Bit of a Prokofiev day today, after this morning’s Building a Library on R3. Apparently he once said, “[Russia] has no use for music at the moment.”
Turbulent times back then, of course, but it’s not like we’re currently living in an age of wine and roses. Swap ‘Party diktat’ for ‘market diktat’ and many of the same pejorative forces on art are still very much in evidence.
Exploring the relationships between power structures, language and art, has been pretty much my thing for a few decades now. I see it in what gets featured on the BBC, what gets hung in galleries, what trends forecasters forecast, what wins prizes, what book covers look like, what editors and publishers choose to publish – and what they don’t.
I see it in the rules we claim are ‘normal’ and ‘useful’ and ‘valid’, and in the dismissal of artists who don’t apply those rules. I see it in our narrow and mediocre artistic output, and when the same critics and commentators appear over and over again to service the same old endgame.
I see it as we lose our ability to be critical of the mainstream and when we stop being brave in our creativity. I see it when we start to believe all art must have a direct function beyond art itself, and when we value art through numbers (copies sold, social media likes, viewing figures, audience share, bums on seats). I see it when we hear that an arts venue has to ‘wash its face’ and in the box-ticking exercises of funding applications.
These criteria are the tools of political systems that fully understand the potential power of art and popular entertainment. They are fashioned to look democratic and meritocratic but are nothing of the sort. To accept them is to limit our understanding of what might take us forward as a society as a whole. They are tools that seek to suppress knowledge and deny real lived experience.
The worst thing is, in seeking success as artists, and during the honest attempt to promote other artists, so many artists actually end up doing the work of these state systems, and at the very least being apologists for them. They become constituent parts of the market apparatus.
Now, I’d hardly call myself part of the avant garde. I’m not avant garde enough for that! But I think about these things every day as I write. I ask, “Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? What am I writing?” And if it all looks a bit like I’m kowtowing to voices other than my own, I stop, change something, mess it up a bit.
So that’s what I was thinking about when I was thinking about Prokofiev today. And now I’m off to write some poetry about working class voices and the terminology of finance capital.
Sounds like a jolly bunch of laughs, doesn’t it!
Image: Prokofiev, reading this post, earlier.