Thinking

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.

Anyone can do it

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This guest post was written by Julia Rone, a Bulgarian friend who has been researching social activism in the wake of the financial crisis. She describes how the Spanish activist group, XNET, are prosecuting fraudulent bankers and politicians in the courts and in the theatre. While the legal proceedings continue, ‘Become a Banker’, has been seen by almost 10,000 people in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, A Coruña, Girona and Tàrrega, helping ensure that the truth is understood and remembered.  (It’s also available online, in a version with English subtitles.) The story is not over, but through this citizens theatre, XNET are keeping attention on the true causes of the hardship undergone by Spanish people. 

Banking, creative activism and theatre: the Hazte Banquero story

Imagine being one of the most powerful bankers of Spain. Imagine experiencing the financial crisis, witnessing millions of people going to the streets after losing their savings, their mortgages, their future. See them shouting, marching, occupying.  And then imagine someone leaking to the public all your professional emails with details of lavish spending and misdeeds. Imagine a court trial and someone brave enough (artistically and politically) to make a data-based theatre play out of all this.

The play Hazte Banquero (Become a Banker)is ‘a true story and, as such, it is dramatic but, most of all, it is absurd and atrociously comical’, as the producers from X-net describe it. XNET is an activist collective that deals with topics such as free culture, technopolitics, network democracy, and citizen journalism. They have been very active ever since the Indignados protests in Spain, and this is how I got to know their work. But when I entered Teatre El Musical in Valencia to watch their play I had my doubts about what I was going to see. Would it be one of the many naive and moralistic tales of bankers that flooded Hollywood screens after the crisis? Would I have to like it just because I agree with the political message? As a social movements researcher, I’m used to exploring citizen action on the streets and on squares, on mail lists and Facebook pages – but theatre and social movements? The combination made me uncomfortable.

 

And yet, from the very first moment, the play engaged me, dispersed my doubts and filled the empty space with data. Director Simona Levi and the XNET team read thousands of leaked emails to choose the most striking ones and set them as drama. With the help of a big screen, interactive graphics, and several great actors representing the key figures in Caja Madrid  – all male, of course – XNET guided us through a complex scheme of corruption, self-enrichment, and revolving doors between politics and finance.

In Greek tragedy, the characters suffer irrational divine curses and cannot escape their fate. In contrast, Hazte Banquero tells the story of a modern, man-made crisis that could have been avoided – had the protagonists shown any moral constraints. The plot is so gripping because all the events described really took place, although, the more details emerge, the more unbelievable it all seems. Yes, bank supervisors and top employees of Caja Madrid did have ‘black’ credit cards for unlimited spending. Yes, the bank did transfer money to ‘charitable’ foundations of all political parties in Spain, including the far left. Yes, Caja Madrid did sell floating rate stocks to thousands of inexperienced customers, making them believe they were fixed-rate. All this really happened. All theatre audiences have to suspend disbelief, to accept the ‘reality’ of the play. Watching Hazte Banquero, you had to suspend disbelief to accept reality itself as real.

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In fact, unlike most foreigners, the general public in Spain is familiar with many of the facts around Caja Madrid and its successor Bankia, presided by Rodrigo Rato. But one of truth’s weaknesses is that it’s easily forgotten, set aside while we deal with more urgent everyday duties. Hazte Banquero reveals the truth in the data  – and it helps prevent it from being forgotten. The play reenacts truth in front of us, makes us laugh, feel shocked and outraged, and this emotional connection is what guarantees that truth will not be forgotten any more.

Hazte Banquero has a double goal. First, it shows what happened, so that it will not happen again. This is the awareness-raising task. Secondly, it seeks justice and exposes people who should assume responsibility for their actions. The members of the audience change from being passive witnesses of their personal crises to being active participants in a quest for justice. The play functions as a record and a warning sign, a forensic analysis and a protest march.

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Leaking data is a risky political act. Performing that data, turning numbers and words into feelings, is politically and artistically dangerous. Hazte Banquero manages to be a powerful, entertaining play with an serious message. It succeeds both in its artistic and political goals. But ultimately, the XNET artists do not distinguish between the two. As citizens we need to act in order to prevent corruption and irresponsibility. This is why XNET organized a crowd-funding campaign to finance  their continuing prosecution of bank executives. As citizens, we too must act, in the sense of perform, and reach out to others and make our causes known. Theatre becomes a form of political action, a way to bring together people and inspire them to act on their destiny.

By seeing the bankers as protagonists on stage, citizens understand better the real-life bankers who, in a famous ad campaign, encouraged them to “become bankers” – and then defrauded them. Stripped of their illusions and armed with information, citizens can identify with the bankers on stage. Stripped of their impunity, once-untouchable bankers identify with ordinary citizens in real life. They are put to trial and they face the consequences of their actions. This change of roles is not welcome to anyone involved. But it is necessary.

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The trial and the play are two faces of one process of citizen engagement initiated by XNET. On the 23rd February 2017, Miguel Blesa was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and Rodrigo Rato to four and a half, on charges related to the black credit cards scandal. They both appealed to the Supreme Court and are currently not in jail thanks to their ‘exemplary’ conduct during the trial. We still don’t know whether self-organized citizens will manage to change the end of this play of privilege and impunity we all know too well. But whatever happens, the premise of the play has changed. From secondary characters in our society, citizens have become protagonists and taken centre stage. Who could imagine this?

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Julia Rone is currently finishing her PhD at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute, Florence. Her research explores social mobilizations against free trade agreements, with a focus on framing and diffusion of ideas. In addition, she studies hacktivism, digital disobedience, and struggles in defense of Internet Freedom.

With thanks to Simona Levi and XNET for permission to include photographs from the production. 

