Our choice at Christmas

By Bernadette Meaden
December 24, 2016

The world of contemporary art is, to be honest, not one I usually take an interest in, but something happened this year which caught my attention. Sculptor Helen Marten won not one but two prestigious prizes, and her reaction was both admirable and encouraging.

Winning the first ever Hepworth Prize in November, Marten said  she would share the £30,000 award with her fellow nominees.  Explaining her decision she said, "The context of the world's political landscape is changing so drastically…Amidst that, the art world has a responsibility to uphold an umbrella of egalitarianism and democracy and openness."

In December, Marten went on to win the Turner Prize, and again declared she would share the prize money with her fellow finalists, saying, “Our global outlook is becoming ever more precarious from the stripping of arts and creative writing programmes in schools syllabuses to the ever prominence of alt-right groups gaining a very visible and frightening political platform for a xenophobic, homophobic and racist outlook on the world,". "I think as artists today and as people in this environment, we are deeply, deeply privileged to be sitting here, with a community whose lifeblood is a sort of diversity and exuberance,"

I found this rejection of the selfish, competitive, winner takes all philosophy that our whole society and global economy is now based on quite heartening. Of course it is much easier to make such a gesture if one has plenty, and the art world is pretty far removed from most people’s lives, but how much better would the world be if we could reject the language and philosophy of pervasive competition that currently dominates the world?

Several years ago, I heard a little parable which seems to sum up the past years perfectly. A banker, a worker and a migrant were sitting at a table. There were twelve biscuits on the table. The banker took eleven biscuits and said to the worker, “watch out, that migrant will take your biscuit.” This seems to sum up the artificial, deliberately created scarcity of austerity, the false belief that we can’t afford to give everybody a biscuit, which compels the most powerless people to compete with each other, and at times resent each other, which has characterised the years since the banking crisis.

We urgently need to reject this imposition, to choose a culture of co-operation and sharing before it is too late. A modern Christmas offers us stark examples of both approaches. Tempers fray in homes, shops and car parks as we frantically try to achieve the materialistic Christmas the television advertisements tell us we should have. But in the foodbanks and the homeless shelters we find the true spirit of Christmas, as people look to give not only material goods but their time, their concern, and their compassion. 

With Donald Trump about to enter the White House and a rather ugly brand of politics taking root in the UK, it feels as if we are at a crucial point. We can passively accept the division, deceit and mean-spiritedness purveyed by populist politicians and even our own government, or we can reject it and demand a politics of compassion, co-operation and respect for all.

We need the courage to boldly speak truth to power, to get angry about our own government creating poverty and then blaming people living in that poverty.  And we must fiercely resist all attempts to demonise or scapegoat any group of people, of whatever nationality, race, religion, or economic status. As Martin Luther King said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden




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