Thursday, 28 October 2010

Throw a Sop to the Masses: Sponsor "The Arts"

William Morris, at the height of the Victorian age, when the old practice of living over, in, or very near, one's workplace was giving way to a new desire to live elsewhere than where one plied one's trade, walked out one day to one of the newly established London suburbs. The advent of extended street lighting was not the least important factor in the new enthusiasm for living on the outskirts - previously, travel to and from such places relied upon either the sun or the moon - but its primary motivation was, of course, the growth of industrialised modes of production: one could not live in or over the factory in which one worked as one of a large, anonymous group and one would not, if at all possible, live near its often belching unpleasantness. That this was often not possible for the workers meant that it became desireable for their superiors; the middle classes, because they could, ceased to live near their places of work and traded the hustle and bustle, the mixed economy, of city living, for the quiet and almost entirely residential areas growing up around its margins.

And so one day, William Morris finds himself in an almost silent street, lined on either side with the new Victorian villa, a detached residence on a relatively small piece of land, similar to its neighbours in style but suggestive at least, in its qualified independence from the homes around it, of the privileges of the independently rich. There is nobody to be seen but gentlemen and their ladies and servants, no tradesmen at their work, no shops selling their wares. Those are to be found on the main street, a new invention of the new lifestyle and intended to act as foil for the genteel retirement tucked away behind it. "A beastly place to live," Morris thinks to himself, and quits it almost at once.

The beastliness of such places was, for Morris, guaranteed by their operating to segregate, not only the population but the processes of production and consumption upon which the population generally relied. Those in the villas ate, of course, they sat on chairs, dressed in gowns and puffed on pipes, but, contrary to former times, they felt it desireable to remove themselves as far as possible from the sources of their food, chairs, gowns and tobacco. In many cases, this desire was purely aspirational; not all could afford the move outwards. But what mattered to Morris was less the fact of people's removal than the attitude towards labour and its materials from which it sprang, or to which it contributed, an attitude that, for him, was bound up with the interests of capital, of labour for profit alone, and therefore opposed to the integration of production, consumption and practised artistry that a fully human existence, as he thought, requires.

Let us name another beastliness, then, which Morris should have shuddered at had he lived to see it: goverment funding of the arts. The Arts Council England (ACE) has announced that it is to cut funding for the arts by 29.6%. In fact, it has also decreed that only 15% can be passed on to what it describes as "frontline" arts organisations. And there is outcry, at the predicted closing of museums, bankruptcy of publishers, penury of artists. But we should stand with Morris, and feel glad at this development, for state funded arts are a sop, thrown at us by the government and its system, much as large corporations that suck the life from their workforce concede a monthly "dress down" day, or organise the odd "team building" hike, as a safety valve for employees who might otherwise explode from feelings of alienation.

What was it that Morris found so beastly in that suburban street?: its incubation of a mode of living premised upon the conception of human flourishing as anathema to involvement in, or even remembrance of, the craftly labours on which lives then, at every turn, had to rely but which they were being taught to despise the sight of. Women learned to be proud of their ignorance of the patterns for shifts and chemises, and boasted of it; men grew angry if any detail of the workings of their households, the cycles of their gardens or the picklings of their kitchens came before them in any manner other than as good fires, fresh flowers and fine meals. In short, it grew to be accepted that the highest form of human existence knew nothing of the labours whose fruits it enjoyed and ought to get as removed as possible from the materials and processes on which its satisfaction in life relied.

The end result of this trend is inevitable when one realises that knowledge is a skill, that knowing that this gown is most becoming or that sauce tastes best or those colours look finest is impossible without knowing how gowns are sewn or sauces made or colours chosen: what we call taste is lost, and (it cannot be a coincidence that this is the end result of a process that was incubated so carefully by capitalist values) the stays upon consumption are delivered entirely into the hands of profit. The highest form of human existence, it seems, quietly interred in the leafy streets of an undisturbed suburbia, having lost its connection with the sources and processes of its health and wealth, has lost itself to all but the highest bidder.

And the last move in this vicious game is government sponsorship of the arts. We have become so inured to our alienation from our selves and our lives, so used to having companies tell us what looks good, tastes good, feels good, that we have lost the capacity - which Morris would have placed at the very core of a fulsome human society - to produce, desire, even to recognise, what is beautiful, what is good, what is tasteful, what suits. All of that is consigned to the "fads" that keep our market moving, and meanwhile we have forsaken what we ought to have insisted on: art, beauty, as a feature of human experience generally. Instead, what little need we still have for the beautiful, for the ornamental, or merely for the non-utilitarian, is "satisfied," even "supported," by "the arts," that field of objects and events that are not part of the means-end system to which all other aspects of life appear to have been subjected. Of course, the extent to which "the arts" have been integrated into the marketplace, the extent to which they have blended so well with capital, ought to make us more suspicious than we ever tend to be. For "the arts" are a way of quelling the populace, of answering to that very small remaining need for beauty, for craft, for a break from the pursuit of ends, and of making us feel that all of this is there to be had, at our fingertips and mostly for free, and that it is our own fault if we do not avail ourselves of it.

But small wonder that most of us don't. Aleks Sierz recently posted a piece of outrage at the apparent relief felt in some quarters that government cuts to the arts have not been higher, reminding us that those touched by the arts will also be touched by government cuts to other areas; they too live in houses, have children and fall ill. That Sierz feels it necessary to point this out, that he judges it to be an opinion held widely enough to merit contradiction that "people who work in the arts are only sustained by the arts," is interesting, for it indicates the extent to which the arts are so removed from the business of living and us engaged in it, that they seem a little island unto themselves, to which we are free (but not so free anymore, let us hope) to retreat and regenerate and engage in a little "team building" perhaps. Meanwhile, back at the business of living, nothing need be beautiful at all. No wonder the government sponsors "the arts," and thank heaven it can no longer afford to do so.

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