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5 Freeing culture from profit

Access to culture and education is under attack in an unprecedented way, especially in Britain. The right-wing Coalition government has slashed public spending on the arts and imposed soaring tuition fees on students in England and Wales.

Due to the economic downturn, sponsorship from local business has declined. Major and minor arts organisations have become more dependent on banks and oil corporations such as Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Getty and BP.

And while corporate sponsorship in the US is held up as a model, it costs around $20 (£12) simply to set foot into major institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Broadway theatre tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. The US shows that reliance on business sponsorship is associated with politically and artistically conservative programming, less diversity and lower public access. Also in the US, members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have taken a 22% pay cut after a six-month strike while the famous Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for bankruptcy. In England, national institutions such as the Tate galleries are now charging over £15 for their latest shows.

Young people in Britain took a stand against the Coalition when they took to the streets in December 2010 and occupied places of learning around the country in protest at education cuts and the rise in tuition fees. College and school students walked out against the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and against the imposition of higher fees. Students of all ages by their actions challenged the mainstream agenda, which is to turn everything into a commodity for sale.

Student assemblies turned to the community at large for support against cuts, supporting calls for permanent, city-wide people’s assemblies. Many sought to link up with the uprisings led by young people in Tunisia, Egypt and the Middle East. Discussions began early in 2011 about the right to education, its very nature, and how to connect students with the broader movement to oppose cuts. That movement to defend the right to education now coincides with a more general reversal of access to education and culture – a “death by a thousand cuts”.

The last 20 years saw many arts projects spring up, encouraged by funding from the National Lottery combined with the vision, energy and enthusiasm of thousands of talented people. Public access widened through the abolition of museum admission charges. Cultural centres were begun or expanded in Belfast, Salford, Nottingham, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Swansea, and most recently Margate – places which had seen nothing but industrial and social decline since the 1970s. In any case, many of the poorest areas of Britain such as parts of the North-East, Midlands, Scotland and Cornwall have never experienced the benefits of “regeneration”. Community-based arts projects, theatres and dance studios have been sustained by a combination of lottery grants, local council funding, fundraising, sponsorship, volunteers and dedicated professionals. They often survive on a financial shoestring.

Over past years, cuts in funding from government and especially local authorities have made arts bodies increasingly dependent on business sponsorship and volunteers. Spending cuts will decimate many of the achievements of the last decades. They affect not only existing institutions and arts bodies but will drastically reduce the cultural level of generations to come. The way in which the cuts will widen the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is described as “cultural apartheid” by writer-director Richard Eyre.

The attacks on culture include: 

In addition other factors are reducing access to education and affecting arts spending. These include:

These public sector cuts give more influence to the giant commercial “cross-platform” conglomerates and media empires such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – the second largest in the world after Time Warner – and companies like Endemol, which is responsible for reality TV such as Big Brother and has 80 companies in 26 countries.

The savaging of education and art institutions by the state is countered by the mushrooming of new, largely independent forms of communication and creative production. The rise of the Internet, with its social networking platforms, has enabled talented people of all kinds to reach wider audiences for music, film making, writing, photography and other forms of art.

igitisation, file sharing, open access library and museum catalogues are transforming appreciation and making new forms of expression possible. As the recession bites harder, increasing numbers are reaching out to many forms of cultural activity. Membership of organisations like the National Trust has shot up. Attendance at art exhibitions, music festivals and concerts is growing significantly. There is a hunger for an alternative to shopping and commodity fetishism.

The role of creativity

Human creativity occupies a special place within late globalised capitalism, the era of the image conveyed through an all-pervasive mass media. Culture is an integral part of the system, while simultaneously enabling us to look beyond it. But in today’s world the commercial, profit imperative is stripping away all notions of liberal, humanist education and the provision of culture in general. Many students involved in the protests to defend their right to education were aware of this contradiction – that they were fighting to defend an education system that in itself does not meet their true aspirations. Universities are now managed largely by groups of narrow-minded businessmen who think their role is to turn out fodder for the corporations. As a result a movement for open schools, free universities and pioneering approaches to learning is springing up across the country alongside the struggle against the cuts.

