Sunday, July 9, 2017

Culture and the State

A commentator alerted me to a blog post by Ian Pace answering a Guardian article by Stella Duffy which was itself inspired by a report on culture by King's College London. I want to go to the source and have a look at that original report because, to my mind, how these things often go awry is in their original base assumptions, which may or may not be clearly stated, but can usually be inferred. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the report:
Towards cultural democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone is the final report of King’s fourth Cultural Enquiry. On the basis of a 15-month research project, it presents a timely and distinctive vision of how to build a cultural life for the UK that is valuable for everyone, and made by all.  
At the heart of the report is a call for a radical but pragmatic new approach to understanding and enabling cultural opportunity. It is argued that cultural opportunities are comprised of a far broader range of freedoms than access to already existing publicly funded arts – the primary focus of current cultural policy.
Whilst acknowledging the vital importance of the publicly funded arts and the profit-making creative industries, the report casts a spotlight on their relationships with everyday creativity – a plethora of cultural activity that is happening around the UK but which is often overlooked. It demonstrates how the arts, creative industries and everyday creativity are not separate but deeply interconnected, enabling each other to flourish. It then makes the crucial connection between these activities and the range of socially-embedded freedoms they require in order to be possible.
In doing so, Towards cultural democracy sheds light on the explosion of cultural creativity that could be happening if the arts, creative industries and everyday creativity were better connected. This would radically increase everyone’s substantive freedom to co-create versions of culture: what the report refers to as cultural capability. This is the report’s proposal for a new way to understand what cultural opportunity consists of, moving well beyond access to currently existing publicly funded arts.
Cultural capability – the combined freedom to speak, to express, to be heard, to experience, to make, to build, to contest, to create – is the key idea at the heart of this report. Documenting and analysing conditions in which people lead empowered cultural lives, the report identifies key ways in which future policy and practice have the potential to more fully realise cultural capability for everyone. It is on this basis that the report offers its distinctive vision of cultural democracy: an achievable future in which the substantive freedom to co-create versions of culture is enjoyed by all.
That really checks all the boxes, doesn't it? 15 months of research. A timely and distinctive vision. Cultural opportunity for everyone. Broader range of freedoms. Everyday creativity. Substantive freedom to co-create. And so on. Lot of repetition here. But it's all positive! Wonderfully positive. And deeply interconnected. Any time you read something this positive, swimming in lovely abstractions, you are reading something whose nature is fundamentally political. Everyone's life will be better and there is no price to be paid. More and better freedoms! Cultural capability!

What utter nonsense.

Cultural capability, I am sorry to say, is not something that can be ferreted out by 15 months of research and guaranteed by new and improved government programs even if they are both radical and pragmatic. The only thing that can improve your or my or anyone's "cultural capability" (which is a really smelly little concept in the first place) is work. Your or my work. Individual work. The siren call of the state is the siren call of the collective. Together we can do anything. Except the abstract collective never does anything because it is a mere abstraction.

The blurb advertising the report is indicative:
Everyday creativity (i.e., the enormously diverse range of cultural and creative practices that take place outside of the publicly funded arts and the profit-making creative industries) is a hugely important part of the UK’s cultural ecology and needs to be taken seriously.
Do you see what is really going on here? The state is essentially taking charge of the cultural practices of every citizen. The first stage was stepping in and subsidizing all those traditional arts institutions so that they became dependent on the state. The next stage is stepping in and subsidizing local and amateur cultural activities so THEY too become dependent on the state. Why do I infer this? It is obvious really. The only reason to spend 15 months researching "everyday creativity" and setting as your goal promoting cultural capabilities for EVERYONE is to launch new government programs staffed by hosts of new bureaucrats. See, that's the part that is left out. This is a hostile takeover, by the state, of every single thing every citizen might do that could be loosely construed as "cultural."

This idea was expressed very succinctly by the historical forebear of government actions like this:
All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. 
--Benito Mussolini, Speech to Chamber of Deputies (9 December 1928), quoted in Propaganda and Dictatorship (2007) by Marx Fritz Morstein, p. 48.

A pull quote from the report lets the cat out of the bag:
In the context of the deep and widespread political division expressed through the 2016 EU referendum campaign and vote, it is increasingly clear that new approaches to many of the UK’s political processes require urgent and radical attention. This includes how cultural policy operates – and who and what cultural policy is for. Questions about how culture is made and by who, and which creative activity gets recognised and supported, are matters in which we all have a profound and ever more urgent interest.
The Brexit vote was a horrifying moment for the intelligentsia in the UK: good grief, there is this whole large sector of society that we were largely unaware of that hold opinions that we have not approved! We must extend our opinion-shaping capabilities to include these people!

Let's recall another quote from a well-known politician:
The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'
--Ronald Reagan.


Steven said...

Another Mussolini quotation that comes to mind is where he compares the liberal and the fascist state. After describing the ideal state as absolute, a central force about which all people are relative, he writes that the liberal state is ‘merely a force limited to the function of recording results’ while the Fascist state has ‘a will and a personality -- thus it may be called the ‘“ethic” State’. [Benito Mussolini, The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism, trans. Jane Soames (London: Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1933) p. 21] Do those such as the authors of the report have much of a disagreement with this analysis? If they were unaware of the provenance, and you switched the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘fascist’ for something more modern, I doubt they could honestly disagree. I’m sure many would love to institute a kind of Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro.

