The spontaneous university

IN A RECENT ESSAY ARNOLD WESKER, concerned precisely with the gulf between art and popular 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 imitating 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.

ALEXANDER TROCCHI graduated in philosophy at Glasgow University and has since lived in Paris and America. He is the author of Young Adam and Cain's Book. These fragments are from his "Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds", and readers will notice their relevance to the ideas canvassed in ANARCHY 24 (The Community of Scholars) and ANARCHY 30 (The Community Workshop).

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 to 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 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 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.

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Nov 20 2017 00:38


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