While watching the events that that led up to last and this week's decision to give the turbulent tuition fees bill an easy ride through Parliament, an image came to me: Goya's grotesque and unsettling Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-28), itself based on a harrowing precedent by Rubens.
Why? Because, despite all the ambiguity and difficulty of the image, it seems to me to symbolize the devouring of the young by an ideological monster that is completely out of touch with the real problems and trials faced by youth. Maybe it's not surprising that I should recall Goya's bleak canvas in these ideologically combustible times: Goya's art always had a political layer burning below its surface, which burst into splendid flame in some of his revolutionary paintings. This is hardly surprising as the artist lived through an era of seismic upheavals, something like those beginning to characterize our own times.
In his searching book on Goya, Robert Hughes says:
"What Goya painted is the combination of uncontrollable appetite and overwhelming shame that comes with addiction- Saturn goggle eyed and gaping, tormented by his lust for human meat, for an unthinkable incest. If he were merely hungry, he would not appall and move us so. And in what sort of society would the fathers eat the young? Surely, one in which the old perceive the new as a deadly threat: a society so reactionary that "tradition" imagined as the absolute reign of total authority, is worth murdering for."
In our society things haven't got that bad yet, although the fathers of this contemptible administration, this no-mandate Con-Dem coalition, are slaughtering the dreams of millions of innocents. But the category of young cannot be confined to age; it extends to older and middle-age people who feel young at heart, and have sympathy at the plight of the EMA- deprived school kids, the students and other disenfranchised groups being cut loose from society because of the government's reckless austerity plans. Even Daily Mail readers, God help us, support the students despite them breaking out last week.
It seems to me that the government see those who don't agree with them as infants- the word actually means without speech- so that they can be more easily controlled and reduced to silence. You've only got to listen to their language. Listen to Prime Minister David Cameron who came out of Downing St after the so-called Battle of Parliament Square to admonish the children with a stern rebuke; he resembled a cross between a father figure and a headmaster pronouncing condign punishment on the whole of the family or school. Listen to Home Secretary Theresa May describing the students' behavior as "disgraceful", like a schoolmarm wagging the finger at errant children. Then there's the police's method of kettling, which is surely a brutal form of detention. Concluding this family plot, there's the avuncular side of the family, the House of Lords, some of whom may want to intervene, but feel that by and large the headmaster paterfamilias is right, and they should just let him get on with punishing the children.
One of these oligarchs, Lord Browne, is the author of one of the most damaging documents ever devised for higher education in the U.K. It advocates nothing less than the wholesale commoditization of learning; every part of the educational process reduced to a transaction that can be measured on the balance sheet. Browne, a previous head of B.P. is a Gradgrind for our times; but what perturbs me most about the Browne Report is its attitude to the arts and humanities. The word "arts" only appears once in the entire document, and it's clear that it's a charter for philistinism.
But as James Vernon, in one of the best analyses of the Browne situation, points out, rather than playing the philistine card, we should make it absolutely clear to everybody how relevant arts, humanities and social sciences courses are to higher education. As Vernon notes, there were more studying in these subjects (1,073, 465) as opposed to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects (829,115) during 2008/9). That's a 28% increase since 2001/2 as opposed to a 20% increase for STEM. And another conclusion Vernon draws, is that arts, humanities and social science studies are "cross-subsidizing the more expensive STEM fields that have fewer students." Doesn't it therefore make sense economically to try to build educational institutions and programmes that incorporate a cross-disciplinary approach between the humanities and STEM instead of eliminating one at the expense of the other? Though strategies like Vernon's are worth praising, I sometimes feel like Martin McQuillan who laments that a government that doesn't see the value of the arts never will.
There's also the argument that the humanities improve the quality of society; that they make us more rounded citizens; that they are essential for democracy. That's the tenet of a book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities, just published by the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who's also speaking at conferences on the humanities this week.
It is evident that at the heart of the students' protest towards the regime of austerity lies great ingenuity and inventiveness. The counter-austerity movement is powered by creativity, an urge to construct imaginatively, expand the horizons of debate, rather than destroy self-expression and reduce ambition, which is what this government's measures will result in. The Top Shop demonstrations have the look of performance art, and watch this video of the demonstration, teach-in inside Tate Britain from last week. It's just one of many examples of how youth is making its voice heard loud and clear, almost drowning out the drone of the self-satisfied media and artistic managerial elite, represented by the Turner Prize dinner guests and the modern art magnifici. I particularly liked the students' use of the dunce's cap because there's another Goya reference there- his paintings of victims of the inquisition forced to wear carozzas, which evolved into the dunce's cap. The juxtaposition of students wearing these and frowning police is purely accidental, but it's a nice update of Goya's repressive state apparatus and innocent victims in a carnivalesque setting.
Though the Con-Dems may attempt to silence this legitimate protest movement, to choke the spirit of youth before it has been allowed to express itself, I'm confident they won't succeed. Just look at the expression on the face of Saturn, the personification of this ideological, youth-destroying monster. Rubens settled for a cannibalistic ogre munching on the belly of his son, but Goya's version taps the psychological just as much as the visceral element. His Saturn displays fear because, going back to Hughes's fascinating commentary on this darkest of Goya's "dark paintings", the father is finding the young hard to literally stomach and he knows it, but must keep going because he is suffering from some kind of compulsion.
Looking around at the tireless resistance that is cemented by imagination, passion and an unflinching belief in its aims, I think the student movement, and its growing affiliations – composed of people of all ages-, are all set to give the Coalition the biggest upset stomach of its life.