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Paying attention

Flying away

Yesterday, I sat in a shady garden, watching a blackbird hen splashing about in a bird bath. I was drinking tea with Isabel, a dancer and musician, and Biant, a tabla player and social worker. We’ve been friends for nearly 30 years, but hadn’t seen each other for a while, so I was listening to them talk about their recent work.’White Cane‘ is a site-specific work led by partially-sighted performers, in which participants listen to a public place in audio description, music and text they receive through headphones. It was inspired by Isabel’s experience of caring for her late father, who was blind and increasingly deaf. Despite these disabilities, he had loved and practiced art throughout a life shaped by music, touch and the Welsh language. I have rarely met a person of more intense feeling and generous spirit.

Isabel’s work, like Biant’s, with whom she has so often worked, developed in the territories where art, disability and wellbeing intersect. We worked together sometimes in the 1980s, when these ideas were less developed than they are now, and we all benefited from the freedom we had to explore and learn. Recalling those experiences, we recognised a similar pattern.

We began knowing nothing. Sharing creativity with other people who usually had far more life experience than we did, meant listening, to them and to our own hearts, trying, listening again, adjusting. After a time, we did know something. We had a practice, ideas, experience. We had resources to draw on. We started to think – perhaps because others expected it – that we knew what we were doing. We became, each in our own small way, expert. And then, in our fifties, we began to understand how evanescent was that expertise, fading as morning mist in the sunshine. We began to understand how little we knew, and how unwise it was to rely on it anyway.

The confidence of grand gestures seems alien to me now. I’m interested in the personal gesture, contact, vulnerability. I want to make space, not take it. Isabel spoke about the intimacy of the artistic and human experiences she shared with her father in his final, confined years, and I saw how Hamlet might be bounded in a nutshell and yet count himself a king of infinite space. This art is invisible. It exists only in a meeting of minds. You have to be present, not observing but participating.

So, because we live in a culture that discounts what it cannot see and touch, assess and quantify, it is not just undervalued – it is invisible. In their ignorance, the books are silent. Like us, when we mistook ourselves for experts, they don’t know what they don’t know. Never mind. What matters is still the touch of daughter’s fingers on her father’s hand and the sound recordings she brings to connect him with his family, friends and the world.

Undisturbed by our conversation, a robin basks in the sunshine.

Rural touring and cultural democracy

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Rural touring is not a participatory art, but it is participatory culture. Why the distinction? Because in rural touring participation occurs not in the creation of art but in its management – and that, in its way, can be just as important to cultural democracy.

I first heard of rural touring 15 years ago, when Ralph Lister (of Take Art in Somerset) and Ian Scott (then running Artreach in Dorset) asked me if I’d be interested in undertaking some research for the National Rural Touring Forum. NRTF brings together independent arts organisations working across the UK to support live professional performances in rural areas. There are about 35 of them, some small, some large, working with communities from Cornwall to Scotland. In 2014, they helped 278,000 people see theatre, dance, music and other art in 2,400 different villages and rural towns.

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The shows, which happen in local halls, churches, pubs and schools, are always good, often powerful and sometimes extraordinary. That’s partly because the small scale suits certain kinds of performer – experienced companies making work specifically for rural audiences, young artists with fresh ideas and seasoned ones with their own following. There are also NRTF commissions (recently in contemporary dance) that extend that offer. But seeing a show in a village hall is also about community. The audience is small, and people tend to know one another, This intimacy can be risky – it’s painfully obvious if the show isn’t working. But the experience can also be very intense, and many performances that stay in my mind today I saw in these rural venues.

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What has this to do with cultural democracy or participation? It’s about how the shows are put on. The rural touring schemes have invented an approach to promoting that gives local communities real power over what they want to see. The shows are programmed by volunteers – often village hall committees, sometimes informal groups – who also choose the venue, publicise the performance, sell tickets and host the artists and audience on the night. They share the financial risk and keep any surplus to invest in the next event. Most promoters – and there are about 2,400 in the UK now – put on two to six shows a year. They choose what they think the community will enjoy from a menu selected by the touring scheme, which handles the contracts with the companies and other practicalities. The result is a local arts programme that is valued in the communities where it happens because they make the important decisions about it.

Between 2004 and 2014, rural touring audiences, promoters and performances all grew by about 45%, despite cuts in public funding. Today, rural touring managers, voluntary promoters and artists gather in Nottingham for their annual conference, which takes its theme from Robert Frost: ‘Freedom lies in being bold’. One mark of that boldness is the launch of the Rural Touring Awards, which recognise the dedication of just some of the thousands who make the arts part of everyday life in rural Britain.

Not participatory art then, but a genuinely participatory culture and one more strand in democratic social life.

To read my past work on rural touring, please click on the links below:

All the images on this page are by Rosie Redzia and taken from ‘A Wider Horizon’.

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Amateurs and professionals

 

This text and its photographs are taken from ‘Where We Dream: West Bromwich Operatic Society and the Fine Art of Musical Theatre (François Matarasso, Multistory 2012). The complete book can be downloaded as a PDF: print copies (£5), which include a DVD of Ben Wigley’s film, are available from Multistory

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The modern system of art is not an essence or a fate but something we have made.

Larry Shiner, 2001

Members of West Bromwich Operatic Society can be sensitive about being called amateurs, not because it is inaccurate, but because of the perception that amateur is a synonym for mediocre, self-regarding, even incompetent. And it is true that the word is sometimes used almost as an insult – and not least between artists.

It was not always like that. There was a time when to be an amateur was prestigious. It was someone who was seriously committed to the pursuit of knowledge in science, philosophy or art, someone motivated only by a love of learning. Since they were not paid, the amateurs were genuinely disinterested. In the past, that also meant that they were wealthy, probably aristocrats or landed gentry, because only those classes had leisure time to dedicate to something that was not edible, usable or tradable.

Some amateurs dedicated their lives and fortunes to knowledge in science, philosophy, history and the arts. Others, lacking artistic talent themselves, surrounded themselves with artists in need of a living, or amassed great collections that have become the heart of public museums today. In all these roles, amateurs were deeply influential in the development of art forms and in shaping public taste and ideas of art. Crucially, there was a close interactive relationship between amateur (unpaid) and professional (paid) artists: gentlemen and players.

Professional artists, by contrast, usually had low social status. Throughout most of European history, there was no reason to distinguish a painter or a potter from a builder: all useful trades, but anyone who worked with their hands could have no claim to high status. Performers were generally held in still lower esteem, perhaps because their art does not even produce anything useful. Their living was precarious and they often lived on the disreputable borderline between entertainer and beggar. The Border style of Morris dancing uses blackface as the traditional disguise of street performers.

There are always exceptions. It was possible to be a performer without forfeiting one’s social position if there was no payment involved. The people who performed in Classical Greek theatre or medieval mystery plays were amateurs playing a role at a designated season with religious meaning. People with a talent for song, story or a tune have always been appreciated in community celebrations, but again because they performed for pleasure and honour.

The status of professional artists in Europe began to change in the 18th century, when the ideological, social and economic changes of the Enlightenment took hold. A distinction began to be made between the ‘fine arts’ and something of lower value called ‘craft’. The relative power of patrons and artists was gradually reversed. In 1717, the Duke of Saxeweimar had Bach imprisoned for wanting to leave his service; by the 1791, Haydn could leave the Esterházy court to work in London where he made much more money from concerts and teaching. By the 1830s, statues of Beethoven were appearing all over Germany, where those of noblemen had stood. More importantly, he was being claimed as higher than anyone: for Bizet ‘He is not a human being, he is a god’.

Romanticism had elevated the artist to an unprecedented status. Freed from the ties of patronage by new consumer markets, artists began to describe their work as a vocation – a word that had previously meant being called by God to serve in the church. Art was establishing itself as an alternative religion with claims of transcendence and spiritual value, a position it retains today, partly because Christianity is a weak force in European society.

The professional artist became someone who had answered that higher call, sacrificing worldly advantages for a nobler purpose. Of course, artists have to eat like everybody else. Unless they have a private income – like aristocratic amateurs – or a wealthy patron, they must sell their work in the market. The independence claimed by artists in the 19th and 20th centuries was partly illusory because it had been achieved by trading a relationship with one or two wealthy individuals for a relationship with thousands or even hundreds of thousands. And a mass market can be as demanding, as deceptive and as dismissive as any aristocrat.

Before the industrial revolution an artist who failed to find a patron could have few illusions about their importance. They became an assistant to somebody more successful or they found another trade. Today, with the example of Vincent van Gogh always before them, an artist who fails to sell can see that failure as proof of their own genius. It can be quite a big consolation.

As the social status and economic power of artists has changed in the past two centuries, so has that of amateurs. The aristocracy has been pushed or retreated to the margins of more democratic societies, generally abandoning any claim to shape public discourse. The rich amateurs who make public taste now are more likely to be self-made men (and they still tend to be men) like Charles Saatchi.

At the same time, education and leisure extended to the growing populations of industrial cities. At school, in public libraries and working people’s educational associations, people learned new tastes and skills. Church and chapel supported choral singing and – in more liberal quarters – concert parties and amateur drama. A growing consumer market gave ready access to books, music hall and theatre – then film, pop music and television. Over the decades, the pleasures of the aristocracy became those of working people, albeit adapted to suit other lives and interests and mixed with other influences from folk and popular culture.

The number of amateurs grew and continues to grow as new creative tools become available to more people: cameras first and now computers and the Internet. Much of their work is informal, created by individuals or loose groups of friends and like-minded people. As a result, it is difficult to know how many people are seriously engaged in photography, music, dance or writing, but it is certainly in the millions.

Where things need to be more structured, as in theatre, it is easier to get a sense of the scale. The National Operatic and Dramatic Association, for example, has 2,549 member societies across the UK and Ireland. But this is only part of the amateur arts world. According to DCMS research there are almost 50,000 amateur arts groups in England. Between them, they have about 6 million members and a further 3.5 million volunteers – so about 15% of the population is active in amateur arts organisations. In a typical year, they promote 700,000 performances or exhibitions and get about 160 million attendances. Amateur arts organisations have a collective income of over half a billion pounds, almost all raised through ticket sales and their own fundraising.

A further difficulty with assessing the extent of amateur arts practice is that it does not have neat boundaries. Contrary to what some people would wish, and perhaps also to some of the tenor of the previous paragraphs, the arts are not divided into two separate and antagonist worlds: the amateurs and the professionals. it is better understood as a complex ecosystem in which people may play different roles at different times or in different aspects of their career.

Citizens are increasingly spending significant amounts of their leisure time engaged in serious creative pursuits. These pro-ams are people who have acquired high level skills at particular crafts, hobbies, sports or art forms; they are not professionals but are often good enough to present their work publicly or to contribute seriously to a community of like-minded artists or creators.

Stephen J. Tepper, 2008

There are members of WBOS who have worked professionally: singing with big bands, as dancers, or in fringe theatre. Others have had to choose between seizing a chance or continuing in the existing course of their life and staying amateur: even 50 years later, there can be a hint of regret at the path not taken. Nowadays, there are also young members who hope to go on to drama college or conservatoire and so into the professional theatre.

‘In a dream world, I would love to be an actor. But I’m not unrealistic – I’m not one of those that’s just got my head in the clouds about being a big Broadway star. I would carry on doing this for ever.’

On the other side, professionals are involved in WBOS productions, including the director, the musical director and the choreographer, who are all paid by the company. For the shows themselves, a stage manager and musicians are hired, along with the staff of the theatre itself. Finally, there is also the input of the professionals who created the original production, including set and costumes, which is to some degree a revival when staged by an amateur company.

The same intermingling exists in the professional world, many of whose stars discovered performance in amateur groups where they were growing up. Lionel Bart, in whose debt thousands of amateur groups will forever be for having given them Oliver!, wrote his first work as a member of amateur groups in London. Much choral music involves a professional orchestra working with an amateur choir. The Crouch End Festival Chorus, which sang in Mahler’s 10th Symphony at the opening of the 2010 BBC Proms is just one example of the excellence achieved by amateur choirs. In America’s different arts ecology, it is estimated that amateur musicians perform almost half of all live symphonic music.

New technology is further blurring the lines between amateurs and professionals as more people create, publish and distribute their work online. Wikipedia typifies a world where people with global expertise can work alongside people with local or specific knowledge to create something neither group could achieve alone.

 

In a cozy corner of the electric flame department of the infernal regions there stands a little silver gridiron. It is the private property of his Satanic majesty, and is reserved exclusively for the man who invented amateur theatricals. It is hard to see why the amateur actor has been allowed to work his will unchecked for so long. These performances of his are diametrically opposed to the true spirit of civilization, which insists that the good of the many should be considered as being of more importance than that of the few. In the case of amateur theatricals, a large number of inoffensive people are annoyed simply in order that a mere handful of acquaintances may amuse themselves.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Gem Collector, 1909

It is the humourist’s prerogative not to believe what he writes and, given Wodehouse’s love of musicals, it is tempting to believe he would have loved The Producers, watching from whichever balcony in the afterlife is reserved to those who make us laugh. Amateur theatre is an easy target because its enthusiasts have been known to take themselves very seriously, something English humour delights in mocking. But if some amateur actors do take themselves very seriously, so do some accountants, some plumbers and some arts managers: self-importance is a non-exclusive character trait.

Seriousness is essential to art. The question is what you are serious about. Good things start to happen in art when people are serious about something that is bigger than technique, bigger than audiences, bigger than them. The Canadian sociologist Robert Stebbins, one of a rather small number of academics to have taken an interest in amateur art practice, coined the phrase ‘serious leisure’ to distinguish the work of committed amateurs from those for whom their engagement with art is a casual entertainment. He describes serious leisure as ‘the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer core activity that is highly substantial, interesting, and fulfilling’. In conversation with amateurs, Stebbins found that people used the word ‘serious’ frequently, associating it with such qualities as ‘earnestness, sincerity, importance, and carefulness’.

Watching WBOS at work – or should that be at play? – one sees apparently contradictory things. There is happiness and seriousness but little sign of the self-importance Wodehouse mocks. These are no prima donnas elbowing their way centre stage (though they are hardly introverts either), but hard-working performers having fun. And that air of good humour is the lasting impression you get from spending time with the company – laughter, affection and mutual support.

‘That’s what it’s all about – it’s giving, it’s giving, not taking. That’s why it’s here. That’s why it’s successful.’

Some of that lightness is due to the advantages amateur performers have over their professional counterparts. The show is important, very important, but nobody’s career is riding on it. Deeply as they care about it, the amateurs have not invested their whole identities in this performance: they may be critiqued, but not damned. There is too much else in the rest of their lives, including work, since this is not it.

The other big difference for WBOS is that they are enacting a production created by others – by professionals. They do not have to invent how to stage a scene, or how to make the show come together. They know it works, because others have done it before. Amateurs are not usually looking for originality – itself a Romantic ideal – but for quality, which defined art before the Enlightenment. It’s a critical difference.

You have exactly ten seconds to change that disgusting look of pity into one of enormous respect.

Mel Brooks, The Producers (1968)

Wayne Booth, a professor of literature who spent 40 years playing the cello with fellow amateurs, has written about the joys and pitfalls of what he called ‘amateuring’. He knew that he would never be as good as the least of the professional players, but his effort and practising was the tribute he paid to music, because he valued it so much. He believed that ‘If anything is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly’. Booth hated low standards and mediocrity. His argument is that since playing music is such a valuable experience, doing it at whatever level you can reach is always better than not doing it at all.

Booth is perfectly right. It is because the practice of art offers such unique and enriching rewards that everyone should be able to take part, in the ways and to the extent that they find congenial.

Art does not need protecting from untalented practitioners: it can look after itself. But untalented performers might need protecting from their more skilled peers who have an interest in controlling who is and who is not able to take part. There is a parallel with cooking. Preparing one’s own food, however basic or unappetising to someone with a more refined palate, offers satisfactions that the most expensive ready meal cannot give. It is doing, not watching others do. And by doing we can improve our taste and technique. But it is not always in the interests of processed food retailers or professional chefs to encourage people in that idea.

Participation is the hallmark of a vibrant cultural scene, not just participation for the trained and well healed but participation that’s available to just about everybody.

Bill Ivey, 2008

The serious amateurism recognised from different angles by Booth and Stebbins exactly describes how the members of WBOS approach their theatre work. It is a hobby but one that is undertaken seriously, both because of the respect they have for the art of musical theatre and because it is by investing themselves fully that people get most from taking part. Its value comes from doing, from understanding something from the inside, experientially, and its greatest prize is not the applause, joyous as that is, but nurturing skill, ability and understanding in community.

Members with demanding jobs and young families said that people asked them how they find time to do it. The consistent answer was that they could not imagine not doing it. They were prisoners of their love of theatre and of the families and friends with whom that love was shared.

