UK artists deserve a New Deal

WPA Federal Art Project: Michigan artist Alfred Castagne sketching WPA construction workers, 1939 Photo: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC

Britain has a state-appointed poet laureate charged with responding to moments of national significance. In March, the current laureate Simon Armitage responded with Lockdown, a poem that conjured plague-stricken 17th-century England and a story by the ancient Indian poet Kalidasa; a meditation on patience.

It made me wonder if we should have an artist laureate.

It is clear that the UK, like most countries, is facing an unparalleled crisis with immediate and sustained effects on its people. And at cataclysmic moments in the past, artists have been corralled to respond, most notably in the First and Second World Wars. There have been some mutterings of war artists for our present moment. But heres where I begin to feel queasy. Among the most grating elements of the Covid-19 discourse has been the continual war comparisons. It reached its peak in April, during the days when the UKs prime minister Boris Johnson was in intensive care with the coronavirus, where Johnsons colleagues and other world leaders (always men, of course), queued up to assert that he was a “fighter”, he was “strong” and “tough”. The former British prime minister David Cameron judged Johnsons ability to recover from this hideous disease based on his prowess on the tennis court. To which the only sane response is: balls.

Marina Hyde, the Guardian columnist, trained her lacerating pen on this absurd preoccupation: “Plague is a standalone horseman of the apocalypse—he doesnt need to catch a ride with war.” And the historian of war and 20th-century society David Edgerton wrote in the New Statesman: “It is time to grow up, and to think of better analogies, if any are needed at all.” He disparaged the “British tendency to see its Second World War experience as a good thing”, arguing that the notion that the UK “was in it together, and pulled together” in the Second World War is “too rosy a view”.

For a UK government keen to avoid scrutiny of its nonchalance, hubris and incompetence as the virus gathered pace in February and March—and of sidelining pandemic preparedness in the past decade as it focused on two devastating political projects, austerity and Brexit—its politically convenient to conjure images of national unity and wartime solidarity. This is a moment for scepticism: in the Second World War, dozens of official artists recorded the world around them, often unflinchingly, but there was inevitably propaganda in support of the war effort and the fight agaiRead More – Source