Thursday, 23 May 2013
Saturday, 13 April 2013
http://www.ustream.tv/channel/occupynewsnetwork?utm_campaign=t.co&utm_source=11808409&utm_medium=social watch the live stream of the party/protest in Trafalgar Square - whatever you think of the protests, they are happening and the news channels should provide good coverage of them. So far only the Guardian holding up the standards of impartial journalism and giving people live coverage...and the Occupy News Network are doing their own live stream too.
Wednesday, 10 April 2013
Margaret Thatcher - what’s left to say if we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead; a fact-based eulogy and a warning to contemporary politics
I thought I would be one of those celebrating the death of Thatcher. I was brought up to hate her politics, as my family left the country under her premiership, my father, having completed his PhD, dissatisfied with the kind of job security that temporary contracts afforded, a phenomena in universities at the time. As I challenged my prejudices about Thatcher, and looked into her time in office and the legacy she left, I found rational affirmation of the anti-Thatcher opinions I had been surrounded by. The most emotive evidence I came across was footage of the heavy-handed out of control policing of miners’ strikes as well as documents on the unfair trials received by men who had been protesting for their right to work, peacefully, and who had been wrongfully accused of riot. It was also Thatcher, I found, who had deregulated the banks, who had set the economy on a trajectory that foreshadowed a kind of apocalypse even in its supporters – this was ‘the end of history’. Stop and search laws targeted black people and other ethnic minorities as well as those like my father, with long hair, or who could look Irish. Thatcher’s economic policies were reckless and short-termist while her social policies echoed this irrationality, targeting the working class, ethnic minorities and anybody who couldn’t or wouldn’t be swept along on a tidal wave of greed that has once again crashed into economic recession just recently. I thought that the day Thatcher died, I would be remorselessly gleeful. But the parties held to celebrate the event have seemed both pointless and tasteless to me. I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen on Thatcher’s death – perhaps all her harmful policies would be reversed and I’d be able to catch a train on time that wouldn’t cost the earth and the same working class whose jobs were once taken would not now be accused of sponging off the welfare state (yes, I know it’s not that simple) – but as it turned out, it didn’t change anything. It was a bit of a non-event and, though I wouldn’t go so far as saying I wish she’d never been born, I certainly wish she’d had less success in her political career.
It is hard to offer the respect appropriate for any human being who has come to the end of their life to someone who the public are not being allowed to see as a private individual distinct from a politician. Her state subsidised ceremonial funeral takes her death as a point from which to reflect back on her life as a statesman and public figure. Not only does it jar that Thatcher should receive a government subsidy for her own burial when she championed privatisation, but it encourages the public to think on what she did in her controversial political career rather than to remember that death is the great leveller, and now as never before, she is just another human being who deserves the minimum of respect to be allowed to rest in peace. The government and her family having agreed, however, to politicize her death and funeral in accord with the political life she led, protests at her funeral should not be frowned upon or judged as inappropriate. I hope, however, that people will be able to express the rational objections that her legacy deserves rather than holding signs that say ‘rejoice rejoice rejoice, the bitch is dead’.
Sticking to the moral high ground of how to react to a person’s death is difficult in the case of Thatcher. There is a lot of well deserved ill to speak of this lady. Famously opening her premiership with the prayer of St Francis – ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’ – it is arguable that Thatcher achieved the opposite of the sentiments she spoke.
Starting with the economy, Cameron said upon her death that Thatcher ‘saved the country.’ Coming into power in an economic slump, one of her key aims was to pick up the economy. Contrary to popular belief, however, economic growth in the 1980s was below par even discounting the deep recession of the first year of the decade. When Thatcher did pull the economy into activity, she did it via the unstable model that just plunged Britain into an impending triple dip recession. While precarious aggressive capitalism was followed in the City, Thatcher also oversaw a 24% cut in British Industry, meaning that the country had less of value to offset the risky deals being brokered in the financial district. Between 1979 and 1989 the tax burden rose by 4%. Those who argue that Thatcher cut taxes can only be speaking for the very rich – the top rate of tax saw a cut of over 40% during her time in office, while VAT, which hits the poorest hardest rose to 15% where it had previously been only 8%. On Newsnight, Ken Livingstone was keen to argue that the ‘legacy’ left by Thatcher must be seen to include also the current bleak financial situation. It was Thatcher who first deregulated the banks which led directly, though over a number of years, to the collapse of the financial sector which had been running on borrowed time as well as money. To even speak of a ‘legacy’ for Thatcher sits uneasily with her short-termism. Livingstone is right, Thatcher’s impact can still be felt today, but perhaps it would be better to call it a hangover; an unintended, unthought of, unwanted morning after perhaps the most reckless financial binge in UK history. ‘The end of history’ came, the economy’s bubble burst, and now the country lives in a kind of post-event state, unsure how to proceed after the explosion at the end of a trajectory that was never supposed to crash back down. Politicans today have still not solved the social housing crisis caused by Thatcher.
What is key about Thatcher, and what is implied by talking about her in relation to thinkers such as Fukuyama, is that she changed the way, or harnessed and encouraged aspects of the ways, in which people thought. Economic hangover aside, Thatcher ushered in a kind of emptied out existentialism. The up-tight values of the 1950s swept away by the 60s and 70s, Thatcher didn’t reverse the freedoms that movements like free love had brought in. Instead, she converted them. Love was no longer to be free, in fact nothing was to be free, except financial regulation and consciences. Thatcher somehow combined the twinset and pearls of earlier decades, regressive values of, for example, being a housewife, with a modern lack of moral regulation used to encourage greed, as well as envy, that said anything goes to get more capital. As Žižek noted in his The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, capitalism is the new God though that’s not to say that there are fixed guidelines as to the morality that capitalism demands. The kind of god that Thatcher’s aggressive capitalism constituted, and the God she worked at creating, was the one Kierkegaard identified in Fear and Trembling; a God who actually has no morality other than the demand to follow his rule, whether that means killing your son, nearly killing your son, hating everyone other than Jesus, loving everyone like Jesus did or any of the many other contradictory edicts the Bible contains.
