After all the carefully choreographed hype around Led Zeppelin’s recent gig at London’s 02 Arena, I got to thinking about the low level of popular culture under the Blair regime. Whilst far from scientific, a useful benchmarks I have found over the years when judging whether a government is progressive or radical, is to take a look at the cultural output during its period in office. For example the first years of revolutionary Russia saw some of the finest poetry, poster design, music and writing of the 20th Century. However once the Bolsheviks locked down Soviet Russia and Stalinist rule took hold, the arts despite being heavily subsidized, as far as innovative work was concerned withered and died.
Two of the Soviet Union’s and the worlds finest writers Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak were two amongst many who had their work banned in their homeland, which would be an anathema for any artist. The great composer Dmitri Shostakovich was forced by bureaucratic and political philistines to beat the Stalinist drum and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky preferred to put a bullet in his brain rather than betray his art and people, which are often one and the same.
The Hitlerite period in Germany is a similar sordid tale as there was a stagnation of that nations once not inconsiderable artistic output. Many of its best writers, artists, architects, film makers etc preferred exile, whilst others were blacklisted or worse. Modern art had no place in either the Third Reich or Stalinist Soviet Union, the purpose of an artist within these societies was to glorify the great leader, the State and the people; although not as living beings but in a mythic infantile way in which human foibles did not get in the way of political reality.
In the UK the three post WW2 Labour Government’s for all their limitations and which were led by Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan not only created the political space from which progressive political ideas could blossom and grow, but something similar occurred in the cultural realm. True the Attlee administration coming as it did at the end of world war two mainly concentrated on economic and organizational matters, but even so amongst many artistic endeavors that took place between 1945-51, British cinema produced some of the 20th Centuries classic films and George Orwell managed to produce 1984, which would be in the top ten of most influential books of that century. It was however during the Wilson administration when the UK experienced an explosion of creative endeavors; and even James Callaghan’s government was far from a barren period as far as the arts were concerned.
From 1964-70 free thinking magazines like Oz, International Times, Private Eye and Red Dwarf flourished and whilst Gay News and Spare Rib did not hit the streets until the early 1970s, the idea to create it came to fruition in the late 1960s. There were also countless other leftist newspapers and publications, many of which came out of the progressive publishing houses which were founded during these years such as Pluto Press. Of course if one looks back at the aforementioned publications, especially the papers, they look quite staid, somewhat conservative and a little under-whelming. However if you think back to those days their real value was that they broke out of the intellectual middle class ghetto and were read by all social classes. I remember first reading IT whilst a young worker employed in a Paper Mill, where my younger work-mates were as keen as I to read the latest issue of the paper . That there was this explosion of cultural output alongside left wing political activity, was no accident but a living example of that half inch of space we had come to expect when social democracy ruled and which we miss so much these days.
TV drama and documentaries was at the fore with many leftists believing that television would become a liberating and democratizing force for the good, indeed they viewed television in much the same way that many people view the Internet today. TV programming moved from being middle class melodrama and angst, [much as it has returned to today] to become something much more, when at long last the BBC finally recognized that the British working classes existed in human form and were determined to play an important role in the Nations affairs. Left wing program makers like Ken Loach and Tony Garnett were to the fore busy exposing the inequality which existed within British society. Problems of inequality I might add that previous generations of broadcasters and program makers had swept under their nice middle class carpet.
The whole point about this generation of program makers was not only that they sympathized with working class people but they actually liked us, which made this period in history almost unique as far as TV in the UK is concerned. The example of Loach, Garnett and others encouraged working class writers like Jim Allen, Barry Keefe and Trevor Griffith’s, and later Alan Bleasdale, Jimmy McGovern, all of whom came at their work from a left wing working class perspective and worked in both TV, theater and film.
Pop music was to play a massive part in the social changes that took place between the mid 1960s and 1979. The coming of the Beatles, four working class lads, internationalized and politicized more working class kids than all the great tomes written by the socialist old beards, I for one owe far more to Lennon than Lenin. During the more conservative Callaghan years we saw the birth of punk rock, rock against racism, and bands like the Clash and UB40. A band which took its name from the then unemployment benefit card which you had to produce when drawing your dole and god forbid it if you failed to produce it.
Skip forward to 1997 and the election of Tony Blair, expectation was high not least due to the large majority Blair possessed, as this Labor Government would be able to pass whatever legislation it so wished. Politically its period in office could have been golden years, surpassing Clem Attlee’s administration let alone Harold and Sunny Jim. In the cultural realm a million blossoms would bloom and the arts would finally be properly funded. Or so many people dared hope.
It was not to be, politically Blair was a disgrace, for not only has he removed the working classes further from the levers of power, but he also committed this country to cowardly military adventures overseas which border on criminality. Culturally the arts have reflected the political track that Blair’s government has taken. Money is all as displayed by the Led Zeppelin gig, thus the Opera House in London has been refurbished and returned to its glittering days, whilst at a local level the arts are in a deplorable state. All is show, fur coats and no draws. Vain glorious architectural project like the Dome and silly and pompousness as epitomized by Damien Hurst’s skull with diamonds and billingsgate crap. Popular music began as Blair’s pals in the music industry conglomerates meant it to continue with the two louts from Manchester aping the Beatles as if they were a tribute band.
What ever their artistic endeavor or abilities under NL, artists and musicians placed paying the publicist above buying paint or guitar strings. Almost all of those artists who have come to prominence in the last decade have reverted to the age old custom of artists being courtiers. They go about the business not by first creating great work but by courting slimy Billionaires as if their art can gain substance via the Midas touch.
Whenever the media cover the arts the first thing they come out with is the sale price, whether it is a Hockney, Hurst or Bacon, or the million pound contract a new recording artist has signed. If a movie takes millions at the box office it is not only judged a financial success but a great cinematic piece of work. Of course there are exceptions that disprove the aforementioned and great art can be created whatever the political climate, one only has to hear Amy Winehouse sing to understand that class can win through given half a chance.
However there is no doubt in my mind the cultural legacy of Tony Blair will by Pop Idol, Dinosaur Pop stars reunion concerts and Damien Hurst’s over priced crap; plus countless bank vaults around the globe, full of the artwork of past masters brought as investments which the general public will never get a chance to see.