[A brief response that I wrote to a good friend of mine, who was asked to give a talk on the theme “opportunities in crisis”, very slightly edited to make a bit more sense]
I guess I begin with the question:
Whose crisis is this?
I think I’m with Andrew Haydon and Chris Goode when they question the way in which we’re being asked to accede to this rhetoric of crisis. To be ‘mature’ about the inevitability of cuts. It conceals the alarming ideological rhetoric that underpins the situation we presently find ourselves in.
And by ‘situation’ I don’t simply mean the fact that a lot of arts organisations or libraries or educational institutions are going to have quite a bit less money now. I mean the situation in which we collectively find ourselves, trapped in the smouldering end of a particularly brutal strain of late capitalism. A place where the ability to accrue profit is the overwhelming standard by which any entity or individual is measured. A place in which consequently anything else – be it education, the arts, personal freedom, and even (in Cameron’s grim re-appropriation of the term) society itself – is seen merely as a desirable though non-essential means of sustaining us as growth-producers. Here we all are, the patronised and marginalised peons of Clegg’s ‘Alarm Clock Britain’, press-ganged into voluntarily staffing our own libraries and theatres and youth centres, burdened with the responsibility for making our own lives bearable enough to continue to crank the machinery of capitalism for another day.
Art is not a hot water bottle in a cold bed. It is not the stress-relieving wank sputtered out at the end of an exhaustingly long day. Art is not just about making our lives better. It is about making our lives meaningful. It is about making our lives mean anything.
Be very sure, the cuts we are presently facing are not purely the result of any economic crisis – they are the most telling expression of a nakedly ideological position. One barely opposed by a Labour party leader who considers the idea of striking on the day of the Royal wedding ‘appalling’. Red Ed, that flag-burning, barricade storming son of Marx, an Islington Keir Hardie so resolutely committed to cause of universal Socialism he didn’t even dare to speak at the student protests in London to tell them he broadly agreed with what they were doing. A man who wouldn’t recognise cultural hegemony is if Gramsci himself came up and bit him on the knee.
So whose crisis is this? Because I don’t want to sign up to any agenda that suggests that the ‘mature’ or ‘pragmatic’ or ‘positive’ response to this crisis is to consider how it might best be considered an opportunity.
Because the crisis isn’t afflicting the system, the crisis is the system. And the opportunity that we presently find ourselves with is to imagine a better world, not to consider how might most resourcefully continue to keep on keeping on in the present one.
The point, I think, if there is one, is that we are not all living in the same crisis. And consequently collectively strategies for dealing with said ‘crisis’ need to begin by asking where we stand and what it is we are trying to achieve. If the only answer is survival, then that simply isn’t good enough. If the answer is something closer to ‘considering how the art that I make relates to a once-in-a-generation moment of socio-political antagonism between the powerful and those they are trying to render helpless,’ then perhaps that’s somewhere to begin.