As a conviction politician, therefore, Thatcher was able to play fast and loose with morality in the UK. The kind of moral philosophy that had dominated Europe through the 60s and 70s spoke of a perhaps lonely life, but one whose value was always in relation to personal conscience and responsibility. The kind of ego that existentialism depicted was one that was simultaneously the ultimate, the centre of responsibility, but also a nothing, extant only due to its relation with society. Thatcher thought to capitalise on the social breakthroughs in thought from the preceding decades, morphing existential loneliness into individualistic selfishness. ‘There is no such thing as society’, Thatcher said to Women’s Own magazine in 1987. Thatcher sought to change a whole country’s way of understanding themselves and their relationship to others. Now the ego was everything, its desires to be followed, but the person was nothing without material possessions, status, financial success. Social glue was to be paranoia that your neighbour had a better car and subsequent competition to better him. Thus the bonds of communities were not only broken, Thatcher put negative relations in their place, binding people together in mutual suspicion, envy and competition.
In relation to her leadership style, this negative value structure called her irrationality and stubbornness conviction and strength. The understanding that Thatcher led by conviction meant that she could refuse to answer important questions, launching personal attacks on her opponents or seaking to belittle them, rather than meeting their questions seriously. Perhaps the most toe-curlingly unpleasant of such incidents occurred when Diana Gould, a UK citizen, had a chance to ask Thatcher why she took the decision to attack the Belgrano in 1982. Gould presented Thatcher with the facts of the situation that the ship was sailing away and outside the exclusion zone. Thatcher responds with patriotic emphasis that this ship was a danger to ‘our ships and our people’, trying to acquiesce the public by manipulating their fear and patriotism. When Diana Gould persisted, Thatcher slipped ‘I’m sorry I forgot your name’ into her answer, attempting to humiliate and undermine her questioner. Thatcher’s conclusion is like a chastising mother; ‘I’m sorry you must accept that.’ One day, Thatcher said, the facts will come out, implying that the Belgrano had not been sailing away and that London had not received Peruvian peace plans before the sinking, none of which turned out to be the case. Thatcher used the weight of her personality to try to overcome situations that she herself had created, not only difficult situations which came her way as her fans would have it.
Many went so far as accusing Thatcher of being a racist as stop and search laws saw more black people stopped on suspicion than whites. Thatcher fought for an ‘end to immigration’ all together, beginning in 1978 in an interview discussing commonwealth and Pakistani immigrants. Even the comparatively right wing Telegraph newspaper has reported that Thatcher was far less than positive about immigrants to the UK. In 2009 Jon Swaine reported, ‘Files released to the National Archives show that soon after becoming prime minister, Thatcher privately complained that too many Asian immigrants were being allowed into Britain.’ According to the minutes, which describe Thatcher listening to a vivid account of refugee camps in Hong Kong, she suggested that anybody who sympathised with their plight should have to take a refugee into their own home to cope with the influx into Britain. She compared the situation to the possibility impending that an exodus of white population from Rhodesia might then come to the UK. Tempering the comparison, Thatcher added that she had ‘less objection to refugees such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British Society’. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has recently spoken out about Thatcher’s overt racism in the presence of his Malaysian-born wife. In her retirement, Thatcher warned him of the dangers of letting too many Asians into the country.
Her public comments on race and immigration are widely attributed to have caused a collapse in support of the National Front. Perhaps some might argue that this is because Thatcher allayed popular social fears about immigration. I would argue, however, that Thatcher stole National Front support because her policies on race and immigration were extreme enough to capture the imaginations of racist voters. With current renewed vigour in political debate on immigration and a need for the mainstream political parties to draw support away from extreme parties such as the BNP, political leaders would do well to remember that there is no social good in drawing voters away from extreme parties by offering your own extreme policies. Boris Johnson was criticized by Eddie Mair for his promotion of immigration policies merely to satisfy an ill informed electorate, and as policians squabble over who can be toughest on immigration rather than educating the public about its many benefits, it looks like Thatcher’s hangover remains in this area too.
There is no point, in my opinion, in prefacing a discussion of Thatcher’s action against unions with a statement that the unions did need to be controlled etc. This qualifies the brutal and personal attack that Thatcher made upon, particularly, mining communities. Brutal policing aside and totally self-evident in photographs and footage from the time, Thatcher put nothing in place to replace the jobs lost in mining communities where pits were closed. The result was that the government had to fork out more and more unemployment benefits to people who wanted to work but who had been offered no alternative to the lifestyle as well as job opportunity that Thatcher brought to an abrupt end. Arguably, Thatcher disengaged the working-class as it was from politics, by not only closing pits and ending careers, but by doing so with the full force of the state used without proper legal guidelines. She would not criticize police for their action at Orgreave which saw men (and women) attacked as they fled or stood peacefully by policemen using batons to hit people around the head. Even the head of police operations on that day said that he had not told his men not to use to baton against those trying to get away or to hit anybody around the head because it was not allowed on any occasion, not because he sanctioned it. Still Thatcher would not criticize the police. Men were charged with riot and imprisoned who had been peacefully protesting their right to work, in trials that took place in the middle of the night after their arrest on site. Thatcher refused an investigation into the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Subsequently, in 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel found that fans had been in no way to blame for the events of 1989 and the subsequent death of 96 people. Instead the Panel found that the police had no control on the day, that emergency services reacted slowly, and that warnings of overcrowding from the preceding two years had been ignored. Thatcher, though espousing a love of democracy, operated a militarised police force who were untouchable by the law themselves but often violently out of control. Thatcher conducted war against 'the enemy within', against her own country, supporting those who shared her values for Britain, and violently opposing those who disagreed even if this agreement was evinced largely by a reverence for important parts of British history and culture, as was the case with mining communities.
