Recommended Read: “The Cultural Front” by Michael Denning

A history of the New Deal provides lessons for workers in today’s imperilled arts world.

Whether out of economic necessity or ideological design, it is clear that the relationship between the state and the arts is being reassessed. Within the coalition government's first 100 days, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport warned that a number of our public bodies are set to be "merged, abolished or streamlined" amid attempts "to cut costs and increase transparency, accountability and efficiency".

The proposed closures of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), the UK Film Council and the Advisory Council on Libraries are only the most high-profile cases in the government's initial efforts to cut 25 per cent from the Arts Council fund.

All this makes for an intriguing political and cultural context for the forthcoming second edition of Michael Denning's Cultural Front. Released to academic acclaim in 1997, The Cultural Front is a panoramic examination of the challenging popular front culture that emerged in 1930s America in the context of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the Works Progress Administration.

Denning argues that this period, far from being "the brief moment when politics captured the arts, when politics went left, Hollywood turned red, and painters, musicians and photographers were 'social minded' ", in fact witnessed a deep and lasting transformation of American culture that outlived the politics of the New Deal.

This momentous legacy is the success not only of Roosevelt's New Deal liberalism, but of the left as a whole. Indeed, what is significant about The Cultural Front is its relative silence on Roosevelt and congressional politics. Duke Ellington and Woody Guthrie feature far more prominently than do FDR and the WPA.

The agents in this decisive cultural period are not so much organised political groups or coalitions, but countless members of a self-conscious left that represented "a radical historical bloc". Orson Welles, John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison, Billie Holliday, Walt Disney and Richard Wright developed the mass cultural practices of film, theatre, literature, radio and music that came from, engaged with and were genuinely popular among working-class and ethnic-minority populations. These are, for Denning, the instigators of American modernism, to whom our inheritance of jazz, blues, country music, ghetto pastorals and gangster movies is owed.

The phenomenon of the cultural front and the particular forms it took were, of course, the result of a confluence of trends and events which cannot be replicated. But The Cultural Front should resonate with all interested parties in today's debate on the coalition cuts.

To policymakers, it is a rich account of the cultural (and, indeed, economic) fertility of investing in the arts at times of economic hardship and social fragmentation. While today's vulnerable arts bodies may yearn for the relief projects and federal investment of the New Deal, the cultural left as a whole can surely learn from the lasting success its ancestors achieved by engaging with emerging cultures through emerging art forms.

Above all, though, Denning's book is a reminder that culture can surpass the minutiae of government policies. Whereas many have viewed the radical art of the 1930s as a fleeting triumph of the left that was soon suppressed by the red scare of cold war America, Denning has identified its continued presence in the mass culture of Bob Dylan, Jay-Z and Martin Scorsese that we now value so greatly.

Ralph Ellison remarked in Shadow and Act that the blues "are an art form and thus a transcendence of the conditions in the Negro community by the denial of social justice". That his legacy endures is testament to the power of such art forms over even the gravest of political errors.

A new edition of "The Cultural Front" will be published by Verso (£20) on 18 October

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge