Already inspiring moments of resistance against the cuts have begun to emerge in the arts. In the last of this series, Alistair Cartwright proposes how to take them further.

The Save the Arts campaign that was set up in September was a sign of the huge potential for resistance to the cuts. The most direct comparison is the Science is Vital Campaign. The fact that opposition to the cuts was being voiced from these unexpected quarters, before any national anti-cuts movement had established itself, was a clue as to the objective possibilities for a serious movement. But like Science is Vital, Save the Arts accepted the necessity of some cuts while defending its particular sector.

Save the Arts was also weak on clarifying what it stood for. It lacked a robust ideological counter-argument. The main focus of the campaign is a petition that “points out that it has taken 50 years to create a vibrant arts culture in Britain that is the envy of the world and appeals to the government not to slash arts funding and risk destroying this long-term achievement and the social and economic benefits it brings to all.” Is the emphasis on the the profit-making ability of the cultural economy or on the value of the arts to society?

A defence of the arts that chimes with Cameron’s support for profit-driven ventures like the Harry Potter movies is never going to be able to stand up to the cuts. Nor is one that stops at petitioning. We need a campaign that connects with the popular anger that’s out there.

While it’s important to raise the fact that cutting the arts doesn’t make economic sense, an opposition to the arts cuts founded primarily on economic/pragmatic arguments is an inherently sectional defence, and an unconvincing one too. It relies on the idea that you can beat the cuts by persuading the government of the relative economic efficiency of a given sector. But these cuts are not about efficiency savings. They are about using the the occasion of the economic crisis to push the neoliberal project to its next level.

For the arts, a purely economic defence is a particularly bad strategy. While the ‘cultural industries’ may well be booming, no one is going to take seriously the idea that the key to ending the recession lies with the artists (even if you rename them cultural entrepreneurs). The fact that the status quo puts the arts at the bottom of the priority list foils the argument before it even has a chance to make its case.

Technical arguments will only inspire technocrats. We need arguments founded on the basic premise that most people value the arts not as a source and expression of economic wealth, but as a source and expression of spiritual wealth. We don’t need arguments that glorify the commercialisation and commodification of art, but arguments that connect with the alienation, resentment and anger that these things inspire.

At the same time we have to avoid turning judgements of taste, or notions of aesthetic purity, artistic quality etc., into conditions for inclusion or exclusion in the movement. The Art Workers Coalition, which was active in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the US, included the best known names from the avant garde – people like Carl Andre, Lucy Lippard and Hans Haacke – alongside unknowns and outsiders. This was the only way the organisation could hold together, and by putting politics above aesthetics it was all the more radical for it.

Above all any campaign to defend the arts has to be part of a wider anti-cuts movement. A sectional defence of just the arts, just the sciences, just healthcare, just education etc., leaves us open to attack on whichever side is unguarded. If the government is successful in pushing through cuts on one front, it will pave the way for cuts elsewhere.

The old slogan ‘united we stand, divided we fall,’ holds good. But in order to actually achieve this kind of unity, we have to bring limited and sectional campaigns into the movement, while at the same time arguing with people for opposition to all the cuts.

The best way to defend the arts is to fight the cuts in their totality. We have to say that culture is an integral part of our communities which cannot be separated from welfare provision as a whole. On top of this, not only is there enough money for the basics of life – to look after the sick, support the unemployed, send children to school etc., but if you tax the rich, cut the war and scrap Trident, then there’s enough resources to have a society where art and culture flourish.

This involves connecting a campaign to fight the arts cuts with local anti-cuts groups, making the point that the arts are part of culture in a broad sense, one that includes public libraries, swimming pools and community centres. Artists of the Resistance (AoR), a group connected to the Coalition of Resistance, has begun to do this, bringing together cultural workers of all kinds, from art therapists, to animators, designers, actors, filmmakers, musicians, art teachers and arts administrators.

At the same time those involved in the arts can bring talents that infect the movement with vibrancy. Writer and activist Alice Walker said that ‘resistance is the secret of joy’. AoR’s open letter to the Guardian, signed by AL Kennedy, Roger Lloyd Pack, Miriam Margolyes and many others, closed by saying that “in the face of those exercising their power to destroy we need to create.”

Cultural figures are also able to project the message of the anti-cuts movement to a far wider audience than individual activists can. Engaging culture in the movement shouldn’t involve an outright rejection of the mainstream. When Paul O’Grady calls for a revolt against the Tories on his TV show, or when Philip Pullman decries the cuts to libraries, it carries an endorsement for these positions to an audience of hundreds of thousands.

Arts Against Cuts, a group which has come out of the student movement (particularly the occupations of art schools like the Slade, Goldsmiths, Camberwell and RCA) but reaches out beyond students, has organised creative direct action that brings the militancy of the student movement to the arts. The Arts Against Cuts occupation at the Tate crashed the Turner Prize nomination party, forcing the anti-cuts agenda onto the most prestigious UK platform for contemporary art. Images of the occupation filled Channel 4’s coverage of the event and prize winner Susan Philipsz came out in support of the protesters.

These tactics can be applied more widely. The next time a library is threatened with closure we need to deliver solidarity to local campaigners and staff, organising read-ins and other events in conjunction with local anti-cuts groups, and get well-known writers who support the movement to raise the profile of opposition. We need more of the kind of action we saw on February 5th, the very successful national day of action for libraries called by Campaign for the Book.

At the same time we have to recognise that despite their situation being compromised by privatisation, corporate sponsorship and a leadership drawn from the great and the good, cultural institutions are not the enemy. Our fightback in the arts, as elsewhere, has to be directed at those delivering the cuts – the ConDem government, allied to the bankers, super-rich and tax-evading corporations. We should remember that cultural institutions are the ones having their funding slashed. Following the Arts Council’s review of applications, withdrawal of funding for major arts organisations will start to be announced this Spring. These will be important moments for resistance to the culture cuts. We need protests and occupations to defend cultural institutions against the cuts.

Culture is an important part of the anti-cuts movement. Creating a culture of resistance brings energy to the movement, and fighting the culture cuts raises the question of what kind of a world you want to live in – a world of austerity and war or one where enjoyment and creativity are valued and accessible to all.

On the 12th and 13th of March Artists of the Resistance, in collaboration with Arts Against Cuts, are organising a joint weekend of creative workshops to bring together artists, students of the arts, and cultural workers to discuss, plan and create in the run-up to March 26th. Contact Artists of the Resistance for more info and how to get involved: [email protected]

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.