Corbynism, we’re told, reminds everybody of the 1980s, not least its detractors. Putting them aside for the moment – doubtless a welcome relief for attendees at the jubilant UK Labour Party conference in Brighton at the end of September – harking back is not necessarily a failure of the imagination. As Guardian commentator Jonathan Freedland has written, now that the Conservative Party is tearing itself apart over perhaps the most irresponsibly utopian project of all – Brexit – it’s become more difficult to dismiss only the left’s vision as such.
That charge has been levelled against every facet of Labour’s transformative vision. Last year, the party pledged a GBP£1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to be administered by the Arts Council, to invest in British creative industries. At the launch of the party’s dedicated cultural manifesto in Hull this May, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, ‘in every one of us there is a poet, a writer, a singer of songs, an artist’, and he’s spoken before of a ‘broader, intrinsic worth’ to the arts. Intrinsic, of course, is the opposite of instrumental – and Corbyn’s words have become a rallying cry for an economy to serve the arts, rather than an arts to serve the economy. In pursuit of figuring out what exactly that might mean, the leftwing ‘grassroots movement’ Momentum staged the second edition of its The World Transformed festival (TWT), on the fringes of this year’s Labour Party conference.
Much of the discussion at The World Transformed called for a cultural policy beyond the condescending populism of bread and circuses. To achieve political and social change on the scale Labour intends requires a new kind of cultural innovation to succeed – bold in its vision and politically prefigurative. Can that vision be found in the past? Not in the succour of sepia-red left nostalgia, but perhaps in the actual, practical successes of past left cultural programmes?
Before he passed away earlier this year, the cultural theorist Mark Fisher was working on a book titled Acid Communism, in which he identified and called for a rebirth of a utopian sensibility shared by political radicals and psychedelic countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s (next year, Repeater Books will publish an anthology that includes writing from the unfinished book). Some of TWT’s organizers rebranded Fisher’s phrase into ‘Acid Corbynism’ – a project of political ‘consciousness-raising’ supposed to resist both top-down bureaucracy and the alienating atomization of neoliberalism. Cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert, moderator of a panel discussion on the term, framed ‘Acid Corbynism’ as a ‘technology of the self’, rather than a coherent political project – a catalyst for ‘collective joy’. Perhaps the proof of its success is already before us: many media outlets have fawned over the term in the weeks since the Labour conference. They seem to see it as Corbynist hedonism. Elsewhere online, it’s even become a meme.
53 years have passed since the establishment of a minister for the arts. If the first incumbent, Jennie Lee, under prime minister Harold Wilson, would have heralded education as the key to a wider role for the arts, artist Peter Kennard tells me that TWT’s vision is all about ‘access, access, access’. The pace of change here has been sluggish – one panellist at the festival cited the extraordinary number of BAFTA winners who had attended private school: as of last year, some 42%.
Several panel discussions at TWT took the ostensibly neutral idea of ‘artistic excellence’ to task, in a pointed criticism of the Arts Council. At a panel discussion on relaunching Arts for Labour (which would later culminate in a meeting on drafting a new manifesto for the project) Loraine Leeson, author of Art : Process : Change (2017), maintained that the Council’s overly-bureaucratized system actually suffocates innovation in demanding target-driven approaches.
Meanwhile, the struggle for cultural expression which really amplifies local concerns is inextricably linked to the slow death of localism. In many respects, the hollowing out of local authorities since Thatcher has been a great loss to British civic culture; while the arts council of England, for example, notionally has nine different regions, that yardstick of ‘excellence’ is largely the same for all of them. And as Hassan Mahamdallie, formerly a senior officer at the Arts Council, put it at the same panel discussion on Arts for Labour, it’s rarely class neutral.
It’s hardly a new critique of the Arts Council. Raymond Williams argued forcefully for its radical democratization and transparency in his eponymous 1979 essay for the Political Quarterly. But it is testament to some much-needed introspection on those cherished institutions of the first postwar Labour government – a transformative worldview, after all, requires more than defending a better world into being.
Mahamdallie, who worked at the Arts Council for nine years, stressed its goal of keeping existing ‘high cultural’ institutions afloat. John Maynard Keynes, for example, notoriously used his clout in the Treasury to ensure enough subsidies were available to support the opera. Mahamdallie decried subsidies for the grand ‘palaces of culture’ in city centres, both socially and physically remote from communities who need them most.
‘Communities who’ve been ignored often don’t understand power, or rather, how they can nurture it’, Musa, a Somali community organiser from Tottenham, told me during a discussion group at the festival’s Relaunching Arts for Labour event. His words stuck with me as a sometimes unpalatable truth, buried in the aesthetic ambitions artists more commonly voice. As Williams wrote, power and the idea that a community’s cultural expression of experience might be heard and even foster change is one of the great catalysts for art – as one city knows from experience. Throughout much of the 1980s, the Greater London Council (GLC) experimented with bold new formats for that expression — amplifying voices hitherto unheard. With Musa’s words in mind, it made sense that the GLC’s story echoed through the conference; reprints of its cultural manifesto were made freely available at most of the venues.
Many of the GLC’s cultural innovations are now widely praised – it helped found the Theatre for Black Women in 1982, embraced digital technology ahead of the curve, and gave full-throated support for the radical Black Arts Movement, with the help of thinkers such as Stuart Hall and curator David A. Bailey. Organizers of the GLC story oral history project had set up billboards at one of TWT’s venues. They aptly pointed out that many of these ideas were sneered at by many mainstream pundits at the time – newspaper clippings prominently displayed, with a nod to our times.
From Ed Hall’s take on traditional trade union banners to kennardphilips’s eerie photomontages (featuring Theresa May and a copy of the Financial Times), TWT’s venues were also a riot of artwork – in all senses. Most memorable were works by Brandalism, an art collective which emerged in the shadows of the 2012 riots, which aims to subvert corporate advertising in public spaces. ‘If culture is the story a society tells about itself, then what story do public spaces tell us?’ asks the collective’s Bill Stickers (yes, a pseudonym). Late capitalism, notes Stickers, is so adept at subsuming all and any cultural dissent that resistance cannot just be non-commercial – it must be anti-commercial.
That said, there’s the time-worn (and well-earned) stereotype of radical art which resists that impulse being insufferably earnest – think of Rik Mayall’s people’s poet, angry, giftless, and encrusted with badges. It’s one which some TWT panellists laugh about (others don’t seem to get the joke). At a discussion on the role of the political artist in the age of today’s social movements, rapper and activist Lowkey was the most engaging. Arts with a transformative mission needn’t be didactic, he explained: express real stories in a compelling and exciting way, he says, and the politics will percolate through. ‘Remember I was here’ added artist Barby Asante, reading a poem by a victim of the blaze at Grenfell. She paused, reflected, and called for the expression of working class lives, rather than solely working class tragedies. After all, there’s always the tragedy of Khadija Saye, the young artist on the verge of recognition before she was killed in the Grenfell blaze.
But does the essence of political art lie in relentlessly articulating a clear political vision? If our thinking about culture’s role in transformation becomes too tactical, can we still proclaim ourselves to understand its ‘intrinsic worth’?
Perhaps there’s a less baroque answer. Perhaps a world of culture transformed has a space for ‘high culture’ for all and by all, expressed in all sorts of uncharted ways. And we’ll take the opera, and the classical music, and of course ‘Grime4Corbyn’. ‘The strange power of art’ John Berger once said, ‘is that sometimes it shows that what people have in common is sometimes more urgent than what differentiates them’. It may sound simple, but isn’t ensuring that we can share in that sometimes radical enough?
Main image: The World Transformed festival, Brighton, 2017