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Features Essays Published 30 June 2016

Arts in a Time of Crisis

In the wake of Brexit, a feeling has emerged that now is not the time to be thinking about theatre. Rosemary Waugh discusses why separating the arts from politics is not so simple.

Rosemary Waugh
Guernica by Pablo Picasso, currently in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, currently in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia.

Not many people will be reading this because this is about the arts and, as I have been reminded repeatedly since the referendum results on Friday morning, now is not the time for arts. Now is the time for the serious business. The important business. The politics come first and the games come second.

Like, I presume, many who went into an arts-related career I have had to confront the idea throughout my life that there is a hierarchy of importance relating to different subject areas. As an Arts History graduate, I’ve heard all the jokes about not doing a ‘proper degree’, and heard people speak about Art History as the epitome of elitist indulgence, a pastime for the spiritual offspring of Marie Antoinette. What, after all, could looking at Picasso’s Guernica or the soft, fleshy mounds of Lucian Freud’s humans ever seriously teach us about existence?

So perhaps more than most, I find this attitude that the arts should be the first to go in a crisis enraging. It’s like saying ‘The Big Boys are off to play politics and science, they’ve got no time for your girly preoccupations with Georgia O’Keeffe and sparkly unicorns’. The logical extension of this argument is found in the image of Nero playing a fiddle whilst Rome burns. The scorn that greets this image is two-fold. Firstly, there’s justifiable derision for Nero for causing the mess, then abandoning his post at the final hour to leave everyone else to suffer [Eds note: remind you of anyone?]. But accompanying this is the assumption that his sin is even greater because he had the audacity to think about MUSIC at a time like that. While I’m not suggesting we should all hide out in an opera house while there’s a riot happening, I think that this image crystallises the idea that when the shit hits the fan, the last thing you want to do is be caught thinking about Brahms or Beyoncé.

However, this dropping of the arts at the first sign of danger feels short-sighted. To believe in a hierarchy of distinction between politics and art is to miss the integral point that the best art of all forms – theatre, music, literature, painting – is deeply political. Politics are in everything – arts included – every day of the year, no matter what has just happened on the news. They were, surprisingly, happening long before last Friday, and will continue to happen long after a stable government eventually takes its seat in the commons.

In part, we jump out of the NT queue the moment Westminster holds an emergency session out of guilt. Having been told for years that the arts are lightweight we feel guilty for being indulgent when other people are being serious. But there’s more than one way to change the world. Politicians can pass legislation promoting equality. But Emma Rice (artistic director of The Globe) has taken over a world-famous theatre that thousands of school children and tourists and those living in Britain attend each year – and directed a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that shouts from the rooftops that gay marriage is good; that mixed race marriage is good; that nothing is sacred, even age-old historical texts can be ripped up, re-arranged and re-staged.

As Matt Trueman recently pointed out, we have not (yet) seen plays directly addressing Brexit. However, as Trueman also notes, there have been many productions foregrounding the issues underlying the eventual political explosion last Friday. For example, the divisions between Britain’s different classes and the effect of Conservative economic cuts won’t be surprising to those who have seen Iphigenia in Splott at the National or touring the country. Next week, the Queens of Syria, a production of Euripides’ Trojan Women by Syrian refugees in Jordan, comes to The Young Vic. The group found parallels in their own plight in a work of art produced thousands of years ago. A day later, Cargo opens at the Arcola. It too looks at displaced people, this time risking their lives to travel to other countries in shipping containers or lorries. Even when theatre is not dealing with overtly politicised issues, directorial decisions like colour-blind casting, gender-swapping roles, diversity of ages, regional accents on stage all mean that staging a play does not exist in a de-politicised Neverland.

Finally, the whole subject of theatre and those who work directly in it or on the periphery cannot be untangled from the wider country and the political environment. The fact that theatre is predominantly a middle class medium is clearly political and once you start thinking about the reasons why, it is almost impossible to avoid immediately becoming aware of the social divisions existing within Britain. Divisions based on money, education, language use, race, gender and the impact of having ‘useful connections’. If, until last Friday, there were people working in theatre and other areas of the arts who saw their profession as being separate from politics then however painful the sudden political awakening was last week, it was, arguably, completely necessary.

When we say, ‘Now is not the time for arts’ we belittle the ability of the arts to be a force for good. We diminish the fact that Bankside is often talking about the same issues as Westminster, and that culture has the power to subtly introduce and explore new cultural ideas in a way that legislation alone cannot.

Additionally, we dismiss the ability of literature, theatre, music and visual art to provide us with insight, knowledge and, perhaps even, solutions. I spent a lot of the last few days stuck in the purgatory of the Guardian’s LIVE coverage. Aside from the sea-sickness that watching the moving, flashing, re-loading screen induces, I realised that nothing was actually changing. Not really.

One of the strongest themes of this damned situation is that since no one has a plan, we’re going to be here a while. So what we need whilst all this trudges on through the toffee are some new ways of thinking – because it’s pretty clear that the old ways haven’t been working very well. What we need is creativity and people who think differently to others. People who can look at a situation in new ways, perhaps from the outside because they’ve spent their lives being outsiders. We need, dare I say it, the artists.

You may think that now is not the time to read Virgil or watch The Simpsons, but maybe it is. Maybe now is exactly the time to pull out Midnight’s Children or switch on Breaking Bad because a perspective on the long arc of history and the world outside of Britain is often very constructive. The solution will not be found by teatime, so take a step back and try, calmly, to consider what is really going on here. The arts reveal so much about how humans act individually, as a collective and towards one another. There’s never a time when that’s not needed.

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is the Reviews Editor for Exeunt, and a freelance writer and editor currently reviewing national shows for The Stage.

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