Writing on photography

After Europe: A Cultural Post-Mortem

Last week the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after nearly half a century of membership. In London, and in the arts and photography circles I orbit around, the mood is one of unremitting gloom. Talking politics is typically something the English only do with people they know well, such is the potential for disagreement, but over the last few days it has been the first topic of conversation in almost every encounter I have had, discussed with people I am meeting for the first time, embedded in the sign-offs of work e-mails, and referred to over the till in the supermarket. This eagerness to discuss the referendum results even with complete strangers I think reflects the great uncertainty over what happens next. While it’s certainly too early to fully anticipate the consequences for the European Union, or even for domestic politics in the UK, I have been thinking about the implications for my particular sector, attempting a tentative post-mortem of the events of the last week, and wondering in what ways photography and the arts more generally stand to be affected by this decision.

Exchange, it has been said, is the oxygen of capital. The same might well be said of art, where disparate influences, ideas, opinions all contribute to a vibrant cultural community, and where introspection and narrow horizons invariably leads to dullness, conservatism and a sort of artistic inbreeding. For me the most direct and frightening change is the prospect that so many European friends and colleagues face an uncertain future in this country, and while the Leave Campaign have made promises that EU citizens already in the UK will not be treated differently post-referendum, there are no guarantees that they will stick to this pledge (others made in the campaign quickly feel by the wayside). These people are talented artists, educators, writers, curators and more. Many have lived in this country longer than I have been alive, they have worked and paid taxes here, have married Britons, have British children, have embraced British culture (sometimes indeed to an annoying degree, a European friend who is an ardent fan of dire rural soap opera The Archers being a case in point). We stand to lose immeasurably not only from the possibility that they might be legally unable to remain, but even just from the uncertainty in the interim which might see some of them decide that it is better not to wait for a government decision on their status.

As a university lecturer many of my students are European citizens studying abroad and again I am keenly aware that my classes benefit immeasurably from the different perspectives, ideas, and references they bring to them, and the different photographic ideas and journalistic stories they choose to explore at home and abroad. They often widen my horizons about the world as much as I widen their knowledge of photography. It is yet unclear how the referendum will affect EU students, who previously paid rates comparable to UK students, and again that is a scary and depressing thought. Adding to that many friends and colleagues from Europe and further overseas have remarked to me that for the first time in Britain they have really been made to feel foreign, that they don’t belong, and that they are not welcome here, something which might well dissuade foreign nationals thinking about studying here in the future. The feeling of alienation is shared by many Britons as well, who woke up on Friday morning feeling unsure if the United Kingdom was still really our country, or whether it had been turned completely over to the right. The post-referendum atmosphere, composed of uncertainty and lingering xenophobia, is in many ways as sad and poisonous as an outright government decision to refuse European citizens the right to remain. To that end the feeling among many young photographers and artists I have spoken to is that it might perhaps be worth getting out while they can, seeking residency in other European countries before the United Kingdom’s exit enters into motion.

Beyond this, artists and photographers certainly face losing access to many European cultural programs and art funds that were available as part of our membership of the European Union. In general artists in the UK haven’t been the best at making use of these resources, well provisioned as we are with funding from domestic organisations like the Arts Council, but the fact these Europe wide funds existed was useful and I know many who have benefited from them particularly in making work and exhibiting overseas. On a more prosaic level, the European Union has supported arts events and exhibitions throughout the continent in a far more direct way, hosting them in their offices and representations and providing support with galleries. The European Union’s permanent representation in London gave me what was effectively my first solo show in 2014, that in spite of the fact the work I asked to show was in many respects very critical of the European Union’s conception of history. It takes a brave organisation to do that, and the team at the Representation was enormously international, supportive and critically minded. I had absorbing conversations about the work and about the future of the European Union with everyone I met there, from the receptionists and security staff to the Head of the Representation.

Estimating the consequences of this referendum vote for the arts is also complicated by the potential changes in UK politics as a result of a vote to leave. Hard to admit though it is, I was actually  sorry to see David Cameron resign in the immediate aftermath of the result. There are many, many things I disliked about Cameron as a politician, but one significant thing I would say in his favour is that even as he divided the country with many of his policies I think he actually believed he was doing them for the right reasons. This is significant in light of what comes next. We face the very real prospect of a future with Boris Johnson as Prime minister, a sleazy opportunist and proven liar, someone who like Trump will say whatever he believes people need to hear in order for him to get the approval he needs (Andrew Gimson, one of his biographers, recently defended Johnson’s lengthy record of dishonesty by arguing that what the public really want is to be lied to be their politicians). As a result a brief moment of optimism provoked by the recent election of a left wing London mayor after eight years of Johnson at the capital’s helm has subsided further into gloom.

What Johnson did for London could be next for the country as a whole, and if you think that’s not entirely a bad thing then think again, the benefits will likely be as unevenly distributed as they have been in this city, where a quarter of the population live in poverty while next door developers construct multi-million pound flats that will be bought and left empty by foreign investors. That has clear consequences for the arts also, which did not bear well under his mayorship, with developers given a free hand to buy up and demolish numerous spaces used by artists and cultural groups while Johnson attempted to assert his cultural credentials with naff prestige projects by artists like Anish Kapoor and his inverted trumpet monstrosity of a corporate advert at London’s Olympic Park. Based on his track record it’s hard to imagine that Johnson will prioritise the arts any more than Cameron did, and easier to imagine that he will do so even less, and perhaps only when it is politically useful for him. Weighing this up alongside the other victors of the leave campaign, for example Michael Gove (promoter of a reductive, imperial British history), Chris Grayling (who banned the sending of books to people in prison), and Nigel Farage (the less said here the better), we face the likelihood of a future of cultural neglect and intellectualism vandalism.

This referendum is a reminder that the United Kingdom is a land divided, not just in terms of Euro-politics but also much more broadly terms of it’s economics, culture, and demographics. There are undoubtedly a great many people in this country who feel their voices have been ignored and marginalised over the past few decades by politicians in London and in Brussels, they took their moment to speak last week and they have been more than heard. It’s really hard though to see these divisions getting smaller in the wake of this referendum, with the strong likelihood of a second referendum on Scottish independence in near future if anything they look like opening up into ever more unbridgeable chasms. Another possibility as remain campaigners and politicians scramble for a procedural get-out of last week’s result, is that the European membership referendum might be rerun, annulled or ignored. Even for an ardent remainer like myself this is a profoundly frightening prospect. A political system choosing to ignore the will of seventeen million people will do little to heal the United Kingdom’s divisions, rather it will wrench them still wider open and provide still more fertile ground for far right movements who view democracy only as a means to the end of gaining power. This country is today is stuck in an impossible no man’s land, unable to go back to the country it was a week ago, but terrified of the consequences of going forwards.

As photographers, artists, and cultural creators in general we have to break free from the sense of shock and inertia that this decision has created and ask ourselves what we can and should do next. As I wrote a year ago in the bleak moment following the re-election of the Conservative party on a platform of austerity, there are two ways to anwser such crushing defeats. One is to withdraw, to consider exit plans of our own. The other option is of course to stay, whether to simply document these momentous changes, or to try fight to influence them. Culture can entrench divides, and arguably it has played it’s part in the divisions the United Kingdom now suffers under. However it can also work to bridge them, and that was always a fundamental part of its role in the European project. If the United Kingdom is going to overcome the fractious politics of the last few months, and work through what feels like an incredibly divided present, photographers, artists, and creators in general need to start seriously thinking about the roles they are going to play.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography