, songs and dances synchronise group activities and annihilate the alienation of the individual from the group, increasing stamina and raising morale for the urgent tasks of gathering, hunting, food preparation, shelter building, and simple manufacture of tools, weapons, clothing - keeping spirits up and minds off the pain of, for example, long treks or climbs.
A collective working process requires a coordinating working rhythm. This working rhythm is supported by a more. or less articulate unison chant...The first word-signs for working processes - chanted sounds providing a uniform rhythm for the collective - were probably, at the same time, command signals intended to arouse the collective to action (in the same way as a warning cry produces an immediate passive reaction, e.g. the flight of the herd). Thus there was power stored up in every linguistic means of expression - power over both man and nature. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959
Songs and chants retain this original group cohesion purpose into the modern era, most obviously in hard manual work and military settings - think of the worksongs of African-American Slaves, such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Think of the marching songs common to all infantries. The primeval structure of the participatory, unifying chant - call and response - is also fossilised in the verse chorus structure of most songs, in religious ceremonies such as the Catholic mass, in some participatory live poetry cultures in the Middle East, and so on.
Scottish Island women ‘Walking The Tweed’ while singing an old worksong.
The story has a different original purpose, which is present in the role stories play in the lives of infant humans today. Those of us who are lucky enough to have been born into a situation of love and care will universally have been told our first story by a guardian who is trying to calm us down at bedtime, to assuage our abandonment anxiety, to put us to sleep. This will be the case whether we are born in Tokyo or Tipperary, Timbuktu or Toronto.
The story, in other words, is a natural tranquilliser - Valium in a wordy form. For this original purpose, its content is far less important than its form - the pre-linguistic infant has no idea what any of the story means, it’s simply that the presence of familiar, uninterrupted voice-in-flow is calming and reassuring. Nonsense rhymes exist because sense is not a requirement for the job they are doing.
In a hostile natural environment, as darkness fell and the presence of potential predators in the surrounding landscape is felt more keenly and more terrifyingly with every passing instant, the enunciation of a story by a leading tribe member calms and reassures, allowing children and others to relax into a night’s shut-eye knowing someone is awake and keeping guard:
And then that sweet, heart-piercing melody He drew out from the rigid-seeming lyre, And made the circle round the winter fire More like to heaven than gardens of the May. So many a heavy thought he chased away
- William Morris, The Earthly Paradise, 1881)
All of the arts share this distractive and soothing function in common. Participation in them - and everyone in the primal group participated - requires all our individual attention, or, to put it scientifically, uses up all our neurological capacity. When we are immersed in singing, dancing, music-making and so on, our individual worries recede and we feel connected to and part of something greater than ourselves.
Primal societies viewed this something greater as divine or ancestral in nature, and accessed it through total collective immersion in ritual practices. The closest a contemporary human can come to such totally immersive collective rituals, which likely varied in scale from band-size - a couple of dozen - to far larger events at intertribal gatherings, is the way we might feel while dancing intoxicatedly at a rave, especially an ‘illegal’ outdoor one, our minds emptied of anything but the overwhelming music and our bodies locked into the collective rhythm provided by the bass. But anytime we escape into a film or a book we get an echo of the ancient immersion. Our minds are primed by evolution to take the escape routes offered to us by artistic experience, which all ultimately derives from these Palaeolithic rituals within which artistic practices originally evolved and were put to work for the collective good.
Many artists refer to the totally immersive and mentally/spiritually rewarding nature of creativity in one way or another. Composer Galen Mac Cába writes in the Irish Times that “composition is addictive. When a composer earns that feeling once, he or she wants to repeat it.”
How often do we hear rock bands talk of ‘the chemistry’ between them? The more we do art - once we find an art that suits us, be it make-up artistry, origami, poetry, or whatever - the more we want to do it. Again, this is because our creativity is an embodied adaptive ability which develops in humans in response to basic, pressing survival needs of small nomadic groups. It is a development on the higher level of human consciousness of adaptive capacities present in the animal order.
‘Early’ or as I prefer to say ‘classic’ humans lived at more or less constant threat of annihilation. They had to rely completely on their own resources, their own ability to adapt and overcome. Their greatest resource was their own creativity i.e the ability to quickly generate ideas that can help overcome environmental challenges and lead to group survival.
Creativity and health
Creativity gives us an evolutionary advantage, and therefore becomes a species trait hardwired into our DNA. Over time, due to natural selection, the pleasure circuit associated with creativity becomes an internal chemical reward system. The brain encour-ages us to be creative by combining a boost to our arousal levels and our goal-oriented concentration with a reduction in inhibition. When we are being creative and enjoying it we feel happy, engaged, relaxed, immersed. When we finish a creative project to the best of our ability, we feel a a sense of pride and achievement. Because of its origins in evolutionary struggle and overcoming we receive a positive and productive high from engaging in creativity. This is the origin of what is referred to in the psychology of creativity by theorists such as the Bolshevik Vygotsky as the flow state:
the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. in essence, flow is character-ized by complete absorption in what one does.
While we are involved in the flow of creativity we forget our troubles. This is because being creative, a marshalling of all our internal forces for the purposes of group cohesion and or immediate survival needs, takes so much focus that it prevents us from thinking about or acting upon anything but the creative task before us. Then we get an organic chemical reward when our creative efforts are judged a success - echoing the ancient feelings of relief when our creative efforts enabled us to ward off an animal attack or erect a shelter that protected us from dangerous weather or produce a tool which enabled quicker skinning of animal carcases.
All of this explains why creativity is such a powerful healing tool, being the evolved capacity that kept and keeps us alive as it enables us to pro-actively shape our environment with our survival and satisfaction in mind. The individual mental health benefits to creativity are obvious, and are the reason why arts-in-health is such an important and expanding part of contemporary arts practice, one that every socialist should support.
Primal groups needed to respond quickly to all manner of situations, and they needed healthy, upbeat, connected and communally minded individuals - otherwise group cohesion broke down and, well, everyone died. That is why we have creativity and why the arts have therefore played and will continue to play an irreplaceable role in the communal health and prospects for survival of any human group struggling to survive in a hostile world - the vast majority of us.
Creativity, cohesion and solidarity
We have dealt with the synchronising role the arts played in group cohesion during the Palaeolithic period. But what about the role played by the arts in maintaining group cohesion across time, down through the generations? This, if anything, is even more vital, even more obvious. For knowledge to travel efficiently through long distances of time, humanity invented the time machine of poetry.
When the racist imperialist John Milton wrote in the introduction to his great blank verse poemParadise Lost that ‘rhyme is the relic of a barbarous age’ he was inadvertently alerting us to the effect that formal elements of art are determined by the needs, structures, and capacities of the era in which they emerge.
In Milton’s day, now that the printing press had been invented and the age of mechanical reproduction had begun, poetry could potentially dispense with any formal elements whose primary purpose was the aiding of human memory for real recall - thus Milton dispenses with end-rhyme and makes such a fuss about it.
Yet poetry remains fundamentally and originally the art of collective remembrance through oral recall. Most of the formal apparatus with which we still generally associate poetry even half a millennium post-printing press - rhyme, alliteration, assonance, regularity of metre and verse structure, choric and trope repetition and much much more - are techniques invented by ‘illiterate’ and ‘barbaric’ peoples thousands of generations ago which modern poets have in no way managed to supersede.
Before the internet, before the phonograph, before the book, before papyrus and vellum, long before even ogham and runes, the oral artform of poetry, imprinted upon nature’s greatest recording device, the human brain, was the ark and fount of all useful knowledge - the original knowledge store or ‘cloud’.
Oral traditions and lyric poetry
In terms of efficiency and suitability to the task at hand - remembering what’s important to survive - oral poetry/song surpasses books or the internet. The oral traditions of the San People of South Africa and of Indigenous Australians, for example, have been proven to accurately recall events from up to 25000 years ago. Throughout such cosmic lengths of time, the members of such hunter-gatherer communities could rely on poetic recall for every manner of information, but especially for practical information such as how and where to find food and water in a desert, or even how to navigate at night:
“The sounds of the environment can be conveyed very easily in song. As any birdwatcher will know, trying to identify bird so, from a writ-ten description in a field guide is close to impossible. By encoding the call of birds in song, a particular bird can be identified. Accurate iden-tification of the birdsong can often mean the difference between life and death The aquatic diving bird, known as loons or divers, have a pierc-ing call which is used to detect land when a sailor is lost at sea by the Tlingit and Inuit, as no doubt it will have been by other cultures across its wide northern range. The red throated loon (Goviastellata), for ex-ample. is a fairly non-descript bird, espe-cially without its red breeding plumage, but its call is distinctive and this warrants its significant role in oral tradition. Being lost at sea at nightfall in the cold northern cli-mate, in weather conditions which block visibility to land-marks or stars, can be fatal. Loons, unlike many other aquatic birds, reliably re-turn to land each night. Survival can depend on being able to identify the call of the loon among all the bird calls at sea, in order to follow that call to land. Songs encode the call, and are the best way to constantly reinforce the sound into memory. “ - Kelly, L. (2015). Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
The poetry that we are in general used to encountering today is called lyric poetry, and is usually to do with expressing individual feelings, opinions, and experiences, with only a tangential re-ation to collective purpose or identity. The oft-remarked tendency towards obscure, self-referential, exclusive language in much contemporary poetry is a symptom of this fatal break with collective relevance and purpose - an analogue in the cultural realm to the ‘metabolic rift’ with which the birth of class society and settled urbanity broke the human race away from a direct and organic link to the natural world. Referring to the encoded eli-ism of much of contemporary poetry, Adrian Mitchell quipped ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most peo-ple’.
The poets of earlier ages could not afford to be misunderstood or only understood by code-talking academic networks. On the contrary, they had to recite in a language and with a method that everyone could understand. So at the dawn of historical record during the bronze age, what we find emerging from prehistory are often very long poems, containing everything from thousand-generation genealogies to entire mythological cycles to encyclopaedias of natural medicine. Poets were capable of extreme acts of recall, right up until the early modern era.
It is thought, for example, that the Iliad took three days to perform in its entirety, and many societies have similar lengthy epic poems that are central to their culture and which were widely performed at everything from royal courts to cattle fairs. Epic performers probably adapted their performances to suit the tastes and needs of different audiences, so that epics could be entertainments for the people as much as flattery for the noble warriors and lords who populate them.
The poet-ritualist in prehistoric societies was therefore a very important figure upon whom the memory, identity, and spiritual well-being of the group depended. They were composite figures who were also healers and shamans, looking after the mind, body, and soul of the small group of which they were an integral part and apart from which they had no separate motives or interests.
Poetry, song, music, performance, self-decoration: all of these early arts combine into ritual and magic ceremonies in which the identity of the tribe is performed and remembered, and spells are cast to protect the tribe from predators, increase hunting success, guarantee food supply. The rudiments of science, religion, and political ideology, before these split into different modes of knowing and doing, can all be deduced from early artistic practices.
In these societies preceding class and commodity production, in which all the fundaments of human being and artistic form and function evolved in tandem with each other, arts and the artist were part of a seamless flow of communal living. This was all smashed to smithereens by the asteroidal impact of the rise of class-based societies.
In the next article in this series we will discuss the appropriation of age-old commonly held artistic techniques by the new elites and the repurposing of the arts as instruments of class rule back at the dawn of ‘civilisation’ in Sumeria, Egypt and elsewhere. In part three, we will look at how this appropriation was resisted and questioned from the very beginning, and tell the story of Thersites, literature’s first communist.
This is the third of Tony McKenna’s collections of essays in which he aspires to demonstrate that a Marxist framework is the best way of comprehending the cultural and political challenges being generated in the era of late capitalism. Like his previous two similar volumes, Toward Forever is a dazzling display of erudition and insight that never fails to offer stimulating lines of thought on a remarkable breadth of topics.
McKenna has also usefully revisited more traditional subjects that have received attention from other Marxist commentators such as the Greek myths, the novels of Balzac and Hugo, and the art of Rembrandt and Blake. In addition, McKenna has supplied valuable analyses of some of the key political personalities that have shaped 21st century politics so far such as Chavez, Corbyn and Trump.
The most striking quality of McKenna’s overall approach is the ability to contextualise this remarkable variety of subjects within the prevailing relations of production of a particular era without undermining the crucial role of human agency.
He should also be commended for a willingness ‘to boldly go’ into areas of concern that more hidebound analysts on the left might regard as unworthy of attention. Whatever we might subjectively think about the comedy of Ricky Gervais or film versions of Batman, they are hugely popular cultural artefacts that evidently tap into some element of the zeitgeist that a coherent Marxist world-view should feel obligated to explain. McKenna’s mentality is an appropriate adaptation of Gramsci’s famous exhortation that the left should consider ‘everything that concerns people’ if it wishes to retain relevance in the crowded digital marketplace of theoretical paradigms that compete for our attention.
Toward Forever replicates the tried and tested formula that McKenna utilised in his first two collections. He covers a stunning diversity of topics including The Sopranos, The Wizard of Oz, the art of Goya and the epidemic of suicides in contemporary Japan! There is also a sympathetic and moving account of the rise and fall of the Syrian Revolution that, for a time, looked like it might able uproot the callous brutality of the Assad regime before being overwhelmed by the intervention of regional and global players with their own opportunistic agendas.
