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The Art of Change with Stephen Fry - Episode 4

Nothing Concrete text
27 May 2020
20 min listen

In our final episode with Stephen Fry, exploring music, art and mental health, Stephen explores his own identity, the background to his attempts to change society, and answers the question ‘can art really be used to change the world?’

There seem to be times when balls of energetic thinking and rethinking and breaking down and then synthesising new forces to make new statements and new thoughts about us

The Art of Change is a series where we meet artists and performers who are passionate about changing the world, presented by journalist Chris Gunness.

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CG: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican’s podcast. I’m Chris Gunness, and this is The Art of Change, a series featuring artists who are passionate about changing the world. Today the last in a four-part series featuring Stephen Fry, writer, actor, comedian and campaigner. Last time Stephen talked about his public advocacy, taking on homophobes in Russia, Africa and Brazil, as well as flying the flag for men being honest about prostate cancer. Next I asked about his own identity and the background to his attempts to change society.

SF: I’m Jewish. My mother’s still alive and she knew very well some of her family who didn’t make it out of Europe. She comes from a family that’s half in Austria and half in Hungary – what was Hungary but is now in fact Slovakia. And fortunately my grandparents, her parents, came over to England but their brothers and sisters and their cousins, so many who didn’t make it to Israel or the United States or to London, to Britain, perished in the deathcamps. And the foundation of Israel was of fundamental importance to that part of my family, and I find I have to be a bit careful in not suggesting that I am encouraging those who seem to question the very validity of Israel as a state. And there is a problem with this ability to criticise Israel’s monstrous policy within the country of establishing settlements that are just so deeply wrong and against what the world has tried to express as the most likely shape for a possible two-state solution with the Palestinian people, who have been treated as worst than second-class citizens in so many cases – there is a division in trying to criticise that Israel and lending your voice to groups of people who also seem to use some of the anti-Semitic language of globalisation and ‘those bankers’. And you know, Jews have always been guilty both of creating capitalism with their banks and their Rothschilds and George Soros’s and all the others that people use, and for creating communism and socialism in the case of Marx and Trotsky and everything else. So you know, we really are guilty. We broke up the certainty of the world with Freud and Einstein, and you know, everything Jews do is basically can be mocked and excoriated. And there’s always been this kind of ontological problem with ‘what is a Jew?’ and David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel and the first leader of the country, when asked ‘are you a religion or are you a race? What are you, I mean there’s Judaism and is that what makes a Jew…?’ and he gave a typically Jewish and rather rabbinical answer: ‘We are neither a race, nor a religion. We are a people.’ Go figure! But that’s kind of true, because you know an atheist like me would as much be pushed into the death camps by the Nazis as a rabbi would, they didn’t care whether one… So in that sense we’re a race. If the Jewish heritage of scholarship and art and science and thinking and the primacy of the mind can’t be brought to bear on solving the problem of Israel it would be a terrible thing, and so it is important for us Jews I think to have a – who are not Israelis who are voting in Israel about Israel, but those who are part of the diaspora around the world – have a say in it. But yes, my mother’s still alive and I don’t want to make her think that I’m siding with people who are trying to destroy Israel and of course nor would I suggest that all those critics of Israel are anti-Semitic and are determined to push Israel out. But you know, it’s not helped by the fact two deeply corrupt leaders of the most important countries when it comes to the solution so clearly regard Palestine as children who may or may not be given a few crumbs off the table.

CG: Can I just ask to whom you were referring?

SF: Bibi Netanyahu, and Mr Trump.

CG: Ok. I asked you a question how strategic are you in this. When you approached the gay issue, when you approach the issue of bipolarity, it seemed to be such a natural form of advocacy. You simply talked about yourself and that instantly destigmatised. But were you strategic in the way you try to destigmatise and try to make others understand?

SF: I’m always strategic in a sense, or at least tactical. The strategy is to hope that everybody understands, but the tactics, the means of getting there… I do – I mean I’m not in advertising or PR, but I sometimes find myself thinking like someone in advertising or PR – and I do care about how a plea, a claim, a narrative will fall on the ears of those for whom this story is new. And as I say, bullying, hectoring, preaching, sermonising is something I try not to do. It’s very easy accidentally to sound like that. We all know how ‘luvvies’ can sound entitled and pleased with themselves and up themselves and all the rest of it. So I try to think how an enemy of the cause or someone cynical or sceptical would respond, and try to… And of course a lot of people hear that and say ‘oh that Stephen, he’s always trying to please everybody’ and I know that that is a deep fault in me. But I do try and be practical, I want to reach as many ears as possible, and in the jargon ‘give people permission’ to support whatever cause it is. And the easy way to give people permission is not to make them feel guilty – I do think that’s always a mistake in charitable or any kind of cause advocacy is trying to wake up guilt in people. I think guilt usually leads to aggression and closing down and crossness. You know, you really have to try as I say to allow people to realise that they’re in a position to help. And it may not be by giving huge sums of money, it might be a small amount of time, and in these days it could just be by retweeting or helping in some other way, and I think that is definitely the answer.

CG: The name of this podcast is The Art of Change, and I want to ask you about that. You have used comedy to change things very impressively. Do you think that art can also be used to change things?

