There’s been quite a lot of pearl-clutching this week at the idea that artists—artists!—might have to retrain and do something else if the economic damage caused by response to the Covid-19 epidemic continues to bite. (For the record, it’s worth noting that Rishi Sunak didn’t actually say musicians and other artists specifically would have to retrain.) As much as everything that is happening right now with work is terrible, I couldn’t help but think of an article I read earlier this summer about the famous Russian ballet pedagogue Vera Kostrovitskaya (1906-1979) who survived the blokada—the siege of Leningrad—that puts the current problems of performing artists into some perspective.
The misery of that period of recent history is difficult to imagine. It was only when I read the memoirs of a friend who recalled her teachers at the Vaganova Academy reminiscing together about the awful time of the blokada that I realized how completely different were the lives and stories of that generation of teachers, compared to contemporaries in the UK.
That Kostrovitskaya survived the hunger and freezing temperatures at all is a miracle, and the psychological conditions under which she continued to work with what remained of the school make uncomfortable reading. In an article about diaries of the siege, Vladimir Piankevich reports the following meeting between Kostrovitskaya and the academy’s director, Lidiya Tager, in March 1942:
“[she] called me into her office and tried to persuade me to move into the school, but alone, without mama. Of course I refused.” Tager argued that “if a person has a ‘dependent,’ then the dependent is obligated to die, and if the dependent hasn’t died because you share your rations with them, then it’s not only foolish but also an unnecessary luxury.” That Kostrovitskaia’s mother had not yet died was, in Tager’s view, “tactless, and inappropriately sentimental in the context of war. Tager pointed to “B., a girl of eighteen and a ballet dancer at the Kirov Theater, who left her dependent mother in an empty apartment for five days, not once bringing her something to eat (her mother died on the fifth day).” Tager argued that “B. did the right thing, because you must think of your own life first.”
Tager does not seem to have been very people-friendly, to say the least. Her husband was the head of provisions for the Leningrad front, which might have explained why she looked remarkably rosy cheeked, healthy and well-dressed , while those around her—including Kostrovitskaya—were emaciated, getting scurvy, and desperate for food and clothes. Tager wasn’t fond of pasta, so she would give that to her beloved cat, together with other leftover morsels. When Kostrovitskaya was on night-watch duty, she would sneak up to the cat’s bowl, eat everything in it and then lick it clean. In the morning, Tager would laud the cat’s exemplary appetite, unaware that it was one of her teachers who had eaten the food. In less than a year the cat had itself been caught and eaten.
Back to the plastering
Anyway, that’s all a very long preamble to the main point which is that Kostrovitskaya trained as a plasterer (she had Level 4 Plastering, which I’m afraid I can’t translate into modern NVQ levels, but she kept the certificate), and worked for several months helping to rebuild Leningrad [St Petersburg] after it’s destruction in WW2. In her wartime diaries she barely mentions the awards and medals that she won, but writes a lot about the plastering, of which she is justly very proud. Her feet swollen from scurvy, she had to wear “shoes” made out of plywood planks salvaged from packing cases, strapped to her legs with rope. Tager, she notes with what sounds like not a little irony, would occasionally drop by, dressed to the nines, healthy and beautiful, to check that Kostrovitskaya and her colleagues were working properly .
And away again
Reading Jones’s account of Tager and Kostrovitskaya in Leningrad, I can’t help wondering if the most dystopian future one might imagine for the arts is not disintegration, but one where government funded companies are required, as a condition of funding, to perform government approved repertoire and to promote government agendas. If the present government’s present Brexit strategy “risks dictatorship” according to a former president of the supreme court, it surely isn’t that far-fetched to imagine, say, Mark Francois heading a committee to oversee the production of an Excelsior style ballet for the Festival of Brexit 2021, with everyone bound by contract not to speak against it on social media, or (as has already happened to a colleague of mine in other circumstances) required to post positively about it a given number of times leading up to the first night. Imagine: “Thrilled and humbled to be dancing Vera Lynn in Britannia. Looking forward to partying with Gove & Fox afterwards!”
Life is coming at us fast these days. I’d hardly let the ink dry on this post, when the image of “Fatima,” the ballerina retraining in “cyber” before she’d even started her career (Cyberfirst is a programme for 11-17 year-olds) hit our screens. I immediately clutched my own pearls at the utter awfulness of the campaign on every level. I wondered if I’d taken the dystopian future bit too far, but only five days later (15th October) the Independent reported that arts groups bail-outs come with a condition of thanking the government in their publicity. On the same day, Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford wrote in the Guardian about how secretary of state for Culture, Oliver Dowden had written to “arms length” funded bodies telling them that they should “not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics” (so much for arms-length). Hicks argues that to accuse museums of politics or activism when they are going about their normal business of keeping displays “in step with wider social change” amounts to manufacturing fake culture wars, as well as misunderstanding what curators and museums do. Ironically, of course, Dowden’s letter is about as heavy-handedly political and activist as you can get, and the tone and implications are frightening. As Hicks says:
Our collective concern must be with politicians who seek, at whim, by ministerial pronouncement, through what Umberto Eco once called “the cult of tradition”, to freeze the progress of history, to strong-arm, to smother creativity, to demonise those who want to tell new stories about our shared past.