diary of a floating voter, part one

It has occurred to me recently that I must be the thing that all politicians are trying to find: a genuine, bona fide, floating voter.

I exist! And not only do I exist, but I’m politically engaged enough to actually go and vote. And I honestly don’t have a clue who to for in the 2015 general election – or even if I will vote at all.

So I’m going to keep track, on this blog, of which way I’m leaning.

By coincidence, I am also a 100% accurate bellwether voter: in the three general elections in which I have been eligible to vote so far, I have always voted for the winning MP in that constituency, and the party I have voted for has gone on to be in government. (I voted Labour in 2001 and 2005, and Liberal Democrat in 2010).

But I haven’t seen much evidence since 2010 that either of those parties deserve another vote from me. I would call myself, broadly speaking, a kind of socially-conscious modern liberal, so ideologically I suppose I ought to vote Lib Dem, and I think Nick Clegg has his heart in the right place; but I have been bitterly disappointed by the Liberal Democrats’ weakness in the coalition.

And while I grew up supporting Labour, I still feel betrayed by their record in government. It was partly over Iraq, civil liberties and their economic reliance on a banking and housing bubble that means only those of my generation with parental wealth will be able to afford a place to live in twenty or thirty years. But it’s also the way they governed: they were so obsessed with spin and appearance that they lost sight of doing the right thing.

I don’t think I’d ever vote Tory; and yet I sometimes think – although I say it quietly amongst my more lefty friends – that David Cameron is actually quite an intelligent and reasonable fellow. So while I would feel like a terrible traitor for doing so, I wouldn’t rule out a Conservative vote, if only I could be persuaded that Cameron can get his more reactionary backbenchers in line.

On the other hand, I’ve also been impressed with some of the Green Party’s achievements in Brighton, as well as some of their more socially liberal policies.

Basically, I’m anybody’s.

(Well, maybe not UKIP’s. But that doesn’t make much difference: I know plenty of old Tories who say they’d vote for UKIP now, but they’d never take the risk of voting for them in a general election if it meant Labour would get back in. So it’s my vote rather than theirs that the Conservatives need if they ever want to get another majority.)

To scale things up a notch, I am determined to vote in a marginal seat in 2015. It’s looking likely that I’ll be in a Labour vs. Lib-Dem marginal constituency; but if not then I intend to register at my mum’s house in Northampton North – a three-way marginal at the last election – to make sure that my vote really counts.

So I am basically the guy that any party needs to persuade if they want to get into government at the next general election. If they can persuade me, then they’ll probably be on the right lines.

With this in mind, I should say that what I’d really like is to be won back by Labour. The trouble is that they just can’t seem to stop doing things which come across to a floating voter like me as annoying party politicking. Ed Miliband always seems to be trying to make jokes and snide remarks at Prime Minister’s Questions rather than presenting a credible alternative. And I like jokes, but he’s no Beppe Grillo.

And then, this week’s Labour proposal of adopting the Lib Dems’ Mansion Tax policy would have been a welcome one, if it had been a genuine pledge to recognise the merits of that policy and include it in the 2015 manifesto. But it transparently wasn’t that, because there was no such pledge, just a clumsy attempt to make Clegg et al look like they had abandoned the policy (and therefore, we were supposed to assume, their principles). Since pretty much everyone who voted Lib Dem in 2010 is now reconciled to the fact that the Lib Dems have made compromises in order to do things like getting Gay Marriage passed and protecting the Human Rights Act, it just looked like a stunt. Why rub the Lib Dems’ noses in it that they’re locked into a coalition agreement that means they can’t get everything they want right now? They wouldn’t be able to get it from the opposition benches either.

Labour, and Ed Miliband in particular, don’t need to win Tory voters to win the next election. But they do need to win back the people who deserted them to vote for the Lib Dems in 2010. The trouble is, they don’t seem to understand why we deserted them – it was because they were too busy trying to keep power to think about coming up with policies that would improve people’s lives. They took their voters for granted.

They have a long way to go before they look like a government. And until that happens – I’m open to solicitations. Even from UKIP.

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what a teacher isn’t

I was asked the other night what a teacher is. Despite having been teaching for eight years, I found it very difficult to say. It’s much easier to say what a teacher, or teaching, is not. So…

Teaching is not, in itself, a skill.

– It is more like finding yourself immersed in beautiful water, sticking your head out and saying to anyone who will listen, “OH MY GOODNESS YOU HAVE TO GET IN THIS WATER! It’s amazing…” (And, sometimes, offering a ladder for anyone unable to jump.) But you have to really be in the water first, and you have to really care about sharing it. After this, any development of the supposed ‘skill’ of teaching is peripheral; it’s just a few extra rungs on a poolside ladder.

A teacher isn’t necessarily cleverer or more mature than their students.

– They just happen to have some information, and put a value on that information, that the student doesn’t. As it happens, I am cleverer than many of my students – but by no means all of them. And the first time I meet any new student, I remind myself that any of them could be much, much cleverer than me, once they have the information I have.

A teacher doesn’t tell anyone what values to hold.

– That would be the job of a philosopher. It is not for teachers to persuade anyone to agree with their values – or the values of their institution – but for each teacher to provide opportunities for students to decide, to support or challenge their own values. For example, I am not a Tory and I wish the Conservative party little goodwill; but if one of my politics classes reach the end of a course without at least one student switching their sympathies from Labour to the Conservatives, I take it as a sign that I haven’t given them enough encouragement to challenge themselves.

Teachers are not all the same.

– The notion of a fixed set of standards that all teachers should meet is absurd if it misses the one crucial thing about them – that they really really care about what they’re teaching and who they’re teaching it to. And every teacher is different in the way they do this.

A teacher, like anyone else, is not a neutral vehicle for information…

– No person is neutral, and pretending to give neutral information entails exactly the opposite. Michael Gove’s new Teaching Standards framework contains an explicit phrase about how teachers must not expressing personal beliefs in a way which might ‘exploit pupils’ vulnerability’. This framework itself, of course, is far from politically neutral: it is an attempt to enforce the political values of Michael Gove. Additionally, it is clumsily worded and easily ridiculed. In the interests of transparency I read this section of the standards out loud to my students at the beginning of this year – they found it hilarious. We now have a running joke: any time I am asked whether a certain value or argument or policy is a good thing, I ask: ‘from whose perspective? Not mine – I wouldn’t want to exploit your vulnerability, after all.’ And we all laugh.

…and they do not insult their students’ intelligence by pretending to be.

– And after the laugh has ended, the brightest students sometimes get angry about this idea that it would be ‘exploiting their vulnerability’ to know what their teacher’s opinions are. They know it is an insult to their intelligence. They want to know what their teachers think, and why, so that they can evaluate the information they are given – bearing in mind what they know about their teachers’ biases – and decide whether they agree. I often find myself in a position where I have to give my politics classes clues about who I voted for at the last general election, and the means to assess how biased the information is which I am giving them. I hope that this is not a breach of the standards.

A teacher, when teaching, is not a representative of an institution.

– It is possible for people who work as teachers to represent the institution, and the values of the institution, for which they work. If they work for a school or college or university, they might enforce rules, check uniforms, or communicate notices to each other and to their students regarding the affairs of their institution. This is often important for the basic functioning of the institution. But this is not teaching. In teaching, the teacher represents only themselves, their own discipline and their own relationship with it. The role of the institution should be to facilitate this. We do well to ask of any institutional action which is not clearly and directly related to teaching, ‘what is the point of this, and why are we letting it take us away from the subjects we love?’

Teachers are not to be taken seriously as people.

– “A good teacher,” wrote Nietzsche, “takes nothing seriously except in relation to their students – not even themselves.” He didn’t just mean that good teachers are ridiculous people, and are aware that they are ridiculous in their willingness to give up so much of their time for the sake of other people’s understanding. He meant that the call they make, from the thing they love to the people they want to make love it, subsumes any other value they might have as people. Everything that a teacher is can be seen in their students. And eventually, that fades and nothing is left of them at all.

Teachers do not rightfully have authority.

– What teachers have is leadership – and these are two different things.

Some teachers might be disciplinarians, but disciplinarians don’t necessarily make good teachers.

– Or, often, make teachers at all. Punishment and coercion are not good teaching methods. Some teachers recognise that, but still think that good discipline over students is a necessary condition of good teaching. That belief is for teachers who are too boring or rude to give students any other more persuasive reason to listen to them.

A teacher is not afraid to be an entertainer.

