After the cusp: invention and wakefulness

My last blog here, in March, was headed ‘The cusp of something, but what?’ I’ve left that cliffhanger hanging a while now, for reasons of work, family and football, and we know a little bit more.

Obviously, we’ve had the election. First I was afraid. Then I was petrified.

Then I decided this would take more than disco songs and turned my silent mind to the survival of the kind of culture I believe in, one with beauty and fairness, where we look after our fellow human beings as well as ourselves. (I do have more detailed policies too, of course. Renationalize the railways, abolish private schools, don’t starve people, that kind of thing.) Nothing I’ve seen in the political sphere has cheered me up any since then, from either the government or the Labour response to defeat.

The scale of challenge for the cultural sector is apparent. Some people tell me they are tired of thinking about resilience, when they could be thinking of something sexier and more exciting, or simply of being sexy and exciting as artists and organisations. But if ever adaptive resilience was needed it is now. Holding onto purpose and values in as bloody-minded-but-open-and-inventive a fashion is going to be crucial.

Call me old-fashioned, call me timid, but for all the occasional talk of ‘let some things die and invest in the new’, it feels more important for culture, right now, that most things don’t. That they persist in their creativity, ingenuity and making of meaning. We need culture in the sense of arts, museums, libraries as one of the tools for building the culture in the broader sense that will eventually wash away the brutal selfishness I sometimes – only sometimes – feel surrounded by. For understanding that we are not, actually, surrounded by selfishness and pettiness, but, that most people, however they vote, are decent, compassionate and creative. They just have some bloody funny ways of showing it.

That does not mean we simply acquiesce to the forces of neoliberalist oppression, as some might suggest I’m suggesting. We do what ‘hard-working people’ (and layabout bohemians too) have done for centuries: work as best we can to find and make truth, beauty and justice in unhelpful circumstances, and to create the conditions and mechanisms for others to do so. Holding both principals and pragmatics tightly. Recognising that takes more than individual brilliance, or ‘excellence’ or ‘ambition’. Every true maker of culture creates opportunities, one way or another, for others to do so, I believe. That’s how culture works, as opposed to commerce. We pass it on. That’s why resilience matters, and why I continue to think it important to work with individual organisations and on research and probing at sectoral level to make it more rather than less likely.

This is not quite the blog I sat down to write. I suspect I needed to clear the decks for myself, as often after a spell away. (I’ve not been lazy, I have in fact researched and written more than 30,000 words of reports in the last couple of months, but more of that anon.) Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to share a few ‘chinks of light’ here, tools and reading that can be used, adapted or even opposed, as part of the way forward. All suggestions welcome.

Today’s chink of light, though, is a reminder that it was Roy Fisher’s 85th birthday yesterday, probably England’s greatest living poet. You can read about him here if you don’t know his work. I think this blog may have turned out as it did because I was thinking on lines from his CITY, which I read again last night, ‘‘Once I wanted to prove the world was sick. Now I want to prove it healthy.’ The last lines of ‘The Thing About Joe Sullivan’ may also be apposite:

‘marks of invention, wakefulness;

the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings

make when they get driven
hard enough against time.’