comedy is art 2: whatever freedom means

If I think back hard enough, the first two major news events I really remember were the 1988 Education Act and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about both of them in the last few days, partly because they’ve popped up in other things I’ve been doing and partly because of what they have to do with the whole ‘comedy is art’ campaign – which, as I wrote yesterday, is already facing a counter-revolution in UK comedy’s little blogosphere. I discussed some of the economic objections to it in yesterday’s blog, and Andrew Watts has already responded with a typically stylish rejoinder which made me wonder if there’s much we really disagree on at all; but I’ll have to save my response to that for a few days, because today I wanted to write about the second objection that’s been made to the campaign: that accepting money from the state would lead to comedians having to compromise their artistic freedom in live comedy, the way they do on the publicly-funded BBC. So I’ll come to that later.

Anyway, these memories:

My recall of Ken Baker’s Education Act being passed is very vague, and I didn’t really understand it at the time – I was only 8, after all. But very, very gradually it’s become clear that it changed my life: initially there were the months of endless confusion brought on by teachers having to re-work everything to fit the new central-government-dictated ‘National Curriculum’; then I was in the first cohort to do SATS, and subsequently spend the next 15 years considering myself to be a ‘failure’ at mathematics (not a new problem of course, but in retrospect that first batch of SAT results, before schools learned how to hothouse their students through them, certainly didn’t do much for my generation’s academic confidence). Later, as the 1988 act’s introduction of league tables, school entrance exams and so on gradually made state-funded schools realize how important it was to get those exam results, they became little more than exam factories, and from there into less exciting, less intelligent, less creative and overall less educational places to be.

The act’s still working to make people stupider today; it’s one of the most perniciously authoritarian and nasty legacies of the Tories’ last spell in government. It might also appear incongruent with the Thatcher government’s apparent belief in themselves as ‘economic libertarians’ – they told the public, after all, that they were encouraging ‘competition’ and consumer choice – but in practice, what schools were really being told is that they had to do things the way central government wanted them done, or they would be made to appear (through the league tables), ‘inadequate’ to the consumer and face closure as a result. So despite all the talk of ‘giving more freedom to schools’, schools and teachers must conform to the government’s diktats more than ever – or suffer the consequences.

(The other effect of the act has been, as anyone who has tried finding a school for a child will know, that it is in practice not the consumer – i.e. parents – that choose, but the schools who initially found it most easy to implement the new policies, and these are often the ones in wealthier areas whose intake have come from already more educated backgrounds. Thus their ‘reputation’ ensures that they can now select the most able students to ensure their results stay high; showing that in practical terms, a free market ideology certainly has its merits if applied to the right things, like cafes – but when applied to a non-level playing field (as, arguably, the performing arts also have), it leads not to more freedom for all, but instead increases the power of the unjustifiably lucky. But that was yesterday’s argument, and besides, we knew that already).

The more important conclusion for our purposes here is this: that even an ‘economic liberal’ government, as the Conservatives claimed to be, can still be frighteningly authoritarian when it comes to controlling the means through which the population think, i.e. education.*

What if – an opponent of Arts Council funding for comedy on anti-authoritarian grounds might argue – comics got lazy, became reliant on state funding like schools did, and then an authoritarian government like Thatcher’s decided to dictate what we could do jokes about, examined us on our laughs-per-minute and threatened to put us all out of work if we didn’t meet their ‘standards’? It’s a scary thought…(don’t worry, though – I don’t agree and there’s a rebuttal of this on the way).

The other event – the fall of the Berlin Wall – affected me differently. I didn’t quite understand what was happening at the time because I was nine; I just knew there were people whose government were keeping them behind some kind of big grey wall, away from some kind of ‘freedom’, whatever that meant, and that now the wall was coming down and people were laughing and dancing on it and smashing it up and I just remember the emotion of seeing that on the screen – all the joy and the pent-up anger and frustration – and it felt like something amazing was happening. I didn’t realise just how amazing until much later; I don’t think the full depth of it even hit me until I saw Das Leben Der Anderen (which, if you haven’t seen, you have to drop everything and go to the video shop/itunes/whatever and get it right away, you really do have absolutely nothing better to do). This too, in even more extreme ways, was a government determined to control the way its population think…

And so it’s now 20 years since the wall came down, and the old footage has been shown again, and this time round I could only sit and fight back the tears of relief and anger that I would have felt if I could only have understood what it really meant back then. What must it have been like to be a German 20 years ago? In truth, 1989 was the year when World War 2 really ended – and with what consequences…