If they aren’t, then nobody’s getting in the water. Sure, you can push them in; but they’ll get out as soon as they can, and never go near that pool again.

some rhetoric

I know I haven’t posted much here recently (mainly because I’ve been a bit busy with research that is far too dull to post here), but thought I’d upload this exerpt from a debate paper I wrote. It was originally in response to a lame question like, ‘Is religion the cause of the worlds problems?’  but it provoked some quite neat expressions of my position on some other issues. For the record, I was writing for the opposition (No) side.

…With the Middle East conflict, as with all conflicts, there are two conflicting sides. But the real divide between sides is not between Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs. Which of those sides one might take is, to a large extent, irrelevant. The religious divide is not the real divide. The real divide is, as always, between those who think it is possible to justify violence against innocent people; and those who do not.

The first side – which has held the balance of power for too long – believe that there are circumstances under which there are sufficient reasons for innocent people to be violently harmed. ‘Harm’, in this case, might involve blowing people up or shooting at them; but it can also be taking their homes, throwing rocks at them, kidnapping them, stealing from them, refusing them medical supplies. (It’s important to note, as John Stuart Mill does, that ‘causing offence’, unless there is good reason to believe that offence will provoke violence, does not constitute actual harm. If it did, then we would have to put health warnings on debate chambers, comedy clubs and anywhere else where people are free to voice their opinions).

Those who lie on this first side of the divide use many means to justify violent harm (or to explain it away). Generally such justification means invoking past events, tribal differences, or, admittedly, religious metaphysical claims – for example, the will of a God or Gods. And, it is true, those who base justification for harm on such metaphysical claims often do the most terrible harm of all, because there is nothing in the physical world that can disprove their reasoning.

But that is not the same as saying that religion is the dividing factor, let alone the cause of harm. Many people hold metaphysical beliefs without ever feeling the need to cause harm as a result; and so we must conclude that religion does not always divide people. However substantial the specific differences of their metaphysical beliefs are, how real that divide feels to many people, it is in fact only a superficial dividing line; far from being divided by religion, those on the side of violent harm are in fact united by their mutual taste for, or tolerance of, tribalist inhumanity.

Now, on the other side of this divide are those us for whom nothing in this world, or beyond it, can justify violent harm to an innocent person.

We do not attempt to defend any military action which harms non-militants.

We do not consider any past event to be a justification for killing in the present or future.

We stubbornly refuse to lay blame along tribal lines, and we firmly believe that one must publicly condemn the violence of one’s own tribe just as vocally as one condemns the violence of another: failure to do this is equal to justifying the violence of one’s own tribe.

In the Middle East, We are not crudely ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’. We are, in fact, pro-Israel because we are pro-Palestine, and we are pro-Palestine because we are pro-Israel: we recognise that neither will have security, economic development and a good quality of life until both do, and every act of harm committed against a non-combatant from either tribe can only further endanger those on the other.

And certainly, we seek to explain and understand the psychology of violence, but we never do so in order to justify it. We will not be held responsible, as those on the other side of this divide are, for violent harm to innocents of any religion or tribe – except in our failure to condemn and hold to account those who have caused that harm.

Now, many of us, too, hold religious convictions. I am not one of them. But  for those of us who do, these convictions frequently confirm their belief that the innocent must be protected. Religious and political ideologies can only support this belief; they do not harm it.

Nor, for the record, is it either a left-wing nor a right-wing belief. It is a belief in the value of life, the rule of law, and decency towards our fellow humans, which unites both side of the left/right divide, as well as uniting religions.

Still: a divide exists – and all of us are either on one side or the other. But the divide is more significant than mere politics, and more urgent than religion. Religious and political affiliations are used as a tool used by those on the side of cruelty in order to drive a wedge between us. But we must recognise that while innocent lives are at stake, these supposed divisions are not what really divides us.

It is for all of us – religious and secular – to recognise what really divides us, and which side we really want to be on.

man and bull

I have two all-time favourite jokes.

The first is: Why did the girl fall off the swing? Because she had no arms.

The other one is this: A wealthy businessman visits Barcelona. In an expensive restaurant next to the bullring, he asks for the chef’s speciality. “Si, Senor!” says the waiter, and brings him two large, slightly salty spheres in broth, explaining that they are the testicles of the bull killed in that afternoon’s bullfight. The businessman is a little disgusted at first, but eats them anyway – and they are delicious.

A few months later the businessman visits Barcelona again, goes to the restaurant and asks for the chef’s speciality again. “Si, Senor!” exclaims the waiter, and brings him two bull’s testicles which are even larger and more delicious than the previous time.

