Friday Ephemera

How Not to Make the Case for Public Subsidy

Adam Harper is “currently doing a PhD in Musicology at Oxford. He writes for Wire magazine and blogs at Rouge’s Foam.” He also finds time to write for the Guardian

Aware that reality itself is the territory on which they’re fighting the government, many student protesters have been challenging the government-sponsored realism they now find so dubious with playful surrealism.

Ah, “government-sponsored realism.” Not economic reality, as discussed here, which might lead those protesting to a larger, more troublesome understanding of the world. It’s just a cruel and dubious fabrication to be swapped for something more flattering and congenial. Students Make Protest an Art Form, reads the headline. And how could mere reality withstand the fearsome repertoire of the contemporary artist?

Few things summed up this battle for reality better than the statue stood in the main quadrangle of University College London, greeting visitors to the student occupation there. Placed in front of banners reading “Art Against Cuts” was a post-cubist humanoid figure assembled from found objects and painted silver.

By Muhammad’s beard. Empires will topple.

In front of it was a sign announcing that “THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING.”

I trust readers are all stocked up on canned goods and ammunition.

Upon entering the occupied Jeremy Bentham Room, one noticed strange details among the hundreds of posters covering the walls: references to Harry Potter characters (“Albus Dumbledore Was a GREAT MAN”), a neo-classical statue made to carry a mock-up Pokéball (which, as anyone born between 1985 and 1995 knows, is where Pokémon are kept when not in battle), puns so terrible and esoteric they become hilarious (“They say cut back, we say Feuerbach,” in homage to the 19th-century philosopher) and complete non sequiturs (“HUMBUGS ARE ZEBRA EGGS”).

It’s dangerous, dizzying stuff. Now hand me your wallet. You’ll soon be feeling an urge to bankroll more of this.

Someone else spent several hours in the Parliament Square kettle dressed as a bright pink Star Wars stormtrooper, the Bansky-esque gesture beautifully counteracting the lines of armour-clad riot police.

See? You’re warming to their demands already.

Sound-systems enabled spontaneous raves amid the cops and burning benches, with crowds bobbing in time to the wacky syncopated beats and pitch-shifted vocals of Major Lazer’s Pon De Floor.

Oh no, they’re fighting back with abstract disco.

Such displays could easily be dismissed as infantile and hedonistic, but they play an important role in outwardly showing confidence and boosting internal morale. In some cases they also serve a practical purpose.

I know, you can’t wait.

A group of demonstrators, dubbed the “book bloc,” brought giant polystyrene shields to the protest, each covered and painted to look like a famous work of philosophy, political theory or literature.


Alongside titles by Hegel, Derrida, Adorno, Badiou, Debord and Orwell was Just William, ironically understating the ensuing conflict between the civil disobedience of the young and the full weight of the Metropolitan police. When the two sides clashed on Whitehall, the book bloc’s attempts to counter police force with thought created images that were both powerfully symbolic and disarmingly tongue-in-cheek.

Now the image of art students armed with giant polystyrene shields is, I grant you, mildly amusing. As is the belief that mentioning Derrida adds gravitas to the cause. But “powerful symbolism”? “Countering force with thought”? Bask in that conceit. I’m sure taxpayers across the nation spotted these details and gasped at the staggering cleverness of it all, promptly forgetting the less edifying spectacle of riotersthuggery and presumed entitlement to the labour and earnings of others: “Just look at how esoteric those art students are - they’re using Styrofoam and non sequitur! Here, Maurice, give them some cash.”

In the comments, Mr Harper adds,

After I finished my degree I did in fact work in a call-centre for two years to fund my postgrad work. Now I’m doing PhD research, hoping to be a lecturer and teacher when I ‘grow up.’

At which point, comment seems unnecessary.