Poetry and Economics

In among a fantastic piece of programming by the BBC this morning, was a reading of a wonderful reflection on the economic crisis of the last couple of years.

The poem, by Catherine Brogan, can be heard here (beginning at 2.40.40), or seen on YouTube here. We thought we were rich but were just digging this ditch.

The initiative by the BBC to invite a range of people to edit the Today programme has demonstrated how innovative and inventive arts-led programming can be – with PD James’s grilling interview with Mark Thompson getting most publicity, and with today’s programme by Robert Wyatt highlighting the way in which the arts can provide alternative reflections on social and economic issues.

The strange and heady relationship between art and commerce

A great story about Hugh Grant making £11m on a work of art he bought while drunk appears to highlight the uncomfortably fickle link between art and money.

The suggestion that the financial gratification, associated with neo-liberalism, in the 80s and 90s has undermined accepted notions of artistic value is both right and wrong. Of course it’s somehow immoral that the otherwise pure world of the arts should be tainted by the dark-deals of philistine city folk (or in this case, Hollywood celebs). But it’s hardly new, and it would be naive to think that the art world is not complicit in some way.

Serge Guilbaut made a very explicit link in the content and title of his book ‘How New York stole the idea of Modern Art‘, referring to the transformation of arts practice, and in particular the rise of abstract expressionism, in the middle decades of the 20th Century. Elsewhere, John Berger made the link in relation to established greats such as Gainsborough, painting the ‘wealth’ of the slave-trade. And, of course, the connections between financial wealth, patronage and the arts can be seen most obviously in renaissance Italy.

The best analysis of the more complex inter-relationship between arts practice, arts consumption, and commerciality realities of both is in Ken Worpole’s brilliant ‘Reading by Numbers’. Get hold of a copy if you can. It’s an entirely disinterested analysis of the way in which literary styles in the early 20th Century developed in response to technological and educational changes which were making ‘reading’ a much more popular pastime – and how the development of reading and writing influenced the wider political and financial economy, both directly and indirectly.

But, it does seem somehow fitting that, in this age of user-led creative practice, it should be the drunken purchaser, rather than artist, who should be challenging some of our assumptions about art practice!

Today and Tomorrow

I have recently been introduced to an absolutely fascinating series of pamphlets written at the end of the 1920s on the theme of ‘Today and Tomorrow’ (being re-catalogued here, as part of a major research project).  And I’ve been wondering about its modern equivalent.

Published by Kegan Paul, more than 100 pamphlets were written between 1924 and 1930, by a range of leading thinkers and commentators, addressing themselves to ‘the future of…’ their various areas of interest and investigation.  A dedicated and serious look into what the future held across a range of scientific and arts disciplines.  Imagining our future in order to better understand today.

It’s a fascinating period in our literary and cultural history, during which artists frequently took on the challenge of anticipating, projecting, or even predicting the future.

Think of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).  The self-acclaimed Futurists were addressing similar issues slightly earlier.  A period of 10-15 years during which there was an extraordinary interest in the future.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this inter-war period which saw massive changes in technology and in global politics should become transfixed by what the future held.  A mix, perhaps, of fear and excitement.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn with the history of the world over the last 10 years or so, and the next.  The fear and excitement of technological change, climate change, and the ongoing tensions in world politics.  Where is our future being foretold?  Where is our ‘Today and Tomorrow’ series being written?  Where are our modern-day equivalents of Huxley and Wells – projecting into the future in order to help think through the challenges of the present?

Initiatives such as TED provide space for discussion and debate, not unlike the Today and Tomorrow series;  but the focus of discussion rarely moves beyond the world of the known.  TV would be an ideal space to explore some of these challenges, but there appears to be more of an interest in our past (whether Andrew Marr, David Marquand, or the genuinely interesting ‘Who do you think you are?’ series) than in our future.  What of the written word?  Science Fiction does not have the mainstream acceptance that writers like Wells, Huxley and others had.  And our obsession with Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings over recent years suggests a longing for a magical other world, rather than a genuine look into the future.

