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Cultural capital & the mamaguy business

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Government’s intention to create a new creative industries company to replace existing state cultural institutions has been making the rounds of late. The concern is that the State is dismantling functional institutions, like the film company, to make way for a new one whose proposed management is dubious, and whose aims are unclear.


Rubadiri Victor and the artists’ coalition are, like they used to say about Randolph Burroughs, “spearheading” the counterthrust, and I wish them well, but we all know how it’ll turn out.


The Government will get its way. The new company will be formed. It will fail. But some people will get rich. Things in “the arts” will revert to their accustomed state of despair and inertia. A few cultural entrepreneurs and artists will find ways to work around it. Some artists (unfortunately, not always the best) will survive, and the rest will fall by the wayside where most of them belong. So it has been, so it ever will be.


Apart from the obvious issues of government incompetence and ignorance, two points are interesting here. First, here is as good an illustration as you could hope for of the meeting of politics and artists – the artists never do well.


Rubadiri, with whom I generally disagree on artistic matters, has done pretty well over the last few years in presenting an organised, coherent face of the artistic community, and a clear agenda, to the powers that be. In fact, he presented these to said powers before they got into power, supported them at risk and personal cost, and now finds himself in a monkey pants. I sympathise, but can’t offer comfort. These are politicians. This is what they do.


Which leads to the second thing. This bunch of PP politicians and their attitude to art are especially intriguing since they have been cultural outsiders for much of their lives, surrounded by PNM culture, which shaped their attitude to art and national culture. As I’ve observed before, Trini Hindu orthodoxy (the PP base) apparently has no conception of art in the Arnoldian sense.


It’s clear (following from this) that the PP considers “culture” as little more than political mamaguy. Hence their coming into power and doubling the Carnival prize money even as Dimanche Gras winner, Karene Asche, was spitting the vilest poison at them, and the PM presenting herself on stage with Machel Montano, and so on.


And this attitude has defined the PP’s approach to culture policy: the cynical acceptance of Carnival as culture, and treating culture as a wine-down, drink-rum, eat-ah-food orgy whose purpose is to distract the electorate from the enormities of governance.


If this sounds familiar, it’s the PNM’s philosophy, with a slight difference. The PNM’s eidos accommodated an (admittedly small) space for conventional fine art like painting, literature, music (real music, not pan) and so on. Carnival was electioneering, but the other bits were thrown a few crumbs and embodied in a small community located in Port of Spain. And some interesting art came out of it.


The reason for the PNM’s tolerance was nostalgia, since the artistic community was comprised of the remnants of the educated bourgeoisie who fled as the PNM revolution began to take shape post-1962.


In their final term, the “new” PNM, comprised of the younger flowers of PNM society in full bloom, had lost this tolerance and seemed contemptuous at the thought that anything but Carnival was art. But from the start, no consciousness of non-Carnival culture seemed to exist in the PP. The notion that conventional art provides something of value that money can’t buy was never in its consciousness.


Hence the new creative industries company, as I understand it, will adopt the financially-exploitable elements of “culture”: film, Carnival, fashion, and so on, and is a creature of the Ministry of Trade. The rest (poetry, dance, music that isn’t pan) simply doesn’t exist for them.


In this, the PP’s attitude represents the predictable culmination of post-independence PNM society and culture. The contempt and ignorance they’re showing for art is precisely what was taught to them, and which is still taught in schools, at the university, and in public culture. The Prime Minister is a product of the UWI, as are some ministers, and they’re simply doing what they were trained to do.


The sad part is that the artists fighting the Government are products of the same environment and social-political forces. I’ve attended several cultural events in the last few months, beginning with the film festival (TTFF), a few art exhibitions, and have generally seen the work of the younger crop of artists and their cultural sutlers. It ain’t a pretty sight.


As I’ve mentioned in this space before, the national imagination is in a state of atrophy and from what I’ve seen the filmmakers, writers, and younger artists are feeding the atrophy. The gap between the 40-somethings and 30-somethings is a chasm in terms of talent, imagination, and skill.


What saved the previous generation was the ability to go abroad relatively easily. Unfortunately, that ease of movement is over. Now, those who manage to get out, stay out. Those left behind get trapped in the Trini matrix.


The only encouraging thing that I can see in all this is the potential material for anthropologists and cultural critics. The notions of dead and dying cultures are tropes of the various literatures. Trinidad manages, in this regard, to be a brilliantly-documented case of what happens when a population is deprived of art and culture by nihilism and ridiculous racism disguised as “culture,” chasing educated people away, and promoting fascism as nationalism.



The result is social suicide, committed at great expense and with great deliberation, over half-century.


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