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LONDON — Last weekend I travelled to the coast for a friend’s party on a tiny spit of land in the picturesque Blackwater Estuary in Essex. On the journey out of London, I was shocked to see a number of large red signs declaring “Vote Leave.” I’d only been back in the UK a week after travelling for three months and was still catching up with the full scale of the Brexit debate, absorbed in my liberal pocket of London where everybody seemed adamant to remain a part of the European Union. But these days London feels like a separate country, and my circle is that of artists, writers, designers — a bubble that by no means represents the rest of this country. Now, as the referendum looms, I find myself seeing Brexit as a sad reality, just as Trump recently went from farce to threat across the pond.
Britain goes to the polls tomorrow to decide whether to leave or remain in the European Union. The outcome is uncertain, but what is for sure is that on Friday morning Britain will be a very different place, its longstanding reputation as a land of social inclusion and opportunity noticeably shaken. Much of the Brexit debate has focused on questions of economy, immigration, and security, which will be most impacted by the decision. But little has been said of the arts — one of the most multicultural industries in Britain today.
It’s hard to say what policies will come into place if we exit from the EU, but there is no doubt that our economy will be severely hit, resulting in a knock-on effect for the grants, universities, and museums that currently help fund and inspire artists all over the country. As a lifelong resident of London, I’ve met scores of artists who have come here from all over Europe, benefitting from the freedom of movement allowed by our membership in the Union. Though neither side of the debate has said that EU migrants will be forced to leave the UK following Britain’s potential exit, the country would still become an unstable and unwelcoming place for European citizens.
Painter and printmaker Alberta Bamonte moved here from Italy over 30 years ago and is considering returning home if Britain leaves the EU. “Probably the worst effect of Brexit will be my having to move back to Italy in disgust,” she told me. “There are opportunities here in London, such as open shows, art fairs, pop-up galleries, etc., which I wouldn’t count on finding over there.”
Many figures on the Leave side of the debate are pushing for an Australian-style points system to ensure that immigration would be a privilege only for those who could prove themselves to be a tangible boon to our economy or society, meaning that artists — whose work is by its very nature unquantifiable — would struggle to cross our borders, resulting in a severe loss to our contemporary art scene.
The vote also comes at a time when many artists are being forced out of London due to extortionary rent increases for homes and studios. Sculptor Pablo de Laborde Lascaris, who has been living in this country for eight years, thinks Brexit would only make matters worse: “It will be the last dramatic shift of artists out of London and England,” he told me. “The property crisis has led creatives out of London, and Brexit will do the same for England.” If Britain leaves the EU, Pablo and many others will find themselves in a difficult position. “I’m planning on going to Mexico for a year or two this August if the referendum votes out,” he said, “[and] I will be unable to return without a visa. … How does a working visa even work for self-employed artists? It’s already hard enough renting property without a steady income.”
Of equal significance to immigration policies and economic disturbances is the worrying transformation of Britain into a country that looks inward instead of outward. Though we have always been an island, the UK has been a meeting place for some of the arts’ leading creative minds for centuries. Once seen as being at the forefront of the avant-garde art scene, we now risk being dismissed as an insular society, refusing to progress.
Last summer my friends and I took part in a “Refugees Welcome Here” march across London, joining thousands of others in showing our solidarity for those dispossessed by war who are fighting to get into Europe. On the final stretch down to Parliament Square, I saw a man with a placard bearing John Donne’s famous lines: “No man is an island, / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent, / A part of the main.” Though the referendum was a long way off, that sentiment struck a chord as we tried to influence our government to help those in need. Today refugees are being held back by xenophobic anti-immigration campaigns that claim to have Britain’s best interests at heart but instead end up cultivating and amplifying fear and prejudice.
The EU was formed in the wake of the Second World War with the aim of bringing countries together to create better trade and lasting peace. Now this alliance seems to matter very little to our country, and the arts will surely suffer, along with a number of other issues important to many people working in this sector, such as climate change and employment rights.
Many artists have spoken out against the Brexit campaign — most notably, Wolfgang Tillmans has produced a beautiful series of posters — and the creative industries have made their presence known across social media with pithy slogans and clever visual puns that are highly effective but sadly end up preaching to the converted. It is the rest of Britain we must be afraid of, those who do not question the overblown headlines of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and the xenophobic invectives of right-wing parties, people who believe the idea constantly forced down our throats by the Leave campaign that Brexit is about “taking back control” — whatever that means. These ideas invoke a Britain that never was, with a rose-tinted view that belies our mixed history of colonialism and progression.
Whether artist or everyman, I believe we are stronger together.