Tom Sutcliffe: The art of the recession

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The Independent Online

What will unemployment do for art? In the case of the Lehman employees, reported on in this paper earlier this week, the answer was relatively straightforward. It resulted in a bit more of it, several of them having pooled their unexpected reserves of leisure team and energy to create a theatre company – along with much talk of finding more fundamental values in life and getting in touch with the stuff that really matters.

What about in the long term though? What might one expect from a culture that has passed through an economic crisis? I know – not because I'm a gardener but because I occasionally overhear Gardeners' Question Time – that there are plants that react to physical stress – frost, say, or under-watering – by being more, rather than less, productive. So might the general culture react in the same way, ultimately producing a harvest of unusually strong works? Or will it be impoverished by an overcast economic climate?

Before you write in to complain I realise that the opening question is morally topsy-turvy. Who cares what unemployment will do for art, after all? The point is to make sure that there's as little of it as possible – and even if one were to conclude that prosperous economies make for a dull culture you'd probably take the trade-off. Such a deal probably won't be on offer though – and it's undeniable that in ten years time we'll probably be able to look back at the art that is being generated now and detect general trends that are difficult to see this close up. Judging from a review in this week's New Yorker this is precisely the exercise that an American writer, Morris Dickstein, has recently carried out -- though with a slightly longer temporal perspective to it.

His book Dancing in the Dark is a study of American culture in the Thirties – when the depression could justly be called Great, and touched nearly every aspect of life in the country. Dickstein's book reminds us of the polar extremes of cultural reaction to economic slump.

On the one hand you have "artistic gravity" – a flinching away from frivolity on the grounds that it's a luxury that can no longer be afforded. This instinct generated works like Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Walker Evans and James Agee. Invention – particularly of anything distant from current conditions – becomes suspect and artists begin to fret about their duty of documentation, of giving voice to those who don't have a voice of their own.

On the other hand you have "frivolity redoubled" – in which creators draw a gaudily-painted curtain across the depressing view through the window and hope to make you forget it for a moment. The classic text in regard to this distinction is Preston Sturges' great film Sullivan's Travels – in which a conscience-stricken Hollywood director turns his back on escapist entertainment and hits the road to research a searing masterpiece about the plight of the working man. Part of the comedy here is the way he does it – dogged by a giant land-yacht hired by his studio. But the kicker is Sullivan's realisation – while serving time on a prison chain-gang – that goofy comedy can do more for the troubled soul than any amount of soulful breast-beating. Making the middle class feel bad about society may be less worthwhile than making the poor feel a bit better about themselves.

The genius of Sullivan's Travels is that it has its cake and eats it. It acknowledges just how serious matters are, but finds a way to let you laugh in the teeth of it. That might almost serve as a definition of wit, I think, and one can only hope that the artists working now in self-conscious response to economic hardship bear in mind what a potent weapon it can be. The collapse of Lehman brothers is already a black comedy. We just need someone to write it down so that people in 60 years' time will be able to relish it too.

Kanye made a good point in taking the mic

President Obama thinks that Kanye West is a "jackass", the epithet prompted by West's seizing the microphone at the MTV awards to complain that Beyoncé should have got the trophy that actually went to Taylor Swift. I've thought that Kanye is a jackass ever since attending one of his shows. This isn't the first time he's interrupted an awards ceremony to put the judges right. He protested on his own behalf a few years ago at the MTV Europe awards, when he narrowly failed to win an award, and he faced down an orchestra playing him off at the Grammys last year after he actually had won, because he felt his thoughts about his late mother were more important than the organisers' schedule. Such was the protest about this latest outburst that even Kanye felt it necessary to pull a Venus (ie apologise just late enough to make it clear that it's your media advisers' idea, not yours). But I was sufficiently piqued by his indignation on Beyoncé's behalf to look at the video that lost out – "Single Ladies". And, though it pains me to say it, it's really good, and much, much more interesting than the clichéd bit of teen bubblegum that actually won. Still a jackass, then, but braying something true.

I wouldn't have thought there's any great mystery about why Iranian audiences have gone crazy for pirate copies of Lost, prompting the government to allow the official television broadcast of a version trimmed of "anti-Islamic" elements, such as bikinis and direct male-to-female contact. After all, here's a story of a group of people unable to escape to the outside world and subject (in later episodes) to the arbitrary instructions of a text whose origins and continuing relevance are not entirely explicable. What could it possibly have in common with life in a repressive theocracy?

One trembles to think, though, what heavy-handed censorship will do to the series' already fragile connection with narrative coherence – given that it was previously denounced for its inclusion of "Zionist concepts". It was hard enough to work out what was going on this country. In Iran, with random jump-cuts added to J J Abrams's shoal of red herrings, it's going to be all but impossible.