‘From the heart, I’d say love. It’s a love for theatre but I also met my wife here so it encompasses everything. I wouldn’t have my family or my daughter without the Operatic Society.’

 

In defence of universalism

This text written for a workshop under the title  ‘Beyond Us versus Them: The Role of Culture in a Divided Europe‘ held at the Representation of the State of Baden-Württemberg to the European Union, Brussels on 2 May 2017. 

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo asked ‘Civil war? What does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not every war between men war between brothers?’  Perhaps Hugo is saying that the way to go beyond us versus them is to reject the concept altogether. This is not a matter of piety or semantics. If we lose sight of the indivisibility of humankind, how can we defend concepts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The crucial importance of that text, however often we fail to meet its obligations, is to make no distinction between human beings.

The effort to establish universal rights was dearly bought. I am a child of those who suffered the massive exercise in self-harm we call the Second World War, the globalisation of violence before the term. My parents’ generation were the victims and perpetrators of unprecedented crimes. This was a civil war between people who had to persuade themselves of their differences in order to kill one another. I regret bringing such sombre reflections into a discussion of culture and its potential for healing, but it is necessary because that conflict is the origin of the post-war settlement that is now falling apart. And the foundation of that settlement is the concept of universal human rights established in the UN Declaration of 1948 and the European Convention of 1950.

The present rise of nationalism is ugly and frightening. But the assault on the idea of universal human rights is worse. The signs are everywhere. Sometimes the attack is formal and legalistic, as in the UK Government’s proposal to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights – not universal, by definition. Elsewhere, it is criminal and chaotic, as in the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines since the election of President Duterte. David Armitage, the American historian, writes that ‘around the world, democratic politics now looks ever more like civil war by other means’. In such a context, is that really an over-statement?

There’s no need to itemise the current attacks on democracy, the rule of law and, above all, the foundational concept of human rights. It is a global phenomenon that is all too familiar. Its causes are multiple but, insofar as it exploits democracy itself, the fear provoked by very rapid social and economic change is a decisive and a divisive factor. Many millions of Europeans now believe, not just that their lives have got worse, but that their leaders consider their suffering an acceptable price for prosperity. That is interpreted, not unreasonably, as making them less valuable than other people. Where then is the universalism of the human rights convention?

What is most striking about recent votes – whether you look at Brexit, the American Presidential election or the Turkish Referendum – is how close the results are and how much people’s choice can be mapped on socio-economic conditions such as location, class, education and age. That sharp division makes thinking in terms of ‘us and them’ not just morally and legally wrong but dangerous as well. To say it again, you cannot defend universal rights by dividing citizens into groups. I’m with Martin Luther King here. We must be judged for our acts, not our ethnicity, religion, culture or beliefs. Only our acts are a legitimate basis for distinction.

So how can we act well in such a divided world? And does culture, which concerns us here today, have a particular role to play? Let me say at once that I don’t believe it’s culture’s task – or within its power – to solve such problems. But it does have a valuable role as a space of encounter, dialogue and – perhaps – better understanding. So I will share some examples of how artists – professional and non-professional – are searching for and often finding ways of reaching across those divisions today.

In Friesland, the agricultural heart of the northern Netherlands, Titia Bouwmeester worked with farmers to create an interactive theatre performance that celebrates their knowledge and labour in dairy farming as they coped with the abolition of EU milk quotas. ‘Lab Molke’ took place on a farm and the process of researching, creating, rehearsing and performing together was an open dialogue about different lives between people from urban and rural communities.

In Porto, Hugo Cruz and Maria João work in theatre with people from different parts of the city, including workers in the cork industry, the deaf community, old people, the gypsy community, refugees and children. After creating several productions with and for each group, they brought five of them together in MAPA, a spectacular community play about the city’s past and future in which their different perspectives were presented at the Teatro Nacional in the city centre.

In Alexandria, Hatem Hassan Salama, brought intimate performances to neighbourhood cafes in working class parts of the city. Working with a storyteller, a photographer, a dancer and a musician, he created impromptu events in places whose traditional and masculine culture was unused to such modern art. But the result was to open such rich conversations art, politics and morality that they went on for two or three hours after the show itself.

In Stoke on Trent, Anna Francis has been using her visual art practice to talk with her neighbours in the run down area where she lives. Last summer, she created a temporary community centre in a derelict pub and about 600 people came to fifty different activities in the month: plans are now under way to make this a permanent facility. It will signal new possibilities in a very disadvantaged place that is not much heard.

These projects,  and hundreds of others in and beyond Europe, all see art as a place to begin conversations about where we are and what we might do about it. But they are art activities, not political or even social interventions. They nurture trust, skills, knowledge, confidence and networks because they do not try to produce those things. They happen without effort when people are engaged in and by a shared artistic project that speaks to their lives.

Art is a space where we can still meet, especially when the other platforms for dialogue, such as politics, the media and the online world, have become so polarised that we can no longer hear – or tolerate – each other there. Art can be safe because it does not check our identity papers on entry. It does not separate us from them. Indeed, as these examples show, art welcomes difference, complexity, even conflict – within the protective licence of character, symbol, metaphor and non-reality. Art allows us to enact our unspoken, even unconscious feelings and encounter other people, including the feared foreigner or despised neighbour. It encourages and enables reflection. Art has room for us all, and it can put up with all that we feel, think and want to say – not because it’s all good or even acceptable, but because it’s there and art knows that denying our feelings is more dangerous than doing something creative with them.

But this is just one vision of art. I know that.  It is neither inevitable nor uncontested. I respect but I do not share the fears artists sometimes express about instrumentalisation. Art is not self-sufficient. I believe in art for people’s sake because without people art has no meaning. It ceases to exist. But the trap of propaganda – especially well-meaning propaganda – is dangerous. It attracts those who strip art of precisely the complex ambiguities I value and enslave it to their vision. The risk is real and best avoided by listening, really listening, to those whose voices we find most uncomfortable.

