Watching the full 15 minutes that the death of David Bowie was accorded on BBC’s News At Ten it occurred to me that while we all might get our 15 minutes of fame, very few of us will get our 15 minutes of headline news; certainly not the children killed by bombs in Iraq and Syria; not those drowning in the Mediterranean; not striking junior doctors and not those working class families being socially cleansed from our cities. I’ve liked a lot of Bowie’s output over the years – and the way that even in death he managed to have the last word is admirable – but I was left wondering at such an extended obituary piece.
Many commentators have mentioned his longevity, his reading of the zeitgeist and his appeal to, and support for, outsiders (single-handedly turning Britain bi-sexual if some reports are to be believed). Others have mentioned his social activism, his refusal of state honours and his flirtation with fascism. The chameleon appears to have well and truly had something for everyone.
It has been suggested that the amount of media coverage devoted to Bowie’s death reflects the importance we place on the arts – as compared to the amount that the government invests in it. This misses the point. Bowie, the ultimate showman was, whether he liked it or not, a big cog in the culture industry; a decades long spectacle that allowed us to rebel vicariously while remaining good little consumers. Some reports practically admitted as much, citing the economic benefits he generated in turning the UK into “a creative powerhouse” – neatly reinforcing his co-option into the current free market paradigm.
This highlights the problem for the notion of the artist-as-outsider. The culture industry has a knack of pulling them inside the tent – and once they’ve got them in there they are happy for them to piss in, piss out or piss into the flowerpots, because whatever they do becomes a reaffirmation of the power of the state. The ability of the state and wealthy players within it to grant or refuse patronage reinforces the power of patronage and the power of capital. At the same time the visible patronage of outsiders promotes the idea of the tolerance of dissent, offering legitimisation for the state and neutralisation of opposition. Even Glenn Tilbrook’s laudable attack on Cameron on the Marr Show is absorbed into the narrative of democracy and dissent while Cameron blithely saunters off to colonise the music of The Smiths, The Jam or whoever else takes his fancy in the cultural pick ‘n’ mix of identities that has become totally meaningless. Musicians, comedians, minstrels and jesters. The image might have changed but their role remains much the same – bread and circuses.
Art and culture are important; hugely important. Creativity and imagination are a key aspect of being human. They offer us a space to both interpret and shape our ideas of society and ourselves. None of this should be abdicated to others. The relationship between artist and audience should not be rigidly defined as performer and spectator, producer and consumer. It should be a coming together of multiple viewpoints and ideas; a catalyst for evolution. As such no-one should be excluded. Austin Osman Spare wrote that knowledge is the excrement of experience. Similarly, art is the excrement of imagination. Let us all shit out our gaudy tinselled turds to decorate our world. And you wouldn’t charge someone for a turd would you? The idea of artist-as-occupation is the occupation of art by the invading forces of capital. We should not tolerate the counter-productive imposition of Intellectual Property Rights but rather let our creative juices intermingle freely in an orgy of creativity.
The surrealists famously put their art in the service of the revolution. Benjamin Peret described the poet as a revolutionary who must fight on all terrains. Not at service of anyone’s revolution but an integral part of that revolution; creating impossible palaces of the imagination in the ruins of capitalism; inspiring us to make them a reality. Art should be made by all and for all – and our lives should be a work of art. If recalling Bowie’s work inspires us to become active participants in our culture then it is a worthwhile exercise. If not it is just another glorification of the culture industry and as such stifles true creativity.