Identity crises leave us floundering. When perceptions of peoples, places, and how we relate to them suddenly become destabilised, when there is a pervasive sense that things are rapidly changing but we feel either too overwhelmed or too powerless to react or even take stock, then it can seem as if some grand conspiracy is afoot.
In the case of current anxieties as to the health of arts and culture in London (and Britain more widely), there isn’t so much a systematic campaign to undermine creative freedom as there is simply a relegation of it to the realms of being far diminished in relative importance. Beyond providing some high-end, globally visible window-dressing that parades ostensible innovation and success, the vitality of arts and culture that can be accessed, and practiced, by all is perhaps regarded as more of a welcome extra than a matter of priority. As such, London – an economic and cultural powerhouse with a truly global appeal – is being widely touted as being in the throes of its own profound identity crisis.
All the column inches and commentaries on artists being priced out of living and working in the capital is all coming a little after the fact. Rents are high, space is limited, and job security is hard to come by. Now, even those who survey the landscape from above as opposed to ground level are realising, belatedly, that wellsprings of talent are being stoppered. This week Florian Wupperfeld, the founder of The Leading Culture Destinations awards, publically warned against underestimating the ‘soft power’ of cultural production that has made the city so attractive globally: ‘London creates jobs and is a centre for creativity, but overall the environment is getting more challenging. We’re likely to see more budget cuts and property prices rising could force out the soft power makers who help set the agenda.’
Headlining the stirrings of public and media outcry, the closure of Fabric nightclub offers a stark reminder that no cow is too sacred to be spared in the great urban land-grab. It seems that Fabric, having played its own role in the rejuvenation of Farringdon as a desirable area, has now fallen victim to the very prosperity to which it contributed. Meanwhile, the demise of Madame JoJo’s in Soho and The Black Cap in Camden were highly emblematic instances in which venues of significant cultural importance and subversive reputation were ultimately unprotected against the property investors and consortiums closing in from all sides, choking their very right to exist.
But this has all been going on for a while. In the last ten years, half of London’s live music venues have closed. Photographs of the sites on which many of them stood make for grim viewing. It’s quite the prospective headache for whoever mayor Sadiq Khan appoints ‘night czar’, charged with bolstering the nocturnal buzz of the capital as the night tube extends its reach. Aside from crippling living costs, many artists are effectively having to live and work in environments that provide fewer of the local hubs and outlets that foster their creativity and offer opportunities to collaborate with one another.
Artists are not the target of some coordinated crackdown, but simply amongst the inevitable victims of what Dawn Foster has called a ‘hollowing out’ of the city. She argues that, in a moment which is seeing the closure of such cultural landmarks as Fabric, token measures by policy-makers to create designated artist spaces will do little to counteract the pervasive effects of widespread inequality and unaffordability that will continue to impact those who contribute to the arts and heritage sectors. She reminds readers that cultural health relies on the support of hospitality industries, of gallery staff, and of cleaners and security. It is, to her mind, ‘a far greater problem than a few more studios can solve’.
In the Evening Standard last week, Simon Jenkins expressed his lack of sympathy for the ‘luvvie’ brigade of London’s cultural elite in a piece entitled: ‘Arts lobby is as much to blame as any for the great Brexit divide.’ It’s difficult to imagine the disaffected in criminally neglected post-industrial towns were particularly riled by the words of Sir Ian McKellen, but Jenkins does make a salient point about the centralist bias in the arts and the understandable resentment in hard-hit and underfunded areas of England.
Where Jenkins is misguided is with the equation of the Brexit vote’s cry against regional inequality with the 1960s counter-cultural movement, currently memorialised in a high-budget show at the V&A. He claims, ‘The old guard has experienced a political Woodstock’, which confuses utopian thinking with defensive nationalism; empathetic desire for equality with last-resort protectionism.
Most tellingly, Jenkins proclaims his belief that post-Brexit London will essentially sort itself out, as if some eternal character of the place will prevail. ‘I have more faith in the independent vitality of London’s culture’, he writes, citing the city’s appeal to a world beyond Europe and its continued ability to attract talent and investment. But what about actually fostering talent by creating supportive conditions to live and work? His argument does not seem to acknowledge that there are artists who don’t belong to any elite, and who didn’t go to the most prestigious schools, who saw membership of the European union as symbolic of a wider companionship – one that offered solace and support, however utopian, as they struggle to negotiate the ruthless marketplace that London has become for those who wish to live and work there. Ω