If art is to reach across the divisions in our fragmenting world, it will do so only by being democratic, diverse and tolerant – a culture that lives up to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’ That would be a truly universal culture.

Europe is not a place. It is not a government or an administration. It is a culture, whose greatest values have been forged in response to its greatest traumas. We needed it in 1945; we need it today.

 

Lycéens à La Dynamo

(Scroll down for the English text)

L’élection présidentielle française, dont le second tour aura lieu le 7 mai, remplit en ce moment les esprits et les média. Comme dans d’autres démocraties occidentales, on demande aux gens de choisir entre des visions du présent et de l’avenir qui sont profondément polarisantes. En me rendant chez Banlieues Bleues à Pantin, je vois des affiches et des slogans politiques sur les murs. Cette ville multiculturelle représente une parmi plusieurs images  de la France qui se trouvent instrumentalisées par la rhétorique politique qui m’entoure depuis trop longtemps. Mais on ne doit pas réduire les gens à des symboles.

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À La Dynamo, des lycéens de trois villes voisines partagent pizzas et oranges avant le spectacle. Il y a parmi eux des jeunes musiciens accomplis et d’autres qui n’ont jamais joué en public auparavant. C’est grâce aux actions musicales de Banlieues Bleues qu’ils ont pu travailler avec des musiciens professionnels, et ce soir ils sont sur le point de se produire dans une salle de concert où beaucoup d’entre-eux ne sont jamais venus.

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Le budget est serré et les musiciens n’ont pas eu beaucoup de temps pour préparer la soirée: cinq ou six séances de deux heures, sur quelques semaines. On ne l’aurait pas deviné d’après la musique riche et variée que j’écoute pendant l’heure et demie qui suit. Le concert est ouvert par les seuls étudiants qui fréquentent une classe de musique, au Lycée Mozart du Blanc-Mesnil. Avec Mehdi Chaïb, ils réalisent des morceaux provenant du Maroc, de l’Algérie et de la Palestine, dont l’un date du 12ème siècle. Clarinette, trompette et saxophone se faufilent entre les rythmes arabes complexes des darboukas que les étudiants jouent pour la première fois.

Ensuite il y a un rap court mais puissant par des étudiants du lycée Henri Wallon d’Aubervilliers. Ils sont sans formation musicale, et la conviction de leur travail ce soir est un hommage au soutien qu’ils ont reçu du rappeur Rocé et de DJ Stresh. Leur fierté à la fin est émouvante. Ils ont vraiment réussi quelque chose d’important ce soir.

Le reste de la soirée est l’œuvre d’un groupe d’élèves du Lycée Paul Eluard, qui jouent le soul américain déjà depuis plusieurs années. Guidés par le bassiste Sylvain Daniel, ils offrent un programme étonnant et intensément ressenti, allant du gospel a capella à Stevie Wonder et au R&B contemporain. Comme chez chacun des groupes précédents, la passion des jeunes artistes pour cette musique est absolument convaincante: le public est ébloui, et les applaudissements sont tonnants.

En rentrant à l’hôtel, j’ai le cœur rempli non seulement de la musique que j’ai entendue mais aussi par le bonheur dont j’ai été témoin. Un des enseignants du lycée m’a dit: «Ce qui importe, à leur âge, c’est le plaisir de jouer ensemble». Il a raison. C’est une soirée de participation joyeuse, une fête de la musique et de la créativité des jeunes de Seine-Saint-Denis dans leur diversité quotidienne. Pas d’énoncés, pas de slogans, pas de symboles. Aucune simplification. Rien que des jeunes motivés par des valeurs communes et un amour de la musique, et dont le travail en groupe fait le profit de toute une collectivité.

Students at La Dynamo

The French presidential election, which culminates in a run-off vote on 7 May, is inescapable right now. As in other Western democracies, people are being asked to choose between deeply polarising visions of the present and the future. On my way to see a community music project in Pantin, just outside Paris, I pass political posters and slogans spray-painted onto walls. The multicultural community I’m walking through is one of several simplified images of France that have been instrumentalised in political rhetoric during the election. But people are not symbols.

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At La Dynamo, where Banlieues Bleues is based, young people are sharing pizza and oranges before the show. They’re from three schools in Seine-Saint-Denis. While some are accomplished young musicians, others have never played or performed before. Through Banlieues Bleues they’ve met and worked with professional musicians for the first time and tonight they’re about to perform in a public venue.

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The budget is tight and the musicians have not had long: just five or six two hour sessions. You’d never know it from the  beautiful, varied music I hear in the next ninety minutes. The concert begins with the only students who attend a regular class, at the Lycée Henri Wallon. With Medhi Chaïb, they perform pieces from Morocco, Algeria and Palestine, one of which dates from the 12th century. Clarinet, trumpet and saxophone twine around complex Arabic rhythms performed on darbouka drums that none of the students had previously used.

They’re followed by a short but powerful rap by students from the Lycée Mozart. They’ve not performed music before and the conviction of their work is a tribute to the support they’ve had from the rapper Rocé and DJ Stresh. Their pride as they take their bow is oddly humbling: they’ve really achieved something for themselves on this stage tonight.

The longest set is by pupils at Lycée Paul Eluard, who’ve been working on American soul for several years outside school time. Guided by the bassist Sylvain Daniel, they go through a stunning and intensely felt programme, ranging from acapella gospel through Stevie Wonder to contemporary R&B. As in each of the previous groups, the young performers’ commitment to the music is compelling: they hold the audience in thrall, and the applause is thunderous.

