So a dear friend rang earlier in the week and asked for a contribution- some words or such- to an arts programme that might have been presented in an occupied department store today in London. But I don’t think they made it in to BHS.Although somewhat cheeringly I am hearing that some have made it in to Fortnum and Masons- that’s an occupation moving up in the world if ever I’ve heard it!
I hope everyone involved are all okay.I thought that maybe posting the speech that will never be delivered would be- allbeit a tiny, tiny one- a virtual protest.
I am sorry I can’t be there.
I know this day is about a bigger picture, about a larger, desperate battle against the wholesale dismantling of what we so recently thought of as ‘sacred’, what we so recently thought of as intrinsic and just elements of our society- a collective striving for fairness; the belief that every man, woman, child in this country has the right to good health care, to an education, to a place in the world that is without fear and desperation. I completely understand the Arts are just one part of that. But it’s the part of it that I live for and live in. And so inevitably it’s what I can talk about in good faith. It might be that the connections between this that I am soaked in and other things that I know less well might be of interest. But if not then this is my patch of earth that I fight my battle on and I believe in it just as fiercely.
I’ve been thinking about the arguments we use to fight the case for a vibrant subsidised arts industry in this country- we talk about the benefits to social cohesion, to literacy, to race relations, to law and order and so on. The effect Art has on other systems.
And I’ve been thinking that I wouldn’t try to explain the love i have for my wife, the central, vital place my wife takes in my life, by measuring the heat she gives to our bed of a morning with a thermometer. That a graph of how that heat she contributes to the bed reduces the house’s heating bill tells us no more about the depth and strength of love I feel for my wife than statistics about revenue return properly captures the worth and value of the Arts in this country.
This is my favourite story at the moment. It’s sort of about the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore was a Nobel Prize winning poet from India who worked in the beginning of the 20th Century, dying in 1941. He was a massive poet but he also wrote plays.
One of his plays, The Post Office, is about a child who—frustrated by his restrictions because of a physical weakness and that he is trapped in his house—ultimately “falls asleep” (which suggests his physical death). The Post Office dealt with death as, in Tagore’s words, “spiritual freedom” from “the world of hoarded wealth and certified creeds”.
In the Warsaw Ghetto during the second world war there was a doctor and teacher called Janusz Korczak who had a group of orphans in his care. He decided they would stage a production of The Post Office as a Youth Theatre. He performed it on the 18th July 1942 in the chaos and deprivation of the Warsaw Ghetto, less than a month before he and his group were to be deported to Treblinka extermination camp.
Dr. Korszak thought a great deal about whether one should be able to determine when and how to die. It is thought- not least by me- that he had been trying to find a way for the children in his orphanage to accept their imminent death by having them perform the play.
The mechanisms we use to measure Art would barely recognise the benefit of Dr Korszak’s production. Sure we currently find ways of giving a value to participation and it would have had a measurable impact on the availability of culture in the area I would imagine. But 3 weeks after the performance- for the audience and the performers- all of this would have been utterly irrelevant.
But no one in their right mind would argue that this is not a performance of importance, that this is a work of art that is vital. That matters.
And all the ways we have of measuring the importance of art in our society would have no way of recording this one. The language of business, of investment and return cannot be asked to measure and weigh this experience; the wrong tool for an important job.
These principles, these core elements that you fight for the survival of today; of education, of health, of safety, of fairness, of the right to think freely and to find a way to live your life without terror and despair, these principles have ever so cleverly been re-boxed as commodities, as luxuries that, we are told, cannot be afforded in an age of austerity and hardship. These things are not luxuries but the very definition of a civilisation that is worth each of us being a part of.
I do not accept that they belong to those that seek now to smash them in the name of austerity. They are not the education, the health service, the thoughts, the arts, the freedoms of the few but of all of us. They cannot have my society- big or otherwise- because it is not theirs to confiscate from me.
I am sorry I can’t be there.
I hope you are all in one piece, you are all feeling safe, certain and sure.Alan