Monday, 1 July 2013

The Great Slag Heap

Privilege fascinates me. Not in terms of how people inherit it. That’s not so interesting and seems predictably simple. Privilege interests me in terms of the psychology of actually having life expectations and the way we subsequently value our experiences, moments, and opportunities.

I suppose I’m writing about this because of my current gnarly situation but I was thinking about privilege whilst watching Glastonbury over the weekend. It felt like I was witnessing a generation that had gone to the festival as children and who were now attending it as adult performers. The two things seemed linked, perhaps even destined. Everybody seemed to be either a Mumford or a Son.

Even the conspicuous amount of naff art on display somehow seemed normal, accepted, and appropriate. But it struck me that there are certain classes of people who know how to waste money in a way that seems right. Here in St Helens, the council paid nearly two million to stick a squashed stone head on a slag heap. It’s imaginatively called ‘The Dream’. Few people like it and I know of no locals who have even visited it. It was an example of political art; art voted on by committees of clueless people making political points with public money. It’s not art that speaks about the people or was wanted by the people. It’s not even the work of a local but an artist called Jaume Plensa from Spain. But why is that?

My theory is that the working classes don’t understand art as it is generally understood by the middle class and I say that as somebody deeply working class. Without privilege, we have no real understanding about how to waste money in a meaningful way. We have to import these ideas. Working class art (a term that itself is even questionable) must have a point, a purpose, or at least some financial rationale behind it. If it cost a million, it must make a million and change. It’s why probably the greatest expressions of working class art are those that translate to money. They’re by the Rolling Stones and Beatles and artists like Jack Vettriano whose work translates into the ringing of a cash register. The alternative is art that fulfills a social purpose: hence the woeful drama workshops and poetry projects for ex-miners. There can be no giant spider made from rubble breathing fire out over revellers. That is just a beautiful expression of middle class thinking. Instead, we pretend to know what we’re doing but end up with a big lump of stone which people though would be symbolic but which locals just drive past and grumble about.

Take another example. Today’s hot ticket was for the Murray / Youzhny match which has just finished on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. A nation of tennis fans slipped out of work early to catch it on the BBC and, on the bank of grass known as Henman Hill, ordinary punters were squashed elbow to sweaty armpit simply in order to watch the match on the big screen. Yet as the match got under way inside centre court itself, the Royal Box was empty; row upon row of the best seats in the house vacant except for a few loyal administrators of the game, their cottons and flannels immaculate, their eyebrows untrimmed.

Many of the tickets for the Royal Box are apparently now in the gift of the BBC which perhaps explains why it’s so often full of their first, second, and even third rate talent. It’s a symbol, as though symbols were needed, that we’re no longer a nation that defines itself according to our royals. The true nobility are the quiz show hosts, the petty and preened presenters, the botoxed uber-mums and the trippy-heeled ballroom dancers.

Somebody at the BBC or officials at Wimbledon had failed to fill the box but it passed without explanation. Perhaps the celebs were still necking their champagne flutes. Perhaps they were all stuck in traffic. Perhaps they were suddenly called into the BBC to get another huge lump sum which the country didn't need to pay them but somebody at the topped initialed the cheque. It really doesn't matter why it was empty. The point is that it’s not just celebrities who exhibit this failing. The same happened last year at the Olympics when seats gifted to corporate sponsors were not filled by corporate backsides. The new Wembley is plagued by the familiar spectacle of empty seats in the premium central block, unavailable to the public. It’s often a big red embarrassing emptiness when corporate guests continue to enjoy corporate hospitality after half time.

Rather than seeing this as an example of the growing banality that privilege affords to special events, I see it as another symptom of a system that knows how to be profligate. The super-rich find value in copious waste but so too do people lower down the economic ladder. There is perhaps a sadistic pleasure to be had in not using a ticket for a special event. It’s like the Bullington Club’s initiation ceremony where they burn the £50 note in the face of a beggar. That story might be true but it might equally be apocryphal s but it is definitely resonant because it says that some human nature is governed by childish delights. It’s almost Freudian in its symbolism; as though privilege demands that it be occasionally expressed in wanton terms.

So, I don’t see an empty royal box. I see spaces representing people who need to be wasteful and to glory in that waste simply because they’re psychologically directed in a way that won't be dictated to by material things. To the working class part of my mind, it’s just waste. It’s like relatives who wrap up uneaten food at restaurants or won’t leave food on their plate. Waste not, want not. We heard it from the crib. Those seats could be filled by people enjoying every moment. Why do people buy tickets they don’t use? It has no point! What a waste! Like art, like my cartoons, my work, my writing, and even this blog. No better than a great squashed head sitting upon the slag heap of my mind. Just a dream. Just a wasteful dream.

1 comment:

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