“Once again, cultural considerations took a back seat to political concerns this year,” writes Nina Power in the Writers’ Reflections section of this issue’s 2011 Rewind feature.
At the end of a year in which the UK public sector was subject to cataclysmic cuts in its funding, while the financial sector continued to conduct its occult affairs with impunity; a year which saw the growth of the Occupy movement, mass Trade Union action and the most violent civil unrest on UK streets in 30 years, such a statement is understandable, perhaps inevitable. But even as it creates a mindset designed to focus attention on the urgent business at hand, does a philosophy which prioritises political concerns at the expense of cultural experience also result in a dislocated social environment which further diminishes the quality of life?
Forgive my historical perspective, but in his exhaustive and inspiring study The Intellectual Life Of The British Working Classes, the historian Jonathan Rose details numerous examples from the first half of the last century of working class communities in the midst of struggle emphasising the importance, even the necessity, of cultural activity. Beyond the barricades and the marches and the public meetings, these communities, Rose tells us, would organise film clubs and music and literary societies, or stage and attend concerts and theatrical productions, not in order to acquire knowledge that might be usefully mobilised at some point in the future, but just for the sheer sensual enjoyment of it all – that and the understanding that even in times of crisis, or maybe especially then, such experience elevates day-to-day existence in ways that are palpable if not immediately relatable to the wider struggle.
Likewise, the history of the international Labour movement is full of examples of radical resistance which linked cultural requirements with political imperatives.
Many years ago I used to drink in a pub in South London called the Bread And Roses. It was run by The Workers’ Beer Company, and over the bar was painted the legend: “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies. Give us bread, but give us roses!”
The lines come from a poem published in 1911 by the American writer James Oppenheim, and the demands they articulate have come to be most closely associated with those made the following year by a group of striking Massachusetts textile workers.
But over the years Oppenheim’s verses have also inspired and been invoked by numerous radical artists and organisations. Most recently, according to legend, in 2007 a song based on the poem became the last music to be performed at New York’s experimental community music venue Tonic, before it was closed to make way for private development. During this performance-as-protest, its protagonists, guitarist Marc Ribot, an associate of John Zorn and Tom Waits, and singer Rebecca Moore, the daughter of the Fluxus photographer Peter Moore, were arrested by police.
Bread and roses. The message here is as clear as the sentiments expressed by Nina Power, but it describes a very different attitude. The right to economic security and the right to leisure are historically and inextricably linked. Social equality is an imperative, but so to is the freedom to have the space to indulge in pursuits whose relationship to the political sphere is oblique but also profound.
At which point I should direct you back to the 2011 Rewind feature itself, which starts on page 30, The Wire’s own celebration of the cultural highs in a year of political lows. Because even as they cut across a diversity of sound and music activity that is ostensibly solipsistic, the objects, events and experiences commemorated here, in charts and essays, by our team of contributors and a number of the year’s most active sonic agents, have such a cumulative life-affirming power that their very existence, and by extension our relationship with them, amounts to an act of positive resistance that is surely political as much as it is cultural, one that refuses to accept the inevitability of the total market and media domination of the public sphere, as much as it rejects the nihilistic speculations of its supposed opposites in the realms of cyber-theory. Tony Herrington
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Issue 335 January 2012 £4 ISSN 0952-0680
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