Why do we keep asking artists what they think of Brexit?
The notion of ‘culture’ has been complicated and diluted by its co-option for so many uses
The interesting novel to write about Brexit would be from the point of view of Leave. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images
When the late Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart News, said “politics is downstream of culture”, he bequeathed a mantra to the populist right that still informs much of its strategy in the US and elsewhere.
Breitbart’s proposition – that liberals, progressives and the left have a huge advantage in contemporary discourse due to their domination of mass media, the entertainment and creative industries, universities and, increasingly, the corporate world – is debatable, ignoring as it does the huge power of conservative money and media in American politics. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t at least partly true, and it has been used as part of the mobilisation for so-called culture wars in several countries in the years since his death in 2012 (when his news site was taken over by Steve Bannon, about whom the less said the better).
It does raise the question, though, of what the word “culture” actually describes now. Has it been stretched so far as to have become meaningless? Or does it merely reflect how central cultural questions now are to every issue? Strangely (or maybe not), the hot-button issues in current political discourse – racial politics, LGBTQ+ issues , gender equality – generally get covered in a remarkably non-confrontational way in the actual culture sections of newspapers such as this, with everyone apparently and rather boringly on the same side. This is not always a good thing, even if you’re on that side yourself.
To take the currently most febrile controversy, is it possible both to oppose Brexit and to find the responses of many writers, artists and performers on the issue less than useful? Do we need to hear that such-and-such is as appalled by what’s going on as their predecessor in the previous week’s edition was? And why do we keep asking the question?
It may be because we’re all suffering from understandable category confusion. Thirty years or so ago, media organisations began moving away from using the word “arts” to describe their coverage of creative activities and replaced it with the more all-encompassing “culture”, signalling, among other things, a desire to offer more in-depth critical analysis of previously undervalued forms such as TV and popular music, while also paying more attention to the broader social and political contexts in which work was made and received.
At least that was the idea, although the ruthlessly effective commodification of the entertainment industry that took place over the same period often just led to a veneer of cultural studies jargon being hastily slapped on to industrial quantities of fawning celebrity coverage. Those of us who get to see this particular sausage being made – in the form of movie star roundtables or long-distance phone calls to distracted musicians – are not hugely surprised when the resulting conversations about the issues of the day add little to the sum total of human enlightenment.
The older definition of culture was as a way of life or shared set of beliefs and behaviours among a particular group of people, and the forms in which those were expressed. But matters have been complicated by that definition’s co-option for so many uses: digital culture; compo culture, corporate culture; lad culture ... Everything comes with its own culture. Commentators talk breezily about something called “the culture”, by which they mean society as a whole. There are good reasons for all of this. Breitbart was right that in our hyper-mediated, gestural age, everything can be understood as culture. And it goes without saying that culture is inherently political, just as politics is inherently cultural.
But if culture means “everything”, there’s also a very good chance it ends up meaning “nothing”. You can see evidence of this in the banality of much of the “cultural” discourse around Brexit.
In today’s Ticket, Robert Harris, whose new dystopian novel, The Second Sleep, can easily be read as a parable on the questions raised by the current crisis in the UK, gracefully declines to comment on the goings-on over that fiasco, beyond observing correctly that the interesting novel to write about Brexit would be from the point of view of Leave. Harris is better qualified than most to comment on British politics; his reticence recalls the definition of a gentleman as someone who can play the accordion but doesn’t. More of this , please.