The new generations have it in their power to liberate the creative drive from the profit-hungry conglomerates, not only in the arts, but also in technology, science and sport to open a new chapter in the development of human culture. By widening out public access, education and training, what has been until now “high” culture will stop being the preserve of the privileged minority and belong to all. Living the life of a full-time performer or artist, unlike that of many other professions, provides an inspiring model of how a human being can work in a way that is fulfilling and creative. Creative work shows the potential of human existence free of exploitation and the need to make profit for a boss.

The special role that cultural workers and performers occupy, their ability to inspire people, enables them to give a powerful impetus to social and political transformation The unique quality of creativity gives some exceptionally gifted people the power to call the shots for change. The corporations need this Midas touch of talent to transform humdrum goods into something appealing to make people part with their money and, they hope, share a little of the limelight.

We appeal to all artists, writers, educationalists, musicians, performers and content creators, sports people, designers and scientists to go further: help liberate and expand the scope of your creativity by ending the prison of capitalist social relations that blights culture in pursuit of profit.

Revolutionary solutions

Cultural workers – artists, musicians, actors, film makers, writers and technicians – create the products that generate the revenues of the media conglomerates which dominate much of culture. It is only right therefore that workers in the media and entertainment industries, organised in their associations and unions, should own, control and manage these resources in collaboration with consumers. The experience of making art, crafts and writing should be freely available to all. A thriving culture should provide access to art activity as part of everyone’s life.

Education and access to culture should be a social and political right. People value education for many reasons that go beyond the possibility of better pay and the values promoted by the present system. We reject the business-corporate agenda which sees education as a form of investment rather than essential to a truly civilised, human existence. Teachers, students, parents and local communities should be involved in how education is run, without depending on religious, state or commercial interests.

Resources must be available, in a non-exploitative way, to widen the scope of cultural output. Film makers, artists, theatre producers and writers should receive public funding so that they can work on a much wider range of issues even if they do not have an instant mass appeal. In the music industry, for example, a small group of artists are exploited, heavily promoted and frequently destroyed in the process, while the majority have to struggle for access to a wider audience. A socially-owned industry would provide the conditions for greater variety as well as the development of music itself.

The handfuls of publishing houses that dominate the industry similarly block the emergence of new writers and poets because they are not deemed profitable. This deprives the public of access to new literature. Co-operative forms of ownership would benefit everyone. Intellectual property rights – which at present are used primarily by corporations to maintain profits – could be phased out as creators and users arrive at mutually-beneficial arrangements.

Through the Internet countless people participate collectively in the creation of new content at many different levels. We oppose commercial or state interference with servers and social networking. Control and distribution of content should be agreed between creators and users, democratically mediated by professional bodies.

Instead of state or government bureaucracies, independent public subscription bodies (such as the BBC and the National Trust) could become a new model to fund or subsidise arts organisations. Artists and cultural workers would then be able to work free of ideological pressures and open or hidden censorship. Local Assemblies could be expected to set aside funds for musicians, film makers and other artists. Museums and galleries are not luxuries to be starved of resources on a political whim. They and their staff, including conservators, need to be generously funded, especially outside the major cities, and seen as a vital part of everyone’s existence. Special exhibitions often charge prohibitive entrance fees and must be made affordable. Art collections currently held by the monarchy will be taken into public ownership.

The running and management of arts institutions should be democratised, and run with the participation of living artists and performers. The art trade should be freed from the grip of the global auction houses and corporate dealers and placed in the hands of existing not-for-profit national and local arts bodies. Great masterpieces should no longer be bought and sold for vast sums but transferred to public collections.

Existing cultural facilities, including local and national centres, trusts, and self-organised bodies such as studios, orchestras, cinemas, film clubs, arts festivals, theatres, and exhibition areas would be developed and expanded. Free training to different levels could be provided in different areas of the arts and crafts such as film-making. Architects would be encouraged to work on sustainable buildings, creating high standards in housing for ordinary people, and in designing public spaces to improve the quality of life in city and rural areas. Trade skills such as construction, joinery, decorating, plumbing, electrics, would be recognised as crafts and be taught, trained and valued in that way.