But the fall of the Berlin Wall is often presented to us in terms of the victory of free-market capitalism over communism; but I’m pretty sure that’s an ideological lie. Social and artistic totalitarianism are neither a necessary or sufficient condition of curbing the excesses of capitalism, and it was the former rather than the latter that was being taking down: I mean, obviously I wasn’t there, but in a state where people were spied on, shot at, abducted, tortured etc by their government – I just don’t buy the idea that the reason they actually smashed the wall was for the right to buy a Mickey Mouse watch and a Frankie Says Relax t-shirt. I have a hunch that they didn’t rebel against communitariarianism, they rebelled because they couldn’t stand living in fear any more (and those two things are not the same, nor are they even always found together).

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that, back in the city where that disgusting war began and ended, it was never really a struggle over ‘left’ and ‘right’, or ‘communism’/’fascism’/’free-marketism’, but over the unjustifiable, intolerable addiction of authoritarian governments to dictate who people should be, what they should think about, learn about, write about, laugh about…in Germany it just happened to be fascist and then communist governments, rather than a ‘free-market conservative’ government, that showed the kind of over-centralised control over thought and creativity that Ken Baker was working on with the ’88 Education Act. I’m not saying they were the same thing, but the goal of government control over people’s thoughts and lives was the same.

My point is this: it doesn’t matter what ideological box you put yourself in: you can call yourself a conservative or a communist or an ‘economic libertarian’ or a ‘statist’ or whatever, and it’s irrelevant because all of those ideologies, if followed through dogmatically by authoritarian governments, are capable of wanting to stifle critique, to destroy intellectuals, to control artistic expression. Conservatives frequently claim that socialists are all secretly stalinist authoritarians; socialists claim that free-marketeers only want to give more authority to their bourgeois friends, take away the freedom of the proletariat and stifle dissent against that. Both are a bit right and a bit wrong.

But more importantly, it doesn’t matter politically whether art, and comedy, are funded publicly or privately; what matters is that, whatever economic system we’re working with, artists stand for artistic freedom and the opportunity to express that.

Now in Britain, as I established yesterday, the economic system we’re working with is a kind of post-Keynesian semi-free-market mixed economy, where a lot of things are, for perfectly good reasons, funded by the state.

In this mixed economy, the state provides some funding for the arts. So we’re operating in a system where the government funds arts, but for the most part it doesn’t challenge artistic freedom the way the Stasi did or the way the ’88 act prescribed what could and couldn’t be studied. Artistic freedom is, to a large extent, respected and championed, while opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist are provided through public funding. The Arts Council in Britain do fund plenty of art which breaks taboos, which criticizes the government, etc etc.

That’s the economic system we’ve got, and it is good for artistic freedom as long as artists and art-fans alike continue to fight for that freedom.

In fact, of all the publicly-funded institutions in Britain that could be called ‘cultural,’ there are only two that I can think of where there are any serious restrictions on creativity. One is Education – as I’ve discussed – and the other is the BBC. (The difference is that the restrictions on the BBC – and there is no doubt that the BBC is in serious, serious danger because of this – are not coming from the government but from the moronically reactionary privately-owned sections of the media which feel threatened by it. We’ll need to fight for artistic freedom in the BBC too – but that is an issue for another time.)

Anyway. My point is, as usual, that it’s details and the facts which should count, not economic ideologies which try to explain everything according to a predicted set of incentives and tendencies; and the facts are that in Britain, the Arts Council mostly do a pretty good job of supporting art without requiring that it give up its artistic freedom. What the ‘comedy is art’ campaign wants is for them to recognise that if stand-up and sketch comedy are even potentially artistic (and there will be more on this bit of the debate tomorrow), then they should have the same opportunities that other artforms have. Hence the campaign.


*they still are: see that heinous fucktard Michael Gove’s recent emphasis on stricter uniform and discipline in schools. Which is not to say that Labour have been much better, but then as Andrew quite rightly pointed out in his response to my blog yesterday, they haven’t really done very much of any social-structural significance at all. Ironic perhaps, that it seems to be the Conservatives who have created the most radical changes in society in the last 30 years (albeit horribly destructive ones), and Labour who have acted to preserve and entrench the status quo…but that is a thought for another blog.


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