LONDON CALLING!

"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of counterfire.org

"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of counterfire.org

The May 2010 elections in the United Kingdom brought to power the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government of prime minister David Cameron (former head of the Conservative Party), and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat leader). Theirs is the first coalition government in the U.K. since the Second World War, and by all appearances it is an unmitigated disaster for the British people.

The “Con-Dem” coalition, as it has been justly labeled by critics, is implementing savage cuts to social services that will result in cuts totaling $130 billion by 2015.

The Con-Dem budget cuts are broadly attacking the public sector, from council housing, aid for the elderly, fire and police services, etc., to deep cuts in education and national arts programs.

Public resistance to the cuts is growing, but a militant refusal to accept the government’s austerity measures has so far been best expressed by U.K. students, who have been organizing teach-ins, walk-outs, marches, and other forms of protest. Con-Dem cuts to education have been especially vicious, with up to 80% of the teaching budget to be slashed and student tuition tripled to 9,000 pounds a year (during the election campaign Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg promised his party would vote against any tuition hike). Students are also opposed to the Con-Dem move to eliminate the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a subsidy of £30 a week to low-income students that helps with the purchase of books, transportation, computer supplies, and other necessities in higher education.

On Nov. 10th over 52,000 students marched through central London - a protest against education cuts that culminated in the forceful occupation of Tory party headquarters. Days later, on November 24th, around 100,000 students participated in the “Carnival of Resistance” national demonstrations. Afterwards student activists announced “London Calling,” another day of national demonstrations to take place on Thursday, December 9, 2010. This time the students vow to march on the Parliament in London, where the Con-Dem coalition government will be voting on education cuts. Clare Solomon, president of the Student Union at the University of London, hopes the march will be the biggest student protest in history, saying “This is the fight of our lives and we don’t intend to lose it.”

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

The poster announcing the London Calling student protest knowingly refers to London Calling, the apocalyptic song and title for the 1979 double album by the U.K. punk band, The Clash. Designed by the band’s official “war artist” Ray Lowry (1944-2008), the album cover featured a photo of Clash bass player Paul Simonon violently smashing his electric guitar onstage during the band’s 1979 New York performance. Lowry’s graphic design was a combative inversion of the album design for Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album, which used a black and white photo of the crooning Presley strumming an acoustic guitar.

The song London Calling was released as a single in 1979, and its politically charged lyrics became anthemic to the international punk movement. Apparently those confrontational lyrics have become eternal; a stanza from The Clash song is quoted on the London Calling student poster - “London calling to the faraway towns, now that war is declared and battle come down.” By alluding to the contentious spirit of The Clash, U.K. students are upping the ante in their row with the Con-Dem government… but they are not alone.

Devastating cuts are being made to U.K. arts funding, with the Con-Dem coalition proposing that nearly 30 percent be slashed from the national arts budget, a move sure to ravage galleries, museums, community arts organizations, orchestras, and theaters. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, Michael Boyd, has called the cuts “a big blow to theatres.” Actor Sir Patrick Stewart condemned the cuts, saying they will be “challenging if not life-threatening in some areas of live theatre.” Grants to museums are slated to be cut by 15 percent, and money to the Arts Council of England, which distributes funds to hundreds of arts venues - will be slashed by some 30 percent. Arts education in U.K. schools is also targeted for reduction or elimination. Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), which has provided arts education plans to schools, has had its budget cut in half to £19 million. The aforementioned only begins  to describe the ruinous cuts - but how are U.K. artists resisting the conservative onslaught?

A number of artists have organized the “Arts Against Cuts” (AAC) web log, which is described as “an umbrella space for students, artists and cultural workers to display and align their ideas and actions against the cuts.” AAC has reported that students at Goldsmiths College and Camberwell College of Arts have both seized and occupied buildings in protest against arts cuts. AAC was also involved in a protest at the December 6, 2010 Turner prize awards at the Tate Britain.

The 2010 Turner prize winner was “sound artist” Susan Philipsz, who won for her “aural sculpture” titled Lowlands, a tape recording of Philipsz singing the 16th century Scottish lament “Lowlands Away” while standing beneath three different bridges over the Clyde river in Glasgow, Scotland. The prestigious Turner is Britain’s top arts award, and 1st place winner Philipsz received 25,000 pounds ($39,000). The Turner competition is heavily weighted in favor of postmodern conceptual works, with painters effectively barred as competitors. As usual, the “anti-anti art” Stuckist group held a protest in front of the Tate, goading Turner prize party goers with signs that read; “Abandon Art All Ye Who Enter Here.” Stuckist spokeswoman Jasmine Maddock commented to the press, “It’s not art, it’s music. They don’t give the Mercury Music Prize to a painter, they shouldn’t give the Turner Prize to a singer.”

  Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com

But this year the Stuckists were not the lone rabble-rousers at the gala art world affair. The Dec. 6 event was disrupted by up to 400 students and art teachers from London art colleges, who invaded the Tate gallery to protest the arts cuts. The protestors inside the Tate held an hour long teach-in against the cuts and how to resist them, then attempted to enter the Turner prize room with the intention of interrupting the televised proceedings. Tate security personnel prevented the protesters from entering the hall where the award ceremony took place, but the demonstrator’s chants of “Education should be free for all - not a product for purchase,” reverberated throughout the museum and could plainly be heard in the TV broadcast. The chanting nearly made the announcement of the Turner prize winner inaudible. To her credit, when Susan Philipsz accepted her prize she said, “I support Artists Against the Cuts.”

The protestors refused to leave the museum, and instead continued to hold a mass teach-in and life drawing class near the Tate’s entrance. A series of speakers addressed the crowd regarding the arts cuts, and others handed out flyers about the Con-Dem plan to cut arts funding. In the aftermath of the Tate debacle, Artists Against Cuts released a flyer with a headline that read, “We Shut Down the Turner Prize; Now Let’s Shut Down London.” The flyer exhorted readers to participate in the London Calling mass student demonstration, stating;

“this is the most important national day of action before parliament vote on legislation which will treble university fees. we must fight back against this DESTRUCTIVE ATTACK on the arts, humanities, and social services. come and join the arts bloc as we march to protect the intellectual health of our nation. we are not just fighting fees; we are fighting philistinism!”

The British public’s rejection of the Con-Dem cuts, and in particular their disdain for the double-crossing Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, should be instructive for citizens of the United States. The Tory leader David Cameron ran his election campaign on a platform of “voting for hope, voting for optimism, voting for change.” Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg ran his campaign on promises of a “new politics.” It all has a familiar ring to it. Once in power as a ruling coalition, the “change” promised by the Con-Dem partnership became the most draconian cuts in social services since the 1920s. Now that President Obama has extended the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, a betrayal of his campaign promises and a total capitulation to the billionaire class, the nature of his administration stands fully exposed.

Look to the rising masses of the U.K. for an answer, and remember the lyrics to that Clash song - “London Calling to the underworld, come out of the cupboards, you boys and girls.”

UPDATES:

In a forgone conclusion the Parliament voted on Dec. 9th to pass the tuition hikes, despite massive protests across the U.K. The 323-302 vote will raise tuition fees for university students from around $5,200 to $14,200. Students and their supporters are planning further creative protest actions against the Con-Dem austerity regime. On Dec. 10th Counterfire.org reported that “students across the country are meeting to form a National Student Assembly and to plan the next steps in escalating the campaign.”

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

During the Dec. 9 protests the students behind the occupation of the Slade School of Fine Art (Slade Occupation), Arts Against Cuts, and other art activist groups and their supporters, occupied the National Gallery in London. Approximately 200 students and artists took over room 43 of the National Gallery in order to hold a teach-in regarding the Con-Dem austerity plans. The activists seized that particular room because, as John Jordan of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (one of the groups that participated in the occupation) put it; “We chose room 43 because Manet’s Execution of Maximilian is displayed there and there is a work by Courbet down the corridor. It shows two ways of artists responding to rebellion. Manet’s painting is about political betrayal and Courbet gave up painting and applied his creativity to the Paris Commune.”

Arts Against Cuts released a flyer at the event that read; “We are here because: All our country’s art schools are under immediate threat from this education bill. We must preserve our cultural future as much as our cultural past. We are not just fighting fees and cuts - we are fighting philistinism, culture is invaluable. We act in solidarity with public sector workers and employees of the National Gallery.” Gallery staff did not interfere with the occupation, even after the National Gallery had closed. Participants in the non-violent action wrote a collective manifesto they titled The Nomadic Hive Manifesto before finally ending their protest at around 8 p.m. Slade Occupation has posted photos of the occupation teach-in, and Arts Against Cuts have also posted photos.

Sternchen Productions have uploaded a beautiful video of U.K. citizens engaged in an anti-austerity protest action that took place on Dec. 8.

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