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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder