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Tue 31 March 2020
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After 40 years as a theatre director and author, Stephen Unwin sees the avant-garde as powerless against the Alt-Right and argues that we need a new respect for reality.

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For those of us of a certain class and background who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the arts seemed the best possible refuge from the suburban certainties of our parents and the grinding of Mrs Thatcher’s dark satanic mills. 

Having been brought up on milky readings of the European classics, occasionally thickened by dollops of socialist realism, the wonders of translated literature felt like handfuls of Provençal herbs. And so we devoured the novels of Milan Kundera and Günter Grass, gorged on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, and guzzled down the masterpieces of modernism.

In the cinema we lined up at the Academy on Oxford Street to see the latest from Tarkovsky, Godard and Derek Jarman and, at the theatre, watched the European avant-garde – Kantor, Peter Brook, etc. – in stunned silence.

It is time for culture to accept its share of the blame for the fatal divisions that are currently tearing our society to pieces.

We were desperate to banish the kitchen sink, break the fourth wall (not just in the theatre) and express new universes of experience. For a brief moment, bushy-tailed and breathless, we lived our very own cultural revolution.

Inevitably, however, what was fresh and new started to look faded and overdone. And, in recent years, I find myself increasingly questioning the value of what had seemed so important.


From Surrealism to SoRealism

We were convinced that progressive – popular, even – art had to be experimental if it was to be meaningful and scoffed at the idea that the 19th Century realists might have anything to offer.

But now we have to accept the uncomfortable fact that more people read Great Expectations every year than have ever gotten through Finnegans Wake; that much bigger audiences show up for a starry revival of The Importance of Being Earnest than a boutique production of Saint Joan of the Stockyards. And that the Impressionists attract vastly bigger crowds than the latest from the Turner Prize.

The distinctly reactionary Downton Abbey and The Crown rule supreme on television, while Harry Potter novels dominate in fiction. What’s more, many of the characteristics of the international avant-garde have become de rigueur and the gestures of the revolution have become the essential commodities of the mainstream.

Yes, we must be prepared to die for the right for experimental work to be created, but we should also acknowledge that the genuinely radical is – largely – withering on the vine. And so those of us who embraced perpetual revolution should consider how it fell on the ears and eyes of those we thought we were talking to.

Not only do our exertions seem now like a distraction from the pressing realities faced by everyone else, but it is also time for culture to accept its share of the blame for the fatal divisions that are currently tearing our society to pieces. 

For we find ourselves confronted with a new version of an old problem: how do we champion the workings of the imagination when our inventions are trapped in ersatz? How do we delight in creativity when we are governed by people who, as Bonnie Greer has argued, are a branch of show business themselves? To put it another way, what is the point of fiction – particularly the most extravagant fiction – in a world in which facts are regularly derided? What is the purpose of art when all challenge is dismissed as ‘fake news’ and the politician who lies the most confidently walks off with the prize?

The usual defence of fiction is that the lie reveals the truth. But, in current circumstances, it is perhaps wiser for cultural producers to work out how to challenge untruths while recognising that it is going to require something more analytical than what has been offered for a long time.


Radicalism and Reality

History, needless to say, offers its own repeats (“first as tragedy, then as farce”), and we should perhaps recall the Neue Sachlichkeit, the cultural movement that emerged in Germany in the mid-1920s.

Sometimes translated as the ‘new objectivity’ (John Willett brilliantly dubbed it the “new sobriety”), this was partly a reaction against the self-indulgence of Expressionism but also an attempt to confront the aestheticisation of politics that the right was starting to master. And so painters like Georg Grosz and Otto Dix mercilessly depicted the real-life consequences of imperial war, while Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus, Piscator for the Volksbühne, and John Heartfield with his photomontages, exposed politics to the bright light of scrutiny. 

Certainly, the great deceptions of today – whether it is the lies that brought about Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump, the catastrophe of climate denial, or the preposterous suggestion that our millionaire leaders will do anything to help the most vulnerable – deserve a full-voiced response, not just from independent journalists but the full range of cultural producers.

In ‘dark times’ like these, artists, writers and poets may be tempted to hide their heads and hope that the storm will pass. They should, instead, forge a new kind of art for the new realities and prioritise the stern disciplines of science over the shape-shifting extravaganzas of magical realism. Such work would blur the boundaries between facts and the imagination.

Portrait of Steve McQueen in Year 3 at Tate Britain. © Tate. Photo: Jessica McDermott

For example, it is not enough to write a play which champions minority rights, we need to argue the case with the scientific rigour that Adam Rutherford does in his terrific How to Argue with a Racist.

Look at the way Steve McQueen’s tremendous Year 3 project (which took hundreds of class photos of Year 3s across London primary schools) implied in such a forceful, but sober, way the great diversity of the capital and the rights and aspirations of every child. Another example might be David Baddiel’s excellent recent BBC documentary about Holocaust denial, which combined a powerfully personal viewpoint with scrupulous attention to detail and made his fundamental argument – that there is no such thing as Holocaust denial which isn’t a proxy for anti-Semitism – incontrovertible. 

The crucial point is that the lies we face every day need to be confronted head-on, and artists should consider using their imaginative talents to help our society recover its respect for reality.

We all wear the badge of radicalism with pride, but what does that really mean today? When a Government is as committed to ‘creative destruction’ as is this one, we need to think about what we want to preserve – because if we don’t try to stop the onward march of lies, it will be hard for us to blame others when we wake up and realise what we’ve lost.

And that may be the biggest and most bitter lesson of Weimar.

This is the first of a quartet of pieces by Stephen Unwin exploring culture and politics today.


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