Despite Thatcher’s belief in individualism, she did not come to power as a merit of her personal insular success. Part of her success was also the failing of the preceding Labour government, and the Labour party in opposition. Tony Blair’s election in 1997 should have marked a sea-changed in British politics. Instead, no attempts were made to renationalize services, or to monitor the banks more stringently as the economic policy of a neo-liberalist ideology prevailed. Out-doing the memory of the Falklands war for controversy, Blair took the UK to war in Iraq despite protests on the streets of London. Brown subsequently invited Thatcher to tea at number 10. If the left were to take any advice from Thatcher it should be to stick to their metaphorical guns, not their real ones. As the party with socialist roots, the Labour party should be offering a radically different solution to the current economic situation than the coalition, rather than simply quibbling over how much more to borrow. The electorate could also be warned about falling for the personality of politicians. With Boris Johnson being touted as the next Conservative leader, the electorate would do well to remember that having enough personality to skirt around difficult questions is not a good quality in a leader who needs to be accountable for their actions. Taking tough decisions is, of course, important in a political leader, but decisions aren’t really tough if the one taking them has no intention of shouldering the responsibility of the consequences. For Thatcher, the decision to attack the Belgrano did not have as tough consequences as it did for those who were on the ship as it sunk. Blair lives with the guilt of the Iraq war, but at least he lives at all unlike the civilians, enemy and allied forces who lost their lives in the conflict begun on unsound ground. Johnson’s affable lack of memory of his time in the Bullingdon club, his professedly selfless desire not to discuss his private life because ‘nobody is interested’ should serve as warning signs for a politician who, like Thatcher, is only tough when it suits, and sly when responsibility comes back to his door.
It does not good just to be unkind to somebody and in the case of Thatcher, there is no need to be. I hope that Thatcher’s funeral sees sensible protest against a political career with much to dislike in it, without recourse to crass celebration and name-calling. This is not for the sake of Thatcher, or even really for her family, or so as not to speak ill of the dead, but simply for the sake of the credentials of the political points that there are to be made. There is no doubt, furthermore, that with military as well as police presence at the funeral, protesters will be dealt with in a less than sympathetic manner.
Thatcher’s mortal body may be gone, but her ideology lurks over British politics, un-dead, and as open to criticism as ever.
Monday, 8 April 2013
Saturday, 6 April 2013
In the UK the state subsidises contemporary art. It is treated as a public good. Is this the case and should it continue?
When Labour came to power in 1997 they increased funding to the arts, and in 2003 showed their ostensible commitment to contemporary art, doubling the funding for individual artists to a total of £25 million, and making entry to institutions such as Tate Modern free. These new policies, however, were described in language that described contemporary art, amongst culture more generally, as instrumental in a chain that lead to economic growth or social well-being and inclusion. The Labour government’s descriptions of art’s value to the public arguably set a precedent of managerialism and instrumentalism which, despite the current recession, still dominate the relationship between state, art and public. Although funding for the arts has diminished under the current coalition, it has not disappeared altogether in a time where drastic financial measures have seen tuition fees triple and the benefits system overhauled. The question is whether the government values art on its own terms (ambiguous as they might be), or for what art can do for other policies relatively cheaply; cynics accuse governments of creating an image of concern about inclusion and social equality, but putting too little money into policy areas that are expensive but directly effective such as education and the welfare state. Art faculties of education facilities have been cut more radically than funding for one-off contemporary art projects such as Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park, or for institutions whose assessment objectives lean increasingly toward encouraging specific demographics to visit or extending outreach or education programmes to these groups. This suggests that art is being appropriated out of its own setting and history and into the political domain and I will be assessing the successes and shortcomings of this attitude. While certain communities, such as the Sceaux estate which is now associated with the South London Gallery, have benefited from socially minded gallery policies, it is not clear that these policies have been causally linked to interaction with art itself, or how the success in particular instances can justify the spending of tax payers’ money from the whole of the UK. The work of the South London Gallery is a focus in this essay. Quantifying qualitative effects has been problematic for governments seeking to use art to promote social inclusion, and it is possible to argue that contemporary art could alienate a less educated, lower social class audience by confrontational displays and thematics entrenched in art history as well as articulate understanding of contemporary politics and culture. I will be examining and advancing the case for the cynical point of view, discussing particularly the ‘ontoligical conflict’ between the discourses of policy and artistic values, that results in publicly subsidised art institutions being pulled between two distinct modes of valuation of art in their running.
The official government justification of arts funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport expresses an instrumental approach to the arts; ‘The arts can help individuals and communities by bringing people together and removing social barriers. The UK government is working to support the arts community to give access to all, improve wellbeing in the UK and boost the UK’s economy.’ This approach can be problematized as similar mission statements from the Labour government were in the 2006 publication of Culture Vultures, which included essays and policy suggestions from leading figures in the art world. Munira Mirza, who edited the collection, introduced it by arguing that ‘The Arts Council and DCMS tell us that the arts are now not only good in themselves, but are valued for their contribution to the economy, urban regeneration and social inclusion’(p.15). She marked the Labour government’s approach as, although increasing financial support to the arts and culture, actually devaluing its worth in terms of how it might be valued by its own internal logic of aesthetic excellence and intellectual elements. Mirza describes a governmental translation of the value of art for the public from its own field, towards other policy areas such as urban regeneration. The Lowry’s funded development in Salford, or the BALTIC (centre for contemporary arts) in Gateshead were championed as socially focused projects, rather than projects primarily designed to offer the intrinsic value of art to the public. The Tate Modern, funded directly by the DCMS, was also developed as part of urban regeneration projects in London(pp15-16). In the same publication, Eleonora Belfiore describes this translation of aims from art itself to other policy areas as a process of ‘attachment’, by which art institutions sought to prove their relevance to policies and sectors that were better funded, and sought to prove their beneficial effect upon ‘the cultural and social dimensions of socio-economic disadvantage’(p.22).
This issue continues under the current coalition government whose previously quoted mission statement echoes the same understanding of the arts as an area that is beneficial in terms of what it can do for other policy areas. Anish Kapoor’s art, for example, has been showcased and undervalued at different points of time in David Cameron’s premiership. The London Development Agency subsidised the building of Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, an observation tower in the Olympic Park, by £3.1 million. Boris Johnson hoped the tower would act as a reason for people to visit East London beyond the brief duration of the games. To his more cynical critics, however, he elaborated on these hopes and justified governmental funding by calling the commissioning of the work of art ‘a corporate money-making venture’, promising that a dining experience to be opened at the top of the structure after the games would be likely to recoup the spending. In March 2011, however, Kapoor had been treated less favourably. A government select committee suggested that the Arts Council England had displayed ‘a gross waste of public money’ in spending its funding too selfishly. It was suggested that, to free some capital to pass on to the organisations it supported, the Council could sell some of its masterpieces in the collection comprising 7,500 works which it had started in 1946. At the same as an Anish Kapoor exhibition was occurring and being subsidised in Manchester, the committee suggested that Her Blood, one of Anish Kapoor’s works, often thought of as a masterpiece, could be one of those up for sale to free capital for the Council. Currently, Anish Kapoor is working in conjunction with the Labour Party to raise awareness for their proposed cultural funding policies and he has donated an untitled painting to be auctioned at their forthcoming arts dinner. Anish Kapoor has acted opportunistically to grasp chances of funding extended to him which have led to the creation of arguably great works of art. Political treatment of Kapoor, however, has shown that, as an artist, he is not valuable, but as an artist whose work can be used to generate tourism or revenue, he can been tapped into.
