Posts Tagged ‘life without art’

Stop our ears

December 1, 2010

Pine cones – photograph by Liz Mathews

Will truth be quicker found because we stop our ears to music and drink no wine, and sleep instead of talking through the long winter night?

(Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader)

A question suggesting the answer ‘no’.  (A rhetorical question only relevant to anyone who might consider truth-seeking important.)  But the negative image it conjures – of a sleeping people, deaf to music, disinclined to celebration or inspiration, without conversation – seems an uneasy vision of the possible alternative.  It’s not so much a puritanical refusal of pleasure and sociability which is sketched in, as a lethargic denial of vivid existence, a preference for hibernation and insensibility.  In that opiate state there is no possibility of seeking truth, or of living brightly; during the centuries of enforced sleep, thorn-forests grow up, castle walls crumble, stories are forgotten.  Then it takes a heroic effort to awaken the sleepers.

Resistance to this dark oblivion is possible; or possible at least for those fortunate ones who are still able to hear music and talk, who have wine and warmth for those long winter nights, who can make common cause in their waking.  Gathering darkness is the time to make seasonal preparations, both for the chill winter and the turn of the year, the returning sun. Far from sleeping through the long winter nights, stopping our ears to music, drinking no wine, avoiding speech about what concerns us so deeply, we will remain inconveniently awake both as artists and audiences; truth-seeking, talkative, ears open.

Freedom to sing

November 12, 2010

Autumn light – photograph by Liz Mathews

From Radio 3’s bold attempt to promote ‘free thinking’ in its eponymous festival, I heard Fiona Shaw’s talk on Nightwaves (by chance, as it followed on from a concert), and I’m glad that I did.    The theme of the discussions this year has been ‘happiness’, but this programme was called ‘What acting can teach you about life’. Perhaps inevitably, Shaw concentrated more on what the great plays themselves – literature rather than acting – had taught her about life, and how life had illuminated her work. Despite the not very encouraging title, I’d recommend it as well worth listening to again.

Much of this talk was about the way in which words act on the imagination, and the art of the actor in communicating that inner vision. Shaw’s demonstrations of the way different meanings can be drawn out of words, depending on how they are spoken, were funny but also revealing.  Her story of the great RSC voice coach Cicely Berry telling her to ‘walk on the commas’ when speaking Shakespeare’s verse was demonstrated brilliantly.

(Although she’s not an actor I’ve seen often onstage, I did see her brain scan in the Identity exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, with the fascinating display of the areas of the brain which light up when she’s reading poetry – the arms that move in the imagination also seem to the brain to be moving, even when they are physically still…)

Also refreshing was Shaw’s vehement denunciation of the lies of politicians, and their devaluing of our language by misuse and disrespect.    (The audience’s reaction made clear how unusual such plain-speaking seemed to them in such a context.)  This contrasted strongly with the actor’s description of the Elizabethan dramatists, Shakespeare particularly, as writers who were trying to speak the truth.

Best of all was her concluding affirmation of the importance of ‘the nightingale of art’ and the hope that it will go on singing.

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.

Sublime encouragement

September 17, 2010

Thames mosaic – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Every human being is of sublime value because [her or] his experience, which must be in some measure unique,  gives [her/] him a unique view of reality… Therefore every human being must be encouraged to cultivate [her/] his consciousness to the fullest degree.’  

This is Rebecca West again.  Her recipe for such human development  – the encouragement of the individual view – is, of course, art, education, good environments.  In the context, it’s a throw-away remark, a statement she considers absolutely self-evident, within a discussion of nationalism (‘the desire of a people to be itself’) as opposed to imperialism (‘the desire…to prevent other peoples from being themselves’).

Just as imperialism, in West’s analysis, is an attempt to prevent ‘peoples’ or nations from being themselves, so – on an individual level – if human beings are prevented from the cultivation of consciousness, their supreme value as individuals is denied, their unique view of reality is ignored, or even suppressed.

To Rebecca West, writing in the early 1940’s, this loss wasn’t merely of individual potential; she believed that ‘the sum of such views should go far to giving us the complete picture of reality, which the human race must attain if it is ever to comprehend its destiny’.  So to deny humankind the opportunity to cultivate our consciousness ‘to the fullest degree’ is a retrograde step, away from the possible evolution of humanity.

Such idealism, during such times, seems almost wilful – yet what time could be better?  Only the closed consciousness can be indifferent to social injustice, the loss of civil liberties, the destruction of the environment, and the growth of imperialist attitudes, all of which created the background for fascism and war.  West took it as axiomatic that greater understanding of the human condition, through encouraging each sublimely valuable individual consciousness, must inevitably lead towards enlightenment.

