When Slacktivism Isn’t Enough – A few thoughts on the destruction of Newport’s chartist mural

4 Oct

Chartist Mural

So Newport Council have only gone and done it. They’ve taken a 35-year-old mural by artist Kenneth Budd, commemorating the city’s 1839 Chartist uprising, and driven a bloody great big JCB right through it. Its 200,000 pieces of coloured tile (the mural took the form of a vast mosaic along an underpass) are now a far less artistic pile of rubble.

To say this move went down like a turd at a pool party would be an understatement. There have been protests and petitions, and both Twitter and Facebook were aflame with outrage – certainly in this neck of the woods.

I must confess, though dimly aware that this was in the pipeline I hadn’t really followed the story until yesterday. I was disappointed Newport Council were planning to do this, but hadn’t involved myself. When the first pictures appeared, yesterday afternoon, of a gaping hole in the middle of the mural, I asked if, perhaps, they’d considered taking it down and putting it up again somewhere else, such as the open-air Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans. This is what happened when the Vulcan Hotel, one of the most perfectly preserved old pubs in Cardiff, was bulldozed to allow for an additional 3 or 4 parking spaces in one of the city centre’s many car parks.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

Vulcan Hotel circled in red. As you can see from the chock full car park surrounding it, they really needed those 3 or 4 spaces.

I was told that when this idea was floated, Newport Council came up with a figure of £600,000. That’s how much it would cost, they said, to take Budd’s mural apart as carefully as they could, because it was fixed to a load-bearing wall. As yesterday’s images testify, this was clearly bullshit. The mural was fixed to a surface 6 or 7 inches from the load-bearing wall. Newport Council must have plucked that six-figure sum from thin air, or fed false information to whoever quoted them that figure.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Pictured: Why Newport Council are full of shit.

Even allowing for the council’s philistinism, however, a nagging thought persists. Though I don’t doubt that the organisers behind the Facebook page Save Our Chartist Mural put a lot of time and effort into their campaign, was there ever a point when anyone suggested raising the money to save the mural from destruction?

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I'll assume the answer is "No".

Petition, Twitter page, but no crowd funding page, so I’ll assume the answer is “No”.

Now, OK, with a figure like £600,000 being bandied about by the council I wouldn’t imagine the 2,546 people who “liked” the page could have raised that kind of money themselves – it would have meant an average donation of £236 each. Even if you were to canvass every person living in Newport and get them to cough up the cash that would still mean a sum of over £4 a head. But that doesn’t mean it would have been impossible.

Of all the political parties, you might expect Labour to show at least some interest in the mural, with it symbolising an important event in the history of social activism and democracy in Britain. The party has 216 peers in the House of Lords, and I can guarantee many of them aren’t short of a “bob or two”. Did anyone write to any of them, asking not for their support but their cash? If not, why not?

This isn’t an exercise in finger-pointing, because really, when it comes to bitching about Newport Council demolishing this mural but doing nothing whatsoever to stop them, I’m as guilty – if not more so – than anyone else, and my great idea – to brow-beat wealthy lefties into opening their wallets – only occurred to me once the mural was destroyed. But the impotent dismay with which people have met this latest depressing move by a local council speaks volumes about how ineffectual so-called slacktivism is.

"I really wish I'd stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead."

“I really wish I’d stayed at home and written an angry blog post for HuffPo instead.”

The fact that this was a mural celebrating the Chartist uprising – during which people actually died for their beliefs – only highlights this even further. In slacktivism world the Chartists would have signed a petition and expected their overwhelming sense of indignation to exert some mystical, unseen force on the powers that be. In 2013, we sign a petition and like a Facebook page and square up to a body as mindless, blinkered and uncaring as a local council armed only with sentiment and good intentions. We ask that the things that mean something to us are saved, preserved and protected in perpetuity, without ever suggesting how this might be achieved.

Whether or not you agree with this dismal and depressing “Age of Austerity”, it’s our present reality. Petitions are all well and good, but they carry far less weight than cold, hard cash. As vulgar and ugly as many left-leaning folk may find the idea of private wealth, it makes a far more effective weapon when you’re dealing with penny-pinching, commercially minded councils than a Facebook page with over 2,000 “likes”.

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