In February 2011, in light of proposed Higher Education funding cuts for the arts and humanities, Professor Stefan Collini, speaking at an academic conference, problematized this perception that art matters if it contributes positively to something that matters more. In terms of contemporary visual art, the main priorities expected from the Tate in return for government funding are the protection and maintenance of the collection and no charge for entry to view it. Strangely, however, the ‘performance indicators’ do not focus on these priorities being achieved. The focus here is on the number of visitors from less educated, less wealthy or disabled demographics, or those from an ‘ethnic minority background’. Also important is the number of people who took part in educational or outreach schemes and the demographic to which they belong, while visitor satisfaction and generated income are ranked lower on the list of indicators. The funding agreement does not demand that curators seek aesthetic excellence in their choices for exhibitions, perhaps because the government does not want to interfere with professional judgements in this area. The lack of mention of this vital criterion, however, means that it is not made explicitly intrinsic to the securing of funding for such institutions.
For Andrew Brighton, however, the lack of focus on aesthetic merit in funding agreements does not show a governmental desire not to interfere. Brighton details the history of Arts Council England and the gradual erosion of the ‘arm’s length’ lack of political interference that the government was to exert on how its allocated budget was spent (pp112-113). The council, like the DCMS, sets out objectives that render the display of art primarily valuable as instrumental in the completion of social missions. The South London Gallery received an 107% increase to funding from the body in 2011, an increase achieved during a time where the Council completely cut funding to some organisations it had supported, had to downscale funding to other institutions and turn many new applicants away. While the gallery has put on internationally acclaimed shows, the granting of funding is still seemingly primarily for what the gallery has done for the deprived local communities of Peckham. From the website it is clear that the gallery has an only somewhat integrated dual purpose. The gallery has forged connections with the local community, offering activities for families, children, young adults, or miscellaneous groupings of people from five local council estates. The website details the prowess of this engagement in terms of awards won; the Clore Award for Museum Learning, for example, or an Arts and Business Young People Award. As a guest speaker on the Curating Theory and Practice course, director Margot Hellor argued that the young people from the surrounding estates might well, due to these outreach and education programmes, now know of major contemporary artists and have seen shows at the gallery. As the director, she must speak as much of the art her gallery shows as the social intentions behind it in order to increase chances of receiving funding.
Despite Heller’s assertions, however, it is unclear how such projects, commendable as they may be, can make recompense for gaps in formal education amongst those who partake in them. The part of the website which advertises shows at the gallery has a shifted focus and language from that of the section on educational programmes. Pae White who is currently showing at the gallery, for example, is described as creating works for the space which ‘defy our expectations of a variety of techniques and media’, indicating that a certain understanding of what works have been created before using which media is a prerequisite for a full grasp of the exhibition. The works are described as having been ‘inspired by a period of insomnia and consequent reflection on the transience of our existence’, in a manner that is reminiscent again of Brighton’s description of what an understanding of the value of art might entail. As well as a prerequisite need for a degree of knowledge in the area of art and art history, also necessary is a value in the transient itself. As Brighton summates, ‘the kind of culture that claims universality is made by and for people who value context-free knowledge’(p.117). The socially minded works created for the South London Gallery constitute heterotopic objects which reflect the un-synthesized nature of the value systems operative on contemporary art as a result of public funding policies. In 2011, Tue Greenfort designed a gate as an artwork, but also as a gateway for the estates which back onto the South London Gallery to gain easy access. For some, the gate would be viewed as a purely socially minded enterprise, a gate like any other, designed for access rather than art. Only those who followed the art world could detect that the object was more complex and speaking into the discourse of art. In its worst light this could be seen as a private joke by those in the know, in its best, it provides access to a community less likely to otherwise engage in contemporary art. One could go further to argue that, upon interrogation, the gate could teach the possibilities that art is not so different from commonplace objects which those not educated in its history come into contact with regularly. It allows for the notion of thinking artistically about spaces and objects that have other functions and could provide a less intimidating route into appreciating art for those not fluent in its discourse.
The example of this gate might, however, exemplify Brighton’s description of an ‘ontological conflict.’ He argues that ‘to make art the object of policy is to consume it within political discourse’(p.116) in a way that again evinces the pertinence of Collini’s description of an ‘artillery exchange of catergory mistakes’. The outreach programmes of the South London Gallery have been proclaimed to be successful by, for example, community leaders from the Sceaux estate. The success described, however, is not characterized by a description of an invigorated understanding and appreciation for art by those in the local community, but by the fact that the estate has become a better place to live since artist interventions and group activities brought the community together in shared experiences. The problems of collecting evidence of this qualitative sort aside, and assuming that art can be made to serve the social functions that state funding demands of it, it is arguable that this results in a misunderstanding of art by those who are brought into contact with it by receiving outreach opportunities from galleries. In the 20th century, philosophers such as Roland Barthes interrogated the way in which an image might relate to a wider notion of reality. Before a work of art, he believed, ‘image and reality implode in a disintegrative process’. In terms of governmental policy on funding for contemporary arts, there are no philosophical questions raised about the way in which art interacts with reality, and art is lifted out of its own history and discourse and into a strangely grouped bracket that includes ‘culture, media and sport’ and ramifies outwards towards effecting policy areas more important to the government.
It seems impossible to view art from a perspective that unites political use and understanding of art from within its own history and discourse. Slavoj Žižek opens The Parallax View writing, ‘a Spanish art-historian uncovered the first use of modern art as a deliberate form of torture; Kandinsky and Klee as well as Bunuel and Dali, were the inspiration behind a series of secret cells and torture chambers built in Barcelona in 1938.’ The cells incorporated disorientating uses of geometric shapes and an understanding of the possible psychological effects of the use of colour. Žižek draws in a second example, suggesting that Walter Benjamin did not commit suicide but was killed by an agent of Stalin, desperate to avoid the publication of Benjamin’s manuscript on the failings of Marxism. The strange delineation of connection between high culture and the most brutal politics can be seen as a more polarized version of the distinction that always exists between, for example, contemporary art and political discourse and the motives of any government. As Žižek concludes on these examples, ‘the link that they establish is an impossible short circuit of levels which, for structural reasons, can never meet.’ The impossible linkage between discourses that are structurally incompatible with one another can be read in Kantian terms as a ‘transcendental illusion’, or as Žižek writes it, ‘the illusion of being able to use the same language for phenomena which are mutually untranslatable, and can be grasped only in a kind of parallax view, constantly shifting perspective between two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible.’ By using art as a social policy, the art in its own depth is lost sight of and the discourse of art is no replacement for government funding spent on education and social welfare.
The professed move towards factoring the unquantifiable yet valuable into judgement of social inclusion is a commendable one. There is more to life than a person’s economic situation. As Mirza notes, however, the movement to incorporating access to the arts into an understanding of socio-economic stratification came at a time when the justification of policy direction and public spending was increasingly demanded to be evidence based (p.15). For this reason, the value of art has not been left as a qualitative rather than quantitative element, but governments have needed to show that they are collecting evidence to justify the attachment of support to the arts to other policy areas. Brighton’s idea that art represents a value of transcendence or its possibility, becomes shackled to questions of what effects contemporary art or outreach programmes are having immediately. The philosophical tradition of discussing the value of art, has been replaced in the discourse of art funding by the proposition that a restaurant could be put at the top of a work of art to get some capital back and attract tourists. From one perspective, it could be said that, as the arts gain material value and become increasingly entrenched in a discourse that incorporates constant pleas to find a way to call them useful, they lose their transcendent quality. They begin to falter in allowing people the possibility to transcend their worldly position when immersed before a work of visual art and remind them constantly of their status as a statistic trapped in governmental policy as they might be asked upon leaving or entering a gallery what their ethnicity, income and education is and what the gallery could do to attract them to visit again.
It is questionable whether the socially minded goals of state subsidised contemporary art are even successful. The evidence still bears the ambiguity of qualitative information turned into assumptions or statistics with weak links between funding to contemporary art and increased social wellbeing (Belfiore, p.25). Francois Matarasso’s list of 50 benefits the arts could offer society, although suggested tentatively, became the template for arts funding policy justification and often offered as fact. Some of the vagaries included the suggestion that access to art improves the confidence of lower income and less educated people, or that access to art brings generations closer together and promotes health. Questionnaires for gallery visitors, counting the number of different races who visit an institution, looking for change in underprivileged communities that have been brought onto educational or outreach programmes by galleries; the means of collecting evidence on the social impact of the arts are flawed. There is also a bias towards London and large cities with major public art institutions in assessing the social impact of public access to art or education schemes. The money spent on, for example, maintaining the possibility for free entry to major galleries in London is also money from taxpayers in small towns who may never get the chance to be enriched by visiting the institutions.
Furthermore, there is a possibility that art may actually be having a negative impact on the society that the government wishes to build. As Belfiore notes, the idea that pupils who took one arts subject did better in their GCSEs overall, that was argued by the last Labour government, relied on the selective representation of data collected. There was no mention of the fact that those pupils who took more than one arts subject actually did worse overall(p.28). This finding can be applied to the issue of publicly funded contemporary art. An engagement with contemporary art such as Michael Landy’s Scrapheap Services, especially in a time of recession, is unlikely to prompt anybody to feel like participating obediently in an economic system portrayed as undervaluing the worth of human beings. An engagement with the plethora of surrealist art in the Tate Modern’s permanent collection might inspire somebody to become less involved in society, to withdraw to a socially critical realm of imagination and to value critical culture in their contemporary society. Giorgio de Chirico’s The Uncertain Poet on display at the Tate Modern, for example, is not likely to inspire confidence in a viewer, especially one with little education who may well be stumped before a painting which speaks into a tradition of creating art and the feelings that accompany this endeavour. Art such as this was not intended to make people feel better and the subject matters of such pieces make it difficult to incorporate them into governmental social missions.
There are, however, some policy areas where even slight changes in funding make a measurably quantitive as well as qualitative difference to lives. As Paola Merli argues, ‘social deprivation and exclusion arguably can be removed only by fighting the structure of conditions which cause them. Such conditions will not be removed by benevolent arts programmes’(quoted by Belfiore,p.32). Spending on contemporary art, or culture more generally, can be seen as a way by which governments can appear to be acting to limit the differences between rich and poor, educated and less educated, white people and ethnic minority groups, without spending more on education or welfare funding directly. Funding for contemporary art, and the claims of success in terms of social inclusion that governments argue as a result, constitutes an equation of minimum input maximum output. As the ‘bedroom tax’ carves into the capital of the UK’s poorest at the same time as benefits are capped and Incapacity Benefit is transformed into the diminished EDS, while the interests of the richest are protected for fear they will leave the UK and a hole in its economy, the government widens the gap between the richest and the poorest and increases social stratification. In 2011, riots occurred in major cities throughout the UK. Many of those who took part were inarticulate about their rationale, but the events took place at the trough of the first of the dips in the UK’s recession, after tuition fees were tripled and public sector workers faced pay freezes and job cuts alongside many private sector unskilled labourers. The culture sector cannot fill the holes in the pockets of the poorest or take away the resentment that many feel at the way in which the deficit is being handled by the coalition. As Nick Clegg suggests the necessity for immigrants to pay a deposit upon entering the country, and as the government outlines prospective plans to discourage immigration by extending the duration an immigrant must be in the UK before they are allowed to be placed on the list for social housing, the most pressing question is not whether ethnic minorities feel welcome in galleries, but whether they feel welcome in the country itself. Outreach or education programmes do a lot for local communities, exemplified by the work that the South London Gallery has done, but, while the focus of such endeavours is often social at the expense of coming from the discourse and value axis of art itself, there is no cultural compensation for the short comings of government action on social issues, welfare and education.
