What are we fighting for?

The following appears in ThreeD, Newsletter of the MeCCSA, No.16

In the view of Terry Eagleton, speaking recently to a protest meeting at LSE, ‘There are two incompatible and contradictory versions of education which are now fighting it out: the right wing version is education for the economy, the left wing version is education for society.’ (LSE, 18 January 2011; see On Campus at the New Statesman)  Eagleton takes a long term view. When the humanities as we know them first emerged, he explains, they did so at exactly the same time as early industrial capitalism. Academia served as a space in which creative, imaginative and critical values expelled from early industrial capitalist society could take shelter, find nurture and flourish. What we are seeing now—’and it’s a momentous historical development’, he says—is the death of that lineage of the humanities as critique, and the final integration of higher education into the priorities of the system. What we have to assert against that, he concludes, ‘is the value of education for society, the value of education for community, for personal self-development, and that idea which capitalism finds it impossible to wrap its mind around, education simply as a value in itself.’

The argument cannot be won on the ground set by the right. The right wing version of the economic value of the university is peculiarly blinkered, distorted, skewed. To withdraw the teaching grant from the arts and humanities, retaining it only for a core group of subjects comprised by science, medicine and technology, is an asinine measure, demonstrating a highly tendentious notion of economic value that serves the interests mainly of the big corporations—I would hazard a guess that these are the fields which generate the largest numbers of patents.

It is no good countering this with an argument about the economic benefits of the arts and humanities. We know well enough the economic benefits of what is ominously called the culture industry. They include the creation of works which earn lots of money for their creators and promoters, generating considerable export value, providing employment for actors, musicians, curators, designers, technicians, photographers, librarians, gallery attendants, etc., together with the businesses whose services are called on in the process: the publishers and printers and booksellers who cater to general and particular readerships; the tourists attracted by museums and theatres and festivals, the hotels who house them, the restaurants where they wine and dine.  Colleges and universities are the feeders of this very large workforce, and however the details pan out, the effects on this economic activity of government cuts to both universities and arts organisations will be very considerable. In economic terms, employment will become increasingly precarious, and smaller, especially local arts organisations will be driven out of business. Because of the loss of income in the wider population due to other cuts in other areas, audiences will shrink. (Perhaps not all: as George Orwell first noted back in the 1930s, cinema—nowadays in its multiple forms—seems to retain its escapist allure in times of austerity.) In terms of aesthetics, quite likely artistic risk will be discouraged (but then people will begin to express their frustration in new and challenging work outside the market, in the margins and interstices, which is always where real innovation comes from).

But to push for these eonomic factors serves for nothing. We’ve been through this before twenty years ago, when the Thatcherites reorganised arts funding as a smokescreen for cutting the arts budget (an episode I remember because at the time I was chair of a voluntary arts organisation in West London, which managed artists’ studios and community workshops). Those arguments didn’t work then and they won’t work now. The politicians are not prepared to listen. I have been told by my University’s Vice Chancellor, who was heavily involved in lobbying back in the autumn, that a senior civil servant in Vince Cable’s department told him the politicians had said to them that they didn’t want ‘evidence-based arguments’. As someone in the blogosphere put it the other day, it’s not about ‘evidence-based policy’, but ‘policy-based evidence’.

The proper argument begins for me with the first words spoken to the camera by the first person I interviewed on my first sortie to film a chronicle of the protest movement. The event was the Turner Prize Teach-In at the Tate Britain. The speaker was a student at one of the London art colleges. ‘There are various financial reasons why I don’t think they should cut the arts,’ he said, ‘however, I don’t think the financial reasons are the justification for saving the arts.’ That is, the arts do bring economic benefits, but these are not their raison d’être. This, he says, in the slightly embarrassed way of the English, is that the arts, whether it’s music, theatre, film, visual arts, performance, ‘are an integral part of nurturing one’s soul, almost. It’s certainly a crucial part of why we exist.’ Their raison d’être, in other words, is not just the sheer delight they give, but the succour of imagination, emotional intelligence and empathy, in being the priveleged space of free expression, both personal and social at the same time. Of giving voice and listening. Capacities which enrich both individual and collective, where the individual is enriched because the collective listens, while the collective is enriched by the voice of numerous individuals and groups, and comes to understand things in vital new ways. It needs to be said that the role of the various forms of media education in this process escapes the evaluators, in part because the ‘destination’ of many of our students is not specific. Only some of them end up in jobs where they get classified as media professionals. Some of them become teachers, many others diffuse themelves into civil society (the real ‘big society’) where they lend their skills and inventiveness to a range of other types of job, such as press officers for local charities.

