Brian Eno correctly said that children play to discover how the world works and, once they grow up, art is the adult way of continuing to… play. But, then, he incorrectly surmised that art is not dangerous. True, in the good society art would not be dangerous. But, in our terrible societies the madmen in authority are terrified of good art. “When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver”, opined Herman Goering. And how right he was! “The purpose of painting is not to decorate. It is an instrument of war!” Thus said Picasso, offering an explanation of why Goering was right: Authoritarians, whether of the establishment or the anti-establishment variety, have much to fear from a people equipped with means of artistic expression.
Those who control culture shape society. And those who control wealth shape cultural production. In class societies the privileged are the ones who weaponise art; who use it is an instrument of class war. They commission, or simply buy, art. They control the galleries, the museums, popular culture production via the media. Everything they do is a bid simultaneously to reproduce their wealth and spread their dominance over the realm of the aesthetic. To democratise society, we need to disrupt the two-way relationship between cultural and wealth production.
Sotheby’s was Banksy-ed last week. Bansky’s stunt was a brilliant individual act of subversive disruption. But it was also proof that the most subversive act ends up enriching the already rich when confined to the realm of the rich – within a Sotheby’s auction. Even the most subversive individualism ends up being co-opted by the art market, with the self-destructing commodity giving rise to a new, higher order,… commodity.
To democratise society, to turn art into an instrument of defending the victims of the class war, we need to transcend individualist disruptions. We need our interventions to take place on the streets, in the neighbourhoods, in deprived state schools, in the communities. We need to produce our own progressive culture, a 21st century version of what Antonio Gramsci prescribed: a hegemonic, progressive cultural production program. That’s the only way by which to oppose the ruling class’ power to mould our environment so that their interests begin to be perceived as general, natural and inevitable.
Michael Young once said that if the soil creates castes the machine manufactures classes. To that I wish to add that platform-capitalism, aided and abetted by AI and automation, is about to take us back (or is it forward?) to a postmodern rendition of the caste system. This is our generation’s war.
DiEM Voice, with our event here at Central St Martin’s tonight, is inviting everyone to debate DiEM25’s art and culture policy agenda; the agenda best able to help us win this war. A policy agenda on its own is, of course, useless. But, a progressive movement needs a policy agenda to be inspired, to inspire and to have as a guide of what we want to do once powerful enough to do something significant.
But, let art as an instrument of war not be the last image we leave this theatre with. For a satisfying peace must be this struggle’s aim. In the words of William Morris, “art, using that word in its widest and due signification, is not a mere adjunct of life which free and happy people can do without, but the necessary expression and indispensable instruments of human happiness.” That’s the kind of un-alienated human life that only a capacity to play as adults (i.e. a capacity to explore the world via our varied artistic, individual, potential) can enable.
Let’s leave this theatre with our minds immersed in visions of the good society. Allow me to share some random thoughts of mine regarding that vision. I want to live in a society where people do not work until they drop because they must, or because they have been wound up to think they are loving it. I do not want a society in which people are stressed either because of too much or too little alienating work. I demand the right to live in a society in which people don’t feel compelled to go to work while sick or get sick while working. I want working people not to have to be afraid. I want white women and black men to walk the streets with the same fearlessness as pale men. I want to live in a society where every tortured soul is valued as much as an eccentric genius. Where the worst artist is more respected than the most successful financier.
We must persist. We must create this society. We must create it before we can believe it is possible. For the hell of it. After all the only reason good art is ever produced is for the hell of it. One work at a time. One election at the time. One victory for working people at a time. Tomorrow is another world. Carpe DiEM25!
The above speech was delivered in the context of DiEM25’s event HERE AND NOW!, that took place on 10th October 2018 at Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design, the purpose of which was to present DiEM25’s Art and Culture Policy Agenda, and to invite everyone to contribute to its writing. To join DiEM25, click here. If interested to participate in our Art & Culture Policy Paper, see below: