Martin Gollan paints but also works with print and video. He recently has been working with local charities and their beneficiaries to dynamically illustrate the impacts of austerity and welfare reform.
Martin Gollan introduces a virtual May Day parade, produced by Newcastle Trades Union Council, and downloadable at the end of this article. The image above is Magical Nurse by Katie Marshall
What is the purpose of creativity and culture in a market-driven economy which is ruthlessly dedicated to the pursuit of private profit, the defence of property rights and largely blind to injustice and inequality – including inequality of cultural provision?
Is it that offered by Arts Council England, in its 'Next Ten Years' strategy consultation document: to uplift and entertain, to ‘help us make sense of the world and of ourselves’ and to ‘encourage us to empathise and bind us more closely together’?
Or should it be, as EP Thompson wrote (responding to Raymond Williams’ definition of culture as a ‘whole way of life’), a ‘whole way of struggle’? Surveying the damage inflicted by ten years of Tory austerity to individuals and communities across the North East of England, it seems fairly clear that Williams and Thompson offer the more urgent and relevant objective.
Such a call to the barricades may excite and bring together activists, trade unionists, artists, musicians and poets. But in working-class communities exhausted by austerity, inequality and lack of opportunity, there is likely to be other more immediate priorities to attend to. How then to purposefully engage communities and the arts?
Newcastle Trades Council’s May Day 2020 booklet was originally conceived as part of a wider project to bring together some working-class communities in Newcastle and Gateshead with artists, musicians, poets and trade unionists, working under the theme of ‘The Commons’.
The Commons sets out a different approach to how we can organise our economic, social and political relations. How, for example, we can make better, more sustainable use of not only natural resources, but also the systems we have created. In particluar, the vast digital networks that we have quickly come to rely on for work and maintaining social ties – especially at this moment when our only effective response to the coronavirus is lockdown and social distancing.
The Commons provides us with a framework within which to confront the inequalities and injustices, the exploitation and oppression of a capitalist, market-driven economy, along with the established networks and institutions – including cultural institutions – that protect and sustain the profits, property and power of the wealthy and connected.
By adopting the Commons as a framework, May Day 2020 sets out to develop a set of definitions that may help us to make sense of the world and ourselves, that may encourage empathy but also, as Owen Kelly says, which ‘critically use and develop traditional art forms, adapting them to present day needs and developing new forms… to effect social change and affect social policies’.
We are only at the beginning. The public health emergency caused by the coronavirus and the resulting lockdown meant the May Day celebrations of labour had to be cancelled. An irony of the current situation is that many of those whose work has been overlooked and dismissed as low-skilled and therefore only deserving of low pay, who have worked largely and precariously in the shadows – nurses, care workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff etc. – are now ‘key workers’ and applauded for what they do. Yet because of the crisis we cannot properly and publicly celebrate these workers, and the values of solidarity, collective effort and the dignity of labour that they represent.
So this booklet, produced by Newcastle Trades Council, is our virtual parade, celebrating workers locally, nationally and internationally. It replaces some of the activities originally planned for this year, and begins to set out an approach and a whole way of struggling and working – and points us hopefully and confidently towards May Day 2021.
The Labour Party has vowed to spend £1bn on opening 1,000 new early years centres in England, saying they would get parents back to work and help children achieve.
The Lib Dems are promising working families subsidised care for children from the age of nine months.
The Conservatives say they are already "investing record amounts in high-quality childcare".
Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom has admitted the fracking suspension imposed by the government is a “disappointment”, as the Conservatives face escalating pressure to introduce a permanent ban. Her remarks came as environmental campaigners hailed the announcement of a moratorium on fracking in England, declaring it a victory for communities and the climate.
She said it was clear the government “must impose this moratorium until the science changes”, but added shale gas is something the UK “will need for the next several decades”. When pressed on why a permanent ban is not being implemented by No 10, she replied: “Because this is a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom”.
However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn yesterday dismissed the move as an election stunt. “I think it’s what’s called euphemistically a bit of greenwash,” he said. “I think it sounds like fracking would come back on the 13th of December, if they [the Conservatives] were elected back into office. “We’re quite clear, we will end fracking. We think it’s unnecessary, we think it’s pollutive of ground water systems, and is actually dangerous and has caused serious earth tremors.”
Reports taken from the Independent and The Guardian.
Martin Gollan argues that what we see when we look at this Hockney painting is a perfect expression of the gross inequalities created by neoliberal capitalism.
What do we see when looking at a painting which some has paid $90,312,500? This was the price paid a few weeks ago, for lot 9C, David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), at Christies auction in New York, of postwar and contemporary art.
An artist might note the composition (based on the chance positioning of two photographs in Hockney’s studio) and colour scheme, capturing the intensity and brightness of California (though the set of photographs eventually used as reference for the painting were taken in the south of France and London).
The critic or art enthusiast might note that Hockney, despite his growing success and lingering association with 60’s Pop, was, in the early 70’s, working against the tide of late modernism, dominated at this point by conceptualism and performance - an attempt by artists to de-commodify the artwork and circumvent the market.
Meanwhile, the collector or investor may recognise an opportunity to state his (its is statistically more likely to be his rather than her) cultural hegemony and to invest in the gravity-defying asset class, Fine Art.
Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist’ has it seems always been considered primarily a financial asset, rather than a painting made at an emotionally turbulent juncture in Hockney’s life, and having intense personal significance for the artist. The standing figure in the painting is Peter Schlesinger, who Hockney met in 1966 and became his partner until their relationship broke down in 1971.
A first version of the painting was finally abandoned after Hockney failed to solve a number of technical problems with the original composition. The second version was completed in just two weeks, in time for a solo exhibition at the Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York in 1972.
Hockney, in his 1976 book Hockney on Hockney, tells how the painting was bought for around $18,000 before the exhibition opened, and was then shipped to a London art dealer before going to Germany where it was re-sold for around $50,000 (the equivalent of $290,000 today). Hockney had apparently warned Emmerich Gallery not to sell to European dealers because they were only interested in quickly re-selling at a profit.
Hockney has long been among the most popular and publicly recognisable of contemporary British painters, despite critics and academics often being sniffy about his work. His most recent (from about the mid-nineties onward) landscapes painted in his native Yorkshire appear to have cemented his place in the affections of the general public (meantime, the critic Adrian Searle, reviewing Hockney’s 2012 Royal Academy exhibition, accused the painter of lacking ‘touch’ and too often fighting ‘slickness or too much style’).
What does it mean now that one of Hockney’s paintings has the most expensive price tag ever paid for a living artist? Probably not much. Five years ago the ‘honour’ belonged to Jeff Koons when his stainless steel sculpture, ‘the Dog of Balloons (Orange)’ sold at Christies for $58.4 million. Before long another artist will replace Hockney as the art market becomes yet further remote from everyday economics.
Speaking about the fate of “Portrait of an Artist” after the Emmerich exhibition, Hockney claimed not be as wealthy as generally supposed; a mistake based on the high prices, even in the 1970s, of his paintings' resale prices. He admitted nonetheless to being not “badly paid”. Fast forward to 2010, when DACS, which campaigns for the royalty rights of artists, reported that the median salary for a visual artist was £10,000. In 2010 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set its minimum income standard for a single person at £14,400, before tax.
What do we see when looking at painting worth $90.3 million? Nothing more than a perfect expression of the gross inequalities created by neoliberal capitalism, and economic policies that cosset and protect the wealth of the rich while making the lives of those on ordinary incomes or benefits “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
For Unite's Day of Action against Universal Credit, 1 December.