A few months later he visits Barcelona again, goes to the same restaurant and orders the chef’s speciality with great excitement. But this time the waiter brings him a bowl in which the testicles are much smaller and more bitter than before. “Waiter!” the businessman asks, “What is going on here?”

“Ah, Senor,” says the waiter, “The bull – he does not always lose.”

This joke is perfect in every possible way: it has cultural stereotypes, genitals, a perfect rule of three, and a wealthy businessman gets his comeuppance.

Now I’m going to have to bloody change it, because of this campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalunya, which is what this blog is really about.

The thing is, it’s a great thing for Catalan independence, which I am wholeheartedly in favour of. But I’d have a lot more respect for the whole thing if they just said they want to signify a rejection of traditional Spanish customs, and stopped pretending that it’s anything to do with animal welfare.

Very few people really give a crap about animals; bovines in particular. The fact that the Catalan campaign has used all kinds of emotive language about ‘the distress that the bulls suffer’, or ‘how terrible it is that up to six bulls can be killed in an afternoon’, is incredibly annoying given how few of the assembly members who passed the motion yesterday are actually likely to be vegetarians.

And bullfighting – or corrida, to give it its proper name – is, I think, more respectable, more honest and more beautiful than eating meat.

I’m not criticizing meat-eating; I’m not even a vegetarian. Although I used to be one – kept it up for six years, in fact – and I learned two very useful pieces of information from it:

1) humans don’t need to eat meat to survive or be healthy. Quite the opposite in fact – we’re not really evolved for it the way lions or tigers are (lions have intestinal tracts which are relatively short, to quickly get rid of rotting meat; whereas humans, like other herbivores, have intestines which are much much longer in order to get as many nutrients as possible out of fruit and nuts etc.) No, we do it purely because it’s enjoyable. And BOY, is it enjoyable! I made a really delicious pasta bolognese last night. Mmmmm.

2) Unless you rear and slaughter the animals yourself, as humanely as you possibly can, it’s very likely that the animals you’re eating have suffered pretty horrible, torturous, and mercifully short lives. Cows often live in pretty cramped conditions and then go to slaughter on cattle production lines, where each animal gets an electric shock which, if it’s lucky, will numb it (though this doesn’t always work) and if it doesn’t fully work it has to watch the animals in front of it get their arteries cut. Then it is killed itself.

Which means that an honest carnivore, like I try to be, ought to never forget that they are causing plenty of suffering and death to animals, purely for our own pleasure.

For me, this is not so hard to live with; I am unashamedly what Peter Singer calls ‘speciesist‘. Singer uses the term in a derogatory way, but I do think humans are better than cows. We – or at least, most of us – are smarter, more resourceful, we have an ability to use conceptual reasoning, a sense of aesthetic value, and the ability to understand ourselves as conscious beings in time who project ourselves from our past towards hopes and aspirations in the future. If you killed and ate a human, you would be taking away its chances of living out its creative projects and its aspirations; the things that give our lives meaning. Whereas the only hopes and aspirations that a cow has for its future is to have another munch on its breakfast. And to be honest, it probably doesn’t even think very much about that until it actually happens.

So I can face the idea of eating cows, or pigs or sheep for that matter, without feeling too bad about it. They’re idiots. But it doesn’t mean they won’t suffer and then die, purely for my culinary entertainment.

But most meat-eaters, in towns and cities at least, seem to be in denial about this; for most of them, it’s as if the meat they’re eating has come magically out of the ground or a factory or tesco’s, and they are able to eat their meat, which they regard as necessary, without thinking at all about what was involved in its production. And as long as they don’t see the suffering they can pretend it’s not happening.

I suspect the main reason the corrida is so unpopular, at least among carnivores, is that in the bullfight there is no such self-denial about the suffering of the animal.

But the corrida goes further: in bullfighting, both the toro and the toreador are celebrated – almost deified – for their elegance and strength in the way they look death and pain full in the face, and still carry on fighting for life.

In fact, I think the two most important things that the corrida has that carnivorism doesn’t are that firstly, in bullfighting suffering and pain and death are acknowledged not just as necessary conditions of life, but as actually having the potential to be an aesthetic experience; they are elevated to the level of high art (as opposed to the mere industrial functionality of the slaughterhouse).

