‘Millennia of trade and empire have produced a culture that is and always will be cross-pollinated.’ Postcard Flag (Union Jack) by Tony Cragg, on display in Barnsley, Yorkshire. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Art does not take place in a vacuum. It maintains an ineradicable, if often troubled, relation to power. Renaissance painters understood this, and allegorised it in their canvases, which often recast in a mythical light the systems of patronage that had occasioned them in the first place. So did 20th-century dramatists. Both Yeats and Brian Friel wrote plays featuring court scribes tasked not only with recording political events but also, more subtly, with generating the narratives and symbolism that consolidate the authority of the monarchs they work for.
In our society, the artist may have no executive power whatsoever, but their ace-card lies in the fact that they command a means – perhaps the primal one – of putting value in the world: a means of making meaning. They can use this status to subvert, or to shore up, power – sometimes both at the same time – and they can do this well, badly or indifferently; but one thing they can never do is be politically neutral.
A few weeks ago I received an invitation to a special reception to be held at the Royal Academy for “British artists” to celebrate “British creativity”. In normal times such a gesture might have seemed a little jingoistic, but essentially innocuous. But these are not normal times. Given the extraordinary far-right takeover the country seems to be undergoing, current talk of “British” X or Y or Z (“values” or “decency” or “culture”) usually marks one end of a chain, at the other end of which someone is being shunned in a playground, spat at in a supermarket, or worse. The invitation mentioned designers and businesses who “shape our culture”, and outlined the security procedures that would surround the event. It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: while Martin Roth at the V&A had made it clear his institution would have no truck with such nonsense, the RA was helping to assemble a roll-call of figures from the arts to pose arm-in-arm with ministers, royalty and innovators of the James Dyson variety, for a soft-power, post-Brexit rebrand of “British” culture.
Setting aside the fact that, since Dyson threw his lot in with Nigel Farage, I don’t even dry my hands in public toilets, the whole premise seems to me conceptually wrong. It’s wrong for the same reason the Blair government’s co-option of Britpop and Cool Britannia was wrong (although no one was being beaten up on the underbelly of the cognitive error back then).
The fact is, I’m not an example of “British creativity”. Like all English-language writers, I’m thoroughly European. To read Shakespeare is to read a rich remix of Ovid, Petrarch and Lucretius; to read Joyce (a British passport-holder) is to read Mallarmé, Laforgue, Goethe. The wellspring of our shared archive is Greek – and since the Hellenic world was in fact spread all around the Mediterranean basin, this means that to be European is already to be African and Asian.
Millennia of trade and empire, of diaspora and endlessly crisscrossing migration, have produced a culture that is and always will be cross-pollinated. If London and other British cities have become cultural hubs, this is because they stand at intersections within larger, international flows and networks. To credit an intersection with creating (“innovating”) the currents from which it merely feeds, though, is like calling a lightbulb a generator.
About the same time, I received another invitation, this time to read from my work at an anti-Brexit art festival in Hackney’s gallery-filled Vyner Street. Beneath bunting designed by Fiona Banner, Bob and Roberta Smith and Jessica Voorsanger played a gig, Katrin Plavcak and Ulrika Segerberg did an electronic sewing machine-enhanced performance, Lucy Reynolds conducted a “choir” who chanted in 20 languages at once, and a large crowd who could trace their heritage to every corner of the Earth ate, drank and generally had fun celebrating internationalism and renouncing tribalist bigotry, while children darted round their legs.
It’s quite possible that several of the Vyner Street participants, being high-profile culture-shaping innovators, were invited to the RA too. I doubt they’ll go, though, any more than I will.
It’s struck me more and more of late that the capacity to operate well as an artist comes with a requirement to think through the contexts within which you’re operating. Yeats’s and Friel’s court scribes understood this, and so did the many bands who thought twice about performing in apartheid-era South Africa. Right now, in a country where people are being killed in the street for not sounding or looking “British” enough, artists should be very careful whose summons they accept.