Social Solidarity and the Arts in Woke Times

Social Solidarity and the Arts in Woke Times: Michael Crowley advocates against an ever-increasing subdivision of the arts into racial, age-related or gender groups for a similar audience

John William Waterhouse: Hylas & The Nymphs

Ours is a fractured society. Increasingly this is the way of the world. It gets smaller, more connected but somehow, we find we have less in common with one another and Britain it feels, sets the pace in the estrangement stakes. Of course it depends where you live in the UK. I live in a village in the Pennines, geographically and historically defined, it has more community groups than you can shake a walking-stick at and at the same time, a reputation for insularity. My perspective is shrouded by mist but I haven’t always lived here and whenever I return to Manchester or London, I am struck by the abrasive anonymity of the mounting teem. There is the growing list of categories, of factions in which we can place ourselves and are placed into by notions of multiculturalism, identity politics, globalism, consumerism, demographics, fashion or just the adoption of a personal brand – a religion of one. Conspicuous consumption has been shoved aside by conspicuous conviction because money can’t buy the singularity it used to, so wealthy celebrities charter jets to attend climate change conferences and pop stars punctuate their sets with political sermons. The life of the unconstrained self is hard work – it is something that has been imposed upon us and also seized upon by us.

At the same time we see a longing for commonly held convictions, for something outside of ourselves because the paradox of individualism is that ultimately it degrades us as individuals as we become commodified like all else in the global marketplace. The vote for Leave in the 2016 referendum can rightly be interpreted as a cry for social solidarity through national sovereignty -particularly when one considers the Leave constituency was largely working class, much of it located in the north and in Wales – those parts of Britain that ceased to matter after Thatcher and Blair finished their shifts. A political culture that holds dear, bonds of community, class and country was supposed to be dead and buried, but it isn’t. It is an energy that could have been harnessed beyond parliament and the political dog-fighting, it could have been given a positive cultural dimension yet the cultural establishment and most practising artists are remote from its constituency, its sensibilities. This is a remarkable situation, an indictment surely, when one considers it is the majority of the participating electorate. Sadly, much of the mainstream arts response has been to crudely stereotype the Leave constituency as nostalgic, racist even, the voters as ‘left behind’, merely stupid to be pitied at best. Instead they advocate another more metropolitan kind of social cohesion, one adopted by internationally minded younger, smarter multi-cultural graduates who embrace globalism. It is hard to see how post-liberalism is a basis for bringing people together, but the wider point is, at present we can’t even decide on what kind of social solidarity we want.

Yeats once said that all an emerging nation needs is ‘a graveyard and a library.’ He was of course talking about Ireland’s struggle for independence but the point about culture being at the heart of a sense of national identity is important and its absence as a unifying force in the UK in the last twenty to thirty years is, I think keenly felt. It seems the further one goes back the easier it is to identify cultural figures and milestones that were part of a national conversation. Orwell, Priestly, before that, Hardy, Dickens and the Brontes. Of course there are many post war contenders but the field widens and the audience in relative terms thins. In the last ten years or so it seems that the written word and even film and theatre have struggled to hold a national audience for very long. Partly it is down to the proliferation of production, partly down to the distractions of the age. Tim Parks latest book Where I’m Reading From examines the future prospects of the novel in the social conditions of today. He charts the rise of the international novel and the disappearance of a national literary style, how the market shapes serious fiction and the unintended consequences of translation. He wonders whether writers can escape the pressures of the new global system.

As well as unfavourable social conditions the arts themselves have wilfully taken on a divisive nature. They have become increasingly woke. They have gone beyond the quotas and short lists for minorities and now many in the arts establishment see it as their job to be self-styled advocates for social justice. Wokeness crudely speaking, is political correctness on steroids. It says that all social inequality or even imbalance is a result of bigotry and that not to attack bigotry is to be bigoted. It is the political manifestation of post modernism and as such all social inequality is entirely subjective. In wider society the language of victimhood dominates the political discourse, it has led to the rise of an offence and pretend offence culture and a strident self-righteousness amongst political activists – often termed left wing but who are really nothing of the sort. It degrades the arts because too many artists have begun to subordinate aesthetics to a political or social message. In fact, often that’s all there is. There are numerous examples from wokeworld to cite, from Manchester City Art Gallery’s decision to remove Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, (see header image) to the re-writing of Huckleberry Finn, but it’s the smaller, more ordinary examples that strike one as most telling. I have taught in two universities and there were daily examples of a politicalised approach, including the curriculum. I taught Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral and asked students to read and comment on the character of the protagonist; even though I explained I wanted them to examine how Carver builds a convincing voice, many students commented how politically incorrect the man was because he says at one point, ‘I’ wasn’t sure how I felt about a blind man coming to my house’ As such, he wasn’t a ‘good’ character, in fact they were offended by him. This was how many of my students approached literature.

A lot of artists are fine with the post-modernist mindset, Who’s to say Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ is better than Tracy Enmin’s, My Bed? They can also get a leg up in their field by raising their hand for one minority group or another. But a lot of us are not. A novelist I know found one of his books on a shelf specifically for ‘Black Writers’ in a library. He explained that he didn’t want people to read him because of his race and could he just be under fiction general, which interestingly enough wasn’t described as ‘White Writers.’ Being categorised as part of some subset does not empower people, it is usually confers a victim status and disempowers.

But saying that you think the only consideration ought to be the art itself, its beauty, its craft and not the race or gender or the politics of the artist, is old school and can get you in trouble. It will identify you as un-woke and into a target for a virtual or literal mob. To be sure, post-modernism is in charge of much of the present and has now set its sights on the past, viewing it only in terms of the disapproving now, looking to pull down statues and clean-up Shakespeare. Whilst the word ‘woke’ is new, the impulse is old and once belonged to conservatives in America and Stalinists in Russia. Orwell had their number yet his dystopia approaches us. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right (Nineteen Eighty Four). Sometimes it seems literature is written with the specific intention to unite communities or whole nations. In February 1942 Pravda published Konstantin Simonov’s poem Wait For Me. Soldiers cut it out of the paper, copied it out as they sat in the trenches, learned it by heart and sent it back in letters to wives and girlfriends; it was found in the breast pockets of the killed and wounded. In the history of Russian poetry it is hard to find a poem which had such an impact on people.

Wait For Me 
By Konstantin Simonov (1941)

Wait for me and I'll come back.
Wait with all your might
Wait when dreary yellow rains
Tell you nothing's right;
Wait when snow is falling fast;
Wait when summer's hot;
When no one waits for other men
And all the past’s forgot
Wait when those that wait with you
Are bored and tired and glum,
And when it seems, from far away,
No letters ever come

Wait for me and I'll come back
Wait in patience yet
When they tell you off by heart
That you should forget;
And when my mother and my son
Give up on me at last
And friends sit sadly round the fire
And talk about the past
And drink a bitter glass of wine
In memory of me –
Wait. No rush to drink with them
Tell them to wait and see

Wait for me and I'll come back,
Escaping every fate
‘Just a lot of luck!’ they'll say,
Those that didn't wait.
They will never understand
How, amidst the strife,
By your waiting for me, dear,
You had saved my life
Only you and I will know
How you got me through
Simply – you knew how to wait
No one else but you

It is the most well-known of many poems written during the great patriotic war. The enormity of the context juxtaposed with its unadornment makes it moving, written to a particular woman in the voice of every soldier. I am not advocating patriotic poetry or anything of the sort, indeed in Britain much of our war poetry is about defeat, the most famous commemorating charging the wrong way up a valley straight into canon fire. Britain is another country and we do things differently here, the literature that becomes part of a national conversation is incidental and accidental, and like Trainspotting their intention is probably to be anything but. But I am advocating against an ever-increasing division and subdivision of poetry and everything else into racial, age-related or gender groups for a similar audience and I am advocating standing up to the dominant political forces of our time. I recently watched the film The King. I thought it was a beautiful film and not that historically inaccurate as these things tend to be. The first review I read of this considerable achievement wagged a finger and told me the film is Francophobic. It’s about the Battle of Agincourt and inevitably the director has picked a side; it’s called a point of view – a necessity in drama and not surprisingly he’s picked the side of the underdog. But there is no point rationalising these critiques for they are not reasonable to begin with. Wokeness has become religion and for the devout there is no moderation – it’s always good to be more woke. There urgently needs to be a push back against this new politicisation of art. It will be costly to individuals no doubt, but without it there will be a much greater cost to freedom of expression and to artistic integrity.

Michael Crowley
is a writer and dramatist.