And secondly, in bullfighting the toro does actually stand a fighting chance, which it wouldn’t get in a slaughterhouse. Although I’d like to see it happen: if every animal had to be killed in person by a slaughterman with sword. And any time the cow doesn’t lose, somebody ordering a Big Mac has to eat a slaughterman’s balls.

Anyway. Like all good jokes, and particularly the jokes I started the blog with, bullfighting is honest and admirable because it does not shy away from suffering, does not deny it. The girl fell of the swing because she has no arms! When you think about it, this is an awful thing to happen. But we laugh because we do not deny its awfulness; we affirm it, we are grateful that the girl is not us, and laughing helps us cope with the fact that perhaps it could have been. Equally, when the toreador is gored as he makes the killer blow, we stare in fear and horror – but fans of the corrida do not look away. They watch because they understand that they are mortal and they can suffer too; they are grateful that today, the suffering is not theirs. The experience is life-affirming.

Well, not in Barcelona any more. Which is fine; some places don’t need bullfighting to affirm life (in England, for example, we have cricket instead – that is warfare enough for our temperament). Barcelona doesn’t need it either; it’s a Spanish interest and Catalunya is not Spain.

But banning it under the pretense that they are somehow acting ‘morally’, in the interests of the animals? In politics too, the bull (in both senses of that word) does not always lose.

decisions, decisions

I just don’t know who to vote for in the General Election now. I thought I did; now I don’t. It’s the toughest electoral decision I can remember.

The question for me is very simple – it’s really the same as it has been for the last six or seven years: ‘what can I do to help keep the Tories out of power, without giving Labour a mandate to do very much either?’

All my other general election voting decisions have been easy. My first one was in 2001, where I was so impressed with Tony Blair’s first term, and so annoyed that I’d just missed out on getting to participate in the 1997 mini-social revolution that he’d brought about, that it was basically a no-brainer. I voted in Northampton North – a constituency that was a straight Labour/Tory toss-up – for Sally Keeble, who had been one of the incredible influx of brilliant women into the Labour government in that first term and was doing a pretty impressive job as a junior minister at DFID.

2005 was tougher, but not by much. I was living in Leamington Spa, doing teacher training at Warwick; and if it hadn’t been for Labour’s huge investment in education and the increase of teacher’s pay to a decent level, then as a fairly high-level master’s graduate I wouldn’t have been considering teaching at all. I know a lot of amazing teachers for whom the same thing is true. So Tony and Gordon had stayed true to the promise of making education a priority.

But they hadn’t stayed true to Robin Cook’s principle of an ‘ethical foreign policy.’ I’d been one of the million that had marched against the Iraq war and written letters and been ignored or dismissed just like Cook himself was. So voting for Labour after that wasn’t so easy.

Still – the Leamington and Warwick constituency was another straight Labour/Tory toss-up. So even though the Labour MP, James Plaskitt was a slippery, disingenuous tosser when I met him on the Parade (he was going round telling people he ‘didn’t vote for the invasion of iraq’ when what he’d actually done was voted for every motion which led up to the invasion, ie on the votes that claimed we didn’t need to see WMDs or get a second UN resolution before invading – and then just didn’t bother to turn up for the final vote on declaring war) I voted for him because even though he might as well have been a Tory, the leaders of his party weren’t. (And of course, the leader of the Tories at the time was Michael Howard, a genuinely appalling man who tried to position the Tories just a few notches away from the BNP and was surprised when the British electorate didn’t want that).

Anyway, I voted for Plaskitt, gagged a bit, and then made up for it by voting Liberal and Green in the local council elections (which are done by proportional representation so there’s no need for tactical voting.)

This time around, though, I’m so depressed with Labour: with their infighting – including from Sally Keeble, one the MP’s who idiotically called on Brown to resign because she basically knows she’s going to lose the Northampton North seat – and their failure to come up with a single policy that seems genuinely useful.

But my constituency is Islington North. It’s a very safe Labour seat, currently held by Jeremy Corbyn, who is probably one of the most fundamentally decent MPs in the Labour Party. He always rebels when he thinks it’s right, and he also has a very nice beard. I like him and when he keeps the seat (which he will), I’ll be more than happy for him to be my MP.

But on the other hand, that means I don’t have to actually vote for him. I can vote for whoever I like. And if I vote for the Liberal candidate, I can help increase the overall Liberal share of the popular vote, which could be important if there’s a hung parliament and we get a proper debate about electoral reform…plus I like the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg is a good, principled leader who speaks five languages (very useful in foreign affairs) and would make a smashing Prime Minister, and Vince Cable would be a Chancellor who actually has a PhD in Economics and knows what he’s talking about.

