Is London over as a place for artists?
This seems to be a constant question for those struggling to get by in the capital, faced with soaring property prices and austerity arts cuts. There are thriving arts scenes in other major cities, while cultural regeneration and public art projects provide opportunities elsewhere. Every village and hamlet seems to be running its own arts festival these days. The BBC has famously already relocated a significant part of its operation to Salford and recently Evan Davis suggested that Hebden Bridge’s startlingly vibrant cultural life could qualify the Yorkshire town (population = 4,200) as a centre for the UK’s “second city.” In an age of all-singing, all-tweeting astronauts, is paying astronomical rent just to be near other artists worth the hassle?
When I interviewed the poet and novelist John Siddique, he felt that being based in Hebden Bridge had benefits beyond its “wonderfully nourishing landscape.” He argues that, “We need to let London go… its deepening and closed nature renders it irrelevant to the rest of the population” and that it continues to dominate the nation’s cultural life “by force of ego.”
Yet there’s no doubting the lure of the city and with good reason:as a report last year noted public funding for the arts in London dwarfs that for the rest of the country by a ratio of 15:1. It’s also undeniable that certain art forms allow more freedom: writers can theoretically work anywhere but the same is not true for those who work collaboratively. Anguished discussion over the decline of London’s “Tech City” – with technology start-ups moving en masse to Berlin and elsewhere – is a reminder that creative types place an enormous importance on interacting face-to-face in a manner Skype cannot replicate. No creative is an island, it seems, even on Silicon Roundabout.
The question is more than an economic, infrastructural one, though. Sociologist Rupa Huq has argued that most post-war Anglo-American creative output was inspired by the thrill of the bustling metropolis, invariably made by adventure-seeking youth desperate to escape the genteel cultural homogeneity of the suburbs. And, according to cultural critic Lloyd Bradley, the capital’s world-conquering dubstep scene contains a mish-mash of musical roots that come from a century of different immigrant groups moving to London and adapting their own folk traditions to their new, crowded home.
But Siddique also has a point when he claims, provocatively, that, “London doesn’t think nationally or globally.” It is striking how many emerging young novelists count London as only one global city among many in which to operate; while the likes of Jaipur Literary Festival are apparently overtaking the UK’s own Cheltenham and Edinburgh festivals as the site of heated debates over the future of culture. John Lanchester’s recent celebrated novel Capital– which attempted to get a grip on the global financial crisis through a microcosm of a south London street – suddenly looks hopelessly parochial in its ambitions.
For me, London is still worth the stress: the sheer variety of cultural opportunities available combined with its rich intellectual history gives it a vibrancy and edge which few places in the world can match. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t mourn the thought that artists might have to flee the city and seek new pastures. In an increasingly global age London cannot afford to rest on its laurels as a centre of the artistic universe. Maybe artists should look on this as an opportunity to embrace the shock of the new, rather than trudge desolately back to their parents’ doors.
The opinions expressed in The Columnist do not necessarily represent those of IdeasTap.
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