Anarchy 31/The spontaneous university

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The spon­tan­eous uni­vers­ity


In a recent essay Arnold Wesker, con­cerned pre­cisely with the gulf be­tween art and pup­ular cul­ture and with the pos­si­bil­ity of re­inte­gra­tion refers to the threat­ened strike of 1919 and to a speech of Lloyd George. The strike could have brought down the gov­ern­ment. The Prime Min­is­ter said:

  . . . you will defeat us. But if you do so have you weighed the conse­quen­ces? The strike will be in defi­ance of the gov­ern­ment of the country and by its very suc­cess will pre­cip­it­ate a con­stitu­tional crisis of the first im­port­ance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the func­tions of the state. Gentle­men have you con­sidered, and if you have, are you ready?

The strikers, as we know, were not ready. Mr. Wesker com­ments:

  The crust has shifted a bit, a num­ber of people have made for­tunes out of the pro­test and some­where a host of Lloyd Georges are grin­ning con­ten­tedly at the situa­tion . . . All pro­test is al­lowed and smiled upon be­cause it is known that the force—eco­nomic­ally and cul­tur­ally—lies in the same dark and secure quar­ters, and this secret know­ledge is the real des­pair of both artist and intel­lec­tual. We are para­lysed by this know­ledge, we pro­test every so often but really the whole cul­tural scene—par­ticu­larly on the left—‘is one of awe and in­ef­fec­tual­ity’. I am certain that this was the secret know­ledge that largely ac­coun­ted for the de­cline of the cul­tural activ­ities in the Thir­ties—no one really knew what to do with the phil­istines. They were om­nipo­tent, friendly, and se­duct­ive. The germ was carried and passed on by the most un­sus­pected; and this same germ will cause, is begin­ning to cause, the de­cline of our new cul­tural up­surge unless . . . unless a new sys­tem is con­ceived where­by we who are con­cerned can take away, one by one, the secret reins.

Al­though I found Mr. Wesker’s essay in the end dis­ap­point­ing, it did con­firm for me that in England as else­where there are groups of people who are act­ively con­cerned with the prob­lem. As we have seen, the polit­ical-eco­nomic struc­ture of west­ern so­ci­ety is such that the gears of creat­ive intel­li­gence mesh with the gears of power in such a way that, not only is the former pro­hibited from ever ini­tiat­ing any­thing, it can only come into play at the be­hest of forces (vested inter­ests) that are often in prin­ciple anti­path­etic towards it. Mr. Wesker’s ‘Centre 42’ is a prac­tical at­tempt to alter his rela­tion­ship.

  I should like to say at once that I have no funda­mental quar­rel with Mr. Wesker. My main criti­cism of his pro­ject (and I admit my know­ledge of it is very hazy indeed) is that it is lim­ited in char­ac­ter and that this is re­flec­ted in his ana­lysis of the histor­ical back­ground.
He takes the 1956 pro­duc­tion of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, for ex­ample, to be the first land­mark in ‘our new cul­tural up­surge’. A seri­ous lack of histor­ical per­spect­ive, the in­sul­arity of his view . . . these feat­ures are, I am afraid, in­dic­at­ive of a kind of church-bazaar philo­sophy which seems to under­lie the whole pro­ject. Like handi­crafts, art should not be ex­pec­ted to pay. Mr. Wesker calls for a tradi­tion ‘that will not have to rely on finan­cial suc­cess in order to con­tinue’. And so he was led to seek the patron­age of trade unions and has begun to organ­ise a series of cul­tural fest­ivals under their aus­pices. While I have noth­ing against such fest­ivals, the ur­gency of Mr. Wesker’s ori­ginal diag­nosis led me to ex­pect re­com­menda­tions for ac­tion at a far more funda­mental level. Cert­ainly, such a pro­gramme will not carry us very far towards seiz­ing what he so hap­pily refers to as ‘the secret reins’. I do not think I am being over­cau­tious in as­sert­ing that some­thing far less ped­estrian than an ap­peal to the public-spirited­ness of this or that group will be the im­per­ative of the vast change we have in mind.

  Never­the­less, at one point in what re­mains an in­ter­esting essay, Mr. Wesker quotes Mr. Raymond Williams. Who Mr. Williams is and from what work the quota­tion is taken I am un­fortun­ately ignor­ant. I only wonder how Mr. Wesker can quote the fol­low­ing and then go out and look for patron­age.

  The ques­tion is not who will patron­ise the arts, but what forms are pos­sible in which art­ists will have con­trol of their own means of ex­pres­sion, in such ways that they will have rela­tion in a com­mun­ity rather than to a market or a patron.

Of course it would be dan­ger­ous to pre­tend to under­stand Mr. Williams on the basis of such a brief state­ment. I shall say simply that for myself and for my as­soci­ates in Europe and Amer­ica the key phrase in the above sen­tence is: ‘art­ists will have con­trol of their own means of ex­pres­sion’. When they achieve that con­trol, their ‘rela­tion to a com­mun­ity’ will be­come a mean­ing­ful prob­lem, that is, a prob­lem amen­able to formu­la­tion and solu­tion at a creat­ive and in­tel­ligent level. This we must con­cern our­selves forth­with with the ques­tion of how to seize and within the so­cial fabric exer­cise that con­trol. Our first move must be to elimin­ate the brokers.

  How to begin? At a chosen mo­ment in a va­cant coun­try house (mill, abbey, church, or castle), we shall foment a kind of cul­tural ‘jam session’: out of this will evolve the proto­type of our spon­tan­eous uni­ver­sity.

  The Jewish settle­ments in Israel turned a desert into a garden and astoun­ded all the world. In a flower­ing garden al­ready wholly sus­tained by auto­ma­tion, a frac­tion of such pur­pos­ive­ness ap­plied to the cultiv­ation of men would bring what re­sults?

  Then there was the ex­peri­mental col­lege at Black Mountain, North Caro­lina. This is of im­medi­ate inter­est to us for two reas­ons. In the first place, the whole con­cept is almost identical to our own in its edu­ca­tional aspect; in the second, some in­divid­ual mem­bers of
the staff of Black Moun­tain, cert­ain key mem­bers of wide ex­peri­ence, are actu­ally as­soci­ated with us in the present ven­ture. Their col­labora­tion is in­valu­able.

  Black Moun­tain Col­lege was widely known through­out the United States. In spite of the fact that no de­grees were awarded gradu­ates and non-gradu­ates from all over Amer­ica thought it worth­while to take up resid­ence. As it turns out, an amaz­ing num­ber of the best art­ists and writers of Amer­ica seem to have been there at one time or another, to teach and learn, and their cumul­at­ive influ­ence on Amer­ican art in the last fif­teen years has been im­mense. One has only to men­tion Franz Kline in refer­ence to paint­ing and Robert Creeley in refer­ence to poetry to give an idea of Black Moun­tain’s sig­nific­ance. They are key figures in the Amer­ican van­guard, their influ­ence every­where. Black Moun­tain could be de­scribed as an ‘ac­tion uni­ver­sity’ in the sense in which the term is ap­plied to the paint­ings of Kline et alii. There were no ex­amin­ations. There was no learn­ing from ult­er­ior motives. Stu­dents and teach­ers par­ticip­ated in­form­ally in the creat­ive arts; every teacher was him­self a prac­ti­tioner—poetry, music, paint­ing, sculp­ture, dance, pure math­em­at­ics, pure phys­ics, etc.,—of a very high order. In short, it was a situa­tion con­struc­ted to in­spire the free play of creat­iv­ity in the in­divid­ual and the group.

  Un­fortun­ately, it no longer ex­ists. It closed in the early Fifties for eco­nomic reas­ons. It was a corpor­ation (actually owned by the staff) which de­pended en­tirely on fees and char­it­able dona­tions. In the highly com­pet­it­ive back­ground of the United States of Amer­ica such a gratu­it­ous and flag­rantly non-util­it­arian in­stitu­tion was only kept alive for so long as it was by the sus­tained ef­fort of the staff. In the end it proved too ill-adapted to its habit­at to sur­vive.

  In con­sider­ing ways and means to estab­lish our pilot pro­ject we have never lost sight of the fact that in a cap­ital­ist so­ci­ety any suc­cess­ful or­gan­iza­tion must be able to sus­tain itself in cap­ital­ist terms. The venture must pay. Thus we have con­ceived the idea of set­ting up a general agency to handle, as far as pos­sible, all the work of the in­divid­uals as­soci­ated with the uni­ver­sity. Art, the pro­ducts of all the ex­pres­sive media of civil­isa­tion, its ap­pli­ca­tions in indus­trial and com­mer­cial design, all this is fan­tastic­ally pro­fit­able (con­sider the Musical Cor­por­ation of Amer­ica). But, as in the world of sci­ence, it is not the cre­at­ors them­selves who reap most of the bene­fit. An agency founded by the cre­at­ors them­selves and opera­ted by highly-paid pro­fes­sionals would be in an im­preg­nable pos­ition. Such an agency, guided by the crit­ical acu­men of the art­ists them­selves, could pro­fit­ably har­vest new cul­tural talent long before the purely pro­fes­sional agen­cies were aware it ex­isted. Our own ex­peri­ence in the re­cogni­tion of con­tem­por­ary talent during the past fif­teen years has pro­vided us with evidence that is de­cisive. The first years would be the hardest. In time, grant­ing that the agency func­tioned ef­fi­ciently from the point of view of the in­divid­ual art­ists re­pre­sented by it, it would have first option on all new talent. This would hap­pen not only be­cause it would be likely to re­cog­nize that talent before its com­petit­ors, but be­cause of
the fact and fame of the uni­ver­sity. It would be as though some ordin­ary agency were to spend 100 per cent. of its profits on ad­vert­ising itself. Other things being equal, why should a young writer, for ex­ample, not pre­fer to be handled by an agency con­trolled by his (better-known) peers, an agency which will apply what­ever profit it makes out of him as an as­soci­ate towards the ex­ten­sion of his in­flu­ence and audi­ence, an agency, fin­ally, which at once of­fers him mem­ber­ship in the ex­peri­mental uni­ver­sity (which gov­erns it) and all that that im­plies? And, before elabor­at­ing fur­ther on the eco­nom­ics of our pro­ject, it is per­haps time to de­scribe briefly just what that mem­ber­ship does imply.

  We en­vis­age an inter­na­tional or­gan­isa­tion with branch uni­ver­sities near the capital cities of every coun­try in the world. It will be au­tono­mous, un­polit­ical, eco­nomic­ally in­de­pend­ent. Mem­ber­ship of one branch (as teacher or stu­dent) will en­title one to mem­ber­ship of all branches, and to travel to and resid­ence in foreign branches will be ener­get­ic­ally en­cour­aged. It will be the ob­ject of each branch uni­ver­sity to par­ticip­ate in and ‘super­charge’ the cul­tural life of the re­spect­ive capital city at the same time as it pro­motes cul­tural ex­change inter­na­tion­ally and func­tions in itself as a non-spe­cial­ised ex­peri­mental school and creat­ive work­shop. Resid­ent pro­fes­sors will be them­selves cre­at­ors. The staff at each uni­ver­sity will be pur­pos­ively inter­na­tional; as far as prac­tic­able, the students also. Each branch of the spon­tan­eous uni­ver­sity will be the nuc­leus of an ex­peri­mental town to which all kinds of people will be at­trac­ted for shorter or longer peri­ods and from which, if we are suc­cess­ful, they will derive a re­newed and in­fec­tious sense of life. We en­vis­age an organ­isa­tion whose struc­ture and mech­an­isms are in­fin­itely elastic; we see it as the grad­ual crys­tal­lisa­tion of a re­gener­at­ive cul­tural force, a per­petual brain­wave, creat­ive in­tel­li­gence every­where re­cog­niz­ing and af­firm­ing its own in­volve­ment.

  It is im­pos­sible in the present con­text to de­scribe in pre­cise de­tail the day-to-day func­tion­ing of the uni­ver­sity. In the first place, it is not pos­sible for one in­divid­ual writing a brief intro­duct­ory essay. The pilot pro­ject does not exist in the phys­ical sense, and from the very begin­ning, like the Israeli kib­butzes, it must be a com­munal af­fair, tac­tics de­cided in situ, de­pend­ing upon just what is avail­able when. My as­so­ciates and I during the past dec­ade have been amazed at pos­sibil­ities aris­ing out of the spon­tan­eous inter­play of ideas within a group in con­structed situa­tions. It is on the basis of such ex­peri­ences that we have ima­gined an inter­na­tional ex­peri­ment. Secondly, and con­se­quently, any de­tailed pre­con­cep­tions of my own would be so much ex­cess bag­gage in the spon­tan­eous gener­ation of the group situa­tion.

  The cul­tural pos­sibil­ities of this move­ment are im­mense and the time is ripe for it. Sci­ent­ists, art­ists, teachers, creat­ive men of good­will every­where are in sus­pense. Waiting. Re­mem­ber­ing that it is our kind even now who oper­ate, if they don’t con­trol, the grids of ex­pres­sion, we should have no dif­fi­culty in re­cog­nis­ing the spon­tan­eous uni­ver­sity as the pos­sible det­on­ator of the in­vis­ible in­sur­rec­tion.