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Russell Smith: Response to Britain terror attacks shows art’s purpose in a time of fear

Art has responded to the terror attacks in Britain as a social force. This is what people have been asking of art in recent months in Europe and the United States: to become political. But the way it has done this has been different from how it reacts to other kinds of political strife and oppression.

There has been much talk in recent months about the activist role of art. Protest art against right-wing governments and powerful corporations and police forces – particularly in the United States – is encouraged by academics and essayists. There inevitably follows a debate over whether the art that draws attention to injustice is itself perpetuating some kind of racism or harm (Kenneth Goldsmith's Michael Brown autopsy poem; Dana Schutz's Emmett Till painting; Sam Durant's Dakota scaffold sculpture). This is all a conversation about the kind of art that demands, implicitly or explicitly, some kind of social change.

The art that was performed in reaction to the Manchester and London attacks was in a fundamental sense political art – it was responding to world events – but it was not agitating for social change; it made no policy demands on governments.

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Consider the populist poem read by Mancunian folk poet Tony Walsh, a.k.a. Longfella, in a public square days after the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert. The poem, This Is the Place, is simple – one might even say childish, singing the praises of the tough city of Manchester. It's a bit like a spirit song for a sports team. It has lines such as "So we make brilliant music. We make brilliant bands. / We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands." (You might recognize the amphibrachic tetrameter as being the favourite metre of Dr. Seuss.) It's not the most sophisticated poetry, but it is local, and its unabashedly positive, entirely uncritical content was so moving to the assembled crowd that a recording was spread virally around the world. This is not the poetry of dissent as it is usually defined.

I would argue that another poem, an entirely negative poem, is its obverse. Evidently Chickentown by performance poet John Cooper Clarke ("The bloody train is bloody late / you bloody wait you bloody wait/ you're bloody lost and bloody found /stuck in bloody chicken town …") is from the same oral tradition, about the same part of the world. It is equally a boast of belonging; it is the humorous, self-deprecating flip side of the same pride of place. This self-deprecation is typically English and is hard to distinguish from proud stoicism.

The benefit concert in Manchester last Sunday also had little overt political content. It sought no specific government action: It made no demands regarding immigration or foreign policy. It served as a symbol of resolve and a celebration of an anarchic capitalist culture that is perceived to be under attack. It was a celebration of the status quo. One could see the proudly pro-LGBT songs as an act of political defiance against conservative religions, I suppose, and Ariana Grande's choice to finish with the gay anthem Somewhere Over The Rainbow could be interpreted this way as well. (That song has a political pedigree: Its words were written by Yip Harburg, a Depression-era leftist.) But mainstream pop culture has been overtly pro-gay for some years now.

At any rate, it was hugely successful in making people of all stripes feel happy.

Mostly, it was a celebration of Western popular culture in all its hypersexualized permissive glory. Of this we are justly proud, just as we are impressed by the typical British cultural reaction to the attacks, which relies not on outrage and demands but on gallows humour. The guy running down the street carrying his pint is a folk hero, as is the guy who said on TV he was going to go out and flirt with as many guys as he could that night. The U.S. media's alarmist headlines – particularly a New York Times line that said London was "reeling" – have provoked great creativity among Londoners, who began to list on Twitter all the things that left them reeling (accepting compliments, making eye contact with strangers), and agreed, at the least, that they would like to dance a reel.

This is not to say that the art we saw in poems and music was not a serious response to a global geopolitical crisis; it was. It was different from the calls for "resistance" art we have been seeing in other Western countries because, this time, the existential threat being responded to was not part of out own culture; it was from outside. One could talk of a difference between "protest art" (aimed at Western-generated political problems) and "solidarity art" (designed to lift morale in the face of terrorism). And although the solidarity art is not a complaint directed at any particular state or policy, it nevertheless serves a uniting and inspiring function.

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