We're All Don Quixote Now: The Betrayal of Tomorrow's Artists
There are those who hate art, hate youth, and hate the poor. As the Occupy movement marks its one year anniversary, its protests have highlighted how a global recession is being used by to beat the creative dreams out of a betrayed generation.
"All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."
-- Pablo Picasso
The spectre haunting Wall Street has recently celebrated its first birthday. One year after it bloomed almost spontaneously into existence in Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement -- the defiantly unruly but endlessly articulate reaction of the latest generation failed by capitalism -- has transcended the gilded den of thieves where it first made camp and taken on global significance. It has crafted an identity, avoided sectarianism and infighting, made certain questions unavoidable, turned its anger into a weapon, and demonstrated that what used to be called the 'counterculture' can once again be made honest and effective. It has also attracted enemies.
On 17 September, as a thousand or so people returned to the spot on Wall Street where the first tents were pitched, similar rallies were being held around America. Not far from the Charging Bull -- that weird bronze idol of New York's financial district, which looks as though it was sculpted to see how far the Third Commandment could be pushed before it broke -- confetti was tossed and celebratory songs sung. And then, almost as predictably, the arrests began.
Of the estimated (at time of writing) 150 people taken into custody, the artist Molly Crabapple -- whose involvement in Occupy and work on its behalf is longstanding, heartfelt and unique -- was probably the most reported. As a symbolic spectacle, it's so perfect it stretches credulity. The much-shared, blurrily captured image of the diminuitive Crabapple being led away by a police officer to be handcuffed proves, at least, that the NYPD is obstinately immune to poetic imagery. Arresting a revolutionary artist for standing in the wrong place? Nice job, guys. Always plays well.
"Somewhere in NYC," wrote her friend, Warren Ellis, on Twitter within hours of the arrest, "a cop is listening to an angry short artist in heels spewing obscenities in four languages." However, since Crabapple doesn't appear to have been doing anything she doesn't do most of the time anyway -- turning art into protest, and vice versa -- its unsurprising that she was free in less than 24 hours, no doubt ruining some online vendor's plans for manufacturing and selling 'Free Molly' t-shirts. One hopes that the rest of those arrested will be released with similar speed. But then, spurious charges that cannot stick for long have long since become a wearily familiar element of Occupy protests, especially in its birthplace.
Those who have followed the career of Crabapple -- whose paintings, drawings, comics, posters and political cartoons are entirely personal in style, but can often bring to mind Gustav Dore and Ralph Steadman simultaneously, and have become an increasingly recognisable part of Occupy's aesthetic -- will know she is hardly a publicity-seeking gloryhunter. Nevertheless, the back-biting began in earnest from the internet's swamp-dwellers; Crabapple, they sneered, is a dilettante, a poseur, a rich white girl (all artists are rich, right?), and a practitioner of 'radical chic' (that old fart Tom Wolfe has a lot to answer for) whose arrest was well deserved, even if nobody can quite figure out what it was for.
This kind of squalid reaction is the price someone like Crabapple pays for being unapologetically radical, gleefully different from the norm, and consciously artistic in everything she does, even (or especially) in her politics -- which, taken together, is almost everything Occupy's detractors fear and despise about the movement.
It's this disturbingly resilient attitude, a mixture of bloodthirsty anti-intellectualism and self-satisfied philistinism, that makes the arrest of Occupy's resident artist so darkly symbolic. For many, Occupy has come to be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a movement that connects art with politics, whether through its carnivalesque style (like all the best protests, it provides an excuse to dress up), self-consciously nonconformist character, or simply the sheer amount of struggling artists, actors, writers, filmmakers and other graduates in the arts and humanities that seem to compose it. The idealistic young people who make up these groups, and will hopefully fill the ranks of the coming generation of artists, are now confronted with the same irrational disdain and venomous scapegoating as the Occupy movement they are conflated with, and thus have found a place in, along with many others from countless walks of life.
From almost the moment the protests began in September of 2011, right-wing commentators were furiously dismissing the Occupiers as a ragtag assembly of spoilt, parasitic bohemians who deserved nothing less than poverty for failing to spend their higher education studying something profitable. Brendan O'Neill, writing in the British Daily Telegraph -- a newspaper so conservative it's virtually Victorian (and not in a fun, steampunk-kind of way) -- odiously captured the tone of such horseshit when he called Occupy Wall Street a "gathering of angry actors, graphic designers and various other hipsters" whose "weird demands... capture the descent of the modern Left into the cesspool of victimology, conspiracy-mongering and disdain for mass society and its allegedly dumb inhabitants." ("The teenage moralism of the Occupy Wall Street hipsters almost makes me ashamed to be Left-wing", 3 October 2011)
Those who hold this kind of opinion tend to believe the artistically inclined live in the clouds, insulated by their self-absorption, selfishly playing amongst their own dreams... and they hate them for it, with a pre-emptive rage at anyone they even suspect of looking down on the majority from their ivory towers of culture and learning. And so, no opportunity must be missed to drag them down, not just to Earth, but into the economic hellfire, preferably with as much relish as possible.
Writing of America's struggling creative class with compassion in Salon, Scott Timburg summed up the prevalent prejudice when he wrote that contemporary artists are stereotyped as "pampered, privileged, indulged -- part of the "cultural elite." They spend all their time smoking pot and sipping absinthe. To use a term that's acquired currency lately, they're entitled. And they're not -- after all -- real Americans." ("No sympathy for the creative class", 22 April 2012)
It's a hatred that is self-perpetuating, and produces an equal and opposite reaction. After all, when a section of society appears to hate art and those who produce it, what can a struggling generation of artists do but loathe them in return?
"The most important thing is work."
-- Lou Reed
Point of interest: I never actually liked the term 'Lost Generation' as a description of the cohort that I, along with many of my contemporaries, have found ourselves a part of. It's increasingly become the standard description, and I've even employed it a few times myself, for lack of anything better. But it should be remembered that the real 'Lost Generation' -- a phrase put in print by Ernest Hemingway, who borrowed it from Gertrude Stein, who in turn stole it from the man servicing her car -- originally referred to those young men who managed to limp back home from the First World War, only to find no rewards, jobs or real lives of any kind waiting for them. For all that my peers have endured -- and there's been plenty -- there are some historical experiences you don't get to borrow.
Besides, it's inaccurate. This generation has not been lost -- it has been betrayed.
The official script, followed by those in the media who speak of the economic meltdown as if it were the act of a vengeful God, runs something like this: the so-called 'Millennials' -- roughly, those born from the mid-'80S onward -- grew up coddled by a world which was, suddenly and unexpectedly, no longer preparing for tomorrow's all-but-inevitable nuclear holocaust, and thus raised its youth to believe that not only would they survive, but they would prosper. The notion that a university education is a right, not a privilege, was not actually new -- reformers and radicals of various stripes had been saying as much for over a hundred years -- but it appeared to be an idea whose time had come (though the idea that such an education should be free got stuck in the mud somewhere).
And so, we went off to university in numbers our parents' generation, even with all the advantages of the boomer years, could only dream about. We naïvely supposed that what we studied should have some tenuous but identifiable connection to what we were interested in and what we wanted to do with out lives, rather than what paid best (though naturally, business and law schools did not exactly suffer a shortage of applicants). Student debt, the mechanism by which one generation has been loan-sharked by its predecessor, was accumulated with abandon. With global capitalism established as the dominant and unchallenged model for a new century, nobody worried about what would happen when the bottom dropped out of the bullshit.
However, after the economy cracked open like Pompeii, the fact that no jobs worth the name were waiting for us once we got our diplomas became difficult to ignore. Graduates, instead of being the chosen few, have quickly become a new, largely unacknowledged underclass -- economic lepers whose decadent 'education' was apparently not something they had earned with their own hard work, but was instead an extravagant gift from a society which could no longer afford such largess.
Professional buffoon Toby Young articulated the popular wisdom with his usual lack of grace in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year: "The world doesn't owe them a living," he said, in regard to a government scheme that forced unemployed graduates to work unpaid for private companies. "They can't just expect a fulfilling career to fall into their laps – and the sooner they realise that, the better off they'll be." ("Is all work experience good experience?" 14 January 2012)
As this situation bleakened, we were told that we were wrong to feel entitled to the careers we wanted. Then, we were told we were wrong to feel entitled to any careers, or employment, at all. And finally, we were told we were wrong to feel entitled to benefits, welfare or debt relief to help us survive that lack of employment. We're screwed, basically, and are still expected to look grateful.
It's a strange, savage combination of arguments, mixing a suspicion of high-falutin' cultural elites with a pitiless disgust for the feckless, undeserving poor. If, as those who delight in twisting the knife keep telling us, the belief that we had the right to study anything that could not immediately turn an obvious buck was the worst kind of selfishness, then those young people who still dream of pursuing the arts are seen as not just selfish, but painfully, hopelessly deluded. Such dreams are dangerous. Make no mistake when I say there are those who would be happy to kill them off.