Later, I walk back to my hotel, my heart lifted by the music I’ve heard and the happiness I’ve seen. Something one of the lycée teachers said to me is running through my mind: ‘What matters, at their age, is the pleasure of playing together’. It’s been a joyous evening, a celebration of music and youthful creativity in their everyday diversity. No statements, no slogans, no symbols. No simplifications. Just people enacting shared values and so making their small corner of the world a better place to live.

 

Guest post: Arts and older people in Wales

David Cutler, the Director of the Baring Foundation (of which I’m a trustee) has been reflecting on the strength of art work with older people in Wales. Here he describes some of the work that has been developing over the past decade and suggests some reasons for its success; the original post is here

Welsh magic: what’s behind the magnificent work taking place in arts with older people in Wales?

I have been asking myself this question after participating in the excellent conference at the stunningly beautiful new Royal College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on 6th April. The conference was organised by the Arts Council Wales and Age Cymru with financial support from the Baring Foundation. It culminated with a strong endorsement from Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure. The day showcased arts activity from the length and breadth of the country, but clearly showed that practitioners did not want to rest on their laurels but see how this could be improved.

Wales has many treasures when it comes to arts and older people. Central to this is Gwanwyn, the month long creative ageing festival in May. Gwanwyn means ‘Spring’ in Welsh and renews the landscape each year. Run by Age Cymru since 2006  it reaches over 11,000 people in around 500 events. Gwanwyn gives grants to pump prime activity.  It continually develops with local Gwanwyn year-round clubs as its latest manifestation.

Gwanwyn’s management by Age Cymru has meant that it is able to benefit from that organisation’s knowledge of the wider scene of older people’s work including their My Home Life programme of training for the improvement of care homes. This has very much helped the brilliant cARTrefu (meaning ‘to reside’ in Welsh) programme also based there and funded by the Arts Council Wales and ourselves. The programme works across four art forms (performing arts, visual arts, words and music), with an expert artist  mentoring four others. cARTrefu has already placed artists in residence in around one quarter (122) of the care homes in Wales. This makes it one of the largest arts and dementia schemes in Europe.

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To take one moving example, one of the artists, the photographer Michal Iwanowski, has worked with residents to make their dreams to come true. For one resident, this was identifying and photographing the grave of her first husband who died in Austria on the last day of the Second World War. Unable to visit the site and for many years silent about this loss to her second husband and family, the photograph taken by Michal has been deeply important to her. cARTrefu will run for another two years and an evaluation is about to the published by Bangor University.

cARTrefu and the wide range of projects in Wales are captured in this short film.

Last year, I had the pleasure of seeing two great theatre pieces the Foundation had the privilege of supporting. Re-live, run by Karin Diamond and Alison O’Connor, produced a powerful new play written by Karin called Belonging/Pethryn, which was developed from numerous interviews with people living with dementia and their carers. I went to a performance mainly attended by professionals working in social care, many of whom were struggling with tears by the end. It has toured wales and won several awards and is part of a growing body of work by the company with a focus on dementia. We also funded the National Theatre of Wales, which created a new play called Before I Leave which arose out of playwright, Patrick Jones’s encounter with a dementia choir in Methyr Tydfil. NTW worked with a number of dementia choirs on a new work piece called I’ll Sing this Song by Manic Street Preachers, Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield – there’s even an app! As elsewhere in the UK, theatres and other venues in Wales are beginning to programme dementia-friendly performances.

There is also much to celebrate in the work being undertaken by local authorities, despite the immense pressures on resources in Wales as elsewhere. Denbighshire Council has been running the Lost in Arts project (with support from ACW) for over five years. Artists work with people living with dementia in a number of sites and with local primary schools. Partnerships between local primary schools and care organisations are also central to a Gwynedd Council project to tackle loneliness among older people in rural communities: Memories through Music – Connecting Generations is delivered by Canolfan Gerdd William Matthias Music Centre.

Museums in Wales are also engaged with this agenda. Perhaps one of the bolder examples has been the dementia friendly trips organised by the Big Pit National Coal Museum. Singing and coal mining, two pillars of Welsh culture, came together in a commission we funded by Live Music Now in our Late Style programme (promoting the commissioning of work by older artists). Jon McLeod, the composer (himself over 80) produced a haunting piece, partly based on the memories of people who were children in the Aberfan Disaster (and coal mining communities in West Lothian). Called Songs from Above and Below, the song cycle was premiered at the Wales Millennium Centre. (You can listen to excerpts of the music here in this short video about the making of the song cycle.)

So why is Wales winning an enviable reputation in participatory arts with older people?

Clearly the collaboration of and leadership by the Arts Council Wales and Age Cymru has been crucial. It strikes me that key arts organisations and older people’s organisations are better networked, certainly than in England. This will only be improved by the launch of the Age Friendly Cultural Network, an initiative of Ageing Well in Wales and the National Museum Wales.

Wales has some structural advantages, not only in scale but in innovations such as the creation of the officer of Older People’s Commissioner, combined with her clear appreciation that culture is a right for older people. New legislation, the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014, is also offering new opportunities and these are being taken in a practical ways such as the Age-Friendly Communities Resource Hub.

cARTrefu and other projects have demonstrated that there is a wealth of artists who see the creative potential and excitement of working with older people. The ambition of these projects is evident.

We have wanted through our funding to instil an understanding of the value of arts for and by older people – among arts organisations, older people’s charities, the care home sector, and among artists and the community as a whole. The signs that this idea has taken a firm root in Wales look particularly promising.

Spring time in Wales is glorious indeed.

David Cutler, Director, the Baring Foundation

With thanks to David and the Foundation for permission to include this text here.