But nobody wants to be fully conscious if they have to live in a vile environment, without natural beauty or architectural beauty or preferably both, let alone if they’re in poverty, with all the sufferings and fears of that condition.  In many situations, it’s merely a survival mechanism to close down the aperture of the consciousness to its smallest opening, and let as little light in as possible.  Then who knows what goes on outside?

Without access to the arts, or real education (both powerful awakeners of the consciousness), in a fragile natural environment under constant threat, no human being can hope to cultivate anything but a survival mentality.  This situation, in current political terms, is still brought about by the ‘desire to prevent other peoples from being themselves’, or in other words an ideological preference for a semi-conscious electorate, who won’t notice as their inheritance is dismantled.  It’s sabotage of the most destructive kind, not just of individual lives, but of the future.  

All those enlightened ones, Rebecca West et al, with their visions of the fullest degree of developed consciousness for all humanity, must be spinning in their graves.  But at least their writings remain, a source of sublime encouragement – and resistance.

Waiting for the Barbarians

July 28, 2010

French number – photograph by Liz Mathews

I overheard some professional philistine on the radio in a shop, demanding what good it ever did anyone to learn French, especially now you can book your hotel room over the internet. (This somewhat ignores the reality of actual arrival in a Parisian hotel, but that is another story.)  The opinion was expressed with enormous self-satisfaction at the possessor’s plain-spoken insular common sense.  But surely even someone (like me) who unfortunately lacks fluent French themselves can comprehend the mind-expanding possibilities of knowing another language, having access to another culture’s riches?  Who could want to collaborate in depriving children of the opportunity – at least – to learn so much for so little?  Only someone who is against knowledge itself, who prefers the safety of ignorance for the future, the cutting of communication between as many cultures as possible, so that we can all sink self-satisfied back into our mire.  Nostalgie de la Boue, indeed.

Everyone is outraged when hospitals are run by managers who only care about profits, but what about schools where nothing is taught except what is needed for animal existence?  How can anyone who has devoted their life to learning bear to be told that it is valueless?  What will happen if we don’t teach anything but money-related pseudo-subjects?  The only possible result will be an increased polarisation between the priviliged (and eccentric) few who independently maintain their private culture, and the rest who only have access to a bogus celebrity culture.  

Now that there’s an opportunity for philistine ideology to be expressed with such pleasure, and vehemence, the old claims re-emerge that the arts are elitist, not for the masses. If art – and education, too – can be presented as merely a status symbol for the rich, then its funding by the government may seem inappropriate, its loss unimportant. This fear of intellectualism has always been a factor of British life, and the perceived divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘workers’ has been very useful in preventing any common cause.  It goes with the fears of women, homosexuals, foreigners, vegetarians, artists, etc, etc, which are still major factors in maintaining this unequal society.  As it’s a matter of education, it is self-replicating; the argument is circular, the prophecy self-fulfilling.  

Just as a false dichotomy can be set up between affording health or the arts, false competition can be set up between different arts organisations, between departments in universities, or different disciplines.  While these potential allies argue, the fabric around is dismantled.  I have been amazed to read academics bickering in print about the merits of teaching the humanities at all, or British academics taking issue with Americans for lamenting the loss of departments in our universities (not their business – or the business of the entire scholarly community?), or arts organisations unable to justify their existence except in terms of money.  This is the tactic of ‘divide and rule’ indeed.  

The Greeks who protest in the streets about cuts to the funding of their cultural life, among other areas of society, call the perpetrators ‘Barbarians’; an insult with a long history, beginning with the lack of a language in which to understand each other.  In this modern context, I don’t think the concept is over-emotional, I think it is a recognition that there are people who actually like the idea of destroying culture. We have barbarians here too, who will be only too delighted to bring back the dark ages, if we let them.

Trahison des Clercs

July 9, 2010


Traitors’ Gate – photograph by Liz Mathews

The Treason of the Clerks is one of those book titles (by J. Benda, 1927) that’s become a lasting phrase because it expresses the exact nature of a betrayal; the intentional betrayal of culture by those intellectuals who are supposed to support it. This kind of treason is taking place now, too, though sometimes it seems not so much a result of betraying culture as of being indifferent to it. Some of the many individuals and organisations who are supposed to champion the importance of the arts appear somewhat puzzled as to why it should matter, other than financially. And if the call to arms is still couched in the jargon of such arts administrators and their desperate capitalism, it’s doomed, irrelevant.

