The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits. National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 7-23 March

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition is a collection of over 50 portraits by Pennsylvanian-born artist George Catlin (1796-1872). His portraits were intended to document the Native American peoples and their way of life. They are regarded as an important and evocative record of America’s indigenous peoples. This will be the first time that they have been shown together outside America since they were returned in the 1850s. 

Opera

Written on Skin. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2, 8 -22 March

Award-winning director Katie Mitchell brings new light to a tale of deception and guile by author Martin Crimp and composer George Benjamin. Written on Skin draws on a 12th-century Occitan legend about a rich lord, Guillaume de Cabestanh, who commissions a book of  illuminations by an artist. The lord hopes the book will immortalise his political power, as well as documenting a sense of domestic order embodied by his obedient wife Agnes. The process of creating the book is the catalyst for his wife's rebellion. After a first successful attempt at seduction, Agnes uses her new found intimacy with the illuminator to modify the content of the book, forcing the husband, in a final act of provocation, to see her as she really is. Themes of passion, violence and love are given a lick of contemporary paint as the drama unfolds under the gaze of angels who watch over the stage. 

Film

Kinoteka, 11th Polish Film Festival. Various Locations (London, Liverpool, Belfast, Edinburgh) 7- 17 March

This week sees the 11th edition of Polish film festival, Kinoteka taking place in a number of locations in the UK. This year, along with a mix of films by fresh and established directors, Kinoteka will be hosting free film workshops for participants of all ages. These workshops include sessions for writers and directors, and animation workshops for children aged between 10 and 14. A brand new short film competition, held in conjunction with the festival, seeks entries from UK filmmakers inspired by Roman Polanski. 

Theatre

This House. National Theatre, London SE1, until 11 May 

“This country is being kept alive on aspirin, when what it needs is electric bloody shock therapy”

The year is 1974. The location, the House of Commons. The UK faces an economic crisis and a hung parliament. In parliament there reigns a culture hostile to co-operation, where party votes are won or lost by the slenderest margins and fist fights in the Commons bars are a regular occurrence. James Graham’s This House pares down politics to the realities of behind-the-scenes horsetrading.  This House examines some of the main issues facing the Wilson and Callaghan governments up to the vote of no confidence in March 1979. 

Native Americans are the subject of the George Catlin exhibition at the NPG
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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