Monday, 13 December 2010

On Art and Tuition Fees

This week, Britain’s coalition government (narrowly) passed a proposal to dramatically hike university tuition fees, the results of which were a number of occasionally violent protests in central London. The Conservative party HQ, a modernist tower block at the edge of the Thames, was broken into and occupied by protesters, some of whom lobbed down fire extinguishers at the police below. Bottles were thrown at Prince Charles’s Rolls Royce as it sped through central London, smashing a window and leading to a proposal that he ditch the vehicle for his own safety (yes, that extreme). Protesters swung from the Union Jacks that hang from the Cenotaph, the war memorial near the Houses of Parliament. Graffitied cocks disfigured the public statues. In the frosty morning light, Parliament square looked like a cross between Helmand and Glastonbury.

The problem with protests of this sort is that it’s all too easy to take binary political positions that caricature the opposition or romanticize the nature of the thing. Plenty of the protesters weren’t, in fact, students, but it’s expedient for those who opposed the protests to describe them as such (thus, by lazy association, belittling the seriousness of their position). It’s also useful that there is a violent minority prepared to smash up police cars and spray genitalia on bus stops, so that resonant photographic images can be used as ballast for the opposition. On the other hand, many of the protesters seemed (judging by the slogans on banners ditched in bins or broken in the gutters) to see themselves as latter-day sans-culottes, for whom the issue of tuition fees was of a piece with the war in Iraq, the occupation of Palestine, and the creeping evils of capitalism, rather than being the misguided piece of legislation that it is. And yet the protests matter, and they matter for art and its future, and anyone with an interest in art ought to be taking a close interest.

Read the rest here.

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