Global political ferment, a consequence of the financial crisis of 2007-08, is increasingly reflected in the arts. And it provides the backdrop for the Bad Art project’s celebration of the centenary of the Russian revolution, linked to the struggles of today. Bad Art editor JAMES IVENS reports.
(This slightly edited article was carried in Socialism Today, a journal of the Socialist Party of England and Wales.)
Uprisings against the status quo like Brexit – and, in a distorted way, the election of Donald Trump – have caused much soul-searching in the arts establishment. Literary circles agonise over “the role of the writer” in articles and meetings, and ask if writing alone is an act of resistance. Of course, writing can be political – although you can’t write Trump out of office. However, this questioning is part of growing agitation in the arts, and more organised discussion of politics in these middle and upper layers. Jacobin, a prominent left-wing journal in the US, considers culture a key area; it has a national reading group organiser. Even the London Review of Books is encouraging subscribers to form reading groups.
“Postmodernism is dead,” said the Times Literary Supplement in June. “What comes next?” Marxists will not be surprised by this observation. As a school of thought and art, postmodernism is the embodiment of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” rudderlessness, which is not to say that any given movement in art has no value. But the social contradictions capitalism declared resolved 28 years ago are back, and back big. In that TLS article, the academic Alison Gibbons explains that the era of postmodernism “rejected grand narratives, including those of religion, the concept of progress, and of history itself.” Authors today are joining the search for answers following the global financial shock from August 2007 and its snowballing consequences: “This new literature can, in good faith, examine complex and ever-shifting crises – of racial inequality, capitalism and climate change – to which it is easy to close one’s eyes.”
Easy for some. For most, the savagery of capitalist society is too present to ignore. The 2017 wave of revelations about sexual abuse by the powerful began in the entertainment industry. Many victims of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK were silent at first, not least because these men had the power to launch or crash their careers. And November marked three years since the floodgates opened on rape allegations against Bill Cosby.
In Britain, the women’s committee of entertainment union Equity has campaigned for some time against misogynistic audition practices. Directors, and people claiming to be directors, demand in breakdowns (actor job listings) that women commit to full nudity before even seeing the script. They use degrading language in breakdowns, hold castings in their private residences, and ask invasive personal questions, often not pertinent to the role. Following the latest scandals, the union has launched its own investigation into sexual harassment in the industry.
In October 2016, police broke up a street theatre performance in Santos, Brazil, arresting one of the actors. The subject of the show was police violence. Performing it was the Trupe Olho da Rua (Eye of the Street Troupe), continuing Brazil’s tradition of using participative theatre in mass assemblies and street meetings as part of working-class political discussion. Brazil has had a mini-boom in grassroots resistance in the arts: the ‘saraus das periferias’, cultural events thrown by residents of the impoverished city suburbs. They are not just a relief from the tedium of poverty, or a platform for the voices of the poor and oppressed, although both are important functions. They have also become a site of direct struggle against austerity, with victorious campaigning by periferia inhabitants against cuts to sarau funding.
Defending the right to take part in the arts as artist, audience or both is a basic class demand in any country. In Scotland, West Lothian council, with a minority Labour administration backed by the Tories, is planning £73 million of cuts in its next budget. High on the list is the instrumental music service which provides free lessons for all the county’s school students. South of the border, Arts Council England has lost around £267 million from its annual budget since 2010 and calculates that local government has cut arts investment by a further £236 million. That’s half a billion pounds a year.
As with all austerity, it hits hardest those already struggling most: working-class artists, young artists, women, black and Asian people and so on. In the eight years from 2007, London not only lost titans of live music like the Astoria and 12 Bar Club, but 35% of its grassroots music venues, which give stage time to new acts, according to a Greater London Authority report. The numbers in all areas of the arts go on and on this way.
Of course, austerity is far from capitalism’s only distorting influence. Artworks, and auctionable fine art in particular, are status symbols for the jet-setting plutocrat as much as safe stores of value in a turbulent economy. Art is also a propaganda medium for the capitalist system. Sometimes indirect, prettifying or distracting from the way things are, or vilifying oppressed groups in passing. Sometimes direct, as with the portrayal of Leon Trotsky as a bloodthirsty, sexist gangster in the new eight-part drama ‘Trotsky’ on Russia’s Channel One. And all the sewage of bigotry and violence that comes with class society impacts the arts as well, as Weinstein and co have reminded us.
However, the struggle to free the arts to be themselves, to tackle social problems if they wish instead of reinforcing them, or just to exist for their own sake regardless of profit value, cannot be separated from the struggle for working-class access to the arts. In fact today, more than at any time in history, the figure of the artist is found in the ranks of the working class. There has been folk art in every form of society but earlier class society had a tendency to restrict ‘fine art’ to specialists maintained by patronage, buttressing the prestige of the aristocracy and church. Industrial techniques of mass production and reproduction brought art into the home of every worker, and the tools to make it within reach as well.