This is not to say that galleries are engaging with their funding criteria uncritically. Contemporary art has a tradition of social engagement or intervention, from Michael Heizer’s literally ground breaking destruction ball in Bern in 1969, to Michael Landy’s Breakdown on Oxford Street, or the 2002 show, KaBoom! in Detroit. Lauren Willis, children and families coordinator at the South London Gallery, sees the education and outreach schemes as promoting a ‘discursive environment’ which actively engages with the relationship between art and social setups as opposed to constituting an ‘ontological conflict’. To suggest a parallax relation between the discourses of art and politics is not to suggest that neither have fluidity as an element of their structure. I would maintain, however, that art which seeks to engage socially or politically, still emerges from a tradition of making art as well as taking inspiration from other discourses. The political discourse which surrounds contemporary art, or art funding more generally, speaks openly of art as a ‘tool’ for other policy objectives. While the government slashes funding for academic art departments, it seems to seek to neutralise the internal rationale of artists and galleries, and to replace this with its own managerial style. As Žižek put it, however, if a meteor were about to hit Earth we would not need philosophy, we would need good science, quickly. The same can be said of art. Art is not going to act on behalf of the government to appease dissatisfied communities, make up for an education system which leaves 5.2 million adults with a literacy level of an 11 year old, or for a welfare system taking the pressure of an impending triple dip recession. The arts are good, in themselves, for those who already have a predisposition to appreciate them, for the educated and those who have time for thoughts beyond short term survival. They do not constitute the public good that goverments since 1997 Labour have claimed. For institutions, however, there may be no escape from adherence to the offered funding terms. In fierce competition for funding from the Arts Council England, for example, any institution that would challenge the government’s criteria would lose opportunities to further their artistic endeavours. For arts institutions it is a case of balancing the discourses and taking opportunities given to display or commission great art, or to make a difference, however small, socially. The arts can go some way in promoting an understanding that there is more to life than material possessions and the immediate. This message, however, is more accessible to those who have enough material possessions to be in a position to transcend constant recourse to thinking or worrying about them. The worst dimensions of governmental policy on contemporary art funding take this facet of art as useful therapy, guiding the underprivileged and excluded to forget their worries and not to challenge their position. The arts should continue to receive governmental funding, but the UK should spend the necessary money on education to allow more people to engage with art on its own terms and put the weight of social inclusion on more directly effective policy areas.
 Munira Mirza, Culture Vultures: Is UK arts policy damaging the arts?,policy exchange (2006),p.13
 Eleanora Belfiore, ‘The Social impacts of the arts – myth or reality?’,Cultures Vultures,p.32
 Andrew Brighton, ‘Consumed by the political: the ruination of the Arts Council’,Culture Vultures,p.116
 John Hall,31 March 2010, ‘'Mind boggling' artwork that will tower over London’,The Independent.
 Christopher Kul-Want, Philosophers on Art from Kant to the Postmodernists,(Colombia,2010),p.1
 Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View,(Massachusetts,2006),pp3-4
Tuesday, 26 February 2013
This was going to be short and snappy, but then I remembered all the times Louise Mensch has annoyed me in the past and it became long and snappy...
Most people already think Louise Mensch is crazy. She’s been publicizing herself as such in the last few years during her rise to ‘notoriety’. She came across as a Murdoch supporter at the Leveson inquiry, though perhaps that perception of her is over hyped. She did appear very desperate on Question Time where she forced herself to laugh so much she slammed her hand down on the desk when John Lydon said he didn’t want his drugs taxed. He, meanwhile, looked devastated to be anywhere near her. She carried on to tell the audience more than once ‘I did class A drugs’ as though she were bragging while adding an obligatory moral rationale for this revelation - ‘it messed with my head and I’m telling you this because I don’t want others to follow in my footsteps’. Her admission added absolutely nothing to her statements about Conservative policy on the so called war on drugs and the rest of the panel looked on confused at this bizarre form of narcissistic performance taking over their sensible show and masquerading as honesty and concern for others. Louise Mensch, if she really did take class A drugs, is the perfect example of why drugs might be thought of as less harmful than politicians would like. Her status, her stability as a working woman and mother, whatever she said about long term mental health effects, made it seem as though it’s fine to dabble in drugs as long as you eventually pack it in and get it together. Whatever she said about mental health issues, she was well enough to have a high pressure job, had her anxiety under enough control to appear on the television and speak in parliament representing her constituency. As Lydon pointed out, she was probably just lying. Compared to Sid Viscious she really doesn’t look like someone who has experienced the tribulations of life, drug related or not.
Descended from Roman-Catholic gentry, Mensch had at least the stability of money and status from birth. She also had parents concerned for her education who sent her to boarding school from whence she progressed to Oxford. In whatever way she took class A drugs, she managed to do so without encroaching upon her family’s reputation or transgressing the boundaries of organisatons to which she belonged. Her perspective on drug use is thus actually quite helpful as it is often stated that a high percentage of Oxbridge graduates as well as high powered individuals take drugs without descending to the level of drug-addict outcast from social normality. In another sense, however, one cannot help but think that these are not really the people who die due to drug use, and that drug addiction amongst the lower classes is a much deeper issue. Mensch appeared blind to the patronising nature of her admission when she had enough education to know not to take class A drugs and had enough opportunities to have no recourse to escapism through narcotics. Yes, things are not always this simple, but there is a difference between someone who had ostensibly everything saying they took class A drugs to someone in a position of social weakness, lacking in education or even in intelligence having a similar background. All she really demonstrated with this remark is her own recklessness as well as the disjuncture between herself and a majority of people who didn’t have her apriori good fortune and find that dabbling in class A drugs ruins their chances of a job on the lowest rungs, let alone in UK government.
In the same way, perhaps, her ‘feminism’ is only appropriate for those with enough money to afford the ‘mum style’ boots for $129, or the £72 leggings she promotes on her blog. If her blog is only appropriate for this kind of wealthy woman, then who is it actually aimed to advise because as far as I can see, all the mums (and daughters) in the better bits of West London are already wearing riding boots, cashmere and Burberry coats. Not only is the blog pointless in the sense of it pertaining to feminism but only the very lightest bits (and at that very badly) it is also pointless in that it just preaches to the converted.
Perhaps I have already digressed because what I wanted to engage with, Louise Mensch’s self-styled feminism, is incredibly slippery. She is ‘pro-life’ and therefore believes that women’s reproductive system, their bodies, should be in the hands of government when parliament has only one in five female MPs. The men in government have also increasingly been shown to have little sensitivity towards women. The scandal surrounding Lord Rennard has been played down by leading Lib Dems much to the shock of many, including Louise Mensch. A Lib Dem peer called the sexual advances ‘fairly mild’ and ‘hardly an offence’ which prompted indignation from Mensch on her twitter. ‘REALLY?’ she asked….’just how mild is mild?’ Although the analysis is hardly riveting, Mensch makes her ‘sassy’ position clear. Clearly Mensch feels that for a woman to have her body encroached upon in any way in terms of her physical space is not to be played down, but she still feels that it is acceptable for the largely male population of government to legislate in a way that stretches right out of their immediate physical location and into the wombs of female UK citizens. A more glaringly obvious problem with her thinly veiled religious position on abortion is, why the citizens of a secular democratic country should be ruled by religious opinion.
Nobody would force Mensch to have an abortion and she is also free to urge anybody she speaks to not to, to preach about the negatives of abortion. As long as the choice over whether to have an abortion or not is in the hands of the women whom it directly affects, both the religious or otherwise pro-life groups can refrain from abortions and the people who feel they need to can have abortions. When everything else seems to be being deregulated by the Tories, from the banks to food inspectors, the reason that a significant number of Tories still feel a strong desire to regulate the female reproductive system is opaque. What people do in their own homes is beyond the law, but not what women do with their own bodies. Even though abortion seems to be too easy, perhaps just another form of contraception for some, Mensch’s desire to legislate against it is simply not viable and is nothing short of hypocritical.
What else is Mensch’s feminism about? I agree with Paul Brownscombe, labour party blogger who wrote of Mensch that ‘the sum total of her feminist achievements seems to be a demonstration that she can climb up any corporate ladder’. He summates that her feminism sounds a lot more like ‘me,me,me’. Yes, this is a labour blog and therefore biased, but Mensch’s actions speak for themselves. She writes for the Sun which many feminists, as well as non-feminists, find appalling not only for its portrayal of women, but also for the amoral journalistic practices by which it has prospered, and the bigoted angles of all its stories (see the paper itself for constant examples of this). Her feminist counterparts in politics who get less attention because they are less self-publicizing, are campaigning to ban page 3 or at least abolish it from the paper. Claire Short received short shrift when she did this, with a Sun headline reading ‘Fat Jealous Claire brands page 3 porn’ in July 2007. Harriet Harman, a veteran of the battle against page 3 is constantly mocked by the paper who branded her Harriet ‘Harperson’ after she campaigned for women to receive equal pay. The paper bizzarely made out she thought that everyone was equal but some were more equal than others and the name has stuck. It would be fair to say that The Sun has not made a name for itself as a mouthpiece for feminism, but Mensch still courts the paper. Alan Sugar calling her ‘dear’ on twitter sent her into a frenzy on the site, but she still allows her words to be printed under ridiculous headlines such as ‘Mitt’s a hit, Obama the pits’ [sic].
Her blog continues the trend of feminist-slogan-waving accompanied by what is hopefully absolute ignorance of modern feminism, if not flagrant disrespect for the goal of gender equality. ‘Fit is a feminist issue’ is among the most ridiculous posts where Mensch says we must celebrate our bodies whatever their shape, but also try to change them. What are we trying to achieve in this change? First she disguises her aim by saying she is promoting fitness, descending into a paragraph-long dodge of feminist issues, focusing instead on exercise’s positive mental effects and its relation to deterring osteoporosis. The conclusion of this paragraph that nobody saw coming, however, is simply ‘you’ll have great legs and a nice, firm, round, tush.’ Excuse me? Did she write tush? And, odd vocabulary selection aside, how is the aesthetic appearance of my legs and my tush important? What about people who just can’t get round tushes? Nowhere in sight is an analysis of how a round tush has come to be the cherished goal of an exercise regime since it certainly isn’t the emblem of fitness and one can be in perfect shape, health wise, without one. This badly structured article that glides like bambi-on-ice over a plethora of feminist issues concludes with some marketing, ‘buy this dvd, get a body like mine’.
|I'm thinking about what I look like right now - don't take me|
seriously please, I'd rather you noticed my lipgloss
which 'my man' really likes :)
‘What Men Want’ is a heading of various parts of Mensch’s blog. Figure-wise apparently this is Kim Kardashian, not ‘sexless’ skinny models. Weirdly after this worship of fuller-figured Kim - the reality of whom’s bottom is still up for debate - Mensch says we can’t change our body types. She notes nothing of the disjuncture here between how the media present the ideal female shape, the impossible tension between perfection lying with ultra-thin AND with ultra-curvaceous at the same time, and the reality of the incredibly varied female forms walking around. She just pops these incongruous statements next to one another as if to say ‘that’s how it is’ in true conservative style and continues with her brilliant article. ‘The clothes come off eventually’ she helpfully points out, so why hide your flaws? Everyone must start wearing very tight clothing. Yeah, I’m with Louise, I just don’t get why anybody would feel the need to wear a push-up bra, especially when they’re being told that men want them to look like Kim Kardashian…yeah no idea….none whatsoever….Her constant and unsettling recourse to clichés –‘they want a woman who is stylish, confident, and shows off what she has' – shows a general lack of inventiveness that shines a light on what is really the problem here. Mensch is happy with things as they are. As she says ‘men have terrible double standards’, but don't challenge that, give them what they want. What about independence? What about internal volition that refuses dependence either economically or more broadly, that seeks to free woman from their bondage to men not only as economic providers but also to men as the source of aesthetic and moral judgements. If a man wants me to dress like a slut to have sex with me but as a wife if I’m to be taken seriously then I’m not interested in pleasing him. Women should be taken seriously as human beings, not dressed up to suit male whims. She shows the way in which conservatism cannot be compatible with feminism in that it cannot seek change. Mensch’s feminism isn’t difference feminism that might assert that women are somehow naturally made to like traditional womanly actions like knitting or putting on make-up, her ‘feminism’ is just a raving monologue using gendered terms to celebrate the status quo.
