There can be little doubt that the swathing cuts foisted upon the University sector by this regressive government will lead to the total privatisation of higher arts education in the UK. As a result, access to courses will be limited to those who can afford the staggeringly high fees and the occasional scholarship student lucky enough to have made the grade. The policy is not only wrongheaded but clearly ideological. The coalition refuse to grasp the basic idea that learning and education can have value beyond the simply vocational. It also provides the perfect opportunity for space hungry vice-chancellors to finally get rid of the Fine Art Courses that have been inconveniently clogging up expensive resources for years. It’s deeply depressing and the best critique of Government policy is Claire Bishops most recent article in e-flux found here http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/209.
It was for this reason and from a genuine wish to ‘do something about it’ that I recently attended the first Arts Long Weekend at Goldsmiths College organised by the sprawling coalition Arts Against the Cuts. It was the weekend before the final vote on Student Fees and it felt like an opportune time for Making A Living to have a voice in the debate. The day began well; it was clear that the attendance was spread across the sector with academics, students, artists, activists, curators and administrators giving up some or all of their weekend to get involved with mobilising protest or just to simply let off steam. Pleasingly the early discussions seemed to transcend mere posturing and there was a purposeful air to the proceedings. It was a hopeful, enlivening and vaguely therapeutic starting point.
After the first group meeting the day split into two elements; first a series of discussion groups lead by academics and artists about the future of Arts Education and secondly workshops designed to brainstorm how direct action could be mobilised against the cuts. I decided to flit between the two, however as the morning evolved a tedious and reductive political agenda was beginning to emerge in some of the discussions. The most apt example was when a well-known artist duo categorically stated without a hint of irony that the only answer to the current situation was “International Communism”. The assertion was met with what appeared to be general agreement across the board so I decided to beat a hasty retreat into a rather charming coffee shop in New Cross (and the momentary comforts of the evil capitalist state) to think about what had just been said.
After my soothing skinny mini chinny cappuccino I still felt like I needed to contribute to the discussion as it’s terms hadn’t shifted; what can I do to help protect higher Art Education from the cuts? The thought though of returning to the freezing Goldsmiths student Union was too much to bare so I resolved instead to return to the fray at the Tate teach-in planned for the announcement of the Turner Prize later that week. It seemed like an elegant and well-placed protest that got straight to the heart of the matter – it had the potential to make maximum impact and to mobilise some of the sectors power brokers and the public – something that was for once a very good thing.
The Tate Teach-In
The teach-in again began well. There were over 150 attendees with representatives from across the sector. There was a clear agenda that made the link between the Turner Prize and Art schools – without art schools we’d have no Turner Prize – simple, elegant and purposeful. The first 2 ‘lectures’ harnessed the anger and concern of the assembled protestors and there were moments of genuine solidarity. Around us the tired old works by the usual YBA suspects suddenly took on a new life; I found myself getting a lump in my throat as one speaker talked eloquently about the death of the humanities if government policy was allowed to proceed. We applauded, stamped our feet and roared our approval.
And then it all changed.
The ‘teach-in’ then shifted gear into what I have to reluctantly call an ideological rant. Instead of remaining focused on the issue at hand – the cuts to arts education– the next 2 speakers proceeded to pontificate about a good old-fashioned Marxist revolution. They were not it seemed talking about a re-appraisal of the good bits of Marx but rather an entrenched, dogmatic and puritanical rehashing of the same old rubbish that has become very familiar to anyone involved in any major protest in recent years.
It was deeply boring, on occasions idiotic, irritating and at worst completely irrelevant as I’m not sure whether 150 slightly undernourished arts professionals were really up to the revolutionary task. No one mentioned freedom of expression, no one raised an objection and those who felt alienated (including me) made their excuses and quietly sidled off. Since then I’ve decided to step out of the protests organised by the pressure group and I’ve little appetite to return (which will probably come as a relief to many).
Why are we here?
