This is the transcript and presentation with notes from my talk at Panda (The Performing Arts Network) in Manchester on 28th March 2018. The event was a celebration of the network's 15 years working with artists and communities but it was also tinged with sadness as they announced that they were unable to continue to operate due to the toxic arts funding environment and local council cuts. I spoke of two songs with two very different fields and two very different chains.
The first is the song of neoliberal state-sanctioned power and control; of compliance and conformity; of commerce and economics. This is the siren song of austerity and the systematic destruction of our communities, of our lives. This is the song that has sunk so many hopes and dreams.
The second song is that of childhood, of freedom, of creativity, of disobedience, of hope.
The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song
Hello. I’m Stephen.
John Berger wrote: “The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song”.
There are infinite fields and infinite chains and infinite songs.
Here we’ll look at two very different songs.
The song of neoliberal state-sanctioned power and control; of compliance and conformity; of commerce and economics.
And the songs of possibilities, alternatives, disobedience, cooperation and hope.
For activist artist Jane Trowell, “the corporate occupation of the arts is now a given” (Trowell, 2013, pp. 37-8).
The government considers art in terms of economic outcomes. Artists become “outcome providers”.
“Employment”, “Inward Investment”, “Attracting a skilled workforce”, “Property values”, and “Visitor and residual spending”.
“Increased social capital”, “Change in perception of area”, “Volunteering”, “Residents’ confidence”, “Community cohesion”, “Educational achievement”, “Improved health and wellbeing”, and “Crime reduction”.
“Reuse of redundant buildings”, “Increased sense of public safety”, “Reduced vandalism”, and “Pride in place” (Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2013, p. 88).
The state uses art and artists to deliver its agendas – neoliberal agendas.
There Is No Alternative. There Is No Alternative. There is no alternative to neoliberalism, they say.
We are all producers and consumers nowadays.
We are masters and slaves.
We are told we can do what we want, be who we want, but we cannot. We are forced to comply to subtle norms dressed as democratic choice. We are compelled to obey; to conform to civic norms – their norms. The norms of privileged white, middle-class, Christian, male, heterosexual, able-bodied people. The norms of our oppressors.
This is the soft violence of neoliberalism.
Of course, art has always been a tool for the oppression of others. It is inherently linked to the development of the bourgeoisie. Yet it has been a symbol of power, status, wealth and property at least since civilisation began.
Art is the weapon of choice for soft power. State soft power and corporate soft power.
John Berger wrote:
“Publicity is the life of this culture – in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive – and at the same time publicity is its dream … Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, which it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.”
The arts, from Arts Council England to its corporate “partners” – even third sector institutions, tell us what is and what is not desirable.
And what is desirable, to them, is neoliberalism – neoliberal governance.
They paint by numbers.
Construct monuments to privilege and exclusion.
Make films in which people smile and clap at the scraps handed down to them in the form of crass spectacles.
Participation: a top down order.
“I participate. You participate. He/ She participates. We participate. You participate. They profit.”
So, it is little wonder that art and artists are instrumentalised by the neoliberal state – by our state - to carry out ideological attacks on working-class people and marginalised and devastated communities.
It is a mask for austerity, workfare, localism and the dispossession of homes, social spaces, community facilities, jobs, on and on. Art becomes a veil for the theft of our hard-fought material gains and our strong, proud communities.
It is little wonder that art is used by corporations to sell things to us, convince us that they’re ethical when they’re clearly not, create a veneer of luxury that reminds us that, like art (at least their concept of art), some things just aren’t for us – they’re for them.
In these situations, art becomes artwashing.
We are faced with the appointment of bourgeoise elites like Elisabeth Murdoch – Rupert’s daughter and heiress to his media empire – a “patron” of the arts who claims to want to use art to improve how children are educated, to improve opportunities for women in the arts, to make society better. The Tories have appointed her to Arts Council England's National Council! All the while, she’s raking in profits in shares from News Corp and from a raft of venture capitalist investments including online global betting platforms - from gambling - that use cryptocurrency to avoid local tax regulations.
The corporate takeover of the arts mirrors the corporate takeover of our everyday lives. We must oppose it.
A monopoly… Artwashing exploits working-class people’s hopes and dreams. It ‘harnesses’ them, hope by hope and dream by dream and turns them into saleable, commodified art.
Artwashing exploits by deceit. It exploits people’s trust. Artwashing does not only intend to deceive, it also makes untruthful assertions. It is nothing short of a breach of trust.
A different song…
“Remember what it was like to be sung to sleep. If you are fortunate, the memory will be more recent than childhood. The repeated lines of words and music are like paths. These paths are circular and the rings they make are linked together like those of a chain. You walk along these paths and are led by them in circles which lead from one to the other, further and further away. The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song.” (Berger, 2009 , p. 199)
Creativity is part of what makes us human. Call it art if you like. It is time to liberate our creativity from our oppressors as part of the liberation of our everyday lives from neoliberalism and an authoritarian and deeply elitist monoculture.
Art is, perhaps, a mirror for society – a window into our lives, our selves. As a humanist and a socialist, I truly believe that it is not only time to organise and speak out against the injustices and soft violence of neoliberalism and oppressive Tory ideologies such as austerity, but that art can offer a way of producing acts of resistance, acts of refusal.
