It’s a culture war we’re caught in. If it’s everyone who loses in a retreat behind borders, our first line duty is to put Art back in the forge.
God knows, I love stories. So do you. And – don’t flinch, Captain Culture – storytelling is going to be a useful word for a while yet, in framing our views of the world, when all views are being challenged. Go on, I dare you to use it without a twitch in front of your colleagues who are so agile they smirk at the word agile. Do it. Say storytelling in a *creative strategy* meeting. Make them roll their eyes, it’s adoreable how leading edge they are.
But, I feel reminded by an event this week. The future won’t simply be told, it will be made. And if we’re going to save it for all of us, in some grand notional declaration in a time of ugly conflicts, then here is one: It’s not weapons we’ll need, it’s tools.
If you’re an activist-minded person who’s even half awake, you’re going to tell me we are above all at this point in human history in a culture war. And actual fascists are martialling actual funds to seize actual political power across the west – so when will anyone go out to actually meet them?
And you’re right.
But meet them with what?
Lastnight I took a train to the capital to attend a thing. Been to a couple of them in recent months, things. And at these things, lots of nice clever people turn up and want to listen to other clever and often nice but better known people talk about things. Especially now, when there’s rather a lot to talk about. Lastnight’s thing caught me with it’s title, which is why I went: “Here and Now: A Creative Vision for Europe”
Run by DiEM25, the progressive democracy in Europe movement, it brought together some jolly cultural sounding people indeed – art music god and Bowie chum Brian Eno, rockstar economist Yanis Varoufakis, actual rockstar from Primal Scream Bobby Gillespie, the artist Danae Stratou and the erudite Rosemary Bechler of Open Democracy, among others.
And they were all inspiring and well articulated in the discussion hosted in Central St Martins’ Platform Theatre.
It was an evening full of great quotes, good analysis, helpful ways of seeing some things around us in democratically challenging times, all lit at a cultural angle. “Yanis Varoufakis spoke of the importance of collective, creative intervention and highlighted
@diem_25’s aim to create a collaborative agenda for cultural democratic policy” as St Martins tweeted, which he did and it was insightful. And at the end of the whole evening, I couldn’t help feeling the event still didn’t quite do what I think we are utterly compelled to do at the moment: Imagine actual ways to respond, creatively.
There were many wise take-homes – but no new story.
Which is a shame, because if there was one major take-home from the whole thing, it is the clarity that what we are living through right now is indeed a culture war. A war of ideas. Of outlooks. Of… go on: narratives.
What marks do we make on the Now around us? The Now of fearsome realities Really? We can say that today we are, in our greatest numbers, much more used to being only consumers of culture than makers, shapers. But creativity has never been more democratic – outside the old “systems”. Technologically and socially, kind of anyone can Have A Go at creative production. Making content.
Thing is, those old systems of creative training had so much to help ordinary people find time to play – space to do thinking coupled crucially with bodily trying. But also doing it in a context of teaching and learning. One that could be a bear pit of petulant tutors and demon ruthless crits – but an essential kind of basic training, perhaps. Now we all play in the badlands. We play in the traffic. Formal art training is out of financial reach for most. Which seems depressing.
But does this mean culture is sold or just more widely diseminated? Waiting to be more deeply activated.
In political mark making, those on the “left” may be used to worthy causing and deploying rich language about social openness, justice. And amen – I love a salon. But it can all be shrouded in techno gabble of its own, I think. NGO and activist speak. Someone even quoted Oscar Wilde at the event – that socialism hasn’t taken over the world because the meetings are too long and too boring. No kidding.
So I want to ask, aside from the meetings, the salons, the ideas bashing about – which is all potentially inspiring and empowering – where are the tools to make marks on tomorrow, not just pieces of paper, or screens? Where are the tools to build the culture of a more sustainable future? What tools are we actually fashioning to do the job?
I think the mark being made on human history on our watch is that we are being carved apart with the blade of Victimhood. Phantoms, wraiths, ghosts – conjoured characters and stories – that somehow cut deep between the marrow of our social mix. Because of injustices unaddressed, chaoses unresovled, demons not exorcised. Truths we feel… inside.
