All things – driftwood sculpture by Liz Mathews (text by Vita Sackville-West)
Vita Sackville-West was an optimist; in deep mid-war at Sissinghurst, when the gardens were covered in snow and the earth undiggable, she wrote
I will believe in April while I live.
A visionary, able to see her own country so clearly from the remote differentness of Persia (where she finished her great poem about the Weald The Land – essence of England), her imaginative empathy was strong. Writing of the beauty of overgrown gardens in the war, neglected perforce by owners called away to war duties, she imagined the imagination of the garden’s creator:
… the fond gardener wandered as a ghost
Only in thought…
Her ‘vision of a better future’ was not only for herself, her family and her privileged class. She had a concept of the interlinked, interdependent connectedness of our lives with the earth that enabled her to see human life, however central in importance to her, as part of an organic whole:
We are all things, the flower and the tree;
We are the distant landscape and the near.
We are the drought, we are the dew distilled;
The saturated land, the land athirst;
We are the day, the night, the light, the dark;
The waterdrop, the stream; the meadow and the lark.
We are indeed all in it together. This week’s events are yet another example of how much the Coalition’s cuts will affect all parts of our society – but how much more severely for those least able to afford it.
When I went to university in the 1980’s I was on a full grant, with my tuition fees paid – just like the generation of MPs who have brought this scheme forward – and I would otherwise not have been able to go to university at all. My degree (in Art History) did not lead directly to high-paid employment, nor did it give me a sound grounding in business studies, but it did equip me for life as an artist, in which I was soon self-supporting (and tax-paying), and have been ever since – and as an artist, I have been able to contribute considerably more to society than I possibly ever could have otherwise.
Austerity measures which ensure that poorer people are denied access to further education, like those that close theatres which provide more income in VAT receipts than the entire government expenditure on the arts – are so shortsighted and illogical as to be difficult to believe, let alone accept. And it’s hard to avoid the observation that the class imposing the hardship caused by the cuts will be the least affected, will inevitably suffer least. A better future for whom?
Rebecca West also had a vision of a better future that was also shaped by her understanding of a world in conflict , and of the essential inhumanity and unsustainability of capitalism; speaking of the destruction of popular artforms by commercial imperative she wrote:
Here was the threat of a world where everybody was needy, since the moneyed people had no art and the people with art had no money… The art of the gypsies commands no respect, for the capitalist system has discredited popular art, and only exploits virtuosos… Also the gypsies are poor, and the capitalist system despises people who don’t acquire goods.
(from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
But her observation resulted in a certainty about who was the most needy, between those who have art and no money, and those who have money and no art:
Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and tasted…
In other words, with art we can actually live our lives, experience them and understand them. Without art ‘we feel about ourselves as though we were reading a bad book’ – distanced, unengaged, unable to understand what’s going on, in constant need of distraction and oblivion – and unable somehow to put it down.
There is surely another way; we should be able to recognise the value of the things that make life worth living – education (by which I mean opening minds to the possibilities of knowledge and the gifts of humanity, giving powers of independent thought, rather than a brutalising training for worthless wage-slavery), adequate healthcare and equality of welfare and opportunity, the arts (so much a measure of humanity, marker of courage under oppression, of the fire of the human spirit) – and at the same time recognise those things that we don’t need, and really can’t afford anyway – like another Trident, or some new nuclear power stations.
Of course higher education and the arts are not more necessary to our society than the NHS, but like every prudent person, we should be paying off our overdraft by converting it to a loan with a sensible repayment timescale, and rethinking our purchasing priorities – retaining and investing in the things we do need, and not buying those that we don’t.
Vita Sackville-West believed that ‘Winter passes’, and in the Russian snow, Anna Akhmatova kept her poems in her head. Of course, the arts will survive, because they’re like that. But so many fewer people will have access to them, that our society will be living in a long cold winter.