But I don’t know if it’s the state itself that’s the problem, or just its expanding democratic aspects. (And Fascism was partly a democratic phenomenon, I'd say.) Our waning constitutional monarchy in Britain is still rather good for the arts. At least you can have a chap like Prince Charles making very bold interventions into town planning and architecture, and attending disproportionately to the arts. Plus, I can’t possibly imagine life without the state-funded BBC Radio 3, or indeed the BBC Proms.

Bryan Townsend said...

Did you know that Stravinsky, in the 20s and 30s, was a big fan of Mussolini? Yes, it has been proposed before that a great deal of the doctrine promoted by the left these days resembles pretty closely the Fascism of the 30s.

Not the state as such, after all it is really indispensable when acting in its proper sphere, but rather the uncontrolled growth of the administrative, bureaucratic state that constantly is seeking new fields that it can take over and administer.

But the deep and continuing support of the high arts in the UK and the continent is a wonderful thing, no argument there!

Marc Puckett said...

"What utter nonsense" indeed. I got to the second sentence: "... how to build a cultural life for the UK that is valuable for everyone, and made by all". Do those people know anyone other than the comrades they're seated next to in their offices? for Heaven's sake. I meet people every day, at work, at the supermarket, on the bus, alas at Mass-- who I don't want anywhere near 'responsibility for my cultural life'. Tsk. But I'll read the articles and your post, although perhaps not until tomorrow. Am still coming down off last night's Handelian high.

Anonymous said...

Good rant. I agree these initiatives are plain dumb. But you overegg the pudding when you say" The first stage was stepping in and subsidizing all those traditional arts institutions so that they became dependent on the state." First of all, it's oddly conspirational; second, may I point out your forgetfulness? Indeed, you forgot to tell us that every single one of these wonderful institutions you visited in Madrid this year were subsidized by the State. You forgot to tell us how awful they were -- being one more step toward fascism.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't do rants! Ahem. I do elegantly phrased critiques. 8>)

Yes, of course, European support of the arts is wonderful and very necessary. But there is a potential downside. The initiative discussed in this post is one. But there are others. I was just discussing one in this post:

@Marc: tell us about the Handel!

Steven said...

Yes, well Fascism was quite a leftist movement in its inception, but it did drift right. The left today seem more like that 1919 blend of Futurism and Fascist mass movement. Wasn't Stravinsky quite conservative, especially religiously?

Your Tocquevillian point is hard to disagree with. But of course Tocqueville also made some wonderfully pessimistic comments about democracy and the arts. He pointed out that it creates inferior art and mundane obsessions. 'The painters of the Renaissance generally looked for great subjects that would either transcend themselves or allude to the remote past in such a way as to provide a vast scope for their imagination. Our painters often use their talent to reproduce exactly the details of private life that are constantly before them, and copy from every conceivable angle petty objects of which nature provides only too many originals.'

Marc Puckett said...

“By the end of the day it meant that every person on site, including our wonderful volunteers, had found at least one piece of a letter. It was a day none of us will ever forget.”

Amazing triumph of the demos! even each one of the volunteers!

That is the last sentence of an article at the G. this morning about a new find of Roman letters. The penultimate sentence perhaps confuses the issue, but what's important is that every one wins the prize!

Oh, the performance of Hercules was flawed, and a couple of the soloists managed to screech just a bit as their voices escaped their control, and I missed the final duet between Iole and Hyllus which for some reason wasn't sung, and.... But it was, taken all together, a wonderful evening.

Matthew Halls, recovering from the pregnancy, introduced the concert (Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducted) by mentioning that this was the first time in OBF history that Hercules had been sung, implying that there might be more Handel to come in succeeding seasons, which received a huge round of applause. I wonder if it would've been quite as loud, afterward. On my part, certainly.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I read one description of the difference between communism and fascism as being that in communism the state owns the means of production while in fascism they are in private hands, but the state still makes the big decisions. Very complex figure, Stravinsky. He did become religiously conservative in his later years.

It has been many years since I read Tocqueville! Thanks for the quote. Yes, my feeling is that democracy and populism do not tend to inspire the best art. Harold Bloom offered some thoughts on this in The Closing of the American Mind which Roger Kimball summarizes as follows:

"As Bloom recognized, the fruits of egalitarianism are ignorance, the habit of intellectual conformity, and the systematic subjection of cultural achievement to political criteria. In the university, this means classes devoted to pop novels, rock videos, and third-rate works chosen simply because their authors are members of the requisite sex, ethnic group, or social minority. It means students who graduate not having read Milton or Dante or Shakespeare—or, what is in some ways even worse, who have been taught to regard the works of such authors chiefly as hunting grounds for examples of patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism, etc. It means faculty and students who regard education as an exercise in disillusionment and who look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction."

Bryan Townsend said...

Just seeing your new comment now, Marc. I'm just amazed they are finding letters, Letters!, from Roman Britain.

You don't get the chance to see a Handel opera very often, so congrats.

Steven said...

Yeah, I just read Closing of the American Mind recently. Seemed fairly contemporary, with a decent chapter on music, though the pop references are somewhat outdated. Is Kimball worth reading? I read The New Criterion now and again but have never bothered to pick up one of his books.

Bryan Townsend said...

Roger Kimball is one of a very small group of public intellectuals who writes about cultural matters from a non-leftist viewpoint, so in that way he is worth reading. But I find another Roger, Roger Scruton, more interesting and he has written specifically about the aesthetics of music.

Ian Pace said...

There was a reply by Anna Bull to the original responses here:

And then replies to Anna Bull's post here: