I can’t recall exactly when I first saw Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon – an unsettling, bleak and profoundly beautiful series of paintings originally commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York – but I can remember my reaction. As a writer, to describe Rothko is to be reminded of my limitations; described in words, Black on Maroon is just a series of blocks of colour. To read about Black on Maroon is to think ‘I could do that’; to see it is to know ‘I never could’.
For children visiting at the weekend or on a school trip, Rothko’s work should be a demonstration of the power of art, and an inspiration to push boundaries, to go beyond oneself, to defy convention. Thanks to the work of Chris Smith, Tony Blair’s first culture secretary, Black on Maroon can be seen for free by everyone in London. Thanks to Smith – now Baron Smith of Finsbury – kids in Everton can see work by internationally renowned artists like Francis Bacon and Piet Mondrian for nothing.
That matters; not just because art can provide a way out of poverty and deprivation – Rothko came to the United States with little more than the clothes on his back – but because making cultural capital available to anyone is almost as important an aspect of breaking down social barriers as making financial capital available to everyone. And it’s not just art; a trip to Newcastle’s Discovery Museum can inspire a child to work harder at history or science than they would ever have been in the classroom alone.
For policymakers, it can be easy for ‘culture’ to be lost amid the scandal around ‘media’ or the excitement of ‘sport’, and it takes something like the defacement of Black and Maroon – an intruder scribbled on the margins of the painting as it hung in the Tate Modern last weekend – for us to remember that it matters, too. Lost, also, after a long and sometimes punishing time in government, can be an appreciation of our successes. We haven’t yet lived long enough to see the first artists and scientists inspired by trips to museums and galleries that would have been barred to them before Blair and Smith came along; but we will. Equally, though, the assault on Rothko is a reminder of the limits of our achievement: outside the big cities, there still isn’t nearly enough free arts or science teaching in our local communities, not nearly enough museums and art galleries that serve rural communities, and not just urban ones. That’s part of being a One Nation party, too: because even at the peak of New Labour’s popularity, Labour was still at its most comfortable in the metropolis.
Last week in Manchester, Labour increasingly looked and sounded like a party that is ready for government, ready to make difficult decisions about the deficit, about the future of the economy, about what we do next as a nation. Labour’s waging a war with the Conservatives about the funding of school sport and fighting to make sure that the Olympic legacy means something more than fond memories of a golden summer. Labour is thinking seriously about how to deliver social democracy on a limited budget. The attack on Rothko’s work is a reminder that social democracy has a cultural and intellectual component as well as a financial one, a reminder that progressives have to deliver more than bread alone. Free access to galleries and museums was one of Labour’s great progressive victories in the last government; and the kind of thing that should inspire us in the next.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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