Plus…I don’t even hate David Cameron. I mean, I know he hates me. Or at least, doesn’t consider me or my family and friends worth looking after as long as he gets to do his tax breaks for the super-rich and married couples, which doesn’t include me. And I know he’d cut teacher’s salaries back again to the kind of obscene level they were under the last Tory government.

But I don’t really hate him, because he’s tried to remind the Tories that they once used to stand for maturity and a strong society and a government that keeps out of people’s way when it’s not needed. And these are good things. I mean, I could never vote for a Conservative party candidate because with the exception of Ken Clarke and John Bercow, the rest of the parliamentary party seem to be the same greedy, xenophobic, homophobic bastards with that irritating sense of entitlement that they always were.

So it’s going to be tricky. I’m going to read the manifestos and see what I think after that. I’ll probably let you know.

comedy is art 3: stand-up is art

Simon Munnery used to have a brilliant bit – I’m not sure if he still does it – where he’d quote a review of his act which said he was ‘as close as comedy gets to art’. He would then point out (using something close to a venn diagram but not quite) that this sentence implied that not only could there not be an overlap between the two, but that he didn’t really fall properly into either category – so it was saying that not only was his act not actually art, but it wasn’t really very funny either.

This bit was funny, because it wasn’t true – he is funny (and besides, the review wasn’t actually denying that). Or to put it better, it’s funny because it had an element of truth in it, but was ultimately a fiction; without wanting to get all poststructural* at this early point in the blog, what Munnery creates in that bit of stand-up is a fiction, a lie (it is false that he is neither artistic nor funny) which transcends itself to creatively reveal a deeper truth (that in fact, he aspires to be both, and is quite neurotic about reviews that might imply he isn’t). Which is, I think, what art is.

So by suggesting that what he’s doing is neither funny nor artistic, he’s being both. But if it wasn’t funny, it would be neither.

Confused yet?

Okay then, let’s go back a few steps. I’m trying, as I was yesterday and the day before, to construct an argument that if Arts Council England are going to provide support through funding for the arts then they shouldn’t exclude stand-up or sketch comedy.

Now at this point, I’m going to do two things that some readers might not like. The first is that I’m going to point out that we shouldn’t be arguing for the eligibility of ‘comedy’, but for ‘stand-up’ ‘sketches’ and (if we must) ‘musical comedy’ to be eligible; because ‘comedy’ is not itself an artistic medium but a style or mood. As Michael Fabbri quite accurately pointed out at our initial meeting, it makes no more sense for the Arts Council to have a section in their application form for ‘comedy’, that it would for them to have one for ‘tragedy’. You could get funding for a comic play by Aristophanes (and everybody should), or a tragedy by Aeschylus, if you applied through the ‘theatre’ section.

The second thing I’m going to do is focus my argument entirely on stand-up. This is partly because it’s my art – I’m not really a sketch performer and I’m certainly not a musical act. But it’s also because it’s probably the hardest of our artforms to argue for – not because the argument is weak but because there is so painfully little understanding of the aesthetics of stand-up that to most people it does simply look like a guy telling jokes into a microphone. So I reckon if I can make the argument good for stand-up, then all you sketch troupes out there will have an easy time of it.

I suppose I’m also going to need a proper definition of ‘art’. Annoyingly, I haven’t got space for a full and challenging discussion of this here, but having talked to a lot of people and read a lot about this in the last few days (well, years really) all the standard/popular definitions seem to agree that for something to qualify as art, it must meet certain criteria:

1) It must have a ‘creative’ element to it;

2) It must involve some way of presenting or re-presenting some physical phenomena in a way which is qualitively different from the ‘everyday’ presentation of that phenomena (ie grass in a field isn’t art, but if you paint a picture of it, sing about it, write a story about it, etc then that picture/song/story might be. Nietzsche points out that because eg the grass presented in the art is not the original or ‘real’ grass, that art is an ‘untruth’ – but a good and useful kind of untruth which helps us cope with the world we experience).

3) the presentation must be so well-crafted that it somehow ‘transcends’ the craft of its materials to reveal some deeper or higher truth or experience. As Aristotle says, “the aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Some folks say this is likely to be the expression of some kind of emotional or ‘metaphysical’ truth.