Public, open air and street art including theatre, sculpture, dance, music and murals would be encouraged. Each community could provide space for artists’ studios. Music recording and film studios would be provided for musicians, film makers and community projects.

Cultural workers would be financially supported by local Assemblies and publicly-funded cultural committees. Minority languages, dialects, literature, arts, crafts and traditions, such as those of the Roma people, should be supported and encouraged to prevent their loss from society in Britain and other countries. Those with rare and unusual skills could be encouraged to train new generations. All aspects of education – from pre-school to university, special needs and adult education – are at the very heart of transforming society from the social inequality of today to a truly democratic one. Rather than a return to a paternalistic state-run or business model for education, we advocate the right to high-quality education as an essential part of moving to a new social arrangement.

Sport

Sport has been transformed and sucked into the orbit of the global corporations. Rampant commercialism is the name of the game. In football, the top clubs are owned by billionaires and run as corporations. Clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool are weighed down by huge debts used to turn them into sources of revenue for investors. Teams and individual players and athletes have been transformed into brands for maximum global exposure. Every aspect of the new brands is then exploited for money. Top performers earn more money for themselves (and their sponsors) as brands than they do as sportsmen.

Governing bodies have become ever more accommodating to the private bodies that profit out of sport. Advertisers, sponsors, agents, merchandisers, equipment manufacturers, PR and media companies and the owners of the clubs, including the new billionaires in football, now control everything from the kick-off times to the price of seats. Live sport is increasingly in the hands of subscription channels like Sky, denying access to the majority. Football fans find the seats unaffordable and their loyalty to the club spurned. More money can be made by creating corporate boxes and by encouraging the better-paid middle classes to become the new fans.

The biggest money-spinner of all is the Olympic Games. The costs of the 2012 Olympics to the British taxpayer are likely to reach around £10 billion, including a contingency fund, with security alone estimated at £1 billion. Hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras will allow security personnel to follow individuals through the city. The RAF and the Navy will be deployed with missiles and drones. It is rumoured that the Met Police are planning to use remotely-controlled spy drones. Television rights for the London Games are being paid in billions of dollars. The games themselves, paid for by the people of the host city and country, become devalued and tainted as the setting for corporations and others to make a killing.

Sport for all

Below the elite level, sport struggles. Local authority leisure centres have been sold off. Most state schools are unable to provide good sports environments. Local clubs operate with little support from government or involvement with the community.

Alternatively, on a not-for-profit basis sport can lead to a transformation of lives, with mass participation and a return to sporting codes and behaviour. Resources would be diverted to the grass-roots, to local clubs, schools and universities. The priority would be the free provision of resources such as playing fields and sports venues. Cultural and sports centres would be opened in areas where they have been closed down or where few are available, with the help of funding from local Assemblies.

Sport would be encouraged and resourced at all levels, creating the conditions for democratically-controlled sports clubs, on the model of Wimbledon AFC and United FC of Manchester, where the people who care about the game, own it and run it. Nobody would be allowed more than one share. Sports administrators would become responsible to the fans, the players and the local community.

Children would have the right to learn a sport, with parents, teachers and coaches involved in the development of their potential if they showed an interest and an aptitude. All schools would have playing fields and sporting facilities. The problem of obesity and lack of fitness would be tackled through these changes in the profile of sport. Adults would be encouraged into sport. Clubs and sports halls would be attractive and affordable. Sports stars would be encouraged to help with the building of a sports culture to help change attitudes on diet and drinking. A people’s Olympics would be organised without commercial sponsors.

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Your Say

Tony says:

p39: The heading is ambiguous If you mean "the arts" say so. "culture with a small c" means "what people do" to me. I hoped this chapter would be about educating society as to the need for change and how to do it, but it turned out to be about theatres etc. Where is the chapter about the former?

p44: Why do the Roma people deserve special mention here? Is one of the authors a Roma? By singling the Roma out in this way it appears that their attributes are more important than those of Cornish people. Who is to say? where's the evidence?