Making Value, a recent ‘qualitative research survey’ commissioned by the Crafts Council, seeks to explain that makers ‘contribute to economic growth, within and beyond the cultural and creative industries…[through apparently unexpected means such as]… product innovations featuring strong person-centred orientation…. Enhanced narrative characterisation in film and television and digital environments’. (Imagine!) Among many other important revelations, the study discovers that makers have a ‘Passion for materials and the material world’ and ‘Evidence a deep sense of integrity in relation to their creative identity’, together with an ‘Understanding of how people relate to objects, both emotionally and in a functional sense…’.

This is not news, presumably, even to the Crafts Council, who seem dimly aware that there is some sort of ‘social contribution’ made by artist-makers – those strange creatures of artistic integrity, passion, and even (weird, this), belief in ‘making a contribution through the application of their practice beyond making for exhibition or sale’. But is an industry-speak survey really the best way the CC can think of to emphasise the crucial importance of a living culture? Would the money not have been better spent on commissioning some artwork from actual artists, who could express their own truths for themselves?

Not in the logic of those who don’t expect anyone to want or understand a commodity that they’re condemned to sell without wanting or understanding it themselves. No, the best way is to spend a lot of money trying to persuade other, impressionable people to buy – not art, obviously, but something saleable like ‘uniquely valuable consultancy services’ or ‘entrepreneurial strategies’. Perhaps it’s just the ethos of a parasitical industry, perhaps it’s treason.

Interesting Times

July 3, 2010


Light in the valley – photograph by Liz Mathews

Art flourishes in difficult circumstances; in bad times people turn to it. This rather obvious statement is convenient for funding bodies, who can be assured that artists, like other vocational workers, need never be paid properly because they will carry on anyway, starving in their proverbial garrets. Whatever else is cut, there’s a vague belief that the arts won’t go away, entirely, just as learning will be maintained by independent scholars if the humanities vanish from our universities. This paradox means that the arts will always fare badly in the unseemly struggle for cash, and that any expression of optimism about their survival seems like an acceptance that, in times like these, the arts are a long way down the list.

A more sinister unspoken desire comes from those who’d like the arts to go away entirely, who feel that hard times are the perfect excuse for a philistine field-day. It’s easy to see why the powerful-but-inept might be frightened of the arts. It’s also easy to see why the false dichotomy is set up between (for example) health and arts funding, in order to represent the arts as non-essentials that must be sacrificed now. Rather like measuring the worth of humanities departments by monetary values which may be relevant to (some of) the sciences but can’t be applied to other fields, so to justify the arts in merely monetary terms leaves out some fundamental element. What is immeasurably important can’t be quantified – another convenient truism.

So, we’re all in an uproar. Following the university financial disaster, the arts will be next to go; execution has merely been postponed by the Arts Council’s use of the reserve fund. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth among the great and the good, even, about the lack of publishing contracts, the dearth of commissions. Even in my own (less elevated) circle, there is lamentation about the future of culture. All the old arguments are rehearsed, then it’s objected that everyone knows that already, then it’s vehemently upheld that it must still be said, again, often.

Well then: art has always been a means of protest and resistance, an expression of forbidden identities (national or individual), a measure of civilized existence in continuity. It provides spiritual sustenance in extreme circumstances, courage to endure loss, consolation and healing, even hope. It tells truths which cannot be expressed in other ways, opens doors to places within which are otherwise inaccessible, interprets our world and creates imaginary worlds beyond, helps us travel towards understanding.

Since none of these matters can be measured or given a monetary value, it’s easy to dismiss them with a cheery assurance that only when people are financially comfortable will they be interested in ‘the arts’ (as one of many possible ‘leisure pursuits’). But the enormous popularity of the cinema during the Depression of the 1930’s is often explained as a distraction from hardship, a necessary escapism. And that cinema (to say nothing of the other arts) also expressed discontent, criticism, a wish for change. This, of course, is the role of art which is so feared by all governments. Totalitarian regimes of all political colours always censor the arts, in fear of what they may express, yet also attempt to use them, because of their enormous power of communication. The puppet theatre which defied the Nazi occupation in Poland, or the music which gave solace to people in the extermination camps, are both human proofs that such regimes are right to be afraid.

For myself, I think accursed Trident should be a lot further down the funding list than money for the arts. But nevertheless, I do feel a certain optimism about our cultural survival, but not optimism as any form of acceptance or collaboration. It does seem that the arts and humanities are under attack specifically, not merely as part of a package of inevitable/neccessary/etc cuts. But – just as the open country that is in the planned route of a motorway is suddenly revealed, not as a quiet valley belonging to nobody much, but a fiercely beloved landscape, a place of beauty deeply valued by a vociferous people who will fight body to bulldozer to protect it – so our cultural life, when it’s really threatened, is recognised anew as precious and vital. Interesting times.