The underlying problem is that artistic activity has long come to be dominated by economic interests, in which the market provides the measure of success and celebrity while cultural and aesthetic worth is marginalised; and this has become ever more acute with the multiplication of reproduction and the rise of the cultural movement (if movement is the right word) that was labelled (should that be ‘branded’?) postmodernism. As Fredric Jameson has observed, where modernism was still the critique of the commodity, postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process, and the result is ‘the penetration of commodity fetishism into those realms of the imagination and the psyche which had…always been taken as the last impregnable stronghold against the instrumental logic of capital’. (Fredric Jameson, Foreword to J-F Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, 1984, p.xv.)

From this perspective, the government’s behaviour should hardly take us by surprise, but for the same reason it has become very difficult to find a language adequate to the task of resistance— because the converse of Jameson’s observation is that language itself is perverted, with the result that the old vocabulary for matters of the spirit and the soul has been fatally wounded, and the type of experience it refers to increasingly fugitive and elusive. The official misuse of language is nothing new—the terms newspeak and doublespeak come from Orwell, and Steven Poole recently introduced the term unspeak. The public relations and advertising industries have made it ubiquitous. The problem now is that a politically motivated vocabulary of official talk is micromanaged to a degree where it simply parts company with everyday experience—and those responsible for this micromanagement don’t even realise that what they’re doing is the same thing as the anonymous censors in the Kremlin did. Imposing ideological conformity, they forfeit the trust of those upon whom they impose it. For example, what can ‘student experience’ mean when it’s become a marketing term? A student whom I film in Bristol complains that ‘they want to sell us the student experience the same way that people are sold the luxury cruise liner experience or the 3D cinema experience’. His mates agree: it’s just rhetoric. (See Teachers and Learners in Bristol at the New Statesaman.) Rhetoric: one of the most ancient branches of study in what we now call ‘the humanities’.

Part of the problem is also that the language we have developed in the academy to comprehend the varieties and subtleties of contemporary rhetorical practices has been forged on the defensive. Sometimes over-eager to emulate the intellectual security ascribed to the sciences, we have developed bad writing habits, and our discourse has become too forbidding, estranged as a result from the public debate about these things in the media, where great confusion remains. True, given the populist anti-intellectualism of the media, too few of us have been allowed to become even small public intellectuals able to contribute to the general debate. But the same is true of the broad domain of left-wing politics, which is just as in thrall to celebrity as the general public (it’s only patricians like Chris Patten who happily admit they never watch Eastenders).

Concern is high but the articulation of an adequate response is poor. This at least is what one would have to conclude from a panel on ‘Artists Against the Cuts’ at the recent Progressive London conference (19 February 2011), which I filmed but decided not to use. The contributors included a Turner Prize-winning artist (Mark Wallinger); a well known writer and broadcaster (Bonnie Greer); a councillor with responsibility for culture (Tulip Siddiq); and a community activist (Ansel Neckles from Uprise, a cultural anti-racist group in North London)—in short, a duly representative bunch. Wallinger protested quietly against the loss of the arm’s length principle which has traditionally governed the disbursement of arts funding. True, but nothing new here: back in 1990 it was the subject of a debate in the House of Lords following the resignation of the Arts Council’s General Secretary, one Luke Rittner. Greer’s contribution was worrying: while warning us against the the American philanthropic system of arts funding, she was stuck on the idea that we have to learn to quantify the value of the arts or we’ll lose out. Worse than that was the social entrepreneur approach which led Neckles to give a rousing address about how to re-brand (!) the arts. What none of them seemed to recognise is that what is happening is quite simply, in a word, anti-democratic, and this cannot be countered without confronting the perpetrators head-on.

We might remind the politicians how Winston Churchill, when asked to cut arts funding in support of the war effort, replied ‘Then what are we fighting for?’ We must talk about what universities have been and are, and of what they should and could be. We must speak of the reproduction of the culture of the past as the foundation for the modern state; of the vital social role of free, open and properly well-founded criticism; and of the new ways that digital communications technology can now pick these functions up and run with them—but only if they’re appropriately funded and free to do so in the public interest, unconstrained by the profit motive. We should say all these things, but it must be a political voice with which we speak, because democracy itself—doubtless as impossible a dream as communism—is what is now at stake.

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