Where do you stand?

Would you prefer to spend the next six months working on a project that would be artistically fulfilling but little more than a spectacle for the participants, or on a project that would have a deep and lasting effect on those participants but be artistically uninteresting?

Everyone I ask answers this question in roughly the same way – by refusing to choose. Their work, they say, aims for artistic excellence and profound social benefits. And I agree: that is what all good community/participatory art tries to do. Indeed, I have often argued that high artistic standards are inseparable from real social change. But the question is not about what actually happens in complicated, muddled everyday life. It’s about motivation: why we do what we do. Understanding  our motivations better is essential to working honestly with other people and therefore to doing good work.

Smolare (2003) 6

I learned a lot about my own reasons for working in community arts about 15 years ago, when I was working in SE Europe on a programme called Living Heritage. The years I was involved with that work were very influential on my thinking and I’ll come back to that experience another time. For now, I just want to share a story that has relevance to that question of motivation. The Living Heritage programme gave local groups small grants – typically about €10,000 – to undertake heritage projects that would support community development. It began in Macedonia in 2001, before extending to Bulgaria, Romania and Bosnia Herzegovina. At the outset, when people asked what we meant by heritage, I often produced a list – festivals, museums, folklore, arts and so on. After a couple of years of seeing what people worked on, I’d come up with a better definition: ‘heritage is whatever people care about’ I’d say. One of the places I understood that was Smolare.

Smolare (2003) - 3 The group from Smolare, in Southern Macedonia, had a simple objective. About two miles from the village at a height of about 630 metres, is the tallest waterfall in Macedonia, a lovely 40 metre cascade of white water. It was, naturally enough, a special place for the inhabitants, a symbol of their spirit. Young people and lovers would spend time there and everyone had memories and feelings about it. But it was a hard climb and dangerous in wet weather. The villagers wanted to build a path that would make it more easily accessible.

The small grant they had from the Living Heritage fund paid for materials, and the wages of a master mason and a carpenter. But the work was done by volunteers – about 80 people in all, working for several months in the autumn of 2002 and the spring of 2003. They built a 1.2 km path with 300 stone steps, cut from the mountain itself, and two wooden bridges across ravines. As one person told me when I visited in 2003, ‘You can even get there in a suit now’. Already that summer, after featuring on national television, the village was attracting 200 visitors at weekends. People began to sell garden produce, coffee and drinks, even accommodation. In a place where money was scarce even the small sums spent by visitors made a difference. The project also brought together a village deeply divided by politics as people found common cause in the work. When I was in Macedonia again last week, I heard about how popular the waterfall is now and that it had become a real tourist destination as well as inspiring two neighbouring villages to develop visitor walks. Twelve years ago, an official from the Novo Selo municipality told me, ‘We have spent seven times as much on other projects without producing a fraction of the impact’. He was right.

There was nothing artistic about this project, though the site is of deep cultural significance to the village and to visitors. Even so, as a community artist, I find it completely satisfying. It helped me recognize my own answer to the question I started with. I work in the arts because that’s what I know and have some aptitude for but my reasons for doing it the way I do lie with people.

But my answer is only my answer – yours will be different and just as valid. What matters is to be clear-sighted about our motives in working with people on community-based cultural projects. Then we can respond truthfully to theirs.

‘All true definitions of art are circular’

Dimitri Shostakovich in Dresden (1950) © Deutsche Fotothek, Wikimedia

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party then it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary from his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.

Julian Barnes, 2016, The Noise of Time (p.91-2)

Nothing but the best

I’ve often heard that high artistic standards are unattainable, or even unimportant in socially engaged work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two experiences during my visit to Lisbon last week reminded me why.

ChapitôChapitô - 1 is a circus theatre school established over 30 years ago by Teresa Ricou, better known as the clown, Tété. It now occupies a former prison and orphanage, close to Lisbon castle and has 120 students who complete their high school education while learning circus skills. Chapitô’s remarkable story will be a case study in due course, but for now it’s their commitment to high standards I want to highlight. Some of teenagers at the circus school have had a very difficult start in life. Chaotic family lives, drugs and crime have all taken their toll. In such circumstances, it’s natural to make allowances, to have some flexibility in how you work with people trying to overcome huge struggles.

But that’s not the same thing as lowering your artistic standards. The fact is that it’s not possible to learn aerialism or acrobatics without discipline. It is physically and intellectually demanding: carelessness might lead to injuries or worse. Clowning may not be dangerous, but it only works when it is beautifully and rigorously performed: anything less and it can be a bit embarrassing. Whatever troubles affect a young person’s life, circus training demands the highest concentration and commitment. Chapitô’s success lies in inspiring young people with a desire to learn that is strong enough to help them find – in themselves –the commitment to be the best. The discipline of circus becomes a self-discipline. The social change that has transformed the lives of so many students here is inseparable from the demands and excitements of great circus performance.

Next day, I met with members of the Gulbenkian Music Department and orchestra to talk about community engagement. Among other things, I heard about a rehearsal concert given by a string quartet in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Lisbon. It was a new departure for musicians and audience alike and there understandable nervousness. In this uncertain atmosphere, the leader instinctively felt the need to break some concert hall conventions by inviting each musicians to introduce themselves and talk about what they were offering before they began playing. This small, human, but respectful, gesture was enough to lay a foundation of trust. It opened a space for a performance of Borodin and Tchaikovsky. And far from vanishing during the hour as the musicians had feared, the audience stayed and talked enthusiastically with them afterwards.

Gulbenkian Orchestra - 1

A three year professional training for teenagers and a short performance by a string quartet might seem to have little in common. It’s true that, in approach and duration. they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of socially engaged arts. And yet they share a commitment to the highest standards of art in their very different forms. On one level, that should go without saying. After all, if you believe in the value of art, why would you offer a second or third rate version to people who have little or no access to it?

The people you’re working with may face huge everyday challenges. They may have no experience of the art that is your life’s work and expertise. It doesn’t follow that they can only cope with some watered-down version, like children learning to have wine at table. All community and participatory art depends on relationship – and a relationship that is based on inequality has no future. To decide on their behalf and without their knowledge that another person can only manage second-best is patronising. An artist who thinks like that is unconsciously raising themselves above the people they hope to involve by believing that they know best when, of course, they just know some different things. The person they are working with knows different things too. Relationship, trust, co-creation, art, change – these things happen only when there is a level space in which people can meet.

We respect each other when we offer the best we have, not some insipid version that is all we think someone can manage. But it also lies in understanding that, in offering our best, we must also be willing to receive another person’s best and that means listening – really listening – to who they are.

Chapitô - 2