Experimental art and experimental politics have traditionally been convivial bedfellows, though usually, in my opinion, with very little benefit to each other. George Bernard Shaw and his circle fervently supported Stalin against the mounting tide of evidence; the Mitfords supported Hitler, and numerous gifted Italian poets and artists were persuaded by Fascism. Similarly, in the late sixties and early seventies the avant garde art scene in London was overwhelmed with admiration for Chairman Mao.
As a young artist I was part of that scene, and though never a hardcore Maoist, I was impressed by some of his ideas: that intellectuals shouldn't be separated off from workers, for example, and that art should somehow serve working class society. I was sick of 'Art for Art's sake' and the insularity of the English art-world. I liked too the idea that professors should spend a month each year farming, or that designers should find out how it feels to work in a steel foundry. It sounded so benign from a distance. I felt, like many people felt at the time, that my society was by comparison stagnant, class-bound, stuck in history, and I admired Mao and the Chinese for their courage in reinventing themselves so dramatically.
Of course, the Americans were saying how dreadful it all was, but I thought "Well they would, wouldn't they?" In fact their criticism increased its credibility, for I believed America had gone fundamentally wrong, and her enemies must therefore be my friends. I assumed the US sensed the winds of change issuing from China, and was digging her heels in, resisting the future with all her might.
And then, bit by bit, I started to find out what had actually happened, what Maoism meant. I resisted for a while, but I had to admit it: I'd been willingly propagandised, just like Shaw and Mitford and d'Annunzio and countless others. I'd allowed my prejudices to dominate my reason. Those professors working in the countryside were being bludgeoned and humiliated. Those designers were put in the steel-foundries as 'class enemies' — for the workers to vent their frustrations upon. I started to realise what a monstrosity Maoism had been, and that it had failed in every sense.
Thus began for me a long process of re-evaluation. I had to accept that I was susceptible to propaganda, and that propaganda comes from all sides — not just the one I happen to dislike. I realised that I was not by any means a neutral observer, that I came with my own set of prejudices which could be easily tweaked.
I realised too that I had to learn to evaluate opinions separately from those who were giving them: the truth might sometimes come out of a mouth I disliked, but that didn't automatically mean it wasn't the truth.
Maoism, or my disappointment with it, also changed my feelings about how politics should be done. I went from revolutionary to evolutionary. I no longer wanted to see radical change dictated from the top — even if that top claimed to be the bottom, the 'voice of the people'. I lost faith in the idea that there were quick solutions, that everyone would simultaneously see the light and things would suddenly flip over into a wonderful new reality. I started to believe it was always going to be slow, messy, compromised, unglamorous, bureaucratic, endlessly negotiated — or else extremely dangerous, chaotic and capricious. In fact I've lost faith in the idea of ideological politics altogether: I want instead to see politics as the articulation and management of a changing society in a changing world, trying to do a half-decent job for as many people as possible, trying to set things up a little better for the future.
Perhaps this is why I've increasingly come to regard the determinedly non-ideological, ecumenical EU as the signal political experiment of our time…