I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just a Trick

By Ben Eastham
  • Ben Eastham
    Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review, a journal on the arts and literature published in print and online. His writing has featured in publications including the Art Newspaper, New York Times, The London Review of Books, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Elephant, and Illuminations: the 54th Venice Biennale. He is the co-author, with Katya Tylevich, of My Life as a Work of Art, due out in 2016 with Laurence King.

In his memoir, Penny Rimbaud, the drummer from British punk band Crass, recalls a gig in 1979 at London’s Conway Hall. Crass were at the top of a bill which also included the Rondos, a Dutch band with a stated commitment to Maoism. From the start of the evening there were rumors that a large contingent from the Far Right planned to storm the stage, and that fights between skinheads and Trotskyites were inevitable. Rimbaud was disdainful of the “sad need for vicarious thrills” that he saw behind the antagonism, and dismissive of the high-mindedness of the leftist faction: “Of course some skinheads purported to support the [fascist] British Movement, but then the Queen purported to support egalitarianism. Very few skinheads were convinced fascists, and even if they were, so what? They were the ones who could have most benefited from what we had to say.”

The band—anarchists, advocates of animal rights, environmentalism, and direct action—performed regularly to an audience of bovver boys, Trots, football fans, and kids, and pointedly refrained from telling anyone what to think (“left wing, right wing, you can stuff the lot”). The night at Conway Hall ended with blood spilled, but in his memoir Rimbaud goes on to take issue with the Guardian for stating that it was the British Movement who caused the trouble, when he remembers the self-appointed defenders of the Left kicking it off. He is furious with the paper’s lazy liberal assumption that skinheads must have been responsible, not because he is interested in defending the Right or the Left but because this scapegoating “wrecked any possibility of success for our commitment to open dialogue.” The point of Crass was to create an environment in which to engage, without judgment or prejudice, with an audience of diverse opinions and by these means to challenge entrenched divisions. The Guardian, by assuming that the arts were the province of the liberal Left, made that impossible.

I was reminded of this account of the ability of the arts to address a spectrum of political opinion when, about a week before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, frieze magazine commissioned two dozen or so United Kingdom-based artists, writers, and curators to offer their thoughts on whether the country should Leave or Remain. Each of the respondents (myself included) expressed the hope, in terms ranging from the flippant to the overblown, that the country would stay. A few caveats were raised—frustration with the anti-democratic politicking of Brussels and the union’s collusion in the punishment of states such as Greece, which challenge, however briefly, its austerity driven, neoliberal policies 1The IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office has since reported that the organization appallingly mismanaged, sacrificed (“immolated,” in Yanis Varoufakis’ terms) Greece in a “holding action” in order to save the eurozone. See: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “IMF admits disastrous love affair with the euro and apologises for the immolation of Greece,” The Telegraph (29 July 2016), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/07/28/imf-admits-disastrous-love-affair-with-euro-apologises-for-the-i/ (accessed 20 August 2016).—but the prevailing sentiment was summarized in Olivia Laing’s pithy (some would say dismissive), “Remain, of course.”

This is symptomatic of a truth that has dawned late for so many of those who voted in vain to Remain: that the presumption of self-evidence when presenting the case for the European Union was perhaps the greatest failure of the Remain campaign and, we might argue, of the arts’ response to the most important political decision of my generation. In the context of frieze’s readership, that was probably empirically true: one speculates that few of thembarring the art world intelligentsia’s smattering of Lexit-advocating Marxists—would have disagreed with the sentiment expressed by Laing’s “of course.” The magazine’s attempt to gather opinion was admirable, but everyone wrote from the same position to an audience that was presumed to be of like mind. I was as guilty as anyone of that comfort, as the embarrassing breeziness of my contribution attests.