We must learn once more to stand up as individuals and self-organised collectives as say NO to power.
We said no to power with our #dropBAE campaign.
The Great Exhibition of the North is a trojan horse for a false Tory “Northern Powerhouse”.
Do they really believe we think they care about us?
We took on the government who plonked BAE Systems’ logo all over the Great Exhibition of the North.
It was artwashing. It was unpalatable to many artists – even many directors of the institutions involved.
And Tory Northern Powerhouse MP – Jake Berry responded to the humiliating government climb-down at the hands of a few artists who stood up to power by calling us ALL “subsidy addicted … snowflakes”!
Make no mistake this was art showing it is ethical; that it cares; that we can achieve great things when we self-organise and stand together.
We now live in a country where the government and many large arts organisations think, or at least thought, it is ok for a weapons manufacturer which sells weapons to Saudi Arabia that kill innocent Yemeni people and to Israel to kill Palestinian people to sponsor art!
We said NO and they backed-down.
And this was, of course, also artistic practice. A work of art. We are Art Not Arms.
You see, when art is instrumentalised and normalised as a tool for technocratic neoliberal governance or corporate exploitation subtly instils obedience, false consent, compliance and conformity upon its participants. This deprives individuals of their freedom to achieve self-realisation and relative autonomy; it kills creativity; it disempowers and alienates us.
We must, instead, reintroduce notions of playing, living creativity, the aesthetic experience as cultural experience, potential space, noncompliance, disobedience, self-realisation, and freedom into our ways of considering how art and creativity are part of everyday life and what that might mean about how we live creatively together.
The arts are essentially humanistic and social. This is the moment to think of the arts as such rather than instrumentalise them in the name of conformity or financial gain or reduce them to numbers and evidence-based functions in the positivist conceits of measurability and accountability.
It is clear that contrary to the neoliberal trope that there is no alternative, there ARE ALTERNATIVES. Our alternatives. We must free ourselves of the neoliberal straightjacket if we are to decolonise our lives and demand social justice.
We must engage with, critique, challenge, resist and replace neoliberalism with a fairer, more just society. This is political. Everything is political. There are alternatives.
For example, Artists' Union England standing up to power by and standing up for artists trying to make ends meet in an increasingly competitive, precarious workplace; and calling for an end to the corporate takeover of the arts, beginning with the removal of Elisabeth Murdoch from her leading role at the Arts Council.
And, of course, the many artists involved in self-organised grassroots actions as part of, not separate to, wider community actions and social justice movements. Some artists and arts students were involved in the grassroots campaign to reject the plans to gentrify and social cleanse the shopping centre at Elephant and Castle - plans by a coalition of tax-avoiding property developer and massive Tory donors, Delancey, world-famous art school Central Saint Martins, and Southwark Council (a (New) Labour council!) This is just one of many examples of positive action for grassroots social justice, for equity, for fair regeneration that benefits everyone, not just posh new incomers, cash-strapped councils and, most of all, tax-avoiding Tories!
Isla99 is a local and global cooperative of artists working to create mutually beneficial, self-organised alternatives that use art to create cultural democracies however they want through values of sharing, learning, understanding and radical economic alternatives to neoliberalism.
Field Community Art is a new community interest company which will – when it’s ready – look to create a UK cooperative of community artists who can work together towards delivering grassroots community art as cultural democracy.
An alliance of artists who can work together in solidarity and mutual respect to begin to challenge our current cultural power dynamic at local, regional and national levels.
For example, why spend millions on vast buildings for art?
Ivory towers for the rich and privileged.
Why not employ community artists full time, with paid holidays and benefits, but without enforced agendas? Imagine how many artists you could employ at, say, £25k a year for £1m a year “investment”: 40. (Thanks to Martin Daws for the inspiration here!)
No need for administration or box-ticking.
This way of working just requires openness and trust.
Is that so radical?
I’m also working on community benefit societies that offer community ownership of shared cultural, social and educational resources for the long-term. No hierarchies. A different way of being and working together.
Finally, the Movement for Cultural Democracy.
A people-powered work-in-progress who are working on a radically redistributive new manifesto for cultural democracy. It has and continues to democratically source visions of alternatives and represents hope for everyone fair real fairness and equity. Perhaps even a beginning of the desperately necessary decolonisation of the arts (and indeed our everyday lives)?
I am a member of the Movement for Cultural Democracy – a growing movement of organisations, groups and individuals seeking cultural democracy in the UK.
We believe that we must struggle over the meaning and future of cultural democracy. Creativity for all, by all.
It’s something we’ve never had.
It’s always been Great Art for them and crass exploitation for us.
Time to change all that!
We will not let the long and radical history of cultural democracy – its unrealised possibilities and radical political position – be appropriated by the state and other non-radical organisations under false banners of “civic duty”, “inclusion” or even “fun”!
You see, we can use art to get our own messages across. Messages of disagreement, dissent, disobedience and of alternatives.
We need to play them at their own game.
We must take back power.
We must use art as our own form of soft power - just like they do - but our messages; messages of resistance, refusal and hopefully radical alternatives.
We must take back the arts!
We must take back our cultures!
We must take back our lives!
The status quo will no longer do.
It’s time to stand up to austerity. It’s time to say NO to power!
Together we are strong.
Together we have hope.
“The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song.”