Old Words (2008-2022)

‘Old Words’ is the title I gave to a series of unpublished essays, many of them originating as talks, that I contributed to the MIAAW podcast platform during 2022. With Arlene Goldbard, I had been contributing a monthly podcast called ‘A Culture of Possibility’, that alternated interviews with cultural activists in Europe and North America with our own conversations. When Owen Kelly, the creative engineer of MIAAW, proposed to make the podcasts weekly, I offered these essays for one of the slots.  I wrote at the time that I wasn’t sure how many essays there would be, or who they might interest: ‘It’s perhaps just a form of tidying up. Life recently deprived me of new words, for now at least, so I fall back on old ones.’ The last in the series was published on 6 January 2023; there may be more in future.


Old Words #1 – Music. What is it good for?, 4 March 2022

So, music can bring intense, immediate pleasures, it can create and share meaning, it can guide us to understanding honestly who we are and who we have been, it can establish bonds of solidarity and it can help us know, however incompletely, what it is to be someone else, to have experiences we will, can, never have. And it does all that in ways that no other art form can do—not better, but differently.


Old Words #2 – Making Nothing Happen, 1 April 2022

In one of his finest poems, In Memory of W. B. Yeats, written in the shadow of war in Europe, W. H. Auden writes famously that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, a phrase that has often been taken as an admission of art’s essential uselessness. But there is another way of reading those words. Poetry makes nothing happen because, like all art, it is creative. It makes nothing into something: that is what creation means. The intangible, inexplicable poetry of Auden and of Yeats