Musing the muse

When Lucien Freud’s painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping was sold last week for £17.2m arts columns nationwide began murmuring about capitalism, commodity culture and – crucially – the role of the artist’s muse. Indeed, as the writer Joanna Moorhead points out, the silent, subservient, selfless (and almost without exception female) muse is an uncomfortable concept for today’s society. It was, therefore, reassuring to hear Freud’s model Sue Tilley speaking for herself. However other arts news this week suggests that the shadow of the muse is not confined to an outdated concept. Chloe Garner’s campaign for a female Poet Laureate serves as quiet reminder that the master in masterpiece is not incidental. Garner, the director of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, has done much to draw attention to the fact that the prestigious position has, since its creation in 1668, never been held by a woman. In a letter to the Queen and Gordon Brown Garner stated: "Nothing in the rules actually debars women and there are many splendid female poets from all generations writing and performing in Britain today."

Exhibitions in Manchester and Sydney have, albeit for very different reasons, prompted heated debate this week about issues of privacy and cultural censorship. Manchester Museum’s decision to shroud its collection of Eygptian mummies was announced at the same time that police in Australia censored a http://livenews.com.au/Articles/2008/05/22/Photo_exhibition_...">photography exhibition on account of its ‘unacceptable’ content. Bill Henson's photographs of naked teenagers have been condemned as an assault on children’s privacy and his exhibition has been temporarily closed amid concerns about child pornography. Meanwhile Manchester Museum’s actions to cover the remains of three unwrapped mummies has ignited a discussion about ethical curation and whether it is respectful to display the dead. The decisions of both institutions have forced artists, curators and the public to question where the boundaries between the observer and the observed should lie.

Spike Lee also ruffled feathers this week after criticising the absence of black actors in two of Clint Eastwood’s Second World War films. Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima present the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima from American and Japanese perspectives respectively. Lee, an African-American director known for his films Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing made his observation whilst attending a press conference at Cannes to promote his new film Miracle St Anna. He commented: “There were many African-Americans who survived that war and who were upset at Clint for not having one [in the films]. That was his version: the negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version.” Lee further claimed that Eastwood had been informed that around 8% of the soldiers who fought in the battle were black but had chosen not to represent this in his portrayal. Miracle St Anna will tell the story of the all-black 92nd Buffalo Division, which fought the Germans in Italy.

Producers in Broadway have announced that they are planning a musical to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela. Based on the memoirs of his daughter Zindzi Mandela it will tell the story of his struggle against apartheid and his twenty seven years in prison. Countering various misgivings about the choice of genre Zindzi said "freedom songs were so important to the morale of the people, so it's natural for the story to be told with music." However, whilst the battle against apartheid is being celebrated in Broadway John Pilger's report for The New Statesman describes how South Africa continues to struggle.

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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