A change is gonna come
16 September 2018 23:01
Start here. Like Joey ‘the Lips’ Fagin in The Commitments, we at DRUGSTORE CULTURE ‘believe in starts’. As Joey tells his aspiring band-mates: ‘Once you have the start, the rest is inevitable.’
Inevitable, of course, is a dangerous word to use in our new age of political turbulence, hectic cultural change, and technological revolution. If the Twentieth Century, its failed ideologies and terrible bloodshed have a single lesson, it is that history has no direction. The future is earned, not distributed.
There are no certainties, no fixed teleologies, no unbreakable trajectories. Only the power of human agency and collaboration to do something about the world in which we find ourselves; to take its measure; and to try to live well together, compassionately and in a spirit of intelligent irony and humour.
Unlike Joey, therefore, we cannot be certain. But, in an era understandably given to gloom, bleakness and mass anxiety, we can make a decision to be optimistic. Indeed, we insist upon it.
So, first and foremost, welcome: in July, we published our inaugural print issue, a magazine-as-book that was our initial ‘hello’ to the world (you can buy a copy here – and other issues will follow for subscription). Today we launch fully as a digital platform: a place in cyberspace that will be the hub and home of all that we do in the months and years ahead.
Why ‘Drugstore’? Partly because of the vivid role that Schwab’s, the legendary pharmacy on Sunset Blvd, played in the early Hollywood life of our founder and publisher, Charles Finch. Sadly closed in 1983, Schwab’s was in its heyday a hang-out, a diner, a place to read, to talk and – if you were an actor – to be discovered.
It was a hip palace of culture, but also of democratic conversation, ideas and storytelling. So many culture magazines emulate the glacial, off-putting ethos of the spotlessly white gallery. In contrast, DRUGSTORE CULTURE throws open its doors to all who are intrigued by cinema, art, politics, tech, gaming, literature, theatre, television (in all its forms) and public debate. The only entry fee is enthusiasm.
Though our vision is serious, we will never be earnest. We believe in wit and satire rather than snide loftiness. We embrace pluralism rather than out-dated nativism and patriarchy.
We believe in free speech and civility; rigorous debate, not shrillness amplified by social media algorithms. We are unapologetic internationalists and do not accept that such commitment is remotely inconsistent with patriotism.
We regard ‘diversity’ not as an objective to be pursued by bosses nervous about the public image of their corporations, but as an empirical feature of contemporary society to be celebrated and reflected in all that we do. We live in a rich and heterogeneous society: who, except the sweatiest reactionaries, would have it otherwise?
We think that ideas can be entertaining, and that fun can be thought-provoking. We reject echo chambers and ideological tribes. We refuse to accept the populist assumption that people are stupid, or the lazy labelling that says that anyone who likes reading or art or drama is to be dismissed as ‘metropolitan’ (in a predominantly urban society, what does that newly-pejorative term even mean?)
Above all, we will seek to earn and maintain your trust as a source of vivid, authoritative, and entertaining writing, video and cultural intelligence. We know that all media, new and old, have work to do in this respect, and that the crisis of Post-Truth and fake news is partly a reflection of the dramatic loss of trust in traditional media institutions.
As custodians of a new project, we will be mindful of this challenge in all that we do, every day. We won’t be confined by the familiar formats of journalism – the 1,100 word column, for instance – and will give our writers the space to tell stories and to explore the detail of experience. We’ve received loud and clear the message that, especially among young people, there is a weariness with over-structured programming – which is why the freewheeling vodcast, produced here in the DRUGSTORE CULTURE studio, will be so important to what we do.
As for ‘culture’: well, that brings us to the heart of the matter and of the movement that we are launching. Loosely, the word is often used as a synonym for ‘civilisation’. But that is only a part of its true meaning. Today, ‘culture’ embraces True Detective as well as Truffaut; Grand Theft Auto as much as Guernica; Toni Morrison and Tony Stark.
Matthew Arnold was right in Culture and Anarchy (1869) to define it as ‘the best that has been thought and said’ and to insist that ‘[culture] seeks to do away with classes, to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere’.
Almost 150 years later, we welcome, and adapt, that historic challenge: to champion the shock of the new as well as the inherited intellectual and artistic glories of the past.
As E.M. Forster wrote in Does Culture Matter (1940), the love of art and literature has a strong social component: a yearning ‘to testify outside’. Digital technology has made the consumption of culture more solitary than ever. But that has not extinguished what Forster called the yearning ‘to let one’s light so shine men’s curiosity is aroused.’
When you hear the first spine-tingling bars of Nina Simone singing Feeling Good a cappella, it is impossible not to want everyone else in the world to hear them too. This is the inspiration that lies behind our PRESCRIPTION page, a real-time bulletin-board that will keep you up to speed with all that is new and best on the cultural front-line. And we will champion art and performance we love, not just review it.
This is also one of the principal reasons why we at DRUGSTORE CULTURE believe so profoundly in cinema-going as an expression of pure humanism: the enjoyment of creativity and ideas in a communal setting.
It is also why, for us, events are emphatically not a bolt-on extra, but intrinsic to our conviction that a Twenty-First Century magazine is a community: a network of writers, readers, artists, performers, public figures and friends, collaborating across platforms and face-to-face.
So (for instance) our partnerships with the how to: Academy and the Bridge Theatre – both jewels in London’s cultural crown – are as important to us as the articles we publish and the videos we post. The flipside of the online revolution is a new and growing appetite for innovative forms of human interaction.
That may take the form of a movie viewing; or a debate on the future of identity politics; or stand-up comedy shows, such as those hosted for us by Hardeep Singh Kohli at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; or (most recently) a discussion at Anya Hindmarch’s glorious ‘Chubby Cloud’ festival at the Banqueting House to mark London Fashion Week. To quote Forster again: ‘Only connect’.
Yet culture is more than intellectual, creative and aesthetic achievement. It is also the matrix of social mores and conventions in which we are all embedded, constantly changing and morphing: what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), calls ‘interworked systems of construable signs’, in which each person ‘is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.’ Now more than ever, as digital narratives proliferate at a giddy pace, these webs need to be identified and described.
It is a founding principle of our mission that the world, including the political sphere, is now best understood through the prism of culture. And this is no small claim.
Look at the landscape of 2018: Donald Trump in the White House; the #MeToo movement (which is only just beginning); identity politics and ‘intersectionality’ (here to stay, whether you like it or not); the transgender revolution and all the questions it poses; the rise and rise of Black Lives Matter; the ugly surge in anti-Semitism on the Left; the global successes of the nativist and populist Right.
All these and many other phenomena are hard to explain satisfactorily using the categories of Twentieth Century discourse – which was framed as a grand struggle between Left and Right, in which social structure, class and institutions were primarily shaped by economic forces.
There is, of course, no shortage of contemporary argument about the proper limits of capitalism, about so-called economic ‘neo-liberalism’ and even – amazingly – about the desirability of communism as a model for social and economic organisation.
But this endlessly recycled argument between markets and statism is now secondary to a larger cultural struggle. As I argued in the inaugural print issue, what counted in the Twentieth Century was ownership of the means of production.
In the Twenty-First, what matters is control of the narrative: in the age of digital revolution and social media, a great battle rages over story. Control of popular culture is no longer a perk of state or capitalist power. It is the only reliable route to its acquisition.
Trump, for starters, is hard to pin down using traditional political terminology. Understand him, instead, as an entertainment phenomenon who has become the most powerful man on earth by annexing politics to the world of showbusiness. He became President as a reality TV star, rather than as a businessman, surfing a wave of furious social media that he continues to ride as the Tweeter-in-Chief.
As a showman, what bugs him most is ratings and reviews: which is why he was so angered by reports that his own inauguration had been more sparsely attended than Barack Obama’s in 2009; and why he cannot bear the parodies of his disastrous administration on Saturday Night Live or Alec Baldwin’s impersonation. Sad.
In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has been savaged by his opponents as a hardened leftwinger, set upon dismantling the nation’s defences and ruining its economy. Yet, to a great many of his supporters, he is something quite different: a political shaman, who, as Malcolm says of Edward the Confessor in Macbeth, comforts the afflicted with a ‘healing benediction’. For those who believe in this empathetic power – rewarded with 40 per cent of the vote in the 2017 election and the chanting of his name at Glastonbury a fortnight later – allegations that Corbyn is antisemitic, gives comfort to terrorists, indulges Putin and cares more about Venezuela than he does Britain, are not only malicious. They are completely irrelevant. He is hailed as a cultural therapist, not a veteran ideologue.
Naturally, the relationship between culture and politics has always been close. How could it be otherwise? But that nexus has never been tighter than it is today.
When Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it was a literary sensation. But Hulu’s extraordinary television reimagination of the novel – now preparing for its third season, with Atwood’s involvement and blessing – has introduced a huge new audience to the dystopian world she created, and given that world a chillingly contemporary resonance. What was once a cautionary feminist tale now feels more like a deafening alarm being sounded.
Though the series was commissioned before Harvey Weinstein’s disgrace and Trump’s election, its nerve-jangling narrative has acted as an uncomfortably resonant commentary upon the pathologies of our own time.
‘Gilead is within you,’ says Aunt Lydia of the patriarchal republic in which she so fervently believes: it is a state of mind, as much as a theocratic state. This rings unnervingly true, and compels a no less unnerving question: who is buying all those t-shirts bearing Gilead’s official greeting, ‘Under His Eye’, that you can now get online? Because I’m guessing it isn’t women.
In similar spirit: if asked for a snapshot of urban deprivation and its consequences in modern Britain, I would recommend not a series of graphs or the website of the Office for National Statistics – technically useful as those sources might be – but Andrea Arnold’s compelling movie, Fish Tank (2009).
This exploration of a single dysfunctional family living in Dagenham – and particularly 15-year-old, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who aspires to be a dancer – was apparently too much for Ed Miliband when he was Labour leader (well-meaning as he was, he just couldn’t keep watching). Arnold’s relentless, unsentimental depiction of life lived day to day by normal, flawed people, given little reason to expect anything to improve, is a roar of reproach to politicians who hold forth glibly about ‘aspiration’ and ‘opportunity’.
The dashing of Mia’s performing dreams in a sleazy audition and the final scene in which she dances with her mother, Joanne, to the Nas track, ‘Life’s a Bitch’, before leaving home, are as good as anything I have watched in British cinema in the past decade. The truth hurts.