A historical materialist approach to culture
The breadth of McKenna’s range in no way affects the depth of his analyses of these subjects; in fact, the cumulative effect is to powerfully show that a non-reductionist version of Marxism is unrivalled in terms of explanatory power by any other theoretical framework. In a piece on contemporary art in this volume, he touches on this unique capacity of historical materialism, in the right hands, to illuminate the scope of human activities:
The truth which resonates in this type of art is the same truth which lives in the pages of Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The difference is that the truth of art in an emotive and intuitive manner; a semi-conscious and fantastical way which reduces the forms of social reality to the interplay of imaginary characters in a novel or colours on a canvas. (179)
McKenna’s conception of the role of culture within historical materialism is a compelling reformulation of Kantian aesthetic theory. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment theorised the power of art as its ability to take us tantalisingly close to the noumenal realm, or those aspects of the universe such as God or the infinite which we can sense but never truly access.
In McKenna’s more grounded version, cultural products of the highest calibre help us tune into the subterranean dynamics of the historical process which are often clouded by our quotidian concerns but which can be discerned with a wider perspective. In his characteristically elegant words:
Art is the expression of the truth of the political consciousness which has not, yet, descended from heaven to earth; it contains the truth of the social world but only through the distorting prism of its fantasy. (180)
The other refreshing quality of McKenna’s output is a writing style that is a sheer pleasure to read even if the subject is not necessarily what a reader may be interested in. He unpacks ideas with a crystalline clarity and fluency that puts to shame other Marxist cultural commentators who appear to think cluttering up their text with academic jargon is an indicator of merit. McKenna is one of the best writers on the British left today as he makes the effort to understand why certain cultural products are popular and then communicates his analysis in a way that any reasonably educated person could comprehend.
The need to make sense of history and the hope of changing it
Dan Brown’s best-selling 2004 novel The Da Vinci Code may seem like an unlikely choice for such an exploration of the utopian undercurrents in contemporary capitalist culture. However McKenna’s analysis of the book here is the perfect illustration of his ability to analyse examples of popular culture in a way that sheds light on the historical process and explains why a book about Christianity could have such a huge impact in our long-established secular society.
Of course, most Marxist aestheticians would probably dismiss the novel as throwaway trash to be picked up in airport terminal to kill a few hours on holiday and nothing more. McKenna is not blind to Brown’s notorious literary limitations and he effortlessly skewers the wafer-thin characterisations and plodding style of the prose. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code sold millions, has been translated into forty languages and spawned a booming sub-genre of semiotic mysteries set in a shadowy world of cryptology, religious cults and charismatic historical personalities.
So why would a poorly written potboiler with two-dimensional characters about the early history of Christianity become a smash hit in the first decade of the 21st century? McKenna’s persuasive answer is that the book provides putative answers in a world that appears to be spiralling out of control, run by politicians who are pitifully short of solutions to its multiple problems. Those answers in DVC may be untenable and little short of ridiculous to many, but at least they provide a narratalogical coherence to thousand years of history.
The notion that the Catholic Church and the Priory of Zion have been fighting out an ideological contest for hegemony within Christianity is based on the flimsiest of historical evidence, but for millions of readers it allows for the apparent carnage and chaos of world history to be reconfigured and made comprehensible.
The postmodern aversion to grand narratives that has permeated our discourse since the 1980s has created a vacuum in the heart of Western culture that leaves many people longing for an over-arching understanding of a world that appears to be accelerating towards the precipice. The Vatican might not be everyone’s choice for the guiding brain of two millennia of history but it is easy to see why any form of purposeful intelligence could be more comforting than the uncontrolled playing out of blind historical forces. The Da Vinci Code cleverly manipulates not just this elemental need to make sense of the past but also our hope that human beings in the present have the ability to alter the trajectory of events.
At the climax of the story, the character of Sophie Nevue comes to a realisation that her estrangement from her grandfather is linked to a conflict which has been taking place on an ideological plane for centuries. McKenna argues this conjoining of the micro and macro levels of analyses is profoundly affecting and chimes with a longing for an understanding of our place in history that all human beings feel. The fact that this device occurs in an apparently disposable piece of pulp fiction only adds to the book’s underrated achievement.