We now have to accept, for better or worse, that Britain is in the midst of a popular insurgency against the establishment, and that the arts are—following the fault lines of a split that does not follow the traditional ideological demarcation between Left and Right—unmistakably on the side of the establishment. To put it another way: a straightforward majority of the population finds itself without meaningful representation by artists. 2The New Statesman’s handy guide to the “Celebrity Brexit Wars” does identify a few exceptions, among them Julian Fellowes, Roger Daltrey, Joan Collins, and Bucks Fizz’s Cheryl Baker. See: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/brexit/2016/06/celebrity-brexit-wars-which-famous-people-are-and-against-leaving-eu (accessed 28 August 2016). The correlation between that estrangement and the broader sense of disenfranchisement in those regions whose voters opted to leave the union only reinforces the sense that “the arts”—meaning the institutionalized, intricately networked, disproportionately London-based group of people for whom it is a profession—now denotes a clique comparable in the popular imaginary to the infamous “Westminster Bubble” (Americans will be familiar with this phenomenon as “Washington”). It seems hard to dispute, as Ben Davis put it in “After Brexit, Art Must Break Out of Its Bubble,” his insightful piece for Artnet, that “artists,” or at least those with a wider presence, do not have a direct line to the “national consciousness.”

Which rather begs the question of how they might “break out of the bubble.” I have already stated that I voted to Remain, and I would reiterate here that I strongly believe in the virtues of a united Europe. Is it hypocritical, then, to wish perspectives other than my own were better represented? Perhaps, but it is predicated on the conviction that a functioning democracy depends upon the open expression of diverse opinions, and that it is the purpose of the media and, I would contend, the arts to make possible the exchange of such ideas, to create what Rimbaud characterized as a forum for “open dialogue.” The arts failed, in one sense, not because any individual failed in their duty to advocate for what they sincerely felt to be the case but rather because everyone did. I would expect anyone with my perspective on the situation—framed by my ethnicity, age, dual nationality, socioeconomic background, profession, and social circle—to share my opinion, and a brief glimpse at the dismayingly narrow range of opinions expressed over my social media feed in the past few months seems only to confirm that correlation. When a startlingly high percentage of the represented art world shares that set of circumstances, it is unsurprising that the opinions expressed within it are so uniform. One wonders if it were possible, instead, to create a situation where the artist’s (or the institution’s) own opinions might be withheld in order that others could be heard.

The absence of diverse voices within the arts (and I am using that phrase to refer to the professionalized, institutionalized class of creative practice) is, of course, more broadly symptomatic of a familiar systemic failure. No one with any experience of London’s creative networks or knowledge of recent changes to the British education system—most damagingly, the imposition of tuition fees by the previous coalition government—will be surprised that the social ecosystem of the arts is not representative of wider society. This is not an issue confined to London, although one recent ray of light here has been the stated intention of the city’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, to devote substantial resources to arts education and outreach. While we wait to see if he holds true to his word, it strikes me that artists and writers working now might—rather than abrogating responsibility entirely or wringing their hands—do more to represent the opinions of the wider populace rather than disdain them.

I have heard it said on several occasions, and I doubt I am alone in this, that the 52 percent of the population who voted to leave Europe did so out of ignorance, stupidity, or variations on those terms. 3Not only spoken by Londoners: see the New York Times’ account of how the citizens of the “once-proud” (no longer?) “working-class city” of Sunderland had voted “against their own interests”: Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “Pro-‘Brexit’ City of Sunderland Glad to Poke Establishment in the Eye,” The New York Times (27 June 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/world/europe/european-union-brexit-sunderland-britain-cameron.html?_r=0 (accessed 20 July 2016). Indeed, the repeated complaint that sectors of the non-metropolitan populace voted “against their own self-interest” has been one of the most revealing indicators of a refusal to address legitimate dissatisfactions with the recent government of this country, or to acknowledge that there might exist arguments for voting in favor of Brexit that “we”—and it is undoubtedly a “we”—are not willing to hear. The implication is that the existing elite should be allowed benevolently to dictate the conditions without recourse to messy democracy or the formulation and popular communication of a cogent argument.

