Laurie Penny: A shark in a tank is no use to us, thanks

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The Independent Online

The modern resistance movement has been cannibalised by capital with astonishing speed – from bank campaigns urging potential customers to "join the revolution, to Vice magazine's decision to stage an "edgy" fashion shoot in the middle of the December riots.

Now Jake and Dinos Chapman, those erstwhile "bad boys" of British art most famous for making huge plastic children with penises where their noses should be, have decided to drum up some publicity by sponsoring the student protesters.

Genuine dissent attracts artists and hustlers like a suppurating wound attracts flies. The Chapmans, along with Damien Hirst and other no-longer-quite-so-young members of the Young British Artist school, have created a fund to pay the fines of prosecuted student protesters in order to, in Jake Chapman's words, "mock the Government". Other wealthy professional rebels, from Clash legend Mick Jones and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie to top designer Stella McCartney, have also pledged their support in this month's Dazed and Confused. Student protesters have so far declined this high-profile offer of assistance.

Young British artists like the Chapmans and Tracey Emin – now a noted Conservative supporter – made their millions with "edgy", "ironic" art designed to give liberal sensibilities a naughty thrill. There is nothing edgy or ironic, however, about the anti-cuts movement, which is far bigger than just students. The efforts of affluent pseudo-agitators to vampirise and appropriate the only honest-to-god counter-culture this country has seen for a generation is deeply offensive to those who are preparing to put their jobs and bodies on the line to fight the Government's austerity programme.

The half a million mothers, trades unionists, benefit claimants, office workers and children who will march this Saturday will not be doing so to make trouble for fun and profit. We will march because we cannot do without healthcare, welfare, decent wages, public services and education. We will march because we have no choice but to march.

Real resistance is many things, but it is not cool. Cool is what happens when capital appropriates the counter-culture – a sanitised dissent that can be mass-produced and printed on cheap T-shirts.

It is significant that the celebrity pledge-bank has declined to offer its support to any of the less fashionable branches of the protest movement: single mothers, disabled people, public-sector workers and the mentally ill are clearly not cool enough for the Chapmans, nor for any of the advertisers and fashion flunkies who have tried to capitalise on the energy of the student protests. Their struggle, however, is equally urgent.

The age of ironic art is over, because the age of irony is over. Ordinary people have begun to articulate an alternative to the desperate nihilistic glut of the 1990s, and George Osborne's plan to fund the banking crisis by tearing the heart out of the welfare state has stirred the sleeping monster of popular dissent. The ironic shrug, the desire to shock people momentarily inbetween coffee and the gift shop, is no longer an adequate response to political expediency.

What is required is resistance, and real resistance cannot be rehabilitated. The slogan of the modern resistance movement is a clarion cry against irony and apathy, scrawled over occupied classrooms and the wall of the Treasury: "This is actually happening."

Drawing "edgy" art and ironic fashion out of a serious ongoing social movement is grisly social taxidermy, an attempt to turn the awakened beast of public defiance into – in effect – a pickled shark in a tank. A pickled shark in a tank is shocking, but it is safe. The real, open-eyed rage of ordinary people is never safe. It is, however, actually happening.

twitter.com/PennyRed

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