In short, art is a created artifice, or fiction, which reveals some ‘deeper’ truth or emotion. (I’m not entirely happy with these criteria, but they are pretty popular and at the moment I’m not out to change anyone’s view of what ‘art’ is.)

So, does stand-up fit these categories?

Well, it’s pretty easy to see that it fits the first two. Just coming up with a sentence is creative, and stand-ups do this all the time. But that doesn’t make it art, any more than a man ordering a pizza is art; it needs to meet the other two criteria as well.

The second is not much tougher. While it might appear that stand-up is just a person talking to a group of other people, a comedy club is in no way an ‘everyday’ communicative context, and the words and sentences stand-ups create are not ‘natural’. As Stewart Lee likes to point out, comedy clubs are bizarre and articficial places where even though the comedian might pretend to be speaking ‘normally’ as themselves, they quite frequently do or say things that sane people just wouldn’t do when addressing a group (like announcing, apropos of nothing, what their favourite high street coffee chain is).

The reason for this is that the words, gestures, and actions used in stand-up are crafted to have a different performative function (ie to get consistent laughs from a large group) and there is therefore a different expectation from the observer than there would be in ‘normal’ conversation – so some artificial work must be crafted. (In fact, it’s not just the words and sentences that are crafted: a decent stand-up craftsman will take the audiences’ responses and make them an intrinsic part of the work, smashing the theatrical ‘fourth wall’ in a way that would have made Brecht proud; and a master craftsman can often  ‘play’ the audience like a musical instrument, measuring subtle phrases and gestures that illicit different sizes and types of laugh in varying structural arrangements to give a really satisfying performance. This is not a ‘normal’ way to communicate.) So the very form of stand-up involves the presentation of a physical phenomena (a person saying words to a group) in a way that is exceptional from its normal or ‘everyday’ presentation.

And of course, it’s not just the form that meets the second criterion; more often than not, the content does too. We often don’t really believe that ‘a funny thing happened on the way to the gig’ any more than we believe that Eddie Izzard likes putting babies on spikes, or that Simon Munnery really thinks his review was a negative one. These are fictions. Some people get annoyed when comics pretend things are true when they’re not, or come up to us after gigs and say, “did that really happen to you?” This shows that they’ve missed the point – it doesn’t matter whether what has been said is true or not as long as it was funny. (To be fair, the format of stand-up doesn’t really help this misunderstanding; we do quite frequently appear to be speaking as ourselves and say things like ‘this really happened’; but it doesn’t really matter whether the thing happened or not, because ultimately this is just a rhetorical device to make the story more believable and thus get a bigger laugh. Even still, it’s a confusion that comes from widespread misunderstanding of the artform: I bet nobody ever went up to Michael Jackson after his gigs and asked whether Billie Jean really was or wasn’t his lover, and if they did they were idiots who missed the point that it was a song, duh – and it didn’t matter whether it was literally true or not.)

My point is, the craft of stand-up, despite it’s ‘natural’ appearance, is packed with artifice and falsehood. Or, as Nietzsche (almost) put it, good healthy lies. So, second box ticked.

Again, though, this doesn’t make it art; just an incredibly difficult craft (and most aesthetics theorists do think there’s a difference between craft and art). We still need to meet this third criterion, that it has to somehow transcend the craft and reveal something ‘else’, something which is somehow higher. A lot of people seem to think this ‘deeper truth’ (or ‘inward significance’, as Aristotle puts it) has to be emotional, and while a lot of artists, including very funny stand-ups, certainly do reveal their genuine emotions about given situations by joking about them, there’s enough dispute around emotivism in art to not take emotion as being the only thing or even the most important thing that might be revealed.

Before pointing out exactly how stand-up does this, there’s another important point I’d like to make. If this whole campaign ever really struggles, it will be because of a quite dodgy idea that the point where stand-up becomes art is when the comic stops going for laughs and says something profound or emotional instead.

On Saturday night, for example, I saw Daniel Kitson’s current show, which has a wonderful minute or two near the end where (without wanting to ruin this bit of the show for anyone) he stops worrying about the laughs and instead outlines how a fairly Heideggerian existentialist philosophy helped him through what sounds like an awful period of thinking about death. Now, this was genuinely heartfelt and beautiful to watch. The problem is that there seem to be a lot of people, particularly in the stand-up community, who think that this is what made his show into art. But – and I say this as someone who thinks that Kitson is just the most brilliant stand-up I’ve seen – the point where he stops going for laughs is actually when his stand-up stops being art, because it stops meeting the second criteria: it stops being the craft, or artifice, of stand-up and becomes something more like live philosophy or confession.

Stand-up is about laughs. If stand-up is like painting at all, then the jokes are the paint. It doesn’t matter for artistic purposes, how much paint is on the canvas, how thick or sparse the brushstrokes are (Stewart Lee’s laughs, for example, can be pretty minimalist, as can Reg D Hunter’s sometimes); but if a stand-up isn’t working towards a laugh, then they aren’t painting. When a painter decides that part of their canvas is not eligible to have paint on it (as Kitson decided with that part of his show) then that doesn’t by definition make the rest of the canvas somehow more artistic. A lot of stand-ups seem to think this, though, and it is this unfortunate view that led Andrew Watts to be absolutely rightly concerned that state-funded ‘art’ comedy will be less funny.

Besides, it does a disservice to our artform to say that in order to be art, comedy has to have unfunny, ‘honest or emotional’ bits which don’t in any way have a laugh in their sights. A great comedian can say something so emotional, so honest with a good joke; but that honest truth is rarely revealed on the surface of the joke. Take, for example, Frank Skinner’s bit about being convinced his girlfriend is cheating on him; or Kitson’s old routines about his childhood, or his speech impediment, or in the current show about going to see people he loves in hospital; David Trent’s story about the aftermath of an argument with his wife; Andrew’s bit about kiss inflation; pretty much all of Woody Allen’s old act… All of these disclose a deeper emotional ‘truth’ – an insecurity or anger or despair – which rests just below the surface of the joke, but which is revealed in a laugh which is deeper and more heartfelt than a laugh for a knob gag, however well it’s crafted.

It doesn’t have to be simply an emotional truth either – jokes frequently disclose a political or philosophical point. Stewart Lee’s phenomenal story about his encounter with Jesus, or in his current show the completely made-up stories about Richard Hammond and the Magners advert, (which for a careful listener, subtly reveal his rage at the tendency of apparently credible media people to whore out themselves and whatever else they can find of value); Tony Dunn’s bit about having a theological conversation with his grandmother when he was a small boy; most of Doug Stanhope’s set…

When I wrote on Tuesday that comedy could become art if it made us not just want to laugh but also to cry or think or scream, a friend pointed out to me that if we stop laughing and start crying or thinking, then it isn’t stand-up anymore. She’s very clever and she was absolutely right, but she’d missed my point – great, artistic stand-up makes us want to cry or think at the same time as we’re laughing – and makes us laugh more deeply and more fruitfully – because it reveals something that isn’t just a play on words or a silly story or a funny facial gesture, but something else, something higher and richer and more necessary to us in the challenges we face when trying to cope with life. As Robert Schumann said, “to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts; such is the duty of the artist.”

Or, as Peter Ustinov put it, “comedy is just a funny way of being serious.” And that is where we find its artistic value.

Anyway, I think that meets all three of the criteria I established before. It should also, hopefully go some way to reassuring anyone who’s worried that if the ‘comedy is art’ campaign succeeds it will lead to less funny, more pretentious comedy. We just want the Arts Council to recognise that great comedians are artists; and while it’s true that some of the artists I’ve mentioned here are doing just fine without funding, some of them aren’t: I want audiences all over the country to see David Trent’s act, for example – it would make their lives better! – but he’s only just establishing himself and (I assume) isn’t making enough out of comedy to fund and publicise a proper tour. The situation is the same for a great many brilliant, creative acts who are trying to establish themselves. A lot of potentially great artists give up, especially when they see less artistic comedians (who may be excellent craftspeople but often take few risks and have nothing really to say) getting picked up by Jongleurs and making money; and the losers are the audiences around the country who never see the art that could be produced. We have an Arts Council whose role it is to prevent this loss; it’s time they start getting on with it.

 

*If I was doing that, I’d point out how Munnery’s text folds in on itself so that the underlying reading undermines the surface of the text, thus destabilising its meaning and blurring the boundaries between truth and falsity etc. – but a) comedy writing does this so much as a matter of course anyway that it seems pointless to write about it, and b) quite a few people I’d like to convince with this blog think that Derrida is all wanky bollocks, even though they quite like it when comedians (often inadvertantly) demonstrate his arguments with the kind of jokes I’m talking about. But that’s the English for you…

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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