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BOP Remembers David Bowie

What can we learn from his life and legacy?

At BOP, we have been discussing the life and work of David Bowie since we heard of his death. It is hard to add to what has already been said in the days immediately following his death about the man, his work and the astonishingly deep impression he left on audiences and artists across the world. But let’s try.

In 1969, NASA landed a man on the moon, and the cutting edge of the US music scene was the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. The UK had Space Oddity, a quirky offering from Tin Pan Alley by a hippy troubadour from unfashionable Beckenham. David Bowie, né Jones, like many other British musicians before and after – including John Lennon, Bryan Ferry, Jarvis Cocker and M.I.A.- was a product of the British art school scene. And Bowie, famously, was also a product of British street culture – his first, Mod incarnation itself a reflection of that uniquely British hybrid of American R&B and Italian fashion that emerged in the early 1960s and continues to find resonance in fashion and music to this day.

Bowie’s ability to sense what was happening on the street and give it expression before it was a conscious movement was a recurring hallmark of his career: Ziggy Stardust, the three ‘Berlin’ albums, Ashes to Ashes and his last release, Blackstar, all do this in different ways. And in many ways, he was an early incarnation of the UK concept of the wider creative industries - music, art, dance, fashion, theatre, film, literature and games were all integral to his work; he collaborated widely both internationally and across genres and latterly had an entrepreneur’s eye for new business ideas, such as his Bowie Bonds scheme (where he pre-sold his royalties for a ten year period for $55m upfront) and his early online BowieBanc.

There is another legacy here that needs to be remembered, celebrated, defended and carried forward. Bowie’s art school, Bromley Technical College, is now part of Ravensbourne, an acknowledged centre of excellence in design and media education. But increasing pressure on students and institutions to demonstrate a return on the financial investment in education in the form of exam results make it hard to capture the sense of creative freedom and opportunity, particularly for working class students with little or no formal academic qualifications, that was embodied in the British art school of the Sixties. The EBacc and a focus on ‘STEM’ subjects are two more examples of rigidities introduced from the top down that limit freedom of creative exploration and expression for students and schools. In another part of the value chain, worries about immigration distort the system for both student and working visas, and limit the opportunities for foreign students.

Bowie represented an opening out of culture and an active embrace of the new, difficult and challenging. Those qualities have defined the UK’s creative industries and at the root of its global impact, for half a century. The best tribute that could be paid to a great artist would be to seek to ensure that the ‘hard’ infrastructure, in the form of specialist institutions is supported, as are the places and spaces in cities where artists can practice and engage their audiences. Tin Pan Alley has been subsumed under a Crossrail station, London lost a third of its live music venues in the past decade, and increasing rents are driving artists’ studios to the periphery, and potentially out of, the capital. But just as important is the ‘soft’ infrastructure: the continued and guaranteed investment in the ability for students, lecturers and institutions first to study creative disciplines and then to continue to experiment, fail and fight back to fuse eclectic influences into extraordinary global success.

The best memorial to a great product of this system would be to see its uniqueness acknowledged in policy and delivered in practice. David Bowie, RIP.

- Iain Bennett, Associate Director