Speaking of unspoken things

Western medicine has pushed back the frontiers of disease, making death rarer, at least in the sense that it does not intrude into our lives with the brutality with which it visited the Victorians. In the 19th century death often came for the young and those in the prime of life. There can have been few families who saw all their children grow into old age. Our ancestors, who might face dying at any age, had better resources for dealing with its reality than we do, including rituals for every stage of dying, burying and grieving. Some cultures still have them. But months of formal mourning now seem excessive, even absurd, in the healthy, prosperous West, where death is not to be spoken of except hurriedly, in hushed tones. In England, it’s almost embarrassing. We’re anxious to do the right thing, not to be ‘a bother’. No wonder we coined the phrase ‘dying of embarrassment’.

Indeed, I’m faintly embarrassed to have raised the subject now. Let’s not go there.

But we must. Death is the only thing of which we can be certain, however much we proclaim The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. We might not know it, yet, but we know of it. So we keep it on the other side of the glass. Science and medicine form an impenetrable, if transparent, barrier between the living and the dying.

In the past, death announced its coming. Unless it came catastrophically in an accident or a heart attack, it allowed some measure of preparation. People died at home, in their beds. A family gathered, knowing what was happening. The living sat with the dying and tried to ease their suffering. The priest or the minister was called. Thomas Lynch, the American poet who is also an undertaker, has written movingly about the time – most of time, it must be said – when people were born and died where they lived and among those with whom they had lived. That is a rare experience nowadays. My father died at home, a small mercy in a sudden and frightening end. But almost every other lost friend  has died in a clinic’s impersonal room, not because they all needed 24 hour medical care but because it’s how we manage dying now in rich societies. As Lynch says:

“We are embarrassed by [our dead] in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber.” (The Undertaking)

The difference, for many, is the loss of religious faith that once gave death transcendent meaning. A death seen as passing into another life evidently has nothing in common with a death seen as the end of all life. Whatever comfort religion brings the believer is unavailable to those who outside the faith. And for them, the rituals of death developed in a context of faith can feel hollow, or worse. So they are left only with the antiseptic services – no one could describe them as rituals – of medicine and its unspoken embarrassment at failing to prolong life.

Into this space, tentatively, delicately even, artists have begun to step. In Leiria (Portugal) is the Sociedade Artística Musical dos Pousos (SAMP), a music school run by and for the local community since 1873. Its present director is Paulo Lameiro, a musician and educator of exceptional imagination. Alongside the usual programme of instrumental teaching and concerts, the orchestra, choir and swing band, he has reached out to local institutions, including the prison and the hospital. Among other work, SAMP musicians have explored how to share music with babies and the very ill. Bringing music to the dying and the bereaved grew out of that experience.

When an elderly man died during a performance in a hospital common room, everyone present wanted to sustain the music and the atmosphere it had created. The clinical staff were asked to wait. There was a person to honour; a life event to respect. The music turned out to be a valued support for that reality.

Since then, SAMP musicians have been asked to play for people at the end of life, when families have gathered for the heartbreaking moment of shutting down an incubator,  and in the moments after death. The musicians have provided comfort to the dying and to the bereaved. It goes without saying that they are present at these times only at the request of the dying and the family. And just two of SAMP’s members offer this support. They have learned how to respond imaginatively to each individual, aware of that person’s relationship with music. They have learned too how to cope sensitively with the feelings in the room, not least their own.  Music, familiar and loved or newly improvised, has helped mark the moment’s unique importance and support those who are living it. Like life itself, its presence is actual and meaningful. Intangible, it touches everything.

One moment it is there, heard but unseen, and then it is gone. So light and yet so great.

In January 2010, the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle was able to die surrounded by her musical family, including her son Rufus Wainwright, who spoke of the moment later:

“We sang to her as she lay there… as we were having this jamboree, her breathing became more laboured and she made a moaning noise. One of the nurses said this could go on for four days and we had already exhausted the back catalogue. Then Kate breathed a little differently, it was like she was saying, ‘Hold on, I’m going to end this show’, and she died. I was looking right into her face, her eyes were open, and my aunt Jane was holding her hand. It was an amazing experience…”

For millennia, people have thought and written about how to die. Montaigne, who lived in the 16th century and saw a lot of death, called dying ‘without doubt the most noteworthy action in a man’s life’. Today, the best on offer may be dying with discretion. But there are alternatives, as SAMP has shown. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable and profound artistic work than these performances for the dying and bereaved.

Each person, each family will have their own wishes: the SAMP approach is not for everyone. But it is a reminder of art’s place in helping us find new ways of marking the fundamental moments of life, including its end. Last week SAMP hosted a conference on art and health in the hospital of Leiria. Its title was ‘Aqui Contigo: Porque d’Arte somos’  – in English,

‘Here with you: because we are (made of) art’.

This post was written at the request of London Arts and Health Forum and published in slightly different form on their blog on 19 April 2017.

Enjoy the walk

Today, I realised that I’ve spent six months writing the wrong book. Or at least writing what I thought someone else might want. I’d forgotten why, several years ago, I began to look for a new language in which to talk about people’s experience of art, in the various explorations I called Regular Marvels. Instead, I’ve drifted back into the kind of academic language that’s always covering its back.

No wonder it’s been hard work – and I apologise to everyone who’s asked me how it’s going recently and got only complaints. No wonder I feel like Sisyphus pushing words uphill only to see them tumble down again. I know that books which aren’t enjoyable to write are rarely enjoyable to read, but I wasn’t listening. There’s no fool etc.…

The book’s due in three months’ time (I hate deadlines) and I’m sitting amidst hundreds of pieces that don’t add up to anything because they’re made for the wrong book. But at least I know it now. So: back out of this dead end and set off in another direction. And this time, enjoy the walk.

The book I should be writing is the book that only I can write. Time to get cracking.