What cultural tools do we even need to combat that?
If our two “sides” are fighting with different weapons, speaking different languages, then never mind how we even engage the “enemy” – how do we engage our friends? What are the tools and the building materials of the bridge to the more radically inclusive future? Because that’s the only sustainable one. The one to which we’re all invited. The one in which we all lose less.
If we are to defeat a culture war that many believe is the assault of a small number of people trying to hold on to old power in the face of fundamental changes coming, I have been thinking for a while that it’s time we truly woke up to the culture we’re all caught in.
A culture of disconnection. Even our heads from our bodies. Our living from the living planet. Our ambitions from our wellness. Our fears from reality. Our current popular idea of what art is from what it really is: Everyone’s. It is the tool we need to reconnect ourselves with the truth inside us – the very job storytelling is supposed to do. Not simply distract us, but have us walk through scenarios. Emotionally test bed things. Demonstrate ideas to us. And emotional truth – the thing we’re all really working around.
I think any cultural strategy has to give us practices to encourage openness. In in all we do. Whomever we meet. To habitualise facing truths together – yours, mine, theirs, ours. And this is surely about encouraging an openness to play. To be curious. To make marks. To testify… and to so find the emotional self possession to listen.
To do this, we must put our very idea of “Art” back in the forge. Melt it down in our minds.
Because art isn’t just mine. The “creative’s”. It isn’t the professional or aspiring artist’s. It’s everyone’s – our tool for reconciling truths in us, for exploring who we are and how we express ourselves as social, empathic creatures – how we connect – to others.
Now, I love a good tee shirt print. Even though I dislike wearing tee shirts – shirt’s gotta have a collar for me. But what is a tee shirt print? It’s a bit of branded merch. Let’s not waste the culture war only selling tees at the concert, however fun and playful tees and concerts are. We’ve got to do way more than that as already practicing artists and creatives.
We need to lead the way in fashioning the tools – the projects, the practices, the inclusions, the hellos, the playings – to equip every human as fellow artist.
The first job might be to get over our twitch at how tossy this sounds. Because that’s where our culture of disconnection has gotten us – art sounds tossy. Getting over this bullshit as much as the bullshit jobs of global culture is how we might clear mental space to write genuinely new stories of us. It’s how we might turn the page.
We surely demonstrate by doing our own work. But art is really the truth of testimony – and testimony can be powerfully crucial inspiration. It’s only the beginning, I think. Inculcating the future means practicing it, habitualising it, not giving up through the pains and failures and disallusionments and criticisms of it. And what is this if not the whole life experience of the artist.
If the artist is a storyteller, she or he is surely more fully a teacher. Not meant to only work in isolation, but using their empathetic skills and their talents of articulation to help others make vital new connections. And learn how to keep doing so for themselves. Do more than just make more content to drown in, but make deeper, truer, more inspiring, more empowering human connections.
We live in a pandemic of mental unwellness. It is a symptom of what’s wrong in our culture, I firmly believe. A sign to us, if we can suddenly see it. A sign we must begin to reconnect our heads to our bodies and our living bodies to the living planet they’re made out of. Kit Hill’s striking circus movement piece at the top of the evening was surely symbolic even beyond it’s shapes and story. “All the language around circus is politically negative – the balancing acts, the clowns, the very theatre of the media – but it’s such a personally empowering art form” she said afterwards. Art that makes you practice connection to your body more than any, but typifying the very hand-eye, muscle and mind vitality of the practice of any art. Why should only St Martins students benefit from this?
I think we shouldn’t hope to be activists but encouragers – working to help activate the creativity in all of us. The connected flow we will need between everyone in our one big shared conflict of trying to properly sort through our shit.
This might be what love really is. A will to encourage truer human flows. Let’s be utterly compelled to express that. Inspire that. I feel like I’ve barely started such a new story or how to forge those practical tools to make it. But the future depends on us doing so.
Someone quoted what may have been Marx lastnight, which will surprise you not a bit. Most political moves draw their poetry from the past. The truly radical political interventions will have to draw its poetry from the future.
It’s time to pull art out of the fire and make it into a tool much better fit for our purpose. Because we’re all going to have to dig deep for victory.