Memory, anxiety and hope in Berlin

Berlin - 1

Past, present and future always feel specially present in Berlin. This city is at the centre of Europe’s recent history. Everywhere you look are traces of who we have been and who we might become. This week, the simple posters advertising Blackstar – ‘das neue album’ – are like small memorials for David Bowie, who renewed himself here in the 1970s: one more layer of its cultural memory.

The air is very cold and bright this week. Salt crunches under my feet as I tramp the city to meet people active in the arts and civil society. It’s a long time since I was here. People still talk about the challenges of reunification but accommodating refugees is a more immediate concern. Berlin’s rise as a global centre of the art world is evident, but I also hear about an institutional system that feels threatened by change. Where are tomorrow’s audiences? Should orchestras, theatres and museums adapt to people’s shifting interests – and, if so, how?

There is a lot of outreach, education and community oriented art work now, often driven by public policy. I meet artists who are angry that some of their peers seem to use people as materials in their work, drawn by funding opportunities rather than their own practice or commitment. One person tells me he has given up on such commissions because of the bureaucracy involved, which he thinks pushes risk and management burdens onto the artists public bodies turn to for help in dealing with some of the city’s problems.

Berlin - 2

But I also meet artists who make some of the clearest and most convincing arguments for community art practice I’ve ever heard. They argue passionately for the democratic justification of opening the city’s artistic space to more and unheard voices. They see beauty in the different aesthetic created when someone tells their own story. They value authenticity above virtuosity and understand the different kinds of truth in each. Above all, they work without artistic compromise, even if lack of funds, institutional rigidity or simple prejudice restricts their room for manoeuvre. They make art, always and only.

Economic and social pressures are more obvious in some parts of Europe than others, or at least they show themselves differently in Athens and Berlin. But  everywhere it seems there are some artists who are engaged in working with communities to address them, not in a short term or superficial way but, as I heard several times this week in Berlin, because artists are members of the community and working creatively with your neighbours is a way of life.


Sally Cottis by Mik Godley
Sally Cottis by Mik Godley

We have many verbs for the craft actions performed by artists: drawing, writing, playing, acting, dancing, painting, singing and so on. What unites and underlies all those actions is creation. The artist’s act is to create. Unfortunately, the idea of creativity has become so prized in recent years that it has been applied as an adjective to almost any conceivable human activity. It has thus become primarily a quality of things or people, as if it were embedded into their essence rather than achieved through action.

We speak of ‘being an artist’ as we do of being a woman or being old. In doing so we make it an existential condition—something that cannot be changed, that is inseparable from a person’s identity. But people become artists through their acts, not biology or even education. The claim to be an artist can only be justified by what a person does. At 18, Rimbaud was a poet; at 35 he was a merchant who’d once been a poet.

Creation is what an artist does when she is drawing, writing, playing, acting, dancing, painting or singing. Creation is bringing something into existence: an image, a piece of music, a text, a performance, a film—anything that did not exist before it was imagined and made by the artist. The result may be extraordinary or dull, original or derivative, lasting or transitory. However desirable it may be, excellence is not intrinsic in the artist’s act: creation is.

As we can all speak, so can we all create. The quality of either act is separate from its performance: some speakers are hesitant and inarticulate while others become great orators. Talent, training, effort, commitment, will and luck all play their part in an individual artist’s achievement. Any one of those qualities may be sufficient to create a single great work of art. Anyone can have the luck to take a great photograph; only a great photographer can take the hundreds that comprise a distinctive body of work, a creative personality.

Between those edges there is plenty of room for different people to act as artists, creating work with varying degrees of craft, ambition, originality, connection and feeling—people who are known in their families only as a storyteller, or who are admired locally as a musician, or who are recognised by their peers as a fine artist. We become artists in the act of creating art, not because we have studied or been paid or written up. It is artisting that makes us artists, nothing else.

(Adapted from Winter Fires by François Matarasso with Mik Godley, Baring Foundation 2012)

What is the point?

Community artists are often accused of instrumentalising art. We can be said to instrumentalise something when we use it to achieve a different goal than that for which it is designed. In the arts, the argument goes like this. Art is intended to create aesthetic experiences, therefore to use it for another purpose, such as social change, is a distortion of its essential character. This is a version of the art for art’s sake argument. Unfortunately, it is full of holes.

First, it depends on a shared idea of what art is and what constitutes an aesthetic experience. It doesn’t take much knowledge of art history to see that there is not now, and has never been, such a consensus. People have always made art, but they have made it for different purposes at different times and in different cultures.

Secondly, art has always been instrumentalised, for instance as a way of expressing belief. Greek drama was part of a religious festival. The masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque painting were mostly created to serve the Roman Catholic church. J. S. Bach worked as church musician and his principal work consists of more than 200 sacred cantatas he composed for services.

Thirdly, it requires a very simplistic view of human affairs to believe that anything people do has only a single purpose and effect. Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel can offer people aesthetic experiences whilst also affirming a theology, demonstrating the power and authority of the Vatican and being a major aspect of the Italian tourism industry. Arguably, it is the tensions between these meanings that make them so interesting.

Art does not exist without people. It was invented to do what they needed, to empower them, to serve their purposes. So what we should ask is not whether art has been instrumentalised but how, for what purpose and in whose interest. A discourse about the ‘intrinsic value’ of art serves only to mask those questions and protect power. Art has no independent life. But people do.

We made slavery illegal because we recognised that one human being must not be made to serve the purposes of another. This is the instrumentalisation that matters. People are their own ends: they must not be subjugated to other purposes. However bad things are, there is never a justification for making people the means to achieve other goals. Theology, political ideology, art – whatever faith we may place in these abstractions, we must never place them before real, living individual human beings. We are the point, never the means.

New Year wisdom from Neil Gaiman

‘Make good art’

Three years ago, Neil Gaiman delivered a commencement address to students at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. These brief extracts from his speech were addressed to young graduates but they are valuable reminders too for those who’ve been creating art for years. Not feeling that you know what you’re doing doesn’t make you a good artist – but it helps.

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.

Where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?

Gaiman, N. and Kidd, C. (2013) Make good art. London: Headline

Best wishes for a happy, peaceful and creative 2016…