This betrays something akin to the Burkean haughtiness to which so many object in the policy making of Brussels, and which so infuriates the large swathes of the populace who feel that the established political parties no longer represent their interests. The injunction to “take back control” of the country, so regularly dismissed as quasi-fascist by those eager to dismiss Leave voters as unworthy of the franchise, might equally—in fact better—be understood as a determination to reassert democratic controls over a federal union that has become increasingly autocratic in its imposition of policies that the same “we” should find deeply uncomfortable (the European Union’s profoundly anti-democratic response to the Greek referendum of 2015 is just one example). One could feasibly cast the sacrifice of the country’s economic stability for the sake of democracy as a heroic act on behalf of those communities who have suffered most in the forty years since Britain joined the European Union. You would have to look hard to find that interpretation expressed in the professionalized circles of contemporary art (I am prepared to be corrected), though it seems to me—in the logic of its formulation if not its thrust—a perfectly reasonable one.

The point of this piece of devil’s advocacy is to point out how rare, outside the tiny minority of Lexit supporters, the expression of such sentiments has been in an arts community which prides itself on the adoption and articulation of radical or anti-establishment political positions. This is not necessarily to take individual artists to task for failing to hold such opinions, or to ask them to act in bad faith. But would it not be refreshing, even energizing, to see such opinions expressed even if in provocation in the gallery spaces we visit, in the pages of the magazines we read, on stage at the gigs we attend?

One might reasonably contend that artists have a responsibility to act in accordance with their conscience. Yet that is an argument we have been hearing a great deal from politicians recently, which each time prompts the reflection that they might spend less time thinking about how best to be true to their own delicate selves and more on accurately representing to parliament the will of their constituents. Indirect democracy depends on a dialogue between the represented and the representative, and to take refuge behind one’s conscience instead of engaging with those you purport to represent can sometimes be a dereliction of duty rather than an act of principle. Brexit is a symptom of the breakdown in the relationship between the political class and its constituents; it reflects a schism, too, between the arts and its wider audience. Neither seems able to recognize itself in the other, and the likelihood of open dialogue fades.

The conflation of personal integrity with the fulfillment of a responsibility toward those who depend upon you for the expression of their feelings is at the heart of the current crisis in politics. It is perhaps unfair to draw a direct parallel, but if we believe that the arts should serve as an arena for the expression of popular feeling then we might also ask whether artists might spend less time broadcasting their own political convictions and more time canvassing and then attempting to translate into work the experiences of their fellow citizens, putting to one side their own (conditioned) opinions and attempting, instead, to make the voices of others heard.

This is admittedly difficult to achieve in a society in which we have come (for good reason) to be suspicious of those who claim to speak on behalf of others. Martin Amis’ disastrous “state of the nation” novel Lionel Asbo (2012) springs to mind as an example of how fraught the attempt to even fictionalize a subjectivity so far removed in social position (meaning class) from the author’s can be, but we must believe that the novel’s failure was one of imagination rather than category. The potential for embarrassment still strikes me as preferable to enclosure in an echo chamber of self-affirming opinions (and again, it is worth restating here that the art world has its own particular consensus, in which neither opposing Trident nor expressing reservations about the art fair circuit marks you out as a person of particularly courageous convictions, which is not to say that you are wrong).

Perhaps we might even argue, contra the prevailing tendency toward a “new sincerity” so long ago identified by David Foster Wallace, in favor of a shift toward a discomfiting, provocative insincerity. If that makes possible the expression of opinions that would otherwise be censored, whether or not the speaker agrees with them, then it seems like a step in the direction of a more representative art. It is in art—precisely because art provides us with an arena for the exchange of ideas in which they do not have any meaningful consequences—that we should be encouraging devil’s advocacy, trying at least to understand alien political and social positions rather than beating the audience over the head with our own lightly held prejudices. It is ironic, or illustrative, that among those artistic movements that we now revere as having the greatest sociopolitical impact—punk and Dada spring to mind—are those which pointedly forswore political allegiance and didacticism in favor of disruptive playfulness and performance. Anything but the self-righteousness of the 48 percent. So perhaps this is a call for a radical unseriousness, or for the artist to relinquish politics so as to make politics among her audience possible.