Andrew Mellor - 1 December 2013
I experienced a small, naive welling of revolutionary zeal when Russell Brand unleashed his blueprint for social change in front of a bewildered Jeremy Paxman. It took some more experienced commentators, including some hardened lefties and some truly revolutionary thinkers, to point out that Brand was deluded to think he could change the rotten system by deciding not to participate in it. Perhaps it takes the wisdom of age to realise that you don’t change much at all by opting out. When the revolution comes, it will come from within: from those with the flair, bravery, spirit and intelligence to force the opinions of the powerful or become powerful (and thus ‘empowering’) themselves.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that, for the time being, it looks like we’re stuck with something like the status-quo ‒ a society in which huge corporations of dubious moral orientation gather immense power and wealth whatever the consequences for the rest of us. As someone who believes in the power of the arts for social wellbeing, I say the sector should be taking as much money off these organisations as is humanly possible.
I was in the Royal Festival Hall last month when the Shell Out Sounds choir offered a beautiful choral protest before the performance by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, part of the Classic International Series sponsored by Southbank Centre’s immediate neighbour, Shell. To begin with I thought the singing was part of the concert. But as the singers left the hall with melancholy steps I was left wondering: if you detest a company for its environmental obscenities, why target one of the few genuinely good things it does?
The concert itself was notable for its atmosphere, which stemmed partly from the orchestra itself but mostly from the fact that the audience was considerably different that night. The choir seats were filled with school pupils who got up and danced when Marin Alsop conducted James P Johnson’s Victory Stride. There were large school and college groups elsewhere. Did they just happen to be passing the Royal Festival Hall? Or had they been embraced by Southbank Centre outreach and community projects, encouraged to participate by its embracing The Rest is Noise festival? I suspect the latter and, from my limited time working in orchestral sponsorship, that Shell’s money went some way to making those peripheral activities and audience-development projects possible and to subsidising those £15 choir seat tickets. Shell’s money would have helped get the orchestra here in the first place (along with five regional UK orchestras this season who haven’t performed on the south bank for donkeys’ years), and if you’re going to introduce a bunch of school kids to obscure symphonies by Guarnieri and Berio, you’re on the inside track if you’ve got an orchestra that sways and swings like this one to do it. If any of those kids hadn’t heard a live orchestral performance before, this was a perfect introduction.
Likewise those who pass by the big BP-branded screens relaying opera from Covent Garden to UK town squares. BP might be recognised these days as a pioneer of environmental irresponsibility born of self-serving greed. But where I’m from in Plymouth, these screens are the only way anyone in the city can happen unintentionally upon opera in all its visual splendour without enduring BBC2 on Christmas day. Another intensely greedy and often self-serving organisation should actually be paying for it: the UK government. But they’re not. I’d rather BP took their place than nobody did.
How easy and enjoyable it would have been to do a Russell Brand on this page: to argue for a theatrical split between the arts and the oil barons on the grounds that music of everlasting spiritual value shouldn’t associate itself with corporate irresponsibility. But this is the real, cash-strapped world. We should be siphoning every possible penny into the arts from those great tanks of cash bestridden by the likes of Shell and BP. In the meantime, our more politically minded friends can get on with masterminding their downfall.
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