Which brings me to film and, in particular, to James Cameron.  He, perhaps more than any other artist over the last decade or so, has sought to think into the future.  The first Terminator movie – though set in a contemporary LA – is played against the backdrop of a future state in which there is an ongoing battle between the machines and humans.   That future scenario is one which shapes and politicises the film’s main female character.  By implication, it’s by imagining the future that we can begin to understand and re-think our relationship to the present.  The Alien series takes on a different theme, but with Avatar, Cameron has moved back into that space which deals with the future and the present.

Avatar is about the battle between the US Army and the natives of a future, far-away land, for the exploitation of the planet’s scarce resources.  Although more obviously a product for a contemporary special effects-and-adventure-loving market, the film nonetheless takes on that ‘Today and Tomorrow’ theme.  Indeed, as in the Terminator, it’s that tension between the present and a possible future which creates a certain feeling of discomfort on which the fear and excitement in the film can be generated and sustained.

Perhaps, as The Terminator and Avatar suggest, looking into the future is too frightening a prospect to take on in anything more than mass consumption movies such as these.  But, as I read yet another newspaper article about the anticipated failure of our world leaders to strike a deal in Copenhagen, credit to Cameron that he’s willing to give it a go.

Economic impact and humanities research

Much debate in the education and, sometimes, mainstream press has been given over to the government’s new focus on demonstrating the ‘economic impact’ of university research.  Arguably not enough though.

According to HEFCE, it is not just ‘economic’ impact that needs to be more clearly emphasised when making the case for research funding, but impact on ‘public policy, culture and quality of life’.  But, diluting the nature of the measure is unlikely to make the task of arguing the case of the value of in-depth arts and humanities research any easier.

Why should the state support a 21 year old undertaking research for a PhD on, say, the use of rhyme in early medieval poetry?

Assessing the worth of cultural endeavour has never been a straightforward task. The AHRC and DCMS are about to advertise for a research fellow to undertake work on this theme. This blog has highlighted research and other contributions on this issue.

But it won’t go away.

Maybe we have got the terms of the argument wrong.  The contribution said 21 year old can make to our economy is likely to be little different from a 21 year old studying, say, nuclear physics.  What further ‘impact’ or value might that research have on the wider economy?  What will it tell us that we don’t already know?  It is not the ‘research’ which has an impact, it is the ‘learning’.  The value, surely, is in the activity of research – not the focus of that research. Human endeavour is what might push the boundaries of our knowledge, generate new ideas and innovations, and expand our economic (and human) potential.  Whether it be in medieval poetry or nuclear physics.  The latter is likely to have a more obvious and identifiable impact, but it may not be more important.

However – so long as the inspiration and fascination generated by Anish Kapoor or the Matthew Passion (or Chaucerian poetry) outweighs our ability to articulate it in quasi-bureaucratic ‘economic impact’ language, then the quest for alternative measures will go on.

Making London beautiful

Arguably the most important set of documents affecting the culture and creative sectors in London have just been published.

No, not the Arts Council’s funding plans, nor the Mayor’s Culture Strategy.

Published today are the Mayor’s Economic Development Strategy, and his London Plan – or, at least, a draft of both.  The latter setting out a strategy which seeks to make London’s shared space “more beautiful”.

They are both available here.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Culture Strategy is more important:  in practice it is the London Plan which dictates how local government in particular, and a host of other local, regional and national governmental partners operate to support creative and cultural development. Setting out guidelines for cultural quarters, creative workspace, and for public space, the London Plan will have a significant impact on the health of the creative and cultural sectors over coming years.

I’ve only had a skim read, but initial viewing suggests that Boris has a good handle on the issues – notwithstanding the predictable emphasis on assisting outer London.

The Economic Development Strategy, meanwhile, appears less forthcoming about the role of culture and the creative sectors in supporting, stimulating and enriching the London economy.  Despite passing references to London Fashion Week and Film Festival, it’s hardly teeming with ideas on how best to support and promote London’s second biggest sector.   Given the parlous state of the LDA over recent years, maybe that’s no bad thing.  On the other hand, even the Party of small government will know that public spaces don’t get beautiful all by themselves.