Sophie Johnson writes:

Benedict Cumberbatch has been taking a bow at the end of his performance as Hamlet at the Barbican and then making an impassioned plea for donations to Save the Children in order to help child refugees. Should creative people take a stand over what they believe in, or are arts and politics best kept separate?

When I saw Hamlet several weeks ago I thought it was admirable that Cumberbatch was not simply standing there at the end of the performance soaking up the adulation, but taking the opportunity to use his influence to help innocent children caught up in the refugee crisis.

As we left the theatre, we gathered up all our coins and happily put them into the Save the Children buckets being held out to us. A few days ago, however, I saw splashed across the cover of the Daily Mail that more recently Cumberbatch had been swearing during his impassioned plea to help these children, proclaiming ‘F*ck the politicians!’

Now, call me overly simplistic, but once you’re aware that children are dying and you don’t see rapid and effective action being taken to prevent it, is it not natural to become frustrated and angry? Is such an outburst not completely understandable?

In yesterday’s Times, Libby Purves joined the Daily Mail’s condemnation of Cumberbatch’s swearing, with the headline ‘Keep politics off the stage, Mr Cumberbatch’. She says that he has ‘become an activist’ and ‘gone too far’ and that she hopes that one of his people will have a quiet word with him.

Purves goes on to to say, rather melodramatically, that ‘there is a danger in letting a performer’s skill, charisma and access to great words make him or her seem a leader.’ What about Martin Luther King, I wanted to ask her: are those qualities not the very essence of what made him such a great and effective leader and hugely convincing orator?

She also adds, ‘trusting grandee “creatives” to be prudent or thoughtful in administration is unwise.’ It strikes me as something of a sweeping generalization.

Interestingly, the newspaper attention that Cumberbatch is receiving coincides with me reading Vivienne Westwood’s (auto)biography (written in collaboration with Ian Kelly). What strikes me is how it decribes students and artists in the late sixties ‘rocking governments and fanning the flames of change.’ As we all know, combining creativity with campaigning for political change is certainly nothing new.

As Johnny Marr said in an interview earlier this year, he sees it as a duty to be political; that creatives have a responsibility to commentate on society: “I’m not by nature someone who will go on the attack but it’s always been the job of artists and creative people to blow the whistle and I’m proud of that. Artists have always been political, whether it’s the Cubists or Dadaists or the Situationists or any other ‘ists’, I guess in my case it’s ‘The Indie-ist.’”

Campaigning for what you believe in and bringing like-minded people together to voice their opinions has been made incredibly easy in today’s world by social media. Awareness can be raised in seconds, petitions signed and submitted, and greater and swifter pressure than ever before can be placed on politicians to listen to the feelings of the public and act accordingly.

Creative people can continue to help bring about positive change in the world as they always have done, be it through revered paintings like Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica or Cumberbatch’s heartfelt post-Shakespeare speeches to beg the audience to help save the lives of innocents.

Johnny Marr interview by Ed Nash available at: http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/features/interviews/johnny-marr-interview-2015

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