Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cultural Currents in the Wake of Brexit

As the Brexit votes were finally tallied by the morning of June 24, I saw social media flooded with emotion, mostly exasperation, from young British friends and former classmates ("look what you've done you idiots" was the most direct). As I waded through articles and analysis of voting trends around age and other factors, I was most struck how one group especially important to me was nearly uniform in its view: 96% of the Creative Industries Federation had supported Remain.  That's the kind of landslide where you wonder if the other 4% read the question right.

While commentators opined that the decision to Leave seemed more rooted in voters’ embrace of “cultural conservatism” than genuine economic or pragmatic interests, it's noteworthy how overwhelmingly the figureheads and standard-bearers of this very culture rejected the notion of boundaries being placed upon their crafts and lives.  Prior to the vote, a commanding list of luminaries across the arts had penned a letter imploring Britons to Remain, for a “more imaginative and more creative” country, and emphasizing on the economic end that a full 56% of their overseas trade was with Europe.

Some appeals had been framed in direr language, such as J. K. Rowling's, who saw ominous tones in the image of Nigel Farage in front of “an almost exact duplicate of propaganda used by the Nazis.”  If culture was the end point over which citizens were waging their ideological argument, it was also a weapon of choice, whether through historically charged photographs or the cartoon of a boorish kiss between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, aimed to sear its way into any passerby’s conscience.  More glaring still was the image of a finger-jabbing skinhead across a seesaw from an Indian woman in a sari.  Indeed, most arts folk viewed the referendum as an alliance of the open-minded In crowd against the unsavory or irredeemably mottled characters managing the Out opposition.

In order for the creative cohort to operate at the vanguard of global culture, they needed the UK to be a conduit rather than a barrier for international dialogue.  It's logical that so few of these artists would bemoan the ascendancy of immigrants: the mentality is broadly one of newcomers expanding opportunity and organically enabling others, rather than, say, of foreigners depleting a limited number of available construction jobs.

Beyond the idealistic issues, Brexit’s near term impact on travel, trade, and collaboration will likely make it harder to earn a living in a field where it was already challenging enough.  For artists with fragile finances, perennially beset with the Sisyphean burden of monetizing each new project, Brexit’s direct effects on their international prospects, plus indirect effects through a negative macroeconomic shock, could prove a new contusion or an outright calamity.  These are voices that are less likely to be heard over those of wealthy celebrities, and ones that need to be heard.

Other views have been aired among the arts community, some more sanguine.  UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale tried to valorize a Britain “freed from the shackles of EU law and efforts to subsume it into a European brand,” while Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes wished to seize deciding power back from EU bureaucrats and derided as “complete fantasy” the notion that German car manufacturers and French wine purveyors would suddenly neglect the UK (at least someone had his priorities in order).  Ringo Starr voted Brexit because he deemed the EU “in shambles,” while Paul McCartney admitted he was just plain “very confused.”

The most constructive themes among Leave seemed to be a focus on agency and an ideal of localism: that pulling decisions and communication back from a grand scale to already cohesive smaller communities could enable these societies to achieve their best, as political organisms, as agents of power, and above all as propagators of cultural treasures.  It is remarkable how island nations such as Britain and Ireland historically been particularly fertile ground for creative minds, as though mutual isolation managed to draw out the greatest crystallization of the eccentricities of the communities that evolved there.  This seems to be the line of thought for Roger Daltrey of The Who, a former working class Labour kid, who ended up one of the most flamboyantly contrarian and ardent proponents of Brexit.  Before the entry into the EU in the early 70s, “Britain was Swinging… You had Harold Pinter, The Beatles, John Osborne, Mary Quant, The Stones, Queen... and The Who.  We were just Kids but we were filling stadiums all round the World...  You got that because Britain was doing its own thing.”

It’s certainly not my place as an American to pass judgment on a political choice wielded by a country where I have lived a mere year -- or whether to Make Britain Swinging Again.  So much is still uncertain as well about how Brexit will be implemented and what its lasting effects will be, and so the sceptred isle has the chance to chart a distinctive path here.  While British artists’ voice did not prevail in the vote, they can still play a vital role in shaping this new dialogue’s color and conclusion, with wit, fury, and imagination.  However, this must also be met with a recognition and affirmation in the broader population that the art is worthwhile, and that the tumultuous and arduous path to creating it requires practical support.  As an admirer of the outsized contributions that British artists have made across eras, I am optimistic that the new generation will be able, in spite of considerable disruption and turmoil, to build careers, visions, and values for a future that in turn values them, at home and abroad, and thereby conserve a British tradition of resilience and cultural vitality.

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