On the night of my first gig in my home town I remember meeting up with Diane, the Reader Development Officer in Kirklees. I showed her the little flier I’d produced for the show. “There’s a photo and blurb and social media links on the front and some propaganda about the arctic on the back.” Was this appropriate? Was this piece of storytelling just another tool for campaigning? Is it possible to create ‘art’ that engages with social or political issues but is not propaganda?
I’m a big fan of ‘Front Row’ on Radio 4. Every weekday evening at 7.15pm critics comment on the latest news in the world of books, music, theatre and art. Frequently, my ears prick up when I hear them reviewing a piece that engages with political issues, particularly an issue like climate change. A good example is their review of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, ‘Flight Behaviour’ http://www.kingsolver.com/books/flight-behavior.html where they sneered at the way in which the scientist Dr Ovid Bryon’s speeches are clunky vessels for speeches about climate change. The attitudes expressed are typical of the arts establishment’s response to engaged works. In contrast, they glowingly review pieces that express or explore climate scepticism such as Richard Bean’s ‘The Heretic’ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/8318442/The-Heretic-Royal-Court-review.html Now, I know that the devil often has the best tunes and piece of art can be really strong even if we don’t share all the political views it expresses. That’s not my issue. It’s as if expressing commitment to a cause threatens their notions of the artist as Olympian, detached, non-aligned, balanced or even neutral.
In early August I went to a meeting about funding organised by the local council. Early on in the meeting, the facilitator went through a list of all the types of organisation that cannot apply. “It can’t be political,” said the facilitator.
“What about a piece that explores climate change?” I asked.
“Well, no, we mean party political. A piece can explore climate change would be acceptable but I would say that, to be artistic, you would want to have contrasting ideas and messages, not just one.”
Just a minute. So many great works of theatre and literature have been engaged and committed to promoting political issues. Think of the William Blake attacking slavery, poverty, child labour and prostitution in the ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, Shelley writing ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, Dickens’ novels, Brecht’s plays, John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ and ‘The Great Dictator’, the plays of Howard Brenton and John Arden, the authors responding to apartheid like Alan Paton who wrote ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. Were they even-handed in their responses to poverty, apartheid, fascism, capitalism or slavery? It’s like the artistic equivalent of the mistaken media notion of balance: We’re interviewing someone on climate change and we need to be balanced so let’s include a sceptic, even though 97% of climate scientists say that climate change is man-made.
And these are all considered ‘high art’. As well as art like this there is much ‘low art’ in political campaigning or protest. Think of samba bands, street theatre, costumes, processional puppets, chanting, pop song parodies, murals, stunts, banners and masks. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘high art’ / ‘low art’ distinction. I’m quite keen on art forms that operate in the ‘twilight zone’, being popular and accessible yet stretching that form to achieve new things. Think of what Shakespeare did with blood-and-guts revenge tragedies, think of what the Beatles did with rock’n’roll. Was cabaret music high art or low art? Was Toulouse-Lautrec high art or low art? Um… is storytelling high art or low art?
As a campaigner I’ve done a lot of ‘arty’ campaigning work. I’ve worked on street theatre projects around aviation campaigning in 2007 and 2008, organised a community project where we created a processional puppet of Neptune for ‘The Wave’ demonstration in 2009, produced a book of ‘Climate Emergency’ haiku poems for the Coalition government at the vigil following the 2010 general election, an installation of 350 messages in bottles (to promote 350.org) in 2010 and numerous other vigils, stunts and die-ins.
One of the ways to get around the criticism (whether from others or yourself) about politically engaged art is to work indirectly, using fables or allegories. In ‘The Crucible’ Arthur Miller grappled with the tyranny of McCarthyism and the ‘Unamerican Activities’ witch hunts in the United States in the 1950s by engaging with it through a piece about witch hunts in Seventeenth Century America. As a nine year old boy I fell in love with the old cowboy film, ‘High Noon’. It was many years later that I learned that the story of the sheriff abandoning his honeymoon and standing alone to protect his community from the outlaws was an allegory of McCarthyism. A number of writers in totalitarian states from South America to the Soviet Union have worked in a similar, veiled way.
Did I consciously set out with this approach in ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’? The piece is based on a fantastic scenario: a boy wakes up one morning in an English town to discover that an enormous iceberg (26, 972 square metres in size) has drifted into the bay. In the piece the boy experiences confusion, denial, adjustment and indifference in the people around him. Now, what does that remind us of? It wasn’t conscious, but subconsciously, this veiled, indirect approach may have been part of the appeal when I first thought of it.
In March I’d cycled down the road to Holmfirth to see Christine Macmahon perform the wonderful show ‘Goosewing’. It’s an extended piece all based on a goosewing and features a number of stories woven together. http://www.christinemcmahon.co.uk/goosewing.html Cycling home, the scenario of ‘The Boy Who Dreamed Only Ice’ came to me and by the time I was home, twenty minutes later, I’d pretty much got it.
I don’t think that art does have to engage on this level. It can be direct. My friend Tony and I have a frequently recurring conversation about what makes a good protest song and what are good and bad protest songs. Candidates for bad ones, in my opinion include Paul McCartney’s ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ and also, less fashionably, John Lennon’s songs on his ‘Sometime in New York City’ album. Now, there are a number of protest songs that are wonderful, perhaps because they are rather oblique, rather indirect. Two examples of this from the 1980s include ‘Shipbuilding’ by Robert Wyatt (and covered by Elvis Costello) and ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. (The former is featured in this New Statesman list of the ‘Top 20 political songs’ http://www.newstatesman.com/music/2010/03/top-20-political-songs) After Margaret Thatcher died, I dearly wished that one of these, rather than ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ had been chosen for organised buying. Not only would the Right have been unable to level the criticism of vindictive disrespect at these songs, but also each would have been more relevant as they were written as responses to Thatcherism. Both songs are dignified and, because they lack direct contemporary references, attain a universal quality. For a similar reason, when I was young I liked Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’. When my 3rd Year Music teacher played it and told us that it was about nuclear war I listened to the words and tried to work them out. I knew they were about post-holocaust devastation but I wanted to know what each image represented. What did “I saw a white ladder all covered in water” mean? What effect of nuclear attack did that convey?
Another, less well known example of this sort of writing is ‘Beds are Burning’ by Midnight Oil, written about Australia’s treatment of its aboriginal people. When they performed at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 they wore costumes declaring ‘Sorry’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqBRYMdIVzU ‘Beds are Burning’ is so oblique that it could change its application: before the Copenhagen conference in 2009 it was released as a ‘Band Aid’ style song about climate change. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9dxVKYMJ6o
And yet, again, there are wonderful political songs that are direct, topical, catchy and have stood the test of time. The one that springs to mind is ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Special AKA, a splinter from the Specials who produced ‘Ghost Town’. Read the lyrics. On paper, they look naff. But the song is brilliant: defiant, joyful, urgent, compassionate and dance-able! Mind you, the Specials’ ‘Why?’ (about racism) and ‘Man in C&A’ (about nuclear war) are equally direct and, in my opinion, work well.
At Reclaim the Power I was mixing with many people who engage with climate change issues through the arts. There were a number of poets: Pete the Temp, Claire Fauset http://re-clairethestreets.blogspot.co.uk/ and Danny Chivers http://dannychivers.blogspot.co.uk/ At the marches blockades and circling of the fracking site Pete was there, wearing with his police hat with his megaphone, chanting, leading call and response, using words to protest. http://www.petethetemp.co.uk/ Danny Chivers has been performing at protests for years. On my final night in the camp I watched Danny’s show, ‘Arrest that Poet’, that he had recently performed at the Edinburgh fringe. The show combined his account of how he’d got involved in non-violent direct action with performances of poems including the one he’d written while occupying West Burton power station in 2012. Danny spoke of the way he’d been charged for an occupation of Fortnum and Mason’s with UK Uncut in 2010 partly because of what a judged described as his ‘ranting and polemical’ performance of a poem. He also spoke with pride of the fact that his poem was included in the list of items that were not returned to the West Burton protesters along with ladders and ropes because they might be used for further crimes. ‘It’s the best review I’ve ever had’.
But they weren’t the only ones. At Reclaim the Power I chatted to people involved in Platform, Art Not Oil, Liberate Tate, Shell Out Sounds and the Reclaim Shakespeare Company. All are organisations that use the arts to campaign on fossil fuels, particularly the way in which the fossil fuel industry is financed by the City of London and in turn, gains ‘acceptability’ by sponsoring the arts. Liberate Tate have protested against BP’s sponsorship of Tate Modern through eye-catching performances. From a naked man, curled in a foetal position, covered in molasses (representing oil) http://liberatetate.wordpress.com/performances/human-cost-april-2011/ , to releasing dead fish suspended by helium balloons to the delivery of a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade http://liberatetate.wordpress.com/performances/the-gift/ the group have responded to Tate Modern’s collaboration with BP in a intelligent and provocative manner. Similarly, Shell Out Sounds put on musical performances to protest against Shell’s sponsorship of the South Bank http://shelloutsounds.org/ and Reclaim Shakespeare company put on ‘Shakespeare Parody’ performances at the RSC to protest against BP sponsorship http://bp-or-not-bp.org/. Just a few weeks before my tour, Reverend Billy had ‘performed’ in a London branch of HSBC along with a number of golden toads and other species threatened by climate change to protest against their financing of coal, oil and gas projects. http://www.wdm.org.uk/fossil-fuels/rev-billy-takes-hsbc-surprise At Reclaim the Power I also met someone who was a maker. In the 2006 Camp for Climate Action she had created with others an ostrich (representing the collective attitude to climate change: head in the sand, get it?) in which, notoriously, a pair of bolt cutters had been found by police (or so they said)! http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/sep/01/energy.activists
At the blockade of Balcombe on Monday 19th August I was involved in an affinity group that was engaged in singing, clowning and chanting as a way of motivating activists and boosting morale. There were nine or ten of us, most of whom hadn’t met each other before. Songs included numbers such as ‘Hit the Road Frack’ (based on ‘Hit the Road, Jack’) and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ (with new lyrics), rounds adapted from other political songs and spontaneous improvised pieces starting with chants (‘Keep it, keep it, keep it in the ground’, ‘Fracking is Stoppable/ Another World is Possible”) before developing into melodies and harmonies. I wouldn’t claim it was great Art but the experience was inspiring and uplifting.
Through this experience and throughout my tour I kept asking questions about the arts establishment’s attitude to engaged art. Did they really de-value all engaged art, including the work of all names that I had mentioned earlier? Or rather, did they value the engaged art of yesteryear, the heritage radicalism and just devalue the engaged art of today? Perhaps those comments about ‘Flight Behaviour’ reflected the reviewers’ attitudes to climate change as much as they reflected anything else.