In perhaps one of the most craven, partisan political acts this country has witnessed in the last 100 years the UK's Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called for a general election to take place in just 7 weeks. As the Guardian pointed out on Tuesday, there is no urgent need for an election at all, there is only a simple desire for Ms May and the Conservative party to consolidate their power by attempting to wipe out any meaningful opposition in this country as we continue stumbling towards a disastrous exit from the EU.
As things stand right now it does not look good for this addled little island nation. The central problem is the main opposition party, Labour, and their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who resembles, in both manner and appearance, a sit-com grandfather who randomly yells something ridiculous about young people and their clothes before falling asleep again. The party itself also has a communications strategy that makes Arts Council England come across as insightful and entertaining.
Emerging from the Darkness
We, here in TheLab™, have commented many times over the years about the apathy demonstrated again and again by our arts organisations (and they are "our" arts organisations) when it comes to politics. During the most recent campaign, the referendum on the EU, arts organisations were almost universal in their silence despite the direct consequences of the vote on their own artistic activities and the personal situations of many of their employees. The overwhelming silence was nothing less than shameful.
Article19 has also noted before that entering the political fray can be divisive and, even at the best of times, fraught with difficulties especially when it comes to interacting with people on social media. Yes, there might be some heat here and there but we would suggest that the wide world of the arts needs to suck it up and get over themselves. Just because something is difficult it is not an excuse not to do it.
Many arts organisations are charities and there are rules about what charities can do when it comes to political activity. They can't express support or campaign for particular candidates or political parties, for example. What they can do is express support for policies that are directly connected to their stated charitable activity or voice their collective disagreement with policies that might adversely affect what they do. There is a needle to be threaded here but there is a very big loop on top of that needle.
Article19 is not suggesting that arts organisations start hitting the streets, knocking on doors and sticking lawn signs in the ground (we have lawn signs in this country? Ed!) What we are suggesting is a more generic plan of encouraging civic engagement in audiences and the other people, both young and old, that they interact with on an almost daily basis.
We're talking about encouraging people to register to vote and to actually go and vote. We're talking about making it clear that elections have consequences for the arts, for schools, the environment and a million other things because, no, all politicians are not the same. We're talking about encouraging people to be informed about what's going on in the world and expanding their sources of information beyond the racist uncle on Facebook who gets all of his news from The Daily Mail and the graffiti on the toilet walls at his local pub. If the goal of the arts is to educate and expand the mind, then start educating about these issues.
There is a lot that can be done that goes beyond basic political campaigning during an election cycle. Arts organisations should be good at this, they are creative enterprises after all. It's time to stop those that simply shout the loudest from getting all of the attention.
Pick A Side
For the arts in general it is time to pick a side. Not the side of one political party over another or one candidate over another but the side of engagement over apathy. Most of the time, following what is happening at a local, national or global level in politics can be a frustrating, soul destroying endeavour and it is all too easy to turn off and tune out. The problem is that nobody is immune from the effects of politics. For too many years now the arts have been used as a punching bag with repeated funding cuts and the deprecation of arts in education and there has been barely a word uttered in protest.
A line was drawn in the sand with the EU referendum and the arts dared not step over it. Well, all too soon here we are again, the danger is real and the targets are obvious, so what are you going to do about it? If the answer is nothing, if the answer is to spend the next 7 weeks re-tweeting praise and promoting shows and nothing else then we say again; what is the point of having you?