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Message to Labour? Tracey Emin poses by You forgot to kiss my soul! at her retrospective in Edinburgh last year. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

Rumours abound that Tracey Emin has joined the Conservative party; and frankly it is not a particular surprise.

Certainly, if the people I know, many of whom work in the arts, are anything to go by, there has been all kinds of unprecedented flirtation in recent months with the idea of voting Tory in the wake of war and financial disaster – usually, it has to be said, bitten back after a few moments’ hard concentration on what a government under David Cameron and George Osborne might really be like.

But to take Emin in particular: she may have loathed Thatcher in the 1980s, and may even, for a time, have resisted the idea of Charles Saatchi buying her work because of the part he played in Conservative election campaigns, but her generation of Britartists, with their cunning commercialism and shrewd manipulation of the media are (it is not new to suggest) absolutely Thatcher’s children. They may have loathed Thatcherism, but, in their self-made, brash success they became, in some ways, its embodiments.

In any case, I can just imagine Emin being totally charmed by those suave and assured new Tories.

But there’s a serious point here, too. The Conservative culture team are actually winning some friends in the arts – a notion that would have seemed absurd five years ago.

While it may not be entirely clear what the arts policy of Jeremy Hunt (the shadow culture secretary) and Ed Vaizey (the shadow arts minister) actually consists of, they have repeatedly and convincingly restated their belief in and support of the arts. (It is true that what that would mean now, in financial terms, is becoming less clear – despite their one stated policy of re-routing lottery money back to the arts, any Conservative budget would be fantastically tough on public spending.)

In fact, if you compare Vaizey’s visibility to that of the Labour arts minister, Barbara Follett, Vaizey is much more in evidence. For instance, when the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela came to the Southbank Centre last month, it was Vaizey who came to concerts, spoke at a seminar and showed the young musicians around the House of Commons. Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, and Follett were nowhere to be seen.

And when the Association of British Orchestras had its conference this spring, Hunt gave a pretty convincing and heartfelt speech about the value of music education – without notes – and people were quietly impressed by him.

Each week an email hits my inbox – the weekly email from the Conservative culture team, if you please – which, after months of ignoring, I have recently started reading. It gives a pretty good summary of each week’s arts news, albeit tinged with the prejudices of its authors. But you know what? These Tories are actually concentrating. They are actually working pretty hard.

The Tories are gradually gaining hearts and minds in the traditional Labour heartland of the arts, and Burnham and Follett should think seriously about upping their game.

Charlotte Higgins



One might argue that commercial success is not the same thing as artistic success, but Warhol taught us that things can be otherwise. Business art was the ultimate validation of one’s aesthetic skills. If people bothered to buy an artist’s work then by extension one could conclude that the artist was producing good art. These days, the intimate relationship between money and successful art means that really good art sells. And maybe some good art doesn’t sell, but when the bohemian art demigod Ryan McGinley gets hired to do photography for the New York Times and has an entire project devoted to documenting Kate Moss, one might say that the economic market validated what the art world already knew: McGinley is an art superstar. His commercial success is merely a signal of his brilliance. Art goers can bicker endlessly about whether commercial art validates or detracts from the virtue of an artist, but ultimately this is an existential debate: The reality is that given the opportunity to make a living out of making art, many artists will choose to do so and there’s really nothing wrong with that.

When I interviewed Shepard Fairey several months ago for the research I conduct, he (like the other artists I spoke with) bore no ill will toward either the masses or the elite art world. He just wanted to do what he loved to do, and he was happy that it had been a successful venture that allowed him to provide an income for himself and own his own company. He also told me that it was important that he was able to get his art out there to as many people as possible. As he put it, “I can make pieces that are expensive but I want to sell $35 screen prints and $25 T-shirts. Where I am coming from in my work is that art is empowering. I want people to be able to access me…I never started as a fine artist and felt like a ‘sell out’. I went in the opposite direction. I really like the street artist – you didn’t have to submit to a gallery or a magazine, you just went out and did it…A T-shirt is a walking piece of art. When I do a record label’s album cover, I am producing art that gives people pleasure while listening.”

Elizabeth Currid

George Szirtes [author of the 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters] wrote:

“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper…What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change.”

Listing various poems which had worked towards such change, Szirtes continued: “The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear. The quotation about poetry making nothing happen is, in fact, half-remembered from the second part of Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, that goes:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of the above: that poetry is itself a way of happening. But what does it mean to be ‘a way of happening’? Does it mean anything at all?”

Auden wrote his elegy after Yeats’s death in January 1939, as the world was preparing itself for war. In his book The Poetry of WB Yeats, written during the conflict and published in 1941, Louis MacNeice wrote:

“If the war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called ‘escapist’, it also made nonsense of poetry that professes to be ‘realist’. My friends had been writing for years about guns and frontiers and factories, about the ‘facts’ of psychology, politics, science, economics, but the fact of war made their writing seem as remote as the pleasure dome in Xanadu. For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.”

Writing during the Irish Troubles in her study Poetry in the Wars, Edna Longley observed that all Northern Irish poetry since 1969 had “shared the same bunker”:

“Thus what Derek Mahon calls ‘An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea’ might as well concentrate on ‘semantic scruple’. Neverthless MacNeice, knowing Yeats and Ireland, did not follow Auden into his post-Marxist conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’: ‘The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ [The Poetry of WB Yeats, 1941]. Yet Auden’s own phrase in his Yeats elegy – ‘A way of happening’ – defines the only social and political role available to poetry as poetry.”

Neil Astley
The Guardian

Part 2 tomorrow…