“In our age the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists for totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy” George Orwell, The Prevention of Literature, January 1946.
To a degree I’m playing dumb here and I want to make clear that I’m not disputing anyone’s right to be involved in the debate. There is obviously a link between an ongoing dissatisfaction with the Status Quo and revolutionary and radical politics and I’m not dismissing any attempt to make things better by imagining better alternatives. Marxist theory is of course rightly part of such discussions and I am often delighted by the old bastard’s perception, prescience and humanity as well as being acutely aware of his limitations and failings.
As well as Marx though I’m also rather interested in Adam Smith and I’m often delighted by his perception, prescience and humanity as well as being acutely aware of the old git’s limitations and failings. I feel the same way about Badiou, Ranciere, Lacan, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Hegel, Dawkins, Marcuse, De Botton (yes, really), Adorno, Bourriard, Satre, Freud, Everett, my Mum, my Dad and my friends. In fact I’m interested in a lot of stuff (including Deal or No Deal) and I retain the right to cherry pick what I think makes sense at any given time. My opinions are guided by the best (and worst) information I can get my hands on and I’m always willing to change my mind or admit I’m wrong (which I often am). It may all sound a bit too relativist for some readers but I actually couldn’t give a royal shit what you think.
Artists are at their most radical when independent of dogma and able to find their own voice, instead of regurgitating the utterances of others. Art colleges are important for this very reason; people like this are in my view the very best and they will always be the natural enemy of vested interest and extremism. Often such extremes will predictably dismiss such an autonomous position by saying that it’s deluded and that treasured intellectual freedoms are an illusion; they may have a point but where would you rather discuss the issue? Here or in the former Soviet Union or the current North Korea?
It was these freedoms (deluded or otherwise) that the students in Tiananmen Square were prepared to die for in 1989 – it’s useful to remember this before indulging anyone who has even a passing sympathy for their oppressors. It’s also worth remembering other atrocities committed in the name of Communism. For a start, the estimated death toll attributed to the ideology’s many regimes stands at approximately 94 million lives (1). Of course, Chomsky (2) is right to point out that Capitalism also has a sordid record, however that valid observation can’t be used to excuse the obscenities perpetrated by Communism. Just because both systems have histories of brutality and oppression it doesn’t mean that the ‘other’ is any better. It’s the most absurd inhumane and fatalistic numbers game you can play.
Above there are two anecdotal examples of distracting political agendas competing for airtime with urgent discussions about art education. It serves to muddy the waters of the debate and at worst it appears to promote a dogma that is inescapably associated with vile oppression. This is something that the students and Arts Against the Cuts movement will have to tackle head-on otherwise they run the risk of losing the argument before it’s even begun by accidentally promoting the hypocrisy within their midst.
Of course the Neoliberal project started by Thatcher has caused a huge amount of damage to the Keynesian economic model of Social Democracy and we must continue to place pressure on the government to acknowledge its responsibilities towards all of its citizens. Protecting Art and culture for all and the intellectual health of the nation is part of this ongoing battle. This should not however signal a retreat into the divisionist and oppressive terms of political extremism. This is not only wrapped in a bizarre, warped, ill-informed nostalgia but also signals a dramatic failure of imagination – something that as artists we should never be guilty of. Making art is a political act in itself and as long as artists are able to present their independent view of the world then they will continue to undermine extremism, dogma and propaganda wherever it raises its ugly head. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Paula Dodds – Artist, Writer, Curator and Lecturer 2011
1. Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression Edited by Stéphane Courtois (Éditions Robert Laffont)
This book is an attempt chart the total deaths caused by Communist Regimes and this was the estimated conclusion. A former Moaist, Courtois is now an outspoken anti-communist and a supporter of pluralism, democracy, human rights and the Rechsstaat.
2. Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs Noam Chomsky P177-178 (Pluto Press)
Stated in criticism to Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, repression “the democratic capitalist ‘experiment’ has caused more deaths than in the entire history of … Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, and tens of millions more since, in India alone.”