Remember David Bowie but Mark Perryman argues with a purpose
A cultural icon passes away and the routine of acres of newsprint, pullout supplements and memorial keepsakes follow in a mediated moment. What was it that Marx once said? 'All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. The commodification of grief and loss creates a spectacle that amounts to wrenching the artist's work out of any meaningful context with their purpose denied the meaning that they intended. When David Cameron feels the need to share tales of surreptitiously listening to Bowie under the bedclothes of his Eton dormitory, the end of history surely beckons.
Bowie sang that we could all be heroes, 'we can be us' just for one day. He was celebrating a fundamental challenge to models of masculinity, gender and sexuality. The ever-changing Bowie was the most public of alternatives to rock music's traditionally 1970's macho culture, a popular internationalist equally at home in London, Berlin and New York, appreciative and understanding of each of these cities' cultures and histories. He made us feel part of his world, not apart from it. Amateurishly daubing our own lightning flash across our faces, dyeing our hair and cutting it into a soulboy, or soulgirl, wedgecut, scouring the second-hand clothes shops to keep up with Bowie's ransacking of fashion's histories for the latest change in how he looked and dressed.
Yes he had his off-moments. None more so when like too many artists he flirted with nazi-chic. It was a mistake that led directly to one of the most significant fusions of popular culture and protest in modern times , Rock against Racism. Bowie found himself on the wrong side of the argument but it was never where he belonged and he soon enough realised that.
Writer and cultural critic Suzanne Moore was one of the few mainstream commentators to sum up what Bowie at his best meant : " That door. He unlocked it. For me, for you. For us. He gave us everything. He gave us ideas, ideas above our station. All the ideas and a specific one. Of life. The stellar idea that we can create ourselves whoever we are. He let us be more than we ever knew possible. There is nothing greater."
There is a danger of course that this process of self-discovery results simply in an individualistic narcissism for adolescents, this is what pop culture back in Bowie's peak years was founded on after all. The pin up poster on the bedroom wall, the fandom scrawled on the cover of a school exercise book, the latest release on the hi-fi . But to dismiss this and the resultant, for some, politics of identity as disconnected from social movements of change would be a profound misunderstanding. It was via these movements of feminism, gay liberation, black pride in the late twentieth century that politics was transformed to the evident discomfort of some pre-existing models of political change. Bowie represented a politics of identity that finds individual expression via committing personal acts of rebellion. But if racism, sexism and homophobia are to be truly challenged then it it's we who have to be heroes, not me. Bowie was part and parcel with the social movements that sparked these challenges in the course of his long, but ended too short, career changes for the better. Not just providing the soundtrack but becoming a symbol of what those changes might look like too.
Perhaps most significant of all to his identity David Bowie didn't come from a privileged background. All art is socially constructed. When musicians and actors are increasingly drawn from the ranks of those who have benefited from the best private musical and drama education money can buy it is only right the question should be asked, why? Bowie's 1960s and 1970s state education afforded a sometimes difficult child with opportunities to learn and develop via painting, design and dance that are being increasingly denied working-class teenagers today, particular in post-16 Further Education. It is therefore fitting to remember Bowie with the purpose to change that. Bowie memorial shirts have been produced by Philosophy Football to raise funds for Arts Emergency which supports FE students who have the will and the ambition to study the arts but neither the finances nor the 'right connections' to do so. Via a very practical programme of advice and mentoring Arts Emergency provides key support at a crucial time in young people's lives. They are being denied in the 21st century the kind of educational opportunities to explore themselves artistically Bowie enjoyed more than 50 years ago. And the consequences of that denial? Arts Emergency patron Stewart Lee explains "Arts Emergency are highlighting the reversal of decades' of social access to the arts, and by association the possible disappearance of whole strands of discourse and the loss of educational enfranchisement to future generations. Save the thinker!"
Bowie as an artist challenged the social construction of art. In celebrating the life's work of Bowie we cannot, and should not, forget the conditions - uneven as they were - that allowed the ideas he sang and symbolised to develop and sharpen, and the norms he tested to destruction. CH-CH-CH-Changes was what Bowie was about more than anything else, for him, for us, for ever.
Note:David Bowie fundraising T-shirts for Arts Emergency are available fromPhilosophy Football