Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibitions

 

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, N1: In Astratto: Abstraction in Italy 1930–1980, 27 June – 9 September

Organised in conjunction with the Regional Centre for Contemporary Art in Liguria, In Astratto explores 50 years of abstraction in Italy, from the Futurist developments of the interwar period to the geometry of arte concreta, 1960s conceptualism and the subsequently return to a more "painterly" style of pure form and colour. The exhibition reveals the astonishing richness and variety that emerged after the Second World War, featuring artists from Giulio Turcato to Lucio Fontana to Franco Grignani in the tranquil surrounds of the Estorick Collection.

Film       

The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire: Luke Fowler, 23 June – 14 October

This major new commission by Turner-nominated artist Luke Fowler explores the work of radical socialists Edward Palmer-Thompson, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart and the northern working class communities that shaped their writing. The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcote is based on research from northern archives and portrays the radicalists’ involvement with the Workers’ Education Association.

Music

 

St Paul’s Cathedral, London, EC4M: Sir Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz’s Requiem, 26 June

Sir Colin Davis conducted the first ever concert of the City of London Festival 50 years ago, and he is back to mark the occasion with the London Symphony Orchestra in this performance of Berlioz’s Requiem. The concert begins four weeks of events in the spectacular confines of the City, from concerts at St Paul’s to a tour of the 400-year-old Charterhouse on 30 June, a free talk by Sir Andrew Motion on 4 July and the placing of 50 golden “street pianos” for members of the public around the City.

Literature  

 
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, SE1: World Poetry Summit, 26 June

This week sees the start of Poetry Parnassus, the UK’s largest ever poetry festival to mark the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. Entitled “Finding Poetry’s Place in the World”, the World Poetry Summit will gather poets from across the globe, with artist-in-residence Simon Armitage and a variety of talks about poetry in the 21st century. Alternatively, attend one of the many talks and performances taking place between 26 June and 1 July, including readings by Armitage, Seamus Heaney on 29 June. To mark the launch on Tuesday, 100,000 bookmark-shaped verses will "rain over" the South bank’s Jubilee Gardens from a helicopter.
 

Festival  

The Barbican Centre, London, EC2: Bauhaus by Day, Bauhaus by Night, 23 June

A day of festivities inspired by the joyful community of the Bauhaus to complement the Barbican’s exhibition of the world’s most famous art school. Activities include puppet, kite and accessory-making sessions, a lecture and the launch of Ian Whittlesea’s new book, Mazdaznan Heakth and Breath Culture. All of this is followed by a Bauhaus-themed Costume Party in the Barbican’s Garden Room, with live jazz from the Joshua Jawson Quartet.
 

St Paul's Cathedral: Sir Colin Davis will conduct Berlioz's Requiem in the 50th City of London Festival. Photo: John D McHugh/Getty Images
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage