‘Have I got to go somewhere?’

EM Shape, © the photographer - 1 (1)
Photograph taken by a non-professional artist supported by Ross Boyd and participating in the East Midlands Shape project, ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’ Derby (UK) 1989-1991

‘Care in the Community’ was a flagship policy of the third Thatcher government at the end of the 1980s. It proposed the replacement of residential hospitals caring for people with mental illness and learning disabilities by small community-based facilities and homes. This was a huge change. Tens of thousands of vulnerable people would have to leave places that might have been their home for years. The wider community had concerns too, with prominent media coverage of some incidents involving discharged mental patients.

At the time, I was with East Midlands Shape, a community art organisation working with disabled people and people living in hospitals, care homes and prisons. It seemed important to do something on this policy that affected the lives of so many of the people we worked with. The result was a project called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’, in  which residents of one hospital scheduled for closure could use art to reflect on their changing lives.

Over eighteen months – half at the hospital and half away from the site – writer Rosie Cullen and photographer Ross Boyd worked with members of this disintegrating community. Supporting people to write or make photographs was a painstaking, one-to-one process: gaining trust and working through people’s illness or disability, as well as the emotions raised by this enforced life change. Ross sometimes spent days with people before they decided what image they wanted to make. In all that time, fewer than a hundred photographs were finished, but each was like a diamond of compressed meaning. As time passed, people gained confidence and insight into their own creative work. More and more of them became involved, and the pile of poems, stories and memories grew steadily.

Poem for a Nurse © the author

Texts and images were collected into two books, one about life in the hospital and one about life outside, and a photographic exhibition that toured the UK. That show was installed for several weeks in the lobby of the Department of Health’s London headquarters. It was a symbolic way of ensuring that the voices of the people affected by the ‘Care in the Community’ would be heard where the decisions that transformed their lives was made.

Nearly 30 years later, the words and images of that community art project still move me. Some have an aesthetic quality equal to that achieved by professional writers and photographers. Even the least accomplished – and there aren’t many – have truth and authenticity. But the project wasn’t easy for anyone involved. There were tensions and controversies, such as the management’s objections to a patient’s account of treatment. We were told that the piece shouldn’t be published since mental illness made the person concerned an unreliable witness. But the facts were not the point: everyone has the right to tell their own story. The text stayed. Another decision still troubles me though. After much discussion, it was decided not to include some particularly disturbing images. There were good reasons for the choice, but I still don’t know if they were good enough.

Note: the photographs used to illustrate this text all come from the project, but I decided not to include any here that show people, or to name the photographers and writers: the people who made this work may feel differently about their privacy today. 

Art outside the art world

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In A Native Hill (1968) the American poet Wendell Berry writes about his decision to root his art where he grew up. He recalls a conversation with a senior colleague at New York University who sought to dissuade him from resigning his post and returning home to Henry County, Kentucky:

It was clear that he wished to speak to me as a representative of the literary world—the world he assumed that I aspired to above all others. His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become ‘subject matter.’ […] there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modem experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.

Berry was not persuaded. In 1965, he settled with his young family on a farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where his parents were born. Since then, he has worked, and written, the land. Would he have achieved more recognition had he stayed in New York? Impossible to say, but it is certain that his writing would not have been the same had he not taken the eccentric path.

Eccentricity – being out of the centre – is not an easy trail, especially in the arts which, despite appearances, do not much like discordant voices. Stretching the boundaries of established practice, concepts and values is tolerated, and even rewarded if the results become widely admired. Denying the legitimacy of those boundaries – which is most easily done by ignoring them altogether – is more threatening and less tolerable.

The art world defends itself by arguing that anyone who does not accept the authority of its value judgements must, by definition, lack knowledge, taste or sensitivity. This circular defensiveness is characteristic of closed intellectual systems. In the USSR, questioning the smallest aspect of Communist Party doctrine was taken to reveal a person’s ‘bourgeois individualist tendencies’ and exposed them to correction or death. Similar thinking can exist in religious and other ideologies, including art.

The art world’s power to make those who question it feel shame for their own stupidity has led many to admire what they could not actually see. Still, honesty requires those who practice art independently of the art world to ask themselves whether their solitary path is not actually the result of an inability to meet its standards. There is always the danger of making a virtue of mere necessity, of deceiving oneself about one’s true motives.

Wendell Berry is a sufficiently great writer to have no need to wonder whether it was only his own mediocrity that drew him from the ocean of New York to the small pond of Henry County, Kentucky. Others who trace an independent path live with the uncertainty that they may be mistaken, but it may help keep us honest.