It all began with word play; cult, culture – they must have the same root I thought and yet the word cult has an interpretation which is light years away from culture. Odd.
So, let’s put them together, I thought; a cult of culture… hmm, not bad, but what could the cult be about? Well, culture, obviously, maybe a brand new culture that made things up as it went along, a culture out of control…
And so the idea was born. The more I thought about it, the more ideas sparked off as ‘culture’ became the grinding stone onto which I forced the blade of ‘cult’. It had massive irony and limitless comic potential, there might even be some high profile publicity from a cleverly worded press release somewhere.
So I wrote one. I sent it to a few friends of mine to gauge their reaction. They all thought it highly amusing and a fascinating concept. Eventually, for a joke, I emailed it to the first newspaper I thought of, one of the biggest in the land; The Sun. Within two minutes of it being sent my telephone rang and a Sun journalist was on the line asking me a series of questions, some of which centred around the practices of the cult. This took me completely by surprise and I answered his questions in a deadpan, guarded manner. To my mind, the tone of the conversation was in the desired, ironic spirit. He asked me if I had ever had a cult before. No, I answered, this was my first one. He then asked me how many members were in this cult. I answered two (which was true, in the sense that they had joined in the fun and given themselves ridiculous titles). He lost interest at this stage and asked me to contact him again when the cult had become bigger.
“How many members would it need to be before it was ‘bigger’?”, I asked.
“Oh, half a dozen.” he answered, then put the phone down.
Excitement got the better of me as I marvelled at the ease with which I had got one of the country’s biggest newspapers interested. I only needed four more members and nation-wide exposure for the cult was to be had. Thus started the recruitment drive.
I sent an email to my freethinking friends explaining the situation with the caveat that there could be a slight possibility that The Sun may want to name or photograph them. This was possibly their fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol had promised them and I eagerly awaited the flood of membership applications to come in, along with their creatively absurd, self appointed titles.
Silence. Puzzled, I telephoned one or two to ask why they hadn’t responded. It turned out that they were nervous about the possible publicity and ‘fallout’ from the cult label, especially with the tabloid Sun newspaper reporting it. I should explain that the people I spoke to are artists and musicians.
I was surprised and amazed. The concept was a joke, surely anyone could see that? Apparently not, irony is not a strong point with The Sun (I have to confess I never read it and I am only aware of its reputation from the law suits filed against it by wealthy individuals). How they would report my story would probably be in keeping with their reputation. The Sun was a tiger and I had invited my friends to join me in riding it.
I searched for allies further afield and contacted people who I thought would be sympathetic to the core message of resisting corporate homogeneity. Silence. I was beginning to feel like a pariah at this stage. Even ‘hard left’ freethinkers balked at the idea of ‘coming out’ about joining a spoof cult. Artists told me they were afraid it might hurt their career. Artists. What is the job of an artist? No, seriously, what is the purpose of art?
This was turning into something I had not expected and raised some profound questions about mind control. It was almost as if my joke about a spoof cult being out of the control of the authorities had inadvertently exposed a far bigger, more insidious and powerful cult; the cult of conformity. Even artists were ‘afraid’ to appear provocative, controversial, creative. What does that say about the society we live in? We hear stories of tyrannical regimes that overtly use fear tactics to keep their population under control. How much cleverer is it then to use covert fear so that the population are not even aware that they are being controlled? Isn’t this one of the definitions of a cult?
Maybe I’m reading too much into this but I find it strange that everyone liked the idea of the cult of culture and yet very few people were willing to get involved with it (incidentally, my thanks go to Dave Pollard, an established ’serious’ author in Canada who was one of the three other people who did respond to my invitation and who adventurously joined in the fun). Being ’serious’ at something, doesn’t disqualify you from having fun as well.
Even on this very small scale I got an insight into the power of ideas and our automatic, irrational reaction to new ones. Those who propose radical new ideas have my utmost respect because they must know that, if reasoned convincingly enough, their ideas necessarily threaten an existing power base. This is why people go to war over ideas. What courage Charles Darwin must have had to put his name to such an heretical idea as a theory of evolution.
As for the cult of culture, I intend to turn it into a routine for stand-up comedy and possibly a cartoon strip. All the jokes will be at the expense of ourselves.