For most of my 25 years as a journalist, “the arts” have usually been seen as a calming antidote to life’s harsher moments. In newspapers and on websites, culture often functions as a way to introduce visual interest to – and tonal relief from – the parade of awfulness we know as “the news”.
This unspoken ideological assumption can be irritating if, like me, you happen to think that the arts and culture are a fundamental part of human existence. Then again, in the wider world too, they are generally understood to be bound up with human expression and fulfilment – but not thought to be the stuff of life or death.
Now this is changing. At this moment in history, it would be hard to make the argument that culture and the arts are merely decorative. You wouldn’t want to try to say that to the Ukrainians I met this year at the Venice Biennale. The Russian pavilion at the event stands empty: the artists and curators recused themselves before they were asked not to come. But the Ukrainians were determined to show up. Pavlo Makov, the official Ukrainian artist, had been sleeping in a bunker in Kharkiv before he decided to make the perilous journey, driving elderly relatives to safety and exile in Vienna en route. “Russia’s idea … is to eliminate Ukrainian culture. If it has no culture, Ukraine does not exist,” he told me. “I felt that Ukraine has to be represented.”
Culture, in this sense, is absolutely central to the war. For Ukrainians, it is also a means of resistance: back in Kyiv, the national military history museum has already mounted an exhibition of captured Russian military hardware and recreated a bunker in which besieged citizens had sheltered for a month. The president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former comedian and television producer, has wasted no opportunity to use cultural events to spread his message: he was beamed into the opening of another exhibition of Ukrainian art in Venice, and to the Cannes film festival. In what might be the closest modern analogue to the prophet Joel’s line about beating ploughshares into swords, the Ukrainian winners of the Eurovision song contest sold their trophy to fund military drones.
Culture really does become a matter of life and death, then, when a society is under pressure. This can be for good or for ill: how narrative is shaped can, of course, be damaging – or dishonest. Before the war in the former Yugoslavia, politicised Serbian historians fomented ultra-nationalist feeling. But during the conflict, in 1993, Susan Sontag and Haris Pašović’s production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo became both an act of defiance against the violence of the siege and a powerful metaphor for the city’s plight. Look to any troubled or repressive society and you’ll see culture weaponised, or made a target. Shostakovich’s career’s was almost destroyed by a review, widely thought to bear Stalin’s own fingerprints, of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The Nazis confiscated “degenerate art”, promoting an anti-modern aesthetic that valorised militarism and obedience to the regime. Islamic State destroyed archeological remains at Nimrud, Nineveh and Palmyra. Uyghur language, poetry, storytelling and music are being eradicated by repressive laws and Chinese re-education camps. These are, obviously, extreme cases. But illuminating ones.
A polity in which politicians wade in and mess about with culture is one that is malfunctioning. Which brings us to Britain. It is undeniable that culture and the arts have become “newsworthy” recently, in a way that they weren’t for many of my years as a journalist: think of the toppling of the statue of slaver Edward Colston, or the arguments over the direction being taken by the National Trust, or the awful scenes of Nazi-saluting, far-right protestors “protecting” the Cenotaph from Black Lives Matters protesters. This is because society has become more fractured – and, crucially, because the Westminster government has become more malignly interventionist, finding it useful to foment rather than de-escalate such moments of tension. (It’s noteworthy how many of these disturbing events have been, specifically, English; culture policy is, of course, devolved.) These moments are symptoms of something rotten in the state. At the same time they demonstrate, in a truly perverse way, how important culture really is.
The culture war waged by the right may by now have passed its dizzying peak. Oliver Dowden, who seemed sincerely to believe that there was a “woke” army intent on tearing down the fabric of society, is no longer in charge of the DCMS. Munira Mirza has departed No 10, and with her, or so it seems for the moment, the determination to block, wherever possible, appointments to the boards of cultural organisations of anyone with ideologically unacceptable views. Moderate voices in the party are beginning to express themselves more forcibly; there are plenty of Tories who think the culture war is ridiculous and dishonest.
Nevertheless, we have entered a more chaotic phase, in which surreal, late-period Johnsonism, as well as inventing the repugnant notion of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, has dreamed up the bizarre spectre of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary. As one senior figure in the arts said to me, a toddler might as well be in charge of a chainsaw. It all fits together: we are in a zone of every kind of incoherence, moral and otherwise. Unfortunately, Dorries’s targets are two great cultural institutions, the BBC and Channel 4. Fortunately, there is some hope that Boris Johnson will destroy himself and his cronies before too much damage is done. Either way, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.