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Thursday, 23 December 2010

Be inspired

I am writing this blog from the bedroom of my recently acquired apartment in New York. Why is that relevant? Well it's only 2 months ago that I came to New York and left behind London, and from what I have seen and heard from the news- and friends- a lot has happened in that short space of time. I've seen the riots on the news, I've seen the backlash of Vince Cable "declaring war", and I have seen the uproar the Deputy Prime minister has caused from his ability to easily change from left wing idealist to modern conservative sympathiser. As I said, a lot of change.

Generally it is fair to say that people do not like change, especially change that is going to make things a lot harder. So it is understandable that in times when the state is making continual changes that affect both the present and the future we can't help but feel angry, lost, or disappointed. I hear a lot about how students will no longer go on to university and fulfill their dream of getting the perfect job. I can sympathise whole heartily, it's a scary thing to have that option taken away because of the crippling debt associated with such a dream. At 27 I am mostly an education product of new labour and I still pay off my student debts and will do so for many years. If the cost were higher than they were back when I went then I may never have gone.

It's a tough time and a time of hard choices. Does a student take on work before he or she goes on to education, or do they suck up the debt and go straight into it. I know that I am not qualified to answer that, and realistically why should a blog about creativity pose such a question. Well I think the reason I bring all of this up is that when I think of the youths that rioted around the country my mind wandered to some of the great creative pieces that have come out of protest and cultural response.

Music, Art, Theatre, Film, Photography. There is no cultural or creative form that has not been touched by protest. It is fair to say that many artists, musicians, photographers, playwrights and alike have been sparked into creativity because of their simple need to protest. A need that's been living since the dawn of art. When there is something worth speaking up against then there is something worth creating.

Since Ancient Greece to modern day there are records of the creative forms being used to protest, stand out, or tell a story. It has sung the song of the underdog, shown the complications of both sides, asked others to find their cause. Although art wont win a war or change an election it can create an understanding which in turn changes opinion. That is the power of art in times of conflict. Governments have known this for a long time and there is no clearer example of the power of art in war than looking at the propaganda of the Nazi's or the opposing British during the second World War.

The thing about a riot that's exciting is that it last only a short time but feels as though you're in a moment that's going to be remembered and last forever. Some of the students that have protested recently will no doubt feel that the riots that took place will eventually serve a purpose of being a lasting moment of protest that showed their frustration. I agree, but it is not the riot itself that is most effective but the voice of the creatives who are inspired by such actions that are most powerful. These creative minds can shift a popular thought far more than a single riot. The most obvious of this is Marvin Gaye's song "What's going on?"

"What's going on?" is written by Marvin Gaye, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson (Four tops), and Al Cleveland. The song was inspired when Benson saw a group of anti vietnam war protestors being arrested and pushed around by the police in San Francisco. Shortly after seeing the incident he headed home and began penning the song. The song still unfinished he turned to Cleveland for help on finishing. The song was never finished by the pair and it was only after a meeting among friends that Marvin Gaye took the song and began working on it with Benson and Cleveland. Gaye took the unfinished song about political protest and added his own lyrics based on the stories his brother, an American soldier, had told him about Vietnam. That song went on to top the charts in countries around the world, opening eyes to the feelings of a disenfranchised few.

There are countless examples of other creative persons putting pen to hand or brush to canvass. My favourite is White Riot by the Clash, a song inspired by the Nottinghill carnival riots in the 70's. Then there's the protest music of the Specials from the 80s, or George Orwell's dark tale of the future, "1984", or Lennon's "Imagine".

There's something timeless about putting your creativity to a cause worth fighting for. With all that is happening in the UK at the moment I hope that many young persons that are either involved in or watching the riots will pick up pens and/or paints and use their creativity to add longevity to their thoughts. After all that happens it is through our culture that we will be remembered.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Art and Philanthropy

Now that we all know that government cuts are going to hit arts budgets pretty hard, organisations are being encouraged to find other ways to get the funding they need to survive. Obviously there is the idea of raising their own revenue, but for many this is not as feasible as it sounds. So now Jeremy Hunt (steady), Culture Secretary, is trying to develop a culture of philanthropy and volunteering amongst the rich and in big business, similar to what exists in America. It's a fantastic idea and if it works would make for a better, more culturally rich and generous country. But the challenges that must be overcome to make it work are huge.

First of all the philanthropic culture of rich Britons and big business in the UK pails in comparison to America. On the Today program (8th December 2010) John Studzinski spoke about how the idea of giving and volunteering is not something that occurs when people become successful, it is already there during their rise to success. Certainly there is a certain amount of money given to arts organisations by the well-off in Britain, but it ain't much compared to the US levels Jeremy Hunt is looking at. It is an unfortunate fact that in Britain when an individual or organisation gains a lot of money, they tend to keep hold of it, because after all, how do they benefit from giving it away? (Apart of course, from knowing that generosity makes for a nicer world n'that). Arts & Business is putting together a plan to forge links between artistic and commercial organisations and hopefully they will see some success, but we are asking for an enormous change in how a lot of people think about money.

The next challenge relates to tax. In the States, philanthropists are rewarded with tax breaks when they help out arts organisations (as well as hospitals, schools, charities, general good things that require money to survive). This is a model that I believe we should certainly import but I fear for its success when the tabloid press get wind of the rich getting tax cuts for helping out artists. I do not necessarily think that the public at large would be outraged by such a plan, but the tabloids are pretty adept at whipping everyone into a frenzy over money going to the arts (there's been much written in the right wing tabloids about it already). If we, as a nationwide community of artists, demonstrate how beneficial the arts are to every day life, from television and music, to literature and visual art, then perhaps public support for tax cuts for rich philanthropists would grow. We live in exciting times, when people are taking to the streets to get their voices heard. Who is better at getting across a message than artists? I would suggest no one.

Oddly enough the final major challenge I can see relates to artists themselves. There is an attitude, especially prominent in the South East, that London is not only an artistic hub where the best art can be found. How many artistically-minded Londoners get out of the city to see what is going on beyond the end of the tube network? And how many beyond that network believe that London is the best place for their art, to the detriment of their own area? Having worked with Diy Womp for a significant amount of time I can say that both numbers are unfortunately high. London certainly is rich with artistic and cultural happenings, but get outside of the M25 and there is a lot exciting and valuable art. Norwich has its Writer's Centre, Middlesborough the MIMA, Ebbsfleet its White Horse, and thousands of towns in England have local arts centres. Essentially the point is that the arts extends far beyond London (and Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, whathaveyou). It is vital for the continuation of the arts throughout the UK people support their small, provincial organisations before they start to look further afield.

It is a disappointing fact that the arts budget will be cut, and we stand to lose some organisations whose value will probably only be realised once they are no longer with us. As far as I can see, the best opportunity we have to keep the arts on their feet is to try and encourage a cultural shift away from hoarding and towards philanthropy. Essentially though, it is a question of social responsibility that involves everyone. The rich must realise that as successful people living in Britain it is their responsibility to give something back and help others, and it is our responsibility as lovers of the arts to demonstrate how valuable they are to the entire country. It is easier to be gloomy about these cuts than it is to try and emulate America's philanthropic attitude. But as any artist should know, great art takes hard work.