Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle described art as the realisation in external form of a true idea. This remained so for millennia, but now we live in a society in which art that explores reality is undermined as “modern”, and those who do it for free are “amateurs”. The validation of a subject is how much it sells, not what it communicates. It’s therefore unsurprising that much art is now created purely for consumption, from the obvious Hollywood formulas, to genres of “trashy” and “beach-read” novels, to celebrity impersonators and even TV adverts. Hell, how many times have you heard someone talk about their “guilty pleasure” TV show?
And because our identities in our modern world are so intrinsically linked to financial success, it can be paralysing as an artist to see that, without a stroke of luck, our two options are to sacrifice our art or to sacrifice ourselves. This became evident in mainstream culture when earlier this year it emerged that the singer Kesha is contractually obligated to work with a man she claims repeatedly abused her and controlled her artistic freedom. Just as it is so easy to be dismissive of free, pertinent art as unsuccessful because it doesn’t sell, her freedom as a human being was dismissed due to the financial success she brought the label. We’re well aware that the drive of a capitalist culture has sacrificed much of our honesty, but it is truly painful to see how apathetically the sacrifice of art and artists – and therefore our reality – is being treated by our society. And that says almost everything we need to know about our current cultural narrative.
It’s not hard to understand why art has evolved in such a way under the heavy burden of consumer demands and commercialisation. In such a panicked state of economy, surviving isn’t as easy as it once was, and for something that’s always been hard for the typical artist, it just got a whole lot worse.
London-born poet Kate Tempest said recently: “The idea of bracketing an artist is all about commercial capital.” With such an array of consumable and easy art available, those creating works that rock the boat (let alone threaten the warship of our political, societal and cultural systems) can more readily be ignored and denied the airtime that is then passed onto art created for the majority.
“the role of the poet was very important because we’re tuned into things at this overwhelming, exhausting frequency, in order to express things that everybody needs to hear” – Kate Tempest
Labeled as dangerous radicals, long before advertisements paid any tribute to the majority’s wants, artists created for the majority; the difference being rather than appease, art frequently was being made to empower and educate people. After Martin Luther had nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the All Saints Church door, the Protestant Reformation encouraged its congregation to seek direct contact with God rather than treat the clergy as messenger. This resulted in rejection of the polyphonic, Latin choral music used by the Catholic church and a new style of simple, monophonic hymns written in the congregation’s natural tongue. Three centuries later, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass encouraged sensuality and spirituality, and revealed him to be homosexual in a Puritanical Christian society. Two hundred years later, the role of the art is still to reveal what others cannot bare to look at – but now those reveals are so easily buried or dismissed. Speaking recently in Los Angeles, Tempest said: “In other times the role of the poet was very important because we’re tuned into things at this overwhelming, exhausting frequency, in order to express things that everybody needs to hear and see and feel expressed but some people are too blocked or too busy.”
Too blocked or too busy. Blocked off from feeling any kind of responsibility or willingness to change is peddled around as the defining political characteristic of the apathetic millennials, too busy to muster any kind of engagement in the production of a fair society when they are caught in the rat-race of production, ever-hunted by the fear of individual economic instability snapping at their heels. When time is money, who has time to waste on feeling? The artist – and they are bringing the art to the people. London is overflowing with galleries, exhibitions, shows, concerts and cinemas which all ask for your money, not your time. But the most political, engaging and real art is found on the streets; the art that only asks for your time, for a glance and a thought. It’s unapologetically smeared across the buildings on Brick Lane, or found in the basements of social clubs in the lyrics of spoken word poets, or heard in the angry thrashing of a guitar at a party. The very fact that it is free makes it political and ideological, because it is created for a purpose other than security and consumption. It is created to communicate.
The rejection of art made for people as opposed to capital gain isn’t a recent symptom of the crisis afflicting Britain since the 2008 crash – the rejection of the artist has been creeping into the UK’s education system since Thatcher’s reforms. In 2014, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan suggested that schoolchildren focusing on the arts risk restricting their future career paths. She blithely said: “The subjects to keep young people’s options open are STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.”
“now the graduates walking out with their degrees are the institutionalised drones of a higher education system systemically producing the new proletariat”
Unfortunately, her ludicrous opinion is reflected in the dropping numbers of students doing degrees in the humanities and the arts, with as much as a 10% decrease over the past ten years in some subjects. Saddeningly, these numbers are unsurprising considering the ever-increasing fear of student debt since her government’s drastic hike in education fees.
With a flagrant mistrust of the arts and a narrowing job market made up of the new “management class”, students who were once free – and even encouraged – to study the arts are now deliberately integrating themselves into the corporate machine. Long before they even sign up for their first overdraft, they’re choosing the subjects that are most likely to guarantee them jobs. And driven by that mindset (that is applauded endlessly from politicians to nervous Generation-Y parents) is it any wonder that our campuses – once sites of political diversity, protests and a fervent desire to change the world – have become playgrounds for escapism. Where student unions once reigned as hotspots for debate, students now waste their time getting wasted in nightclubs that happily cash in on the defeatist attitude.
In the past, institutes of education produced free minds and artistic rebels, but now the graduates walking out with their degrees are the institutionalised drones of a higher education system systemically producing the new proletariat: intellectual, driven and unapologetically apathetic, with just enough cultural awareness to know how to identify and avoid an artist. Because Proletariat 2.0 doesn’t have time to waste on artists and realities – not when the illusion is so nicely packaged, awaiting their consumption. Which is why now, more than ever, we have to bring it to them.