Thinking

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.

Slogans - 1

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.

Banlieues Bleues - 3

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.

Slogans - 1

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.

Banlieues Bleues - 3

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.

cARTrefu-residencies-project_Michal-Photo

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.

I am not the milkman of human kindness

If you’re lonely, I will call –
If you’re poorly, I will send poetry

Billy Bragg, The Milkman of Human Kindness (1983)

I don’t remember when artists began to speak of ‘delivering’ projects, but it may have been around the time when delivery entered the rhetoric of politics. That was worrying in itself – after all, government only talks up its delivery when it knows people aren’t persuaded that it is actually making things better.

Be that as it may, the metaphor has always made me uncomfortable. It imagines participatory art as a package that can be handed over. The artist just needs to turn up ready and equipped to ‘deliver’ the workshop and another box can be ticked. It doesn’t really matter who is being delivered to because delivery is one-sided. Some imagined public good is handed over and signed for. Job done: the commissioner is content.

But the essence of participatory art is co-creation and that is not one-sided. Ideas and imagination, influence and power, authorship, creativity – all shift restlessly between everyone involved. What happens is unpredictable because it emerges from a shared creative process. There is no plan to be delivered, like a lesson with learning outcomes. There is, with luck and a following wind, a creative journey to be shared towards a destination that may turn out to be quite different from the one that was anticipated. All the best results of community art – growth, empowerment, change – come from being together in that journey.

I have never delivered a community art project. I’m not a milkman, quietly placing a healthy pint on stranger’s doorsteps. Community arts does not give you calcium. I want only to share a part of my journey with someone who wants the same.

Keeping the art in focus

MEF Este Espaço Que Habito

Participatory art projects can fail for the same reasons that all projects. The bigger causes – inexperience, incompetence, lack of imagination, ego – lead to smaller and more specific ones, such as poor planning, inadequate resources and personality clashes. But participatory art projects can also fail for a reason that is specific to the practice – they fail when they don’t know how much importance to place on the art.

The inner tension of participatory art – what makes it restless – is having more than one objective. Artistic creation is balanced with other goals, such as education,  wellbeing, community development, social inclusion or even peacebuilding. Each project is a unique coalition of organisational and personal interests. Everyone knows that things will happen differently than if they were working alone – it’s that difference that makes the project worthwhile. But they want to achieve their own goals, so success depends on getting the right balance between everyone’s interests. The vitality of participatory art comes from walking the tightrope between social and artistic purpose.

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A focus only on artistic goals, at the expense of other issues, risks producing a kind of ‘painting-by-numbers’, in which the non-professionals simply fulfil the directives of professional artists. The result might be aesthetically satisfying. It might be appreciated by its audience. It might even be enjoyed and valued by the participants. But in the end it’s just another artistic product that is unlikely to change individual lives or social conditions. One sign of a failed participatory art project is the feeling that it could have been done better by the professionals working alone.

But neglecting art to focus on social objectives is equally risky, though not because art can’t be used to serve such purposes. The arguments against ‘instrumentalisation’ are mostly flawed and self-serving. But if you want to use art for a social purpose it is only logical to respect the tool itself. Unfortunately, people often agree to use a new approach and then try to apply it like the existing ones with which they are familiar. But art does not work – to take an obvious example – like education. It reaches people differently and makes fast, unexpected connections. If you force it to fit accepted norms and approaches, you undermine its effectiveness and the value of using it.

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Art is often seen as a way to engage teenagers facing difficulties in education, work or at home and it can be a lifeline at this age. By helping young people gain new personal, social and practical skills through supportive creative  activity, art projects can permanently change lives. But those results are unlikely to appear if the art being offered is mediocre or boring and the processes are the familiar ones of school. After all, it’s because existing provision doesn’t reach them that these young people need something different, more challenging and more inspirational.

Placing a high value on the authenticity of an artistic process need not entail high costs or following the norms of the mainstream art world.  What matters is that the artists leading the project are ambitious, imaginative and serious; that they have a depth of knowledge and experience to offer; that they set high standards for the work and expect everyone to meet them, in their own way; that they believe in each participant’s unique ability and will not rest until they have helped the person to find it; that they want to make art in which everyone, including them as professional artists, can take justifiable pride.

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The work with young offenders done by Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (MEF) has all these qualities but depends on the simplest and cheapest of resources: homemade pinhole cameras. Between 2014 and 2016 MEF worked in six young offenders’ institutions in Portugal on a project called Este Espaço Que Habito (‘This Place I Live In’). Each participant made a cardboard pinhole camera to a design by MEF, before selecting nearby places that were meaningful to them to photograph. The processed images were collected in hand-made journals in which the young people reflected on the meaning of these places in their lives. The journals were personal documents, representing a new sense of self-awareness and reflection for their maker. They were the record of a life in progress made – and to be continued by – the person living it.

But the work was also shared with public audiences in the press and through exhibition. A selection of images from each institution was digitised for use in light boxes and presented in local galleries. Nearly 200 young people took part in the project and their response to the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. By returning to the simplest form of photography, in an age of digital plenitude, the artists helped the young people appreciate the value of slowing down, of feeling what they were experiencing and thinking about the meaning of the images they made. The materials were insignificant but the process was serious and demanding, opening the participants to a rich potential for personal change. This was possible because of the calibre of the artists involved and the importance given to art in the project.

The art was a means to social change in this project. The management of the young offenders institutions was concerned with the rehabilitation not the creativity of the people who took part. But the project’s success lay in its clear focus on making art that had integrity and spoke both to its creators and to a wider audience. With their eyes always on that prize, everyone involved was able to move confidently along the tightrope.  The artistic quality of the work was not an incidental aspect of the project’s success: it was the reason for that success.

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Co-creation and collective action, then and now

‘Launch’ a film by Amber Collective (1974)

It is a curious thing that the first official account of community arts in Britain should have been overseen by a classicist. Professor Harold Baldry (1907-91) had been Professor of Classics at Southampton University and Chairman of Southern Arts Association before becoming a member of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1973. The year he joined, the Council

‘decided to set up a small working party whose task was essentially to examine the nature of community arts activities in this country and to advise the Council on what should be the extent of its own role and involvement in this development.’

Between January and June 1974, the Working Party met several times, read a variety of documents it was sent and visited community arts projects in London, Leeds, Bradford and Bracknell. It met representatives of arts associations, UNESCO, the French Embassy, the Home Office and Telford New Town Project, among others. And it produced a short, elegant report that argued for a new Community Arts Committee be established to fund the work, based on a loose definition of what community arts actually was. Continue reading “Co-creation and collective action, then and now”

Co-creation

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‘Fragmentos’, Grupo RefugioActo (photo François Matarasso)

Changing relationships in the networked age

What is co-creation? The term has come into participatory art discourse recently, but I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation of what it describes. At face value, it seems to make sense. Participatory art is the practice of involving others in an artist’s creative process. According to Wikipedia, this allows them ‘to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work’. Fair enough: that sounds like something you might call co-creation. But what is the nature and degree of creative input people are actually being invited to contribute?

Continue reading “Co-creation”