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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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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