SF: It’s an interesting question. We mentioned earlier Shelley describing poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and this idea that has existed that the highest doctrine of art as something that changes has always appealed as a question. I’m sure it’s given in university exam questions, you know: ‘which changes the world first: science, philosophy, art, politics, history or disease…’. You can approach the way our species has changed and grown, you can take a big issue like racism and you can say ‘Is it Larry [sic – Ralph] Ellison and The Invisible Man, novels like that about racism? Is it Maya Angelou? Is it early poets? Is it Harriet Beecher Stowe, the more white patriarchal kind of view of we mustn’t enslave these nice people that we’ve treated so badly? Is it a mixture of those things? Is it people on the stump in the hustings? Is it a philosopher, who suddenly allows you to think of humanity in a different way?’ It’s hard to say. You can look at particular moments, and Beethoven’s a perfect example straddling as he does these two periods of the end of as it were the Age of Reason and the opening of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. You can say ‘Yes, there’s no question that once energies like Beethoven were released in the world who spoke to ordinary people not just to princes, art began to be a force that changed.’ And if you look at the beginning of the 20th century, was it Einstein showing the extraordinary difference in the nature of reality to what we’d assumed, the fractured nature of anything we’d believed stable? Or was it Freud’s doing that to the human mind, showing that we weren’t even in charge of ourselves, we had another self underneath us like a god only our own, underneath us that was directing and commanding us? Or was it those early artists, the modernists, who suddenly like Picasso were painting images that were different. Or Stravinsky and Mahler writing music, and the end of Tristan, suddenly tonality and order and everything broke up. Did that come from a philosopher like Henri Bergson who then influenced Proust and Joyce and the modernists, or was it that the modernists influenced the politicians..? It’s so hard to say, there seem to be times when balls of energetic thinking and rethinking and breaking down (which is what analysis is) and then synthesising new forces to make new statements and new thoughts about us. And then after the war, the way young people and music and everything suddenly transformed the way everybody behaved and dressed and looked and talked to each other. These things happen and artists always, if it’s not the lead horse that’s pulling this extraordinary carriage along, it’s one of them. And it’s always involved at this moment.

CG: And for you, is there one art form – forget politics and philosophy, disease etc – is there one art from you think which is most potent an agent of social change than any other?

SF: That’s really interesting. Because I think in the past you could say it was poetry. Hard to believe, but I think it’s true. I think poetry really did have an extraordinary – well certainly in our culture, I mean obviously this can’t be true all over the world.

CG: How long ago was that incidentally?

SF: Well I think it was around the time between lyrical ballads and the end of the 18th century and then the rise of the Romantics through to Browning and characters like that, and then with the modernists as well, they I think really did change people’s minds about things. They did what Elvis and The Beatles did for others, they broke the mould of social norms and made people think in new ways and new patterns and they reinvented the way of thinking. And it’s top down, I mean it’s like Formula 1 – none of us is going to drive a Formula 1 car, but I can remember when things like APS braking were considered incredibly new. They came from Formula 1 and then they arrived in every single car, as you know. You didn’t even have to know what it is, it’s just a system which controls the way you brake and makes sure you don’t slide so much. And all these extraordinary expensive elitist things at the top filter down. And I’m not saying this is a way to stop being angry about the elitism of the world, but art is special and it does affect. Now I would wonder if it’s music, it’s certainly, hip-hop and so on inflames (in a good sense) the consciousness and the spirit of young people, and that’s the key. Because my day’s over you know. You and me are over in that we can say a few things but…

CG: Comedy?

SF: Comedy yes. I mean, somebody said (and this was about 20 years ago) that comedy had taken over as unacknowledged legislators of the world. I mean I would rather read a Stewart Lee or Frankie Boyle now in terms of politics and society than most cultural commentators to be honest. I mean I think they absolutely nail things in the way that Bill Hicks did earlier. And that’s new, and I genuinely believe that, if I want to hear something really absolutely on the money about Brexit or some other big issue at the moment, Boris or whatever it might be, I’d far rather read Frankie Boyle on the subject. He seems to me to penetrate the truths about it, and in his being funny he’s releasing a whole series of truths. ‘Cause you can’t really laugh at something that isn’t true. I mean you can laugh at surreality, but even surreality has the word reality in it, that’s the point!

CG: If your causes have chosen you, what do you think are going to be the next causes that you’re going to dedicate yourself to? You mention Boris – would it be politics? Would it be something else?

SF: Well I always say to wind up climate change denialists I say ‘well this is something I, like you, I just don’t give a fig about it. I don’t care at all, like you! Because in my case, it’s ‘cause I don’t have children, so I don’t care. Because if I had children obviously they’d be inheriting a world in which they would suffer in ways that I have never suffered and you’ve never suffered. You, of course, don’t give a shit! I don’t know why, but you don’t, and I’m like you!’ And they go ‘um… er… ah… no, come on…’ And I say ‘no truly, you obviously don’t give a shit, because if you’ve got children, you would give a shit.’ And obviously I do give a shit because I have got children, lots of them, nephews and now a great nephew for heaven’s sake. And you know, it’s hard to dodge that particular tsunami that is heading our way, perhaps literal and metaphoric probably. It is, all other issues seem to pale next to it, because how can you prepare for a world of greater social justice, greater ease of living if such a horror is coming?

CG: Stephen Fry, many thanks.

SF: It’s a real pleasure.

CG: Really it’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much Stephen.

SF: Thank you.

CG: That was Stephen Fry ending this episode of The Art of Change on Nothing Concrete, with me Chris Gunness. It brings to an end this four-part series with Stephen Fry. You can subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help get the word out. Until next time, from me Chris Gunness, goodbye.

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