Young people in particular often seek artistic routes to articulate their anger at the system. Is there any better expression of young, black, working-class passion than grime? It’s no accident that Stormzy and others created the #Grime4Corbyn banner. But capitalism also frustrates the artistic aspirations it promises to satisfy, through the market’s distortion of content and financial limits on who can participate, both compounded by austerity. The internet has deepened this contradiction, creating a ubiquitous means of mass communication and a wild-west market dominated by tech monopolies and big advertisers.
We cannot tell all the untold stories if workers, the poor and oppressed do not have the free time, training, funding and facilities to participate. And these interlinked social and economic struggles cannot be separated from the general struggle for a socialist world. A world where, as Karl Marx imagined, “society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind.”
So in 2015, members of the Committee for a Workers’ International launched the Bad Art project. Bad Art aims to find a road to those young people who see the arts as their only outlet; to those working in the arts, abused and restrained by the social and economic ills of capitalism; to all workers unable to take part in the arts as makers or spectators as much as they desire. We want artists, in the broadest sense, to bring their energy and talent to the workers’ movement. CWI members also hope to win the best of them to revolutionary Marxist ideas.
Bad Art has produced two magazines since its launch. The first laid out what we consider to be the three key campaign areas in the arts: access, freedom and organisation. The second looked at the effect of the Russian revolution on the arts. It linked 1917 to struggles today – like Trump’s attack on National Endowment for the Arts funding – and carried brief reports on fightbacks, such as art school occupations and a threatened strike by reality TV contestants in Sweden. To start the process of connecting artists and revolutionaries, Bad Art supporters in 15 cities across three continents put on events between September and December celebrating the centenary of the Russian revolution. We called it the Bad Art World Tour.
Poetry and rap were a big feature of the tour. At the event ‘It’s Time for a Revolution’ in Kassel, Germany, socialist rapper Holger Burner performed between political speeches while graffiti artists painted live art on the walls. Holger later joined fellow working-class rappers Disorder and Kid Pex at ‘A World to Win’ in Vienna. At Leicester’s ‘Protest Showcase’, young local poets talked about their experiences of sexual harassment, the nightmare of living on benefits, and persecution by the immigration system. The Bad Art sarau in São Paulo included Tatiana Minchoni’s poetry.
In Glasgow, Hailey Madison Slate’s poem ‘My American Education’ asked: “Why do you draw so much if not to sell out galleries? Why do you write so much if not to conjure up the next major franchise? Why do you sing so much if not to drop the next platinum album? … My American Education said create! As long as your brush strokes don’t ask too many questions. Colour inside the lines so as not to draw attention to the fact that they are fixed unfairly. And if you’re writing, mind you choose your words carefully so you never reflect your frustration at this constant desire for beauty over message.”
Elsewhere on the tour, Bad Art’s visual artists ignored these warnings. At the exhibition in Skipton, Yorkshire, some artists were political, others simply liberated. Militant cartoonist Alan Hardman’s muscular line drawings mixed with Peter Harris’s surrealist collages and works by other left-wing artists from the north of England. At Subversive Action in Melbourne, work by Bradley Cochrane looked at the restrictive gender roles and categories defended by class society. Paintings, pencil drawings and more covered the walls in Glasgow. In Stockholm, drawings by young artist Morteza Jamshidi depicted his escape from Afghanistan.
A short film showed oyster mushrooms consuming Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom – Jane Lawson in Leicester. In Stockholm, Afrang Nordlöf Malekian’s video installation looked at capital punishment in Iran. There were live bands at many of the events, and the tour will end with a feminist metal gig in Liège, Belgium. In Barcelona, ‘1917 Then and Now’ focused on the lessons of the Russian revolution for the mass movement in Catalonia. Mixed-discipline performances, including live sculpture, synthesised music, body popping and breakdancing, examined the various stages of struggle in a revolutionary process, with audience participation. The culmination was a cathartic defacement and smashing of a carving of Joseph Stalin.
The world tour events have attracted artists and audiences new to revolutionary ideas. Many of Bad Art’s activists come from the Committee for a Workers’ International, a global Marxist organisation fighting for world socialism. But there are others involved who agree with our broad aims, and we hope many more going forward. We are keen to make connections with other groups – in the United States, for instance, we have made links with the Socialist Artists Alliance.
So the world tour, we hope, is a small beginning in the process of uniting artists and workers in struggle internationally. In the future, as the forces of socialism grow towards a mass, revolutionary international, we are confident that artists will march behind a banner inscribed with Trotsky’s slogan of 1938: “The independence of art – for the revolution. The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!”
James Ivens is part of the Bad Art editorial team. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.