In my beginning is my end - transcript of my prose poem and film performed at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast

I was really privileged to be invited to take part in What Next for the Arts? - an afternoon symposium which was part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - on 12th May 2018.  As I like to do whenever I get the chance nowadays, I performed the piece with accompanying film and audio. This is the transcript...  A test recording of the film will be uploaded soon...

OINK, Street Art, Belfast, May 2018 (Photo by Stephen Pritchard.)

 

 

Drowning by Numbers.

 

In my beginning is my end.

In my end is my beginning.

…..

In our beginning is our end.

In our end is our beginning.

 

 

The first two lines are quotes from T.S. Eliot’s East Coker (1940) – one of The Four Quartets (1942).

 

The second two are my appropriation.  First person singular becomes first person plural.

Something to think about, perhaps?

 

Is it possible to think about the present without thinking about the past and the future?

For Eliot in Burnt Norton (1935):

 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

 

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

 

Is it possible to think about contemporary challenges to the arts and our cultures without thinking about how and why austerity was imposed, about its ideological implications, about its history and its possible impacts on all our futures?  The same goes for the development of an almost monolithic resource management culture which fetishises efficacy and efficiency in the name of organisations, of institutions.

Outcomes-based management systems created the hyperinstrumentalisation of virtually every element of our lives and in almost every part of the globe.  From the NHS to arts and culture, instrumentalisation turns our National Health Service into a partially-privatised, underfunded mechanism for wellness and wellbeing rather than compassionate care; and cultural policy becomes non-cultural policy in an austerity-driven race to hell on the back of a technocratic handcart.  “Cultural policy” becomes “a means to a non-cultural end” (Hadley and Gray, 2017).  Likewise, UK national health policy today acts as a means to an increasingly unhealthy end – unless you’re wealthy, of course.

The instrumentalisation of our arts and culture reduces our culture to money – to economic outcomes, cost benefit analyses, jobs created by the “creative industries” (Adorno turns in his grave), etc.; and to numbers – people and places are counted and analysed, their individuality, their cultural differences, their collective identities, their very humanity turned into dots and lines on graphs and pins and coloured segments on maps.

This is culture-by-numbers.  A dot-to-dot culture.  A culture of imposed uniformity, categorisation, stereotyping and exclusion.  A new system that meets the insatiable demands of neoliberalism based upon an old system of elitism, power, wealth, property, manipulation, and control.

Instrumentalism reproduces and reinforces our subjugation, our suppression, our exploitation, our oppression.  When our arts and our cultures are instrumentalised (both directly and indirectly) by governments and government agencies (central and local alike), corporations, NGOs, and other third sector organisations alike, as they clearly are today, they become vehicles for “outcomes” which are inherently political and economic in nature.

These political and economic outcomes serve the ideology of neoliberalism, reproducing and reinforcing the “glocal” – the global and the local as a singular and extremely dominant cultural paradigm.  Globalism and localism are but two halves of the same poison chalice.

National pride, civic duty and voluntarism become inflected by this state-imposed neoliberal ideology of cuts, cuts, cuts.  Cuts to essential public services, cuts to arts and cultural funding – a plague of cuts on us.  Tax cuts and tax-avoidance for them – the elite and their parasitic servants.

Of course, we have always been oppressed; never free.  Our past haunts us.  Memories of past freedoms and past constraints; past pleasures and past horrors.  It is here in our presents and in our pasts, that we find our hopes and fears for the futures – for our futures, our children’s futures, our children’s children’s futures, and so on.

But we must remember how hard we had to fight for the meagre freedoms we have today, and we must fight to not only retain but to expand our freedoms and our democratic rights.  Because we have been, continue to be and will increasingly be oppressed by our rulers and their authoritarian systems.  Their mantra that There Is No Alternative is a lie – an oppressive, undemocratic lie.

Their neoliberal ideology oppresses us in terms of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, age, physical ability, perceived intelligence, on and on.  It may have always been so but that does not mean it must continue to be so.

And arts and culture (via cultural policy and corporate policies) has become an integral part of the post-industrial oppression we face today.  The creative industries rebranding of arts and culture has led to the corporate takeover of the arts.  Of course, governmental policy enables this.  Elizabeth Murdoch joining Arts Council England’s national council is just one example in an ever-expanding list.  The arts and our everyday cultures are instrumentalised, commodified, digitised, analysed, normalised, sanitised and depoliticised by state and corporations alike.

Arts and culture become instrumentalised as a powerful form of soft power which is used as a weapon for neo-colonialism – particularly the sinister emergence of pre-post-Brexit neo-colonialism.  And arts and culture are used to colonise the hearts and minds of UK citizens.  From the middle-classes to working-classes, from hipsters to people facing dispossession of their homes and displacement from their communities, arts and culture is employed via “inclusion”, “empowerment” and “participation” agendas, as well as the good old employment of art as a spectacle, to exclude and disempower people.  Cultural policy reinforces state-induced norms – white, middle-class, male, straight, physically able, norms.  Cultural policy depoliticises our cultures in the name of “entertainment” and “fun” (as if only state-sanctioned arts and culture can be life-affirming) and, most insidiously, in the name of “giving people a voice” – people have voices, it’s just that they, the state, the establishment, the corporations, do not listen.

Yet art is also used more pointedly, as a tool for what has become known as artwashing.  Artwashing uses art to smooth and gloss over capitalism.  Artwashing hides truths with false imagery and misleading or partial narratives.  Artwashing can function as advertisement, “social licence”, public relations tool, and a means of pacifying local communities.  Artwashing cleanses grimy, exploitative property relations and power.  From new art galleries to pop-up art projects, from participatory art “story harvesting” to glorifying gentrification on development site hoardings, from BP at Tate to BAE at the Great Exhibition of the North, from “meanwhile space” artists’ studios to hipster street art, artwashing is a growing phenomenon.  It epitomises how art is instrumentalised in a neoliberal state like the UK.  And artwashing is state-sanctioned and often state-funded.  It’s a lucrative and legitimate business – for some people.  Mirroring neoliberalism, artwashing is a complex deception. It does not only intend to deceive, it also makes untruthful assertions.  Artwashing is nothing short of a breach of trust.

We must however trust in our individual and collective selves.  We must remember our struggles.  We must remember that official arts and culture and, for that matter, the creative industries, reflects only one rather small part of our arts and culture.  We do not live in a cultural democracy.  The cuts to state-sanctioned arts and cultural production makes this assertion starker as each day passes.

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful.  But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously.  We must look back to our roots.  To the separation of arts and culture from our everyday lives.  To the Enlightenment.  To the Enclosures Act.  To the formation of our arts councils.  And we must be wary of those who seek to enforce “greatness” and “excellence” upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior.  We must remember that our creativity and our cultures transcend instrumentalism; that no cultural policy has yet fully respected our rights and our cultures.  We are to them like dandelions.  We are weeds.  Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age.  We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

 

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

…..

In my beginning is my end.

In my end is my beginning.

…..

In our beginning is our end.

In our end is our beginning.

 

Thank you.