Mensch prefaces her post ‘What Men Want: Face’ by saying that she dresses up for her husband and, in return, he lifts weights to get the kind of muscles she likes in a guy. Eurgh. This is as desperate as her recent twitter interchange with her husband after he said in an interview that she had left her job because she knew she’d lose the next election. Afterwards she tweeted this wasn’t the case and that she loves her husband very much, she’s lucky to have such a gorgeous man, but that she is going to have to think of a creative way for him to make it up to her. Wink. Sounds like a really boring sext. Back to the blog, though, and here she lays bare the hypocrisy of her article on fitness once again. Men do weights to get strong, which is stereotypically aesthetically pleasing, while women inanimately put on the right clothes like a dolly. Men exist in the world of action and fitness, women exist in a world of silence and fashion, passively submitting to styling while men actively engage with their bodies. Apparently men want women’s faces to appear natural but actually this takes some subtle eyeshadow etc etc. The details are very boring actually, but again Mensch reveals her desire to conserve everything the way it is and the disingenuity of her feminist status. In her own words ‘Man pleasing, wow, what a dreadful thing eh? Well, stuff it.’ Again Mensch’s safe position in a marriage where commitment and respect are mutual as she describes it, seems unaware of the depth which it is ignoring. What about women who don’t think they look good at all because they cannot live up to the generalised male standards of beauty that Mensch perpetrates, where male control over female image – in The Sun, in the media more generally or, as Mensch describes, in personal sexual relationships - dictates how the woman feels about herself rather than her own look in the mirror, her own tastes, being enough for her.
And I wish she’d stop calling her husband her ‘man’. The whole vocabulary of her badly thought out project is like a crappy American movie and so generalising in terms of gender that one begins to wonder, at Mensch’s own behest, what the point is of her as an individual and a famous one at that, if really we are all just gendered bodies stuck in a cycle of stagnant history where things are perpetually the way they are and challengers to this receive nothing but sarcastic ‘eh?s’ at the end of rhetorical questions that never get any answers.
So in my view Mensch is not a feminist and I don’t even know why she wants to attach herself to the word. Feminism is about equality, equal public rights or a social conception of women as equal to men. Mensch demonstrates brilliantly how, although women can now often be economically independent from men, they can still often be dependent on men to validate their appearance with a male seal of approval. While a man can play football because he likes the game, women have to visualise a new and improved ‘tush’ that they will get if they persevere in sport. Women have to constantly imagine themselves as visual objects for male pleasure, in Louise Mensch’s view, and while she says he husband also tries to be aesthetically pleasing for her, all we need do is look at the make-up of parliament to see unbalance. There is political imbalance in that there are only 1 in 5 female representatives in parliament, but there is also an imbalance in how gender affects an MPs status in the media. The women in politics are discussed for their appearance while the men are demonized on other fronts(minus Hague’s cap-gate). This is not where difference feminism comes in. This is where social and cultural analysis is needed to see how it is that men and women are presented differently in the media, and why it is that women are still forced into the role of visual object and even still advocate this role when they are intellectually and politically successful.
|Louise Mensch's trainers|
(worth blogging about)
Mensch is the very mediocre epitome of the way in which feminism can be hijacked by female public figures as a buzz word to get more fans or more voters. This hijacking rests on an elision of the difference between saying ‘I am a woman therefore I naturally do…’ and the famous Simone De Beauvoir quote, ‘women are made and not born’. Missing the vital difference between the two statements, a new group who I would call arch-capitalist feminists unite ‘making’ with the natural desires of women, arguing that women themselves naturally desire to be ‘made’, to be objectified products in a capitalist market place. Beyonce epitomises this warping of De Beauvoir’s existentialist feminism most of the time, but especially where she plays with the quote in her song ‘Ego’. ‘Some women were made’, she says, ‘but me, myself, I like to think that I was created for a special purpose, you know? What’s more special than you?’ Beyonce is the ultimate product for men with her female empowerment coming in the form of a GQ photoshoot and a song that says women rule the world through ‘persuasian’ because ‘he’ll do anything for me’. Mensch and Beyonce are both financially independent women who use their positions to speak about so called women’s issues, but both fall into the trap of disguising social creation of female identity and female norms as romance, being created for or dressing up for a specific partner. As Mensch says specifically, if she were single it would be for men in general, and as Beyonce performs in lingerie and skimpy outfits she really is god’s gift to ‘men’. Mensch proudly posted a picture of her personalised Nike trainers on her blog and Beyonce trademarked the name of her baby, showing their commensurability with capitalism, their economic savviness. Really all these women know is self-promotion and, since they’re women, they think that feminism has something to do with that, stepping on true feminist endeavours on their way to the top.
|Beyonce is just an advert for herself in an endless stream|
of self-reflexivity with a massive gaping hole in the middle
Mensch’s blog is at best pointless preaching to the converted ‘yummy mummies’ of the richer parts of London and at worst a boot to the face of modern feminism. She has failed to support her colleagues in feminist endeavors, is pro-life, and slings gendered terminology around to gain publicity. She fails to take into account any ideas of feminism from outside the developed West, as well as from below her income and class bracket. Alongside other public figures who call themselves celebrities, Louise Mensch is nothing but a self-promoter, an arch-capitalist who thinks nothing of supporting other women, but all about competing to be beautiful for men’s attention or ruthlessly competing for success. There's no room for any collective noun to describe Louise Mensch, she is an individualist who believes that all people are the same with none of the connotations of equality, only the connotations of hopelessness for change. Constantly referring to the way things already are and expressing herself through cliches, Mensch shows the way in which individualism leads to grey mediocrity and can only support people who create themselves to be part of a crowd in order to selfishly succeed.
GOOD ONE, LOUISE, LOVE YOUR BLOG!
GOOD ONE, LOUISE, LOVE YOUR BLOG!