It’s election time! Famous actors, musicians and artists have been on the telly, pounding the streets, and rallying the troops for their favoured political parties.
Despite endless pronouncements of love from Tory ex-arts minister Ed Vaizey, Stormzy has maintained his loyalty to Labour. In the chilly parlour at Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes has probably chucked another servant on the fire and a few more quid in the Conservative’s election war chest.
Should we be surprised that Coldplay’s Chris Martin has turned yellow? Rather than using showbiz and the arts as glamorous relief from the dreariness of politics, it seems that this election is nothing but spectacle and misdirection. As a result, it’s harder than ever to tell the politicians from the performers.
Forget the Economist or Prospect, the New Statesman or the Spectator. This is The Stage and you’re reading the new manual of British politics. Everything has become a performance. The leaders’ debates, the set-piece interviews, the ‘spontaneous’ door-knockings, the pathetic early-morning videos with a sustainable coffee cup in one hand and a shaky smartphone in another. Everything is curated to ensure maximum effect: lighting, make-up, backdrop. It’s all about the look and feel of things. Sometimes it gets immersive and interactive. The call-and-response of audience participation and street theatre: “Get out of my town!”, “Get Brexit done!”
Our sector needs to address the important challenges of public policy. An increasingly precarious employment situation for most people in the arts means that tax, benefits and housing need radical attention. Wider forms of social inequality find their expression in the arts: who is able to work in the sector, whose stories get told, who is in attendance and participating. Making change through policy is hard. It’s easier to yell a slogan or share a meme.
Even specific pledges tend to work better as totems. They seem unlikely to deliver tangible results. The culture sector commentariat has given the manifestos a bunch of three-star reviews (in summary: lots of nice words but little detail). For example, the Conservative’s focus on tax relief rather than grant-in-aid means they’re doing subsidy by stealth yet again. Labour continues to push for fair access, yet data shows that policies such as free museum entry don’t bring in new or underserved audiences. (The same tends to be true for cheap or free tickets for the opera or ballet.)
The polls suggest another Conservative government. Victorious by campaigning on a message of change, after nine years in government. Makes sense if what matters is the spectacle and not the substance. If we wake up to a blue country on December 13 then block out your diaries for the proposed Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in July 2022.
It’s hard to imagine there will be much enthusiasm in our Remain-inclined sector for this festival. Perhaps we should start thinking about co-opting and reclaiming this event? Or start making holiday plans – I believe Europe is very nice at that time of year.
James Doeser is an arts consultant and researcher. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/james-doeser