2016: The Year from Hell: Some ramblings on Brexit, Trump and High Culture

If 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that Britain and the States are bitterly divided societies. Demagogues like Farage and Trump, supported by their ‘alt-right’ people’s army, claim that the ‘liberal elite’—along with immigrants and anyone who looks different—has devoured everything in sight, leaving ‘ordinary men and women’ with nothing but bones to gnaw on. They overlook the fact that the actual elite—people of real power and influence—consists of a tiny number of the filthy rich (financiers, media owners, hedge fund managers, as well as the demagogues themselves) and that the ‘liberals’ (people who’ve ‘voluntarily read at least one book’, apparently) aren’t quite as pampered as their propagandists suggest. What’s more, although they defied the polls and won, they did so with small majorities (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote). But this is an alarming development which needs to be taken seriously. 

The American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted it almost twenty years ago when he wrote that one day ‘the nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.’ Not many of us are ‘tricky lawyers’ or ‘overpaid bond salesmen’, but we should, I suggest, ask whether we recognise in ourselves Rorty’s ‘smug bureaucrats’ or ‘postmodernist professors’. They’re deliberately unattractive figures, but useful surrogates for something bigger.

Whatever our answer, what can we do? Well, most importantly, we’re right to be appalled by the racism, resentment and blinkered nationalism that Farage, Trump and their pals have stirred up, which has been picked up by the army of resentful little Englanders and America First fans who lurk threateningly in the wings. Our essential first task is to use our voices, talents and numbers to oppose as forcefully as we can their threats to the hard-fought rights and freedoms of all people in both countries. ‘¡No pasaran!’, we must declare defiantly, and ensure that these vile demagogues fail and are seen to fail. 

At the same time, however, we should acknowledge that beneath this toxic surface lurk real social problems, above all the great divide between the generally well-educated and relatively prosperous inhabitants of the big cities and university towns, and the poorly paid (and often unemployed or retired) people who live in market towns, seaside resorts and the remote countryside. In our righteous hatred of far right politics we can too easily overlook the poverty, under-investment and substandard education which have combined to create it, and which even now are leading people to abandon Labour for UKIP. It’s a problem that was faced by the left in the 1930s, and we face a similar challenge today. 

So what are the implications on culture, especially the little world of ‘art theatre’? Well, first, I think we should acknowledge just how inward looking are the temples of culture that we patronise so eagerly, how sealed off from so many people’s experience is the ‘art theatre’ that we care about so much. Of course, huge efforts have been made to broaden accessibility and no one is deliberately turning people away, but the fact remains that much of the most critically acclaimed work takes place in extraordinarily exclusive places, to a very narrow audience base. Is this the inevitable nature of this antiquated and technologically backward art form? Perhaps. But as of 2016 we should accept, however ruefully, that our heartfelt cries of outrage are hardly heard beyond the echo chamber of social media and the closed circles in which most of us like to live and breathe. 

Of course, we don’t all work in boutique theatres, and many artists are trying to reach out, whether through touring or regional theatre, or the community work that exists, or in higher education and adult learning, and we should give them the attention, support and validation that they need and richly deserve. But this, too, should be questioned, as I know all too well from personal experience. When I set up ETT in 1993 we toured to unfashionable places like Crewe and Harlow, Blackpool, Darlington, Eastbourne and Wolverhampton (all Vote Leave in the referendum). But as we got more successful we decided that our job wasn’t to prop up theatres that were struggling to get an audience, and confined our visits to places that evidently wanted us. And so our social reach narrowed, focussing on university and spa towns like Oxford and Cambridge, Brighton, Bath and Malvern—all solidly Remain and very much homes of the despised ‘liberal elite’. I feel in retrospect that the Arts Council should have held our feet to the fire. But instead the divide just deepened, and we never went back to Crewe. 

And then we should consider the shape of the work itself. The arguments about formalism, realism and the popular go back to the Frankfurt School but the common assumption is that the debate is settled and that the avant-garde has won. But it’s hardly surprising that an audience brought up on soap operas and cop dramas should feel alienated from the icy abstraction of so much contemporary theatre, and I was struck to hear someone ask (of the cinema showing) why none of the characters in Ivo van Hove’s much hailed production of A View from the Bridge were wearing shoes. We can dismiss the question, or engage with it in a meaningful way on its own terms. The choice is ours, but it does reveal something of our deeper allegiances.

Finally, we should examine the nature of the work we create (whether new plays or classical revivals), and ask of it some pretty fundamental questions. Does it help explain the kind of values that we care about or does it, rather, take those for granted, as a condition for an entrance ticket? Does it do anything to describe the divide that so disfigures our countries? Most importantly, perhaps, does it explain the circumstances that have allowed the return of the right, and help us understand how this could have happened. Very little of the work I’ve done has begun to do this, but I suspect that it's only by exploring the contradictions that led to 2016, that the ‘art theatre’ can hope to play a role in helping to heal our traumatized societies. 

The underlying question, I think, is simply put: if we maintain, as most of us do, that culture shows the existence of different ways of thinking about the world, and exposes prejudice, injustice and lies for what they are, how can we ensure that the art that we claim to care about is seen not just by ‘people like us’, but the other half too? If we despise the current turn to intolerance, to prejudice, to fantasy, to simplification and lies, shouldn’t we do everything we can to share our values, insights and ways of thinking with the people who disagree with us? Culture matters, and the demagogues, with their armies of amateur but deadly spin doctors, are using it for their own aims. It's time we took it back.

And here we should, perhaps, go beyond our fastidious concern ‘not to lecture people’, and re-evaluate the great moment of post- war cultural evangelism, which produced the BBC, Penguin Books, Ernst Gombrich and the new Arts Council, as well as the popularisers of the 1960s and early 1970s. If this was, by modern standards, shockingly ‘pale, stale and male’, it did at least believe that everyone should have access to the great art of the past and the most challenging and significant work of the moderns. People like Richard Hoggatt and Raymond Williams may be of their time and almost forgotten but their leftist notions of a society bonded by a common set of values, reinforced by a shared and progressive inheritance and motivated by a united sense of purpose, stand as a rebuke to the current cultural establishment which, like globalisation itself, has, all too often, been content to leave the poor and the uneducated, the unemployed and the troubled, out in the cold. 

The internet offers endless new ways of accessing and shaping culture, and multiculturalism poses both challenges and real opportunities. But if the ‘art theatre’ doesn’t engage with everybody regardless of background, culture or education, and doesn’t test its own practices in the places where most people live, I fear devotees like myself will find ourselves increasingly isolated and irrelevant in our North London attics.

It's a very difficult ask because to pull this off we'll need to find the confidence to assert that challenging art (and a rigorous education and a commitment to science) can have a positive impact on the way that people live their lives and society operates, and we've all become too embarrassed, too cautious and too self-conscious to do so. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that we can do better than this. We have to.