McKenna sums up the appeal of DVC:
It contains within its aesthetic a profound truth about the reality of history and ourselves as historical beings-immersed in its flux, shaped by its rhythms and yet often unaware of its elemental pulse and presence in the backdrop of our lives, until suddenly the stability of the present seems to fissure and crack.ashistory erupts once more, and new epochs, new adventures and new freedoms are born. (136)
This linking of the personal and the political is what McKenna finds to be decisively absent from the critically acclaimed and multi-Oscar winning 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh, the movie centres around a quest for justice by bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, played with searing power by Frances McDormand.
After her daughter is raped and murdered, Hayes launches an uncompromising attack on the defective local police department which has conspicuously failed to make progress in the identification of the culprit. This brings her into conflict with the cancer-ridden Chief of Police Willoughby, portrayed movingly by Woody Harrelson.
McKenna insightfully contends that although the premise and the collision of wills between the two protagonists are intringuiling poised, the film’s potential cinematic greatness is squandered as Willoughby’s unexpected demise before the halfway point robs the storyline of a level of complexity that it might have attained if their relationship had played out fully. The police chief takes his own life, unwilling to endure the crumbling of his physical and mental powers as the cancer spreads within his body.
Inevitably, Willoughby is posthumously sanctified in the story and the opportunity is lost for his character to confront the misogyny and racism of the institution he has represented for decades. McKenna uses this misstep on the part of McDonagh to argue an essentially dialectical process of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict is the root of great stories in any medium:
This film throws light on the most fundamental task for any writer; that is, to unspool the thread of necessity which runs through both character and plot. Aesthetic skill lies in the ability to create characters which are grounded in fundamental social-historical contradictions and whose lives attain a richness such that, after a while, it feels as though you-the writer-are simply a passive observer, merely recording the details of those lives as they unfold out in front of you in the form of an independent existence. (190)
Arguably the greatest stories ever produced by the human race are the cycle of mythological adventures based around the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Our appetite for re-enactments and updates of the dramatic lives of characters such as Oedipus, Achilles, Jason and Helen of Troy is seemingly never-ending and has produced some creative iterations in the 21st century already.
In an essay on the novels of Madeline Miller, McKenna perceptively notes how fourth wave feminism, expressed in the global MeToo movement, provides the essential ideological context for the success of recent fictional recreations of female Greek protagonists such as Penelope and Briseis, by authors such as Emily Wilson and Pat Barker.
Miller has added to this distinguished sub-genre with two books, Song ofAchilles and Circe. In the latter, published in 2018, she takes a relatively marginal character from Homer’s Odyssey and re-imagines Circe’s backstory and life after her encounter with the famed king of Ithaca, Odysseus. The key to Miller’s evident resonance with millions of readers, McKenna argues, is a nuanced exploration of the dialectical conflicts that occur within the psyche of every human being. In Circe’s case, she is psychologically torn between the world of the immortals that she is raised in, and the world of mortals such as Odysseus that she encounters as she grows up. In McKenna’s words:
Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor-an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. (148)
Such an opposition is no longer central in our era but an alternative clash between the prevailing patriarchal capitalism and the liberated sexuality of an embryonic postcapitalist society is evident on a regular basis in the news headlines. As an American author, Miller has spoken explicitly of how she was traumatised by the elevation to the White House of a crassly racist and sexist President in 2016; but also how she has been inspired by the political resistance that Trump has provoked in the forms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other figures of a rejuvenated US left.
McKenna justifiably explains that these expressions of anti-capitalist insurgency are the context to the powerful impact of Miller’s evocative renditions of archaic Greece:
Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient, epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements which were also shaped by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. (159)
In his closing chapter on the art of Goya, the author optimistically describes a detail from a painting from the 1820s called The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, the Spaniard’s last masterpiece:
…in the far-right corner there is a retreating patch of shadowy cloud, but directly outlining the young woman’s head – creating a halo-like effect – is a burgeoning blue fissured with delicate white light. It feels as though a night-time storm has come and gone and now, breaking through, comes the silvery, morning light of a brand new day. (236)
As the world continues to groan under the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that McKenna’s thesis that great cultural products presage the coming of a more enlightened social order turns out to be valid. Even without viral threats, climate change and global immiseration mean that the mass of humanity is becoming increasingly desperate to see that silvery, morning light breaking through.
Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore
History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?
However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.
For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.
As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.
Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.
Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'
We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.
Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.
It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.
Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:
So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening under wings, the noise of discord clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea, its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.
In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it. As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.
Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.