Archive for October, 2010

Even in dark theatres

October 29, 2010

Bridge reflection – photograph by Liz Mathews

In all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the arts cuts, there has been an oft-repeated word of comfort; ‘the arts will survive’.  This is often prefaced by ‘let’s face it’ or some other exhortation to be sensible.  After all, if the entire state is being dismantled, who are we to complain if our bit goes too?  Then, there’s much talk about ways of managing to create art without any funding, new strategies, the alternative approaches long used by non-establishment artists and so on.

Comment is superfluous on the bland corporate responses of most arts organisations, who evidently fear that outspoken opposition will jeopardise their own positions yet more.  It’s also all too obvious that the cutting of the arts budget doesn’t make any commercial sense, but is politically motivated.  (Lyn Gardner, writing in The Guardian, has been particularly convincing on the financial value of British theatre, and the high returns it gives for relatively low investment.)

A cursory glance at the discussions taking place shows that the divisive strategy of making people believe that they have to choose between arts funding and, say, hospitals or schools, has been very successful; (the idea that we might choose between arts and nuclear missiles, or arts and bankers’ bonuses, seems less prevalent.)  Also frequent is the false implication that ‘the arts’ are some rarified and separate minority interest, with no impact on anyone’s life, unless they go to grand opera twice a week.  But it doesn’t matter.  ‘The arts will survive, right?’

Of course they will.  Even in the supposedly golden age that’s now over, the vast majority of people who worked in the arts did so on a vocational basis – that is, they would have got more money doing something else.  (One of the things that unnerves governments about art is that it so often presents values which are non-capitalist, undermining the unquestioning acceptance of that system, not only in theory but also in the way many artists actually live.)

The arts will survive, not only because artists will carry on doing it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay, but also because our cultural life is too vital a fire to be stamped out quite that quickly.  Yesterday, I went to the Roundhouse in Camden to buy tickets for the RSC’s winter season in London – already virtually sold out.  This is one of the so-called ‘front line’ theatre companies, in other words an arena of real creation that’s also establishment status symbol tourist-magnet, but  – to be cut anyway.

Then I was sent this interesting flyer for a play by Maureen Duffy, also on in Camden in November at Theatro Technis, put on without the vast resources of the RSC, in the best traditions of professional off-West End live theatre.  It’s this, the strength of our theatre scene, the multiplicity of possibility, the variousness and vitality of it, that makes us so lucky – not only in London.  It’s the same inspiring story in so many different areas of creation, some of which have never been publicly funded, or only in a modest local way.

So, yes, of course the arts will survive, even flourish, against all the odds of climate.  In hard times, books will survive without libraries, drama will survive when theatres are dark, music will be played, art made in all its strange and beautiful forms.  Artists of all sorts will make their work in difficult conditions, audiences of whatever kind will struggle to witness, participate, celebrate.  We know from our own history, as well as from the contemporary experiences of other countries, that when art is banned – whether because music, dancing and plays are sinful, or because the message that literature or visual art speaks is too dangerous – its power grows.

Our arts funding may have been so drastically reduced that it’s officially considered inevitable that the cultural life of the whole country must shrivel, yet it seems that an alternative possibility is simultaneously envisaged, based on the legendary capacity of artists to survive in garrets, and audiences to seek out the art they desire even under the most dangerous circumstances.   But the existence of that hopeful vision doesn’t legitimise the idea that, so long as what concerns us all so deeply ‘survives’, however diminished, we can’t really complain.

A matter of luck

October 7, 2010

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

For National Poetry Day, one of my own poems. I wrote Sicilian Avenue many years ago; it was awarded a York Poetry Prize by Michael Donaghy, in the early 1990’s.  At the ceremony, where all the prize poems were read, and cheques given out to the winners, he was extremely gracious. (He was also very patient when his audience seemed to prefer it when he played traditional Irish music on the tin whistle, rather than read his own work.)  

But although he was encouraging to me, as a young writer, indeed complimentary about the poem and ‘…the simplicity and intimacy of the narrative and great closure of the last line’, I was also aware that sentiment had played a part in all of his selections.  Not that he chose any poems that seemed to me to be unworthy, but they all had a particular reason to appeal to him.  Mine had that extra ingredient because it evoked a place he knew in London, and of which he was fond.  

(And after all, who would want to read a poem without bringing their own associations to the words, or aligning their own experiences to the work?  What an impossible task it would be to try and ‘judge’ between poems impartially, when the very existence of poetry is the opposite of a measurable or quantifiable state.) 

At the time, I felt slightly uncomfortable at this discovery. Now I realise that it’s merely the element of luck that’s always needed in the competitive process, but also makes that process almost meaningless, so far as grading a work of art ‘best’ or ‘unplaced’.  Inevitably, the results are a matter of the reader’s taste; sometimes one sort of writer is in luck, sometimes another.  I was fortunate that this poem appealed to such a poet.

Sicilian Avenue

Enthroned behind his ziggurats of glass

displaying haberdashery embalmed

aeons ago in the prevailing fashion,

the old boy contemplates an aspic realm;

muffled in solid brass, mahogany,

drawers uniformly filled, precisely labelled,

in copperplate by alphabet and size.

His memory’s heraldic, crested, striped

with regimental and collegiate colours;

he doesn’t seem to think that we’re procuring

old school ties for improper purposes

(although we look like just the kind of women

to ridicule continued tribal marking).

‘Old Carthusians pre-1924’

requires a tremulous ascent of steps,

courteously refusing proffered help.

Something about us prompts him to remark

that ‘Amy Johnson came to us, you know,

to get her aviation things.  Oh, yes,

we did Ladies’ Colonial Wear then’.

He recites, in an archive record’s crackle,

the inventory of pith-helmets and veils,

and canvas carrying-skirts, so necessary

to keep one’s distance from the naked shoulders

transporting one across malarial rivers…

Here Amy Johnson, in the changing-room

trying on cashmere combinations (men’s,

designed to conquer an imagined arctic

not keep a woman warm above cloud-level)

broke down and wept, late, after closing time.

Her tears still echo in his anxious voice

condemning ‘all the things they said about her’

despite her triumphs, in the newspapers.

He found the warmest styles, the smaller sizes,

wished her the best of luck for her next flight,

wrapped the heroic underwear she’d usurped,

shook hands in homage to their odd alliance –

and still he flies her unofficial colours,

a favour filed in his anarchic system

above the patronage of baronets.

Art for the few

October 6, 2010

Although dissent from most arts organisations, on the subject of government cuts to the arts, has been notably mild, there are some more-than-murmurings from individuals.  Artists’ Newsletter sent this poster, by Jeremy Deller and Scott King, quoting the words of William Morris, to subscribers.

On the website of the save the arts campaign, there are details of the petition against the cuts, which has so far been signed by about 45,ooo people.  Although to do so can seem like a futile gesture, it’s still one worth making, a grain of sand on the right side of the scales.

There are also images of this poster, and other protest works, which suggest that there are some artists, at least, who don’t intend to keep quiet about it.