After Brexit: Art and free movement

(A guest post by Manick Govinda, leader of the Manifesto Club Visiting Artists Campaign).

It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing [one’s] own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances…there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others. (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848)

No individual and no nation is an island and this is especially so in the 21st Century where, as much as nations may try to protect themselves from outside cultural influence and the global movement of people, we are interconnected. An isolated nation cannot survive for long: culture and society is, and should always be, on the move.

From the point of view of the arts, the one compelling ideal that the EU seemed to pride itself in is freedom of movement across Europe. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini tweeted on 30 January 2017 that ‘we celebrate when walls are brought down and bridges are built’.

Yet 5,000 people died trying to reach the EU in 2016. The EU is a cultural fortress. While EU artists and performers have freedom of movement across member states, let us not forget that non-EU artists are second-class citizens within this system. As a steering group member of the Manifesto Club, I was a lead campaigner against the Home Office’s visa restrictions on non-EU artists and we demanded that the government review and relax some of the most draconian restrictions that had been imposed on non-EU artists and performers.

Artistic freedom must also mean freedom of movement for artists, internationally, not simply among EU/EEA states. The spirit of creative freedom across nation states existed well before the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which kick-started the gradual erosion of internal European borders, yet artists have always found paths to freedom, from fleeing the fascist Axis powers of World War II, Franco’s Spain and communist USSR to nations that symbolised freedom and individualism, such as the USA and Great Britain.

The German Dadaist John Heartfield, whose groundbreaking photomontages became overtly political attacks against Hitler and Nazism, fled to England in 1938, as did the German expressionist painter and writer Oskar Kokoschka. It is a disgraceful blight in British history that both were temporarily interned as foreign aliens on the Isle of Man. However, the influx of German émigrés artists, writers, theorists, musicians, dancers, intellectuals, architects and entrepreneurs during the 1930s ignited a new enlightenment and modernism in the UK: Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Kurt Schwitters, Rudolph Laban, Kurt Jooss and many others made the UK either temporarily or permanently their home. The influence of these individuals, and many more, transformed British culture.

Victor Hugo lived in exile for 19 years, mainly on the English Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey. American writers Henry James and TS Eliot both claimed Britain as their home, as well as the Polish born Joseph Conrad. Britain also saw an influx of people from the commonwealth nations, and thus many significant writers came to live in the UK: VS Naipaul, CLR James, Sam Selvon to name a few.

Continental Europe drew the best of American modernism in literature and music, such as Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton; and for American jazz musicians, Europe has long been a pull, where clubs thrived and Black musicians felt welcomed.

All of these profound movements, influences, cultural absorptions and transformations happened before the EU’s control of migration and Britain benefitted hugely. The relationship may not have been entirely harmonious (human relationships rarely are) but this sense of openness changed the cultural landscape.

We do not need to be a member of the European Union for cultural exchange and collaboration to flourish. Britain has a proud and long history of welcoming visitors and immigrants from Europe and other continents who applied for naturalisation and became British citizens.

Let’s fast forward from 1992 to the present: the exclusivity of freedom of movement for European citizens in Europe has obscured the huge problems that the immigration bureaucracy has enforced upon non-EU artists and intellectuals. The British state is not without blame. New Labour’s leaden and unfathomable points-based system, which was introduced in November 2008, created a technocratic system of immigration, which required migrants to hold a license granted by a UK sponsor. The migrant had to score a certain number of points, be regulated and monitored by his/her sponsor, which involved biometric information held by both sponsor and the state, and a large degree of surveillance. Points were given based on income levels, savings, country of origin (migrants from poor or ‘difficult’ countries would score low) and marital status. Short-term visiting artists and academics of non-European Union nationality were submitted to a nightmare of red-tape and costly procedures. Many artists and academics were deported at point of entry at UK airports, refused visas which led to cancelled or postponed performances, talks, creative residencies and collaborations with UK artists, as documented in the Manifesto Club’s visiting artists campaign from 2009-2012.

A consequence of the vote to leave the EU has been anxiety and distress for many European artists and others living and working in the UK. We need to exert pressure on the UK prime minister, Theresa May, urging her to guarantee that all nationals of EU countries resident in the UK must have the right to remain after Brexit, and it needs to be unilateral. Human beings are not for trading. At the same time British and European artists should show solidarity with non-EU artists and intellectuals and ditch the European exceptionalism. A benevolent and healthy democratic nation must be open and welcoming to artists who seek to make the UK their home, whether they are temporary visitors, guests, or wish to become citizens.

The American author Azar Nafisi, who was born and grew up in Iran, calls for a ‘Republic of Imagination’, ‘a land with no borders and few restrictions…a world that runs parallel to the real one, whose occupants need no passport or documentation. The only requirement for entry are an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane’. Our role as artists and arts professionals should be to make that realm of the imagination a reality.

Manick Govinda is involved in co-planning a series of debates in London, Democracy and the Arts in Europe: Artists in a Global World. The first debate is at the Rich Mix on Tuesday 28 March, 7pm. Tickets available at Rich Mix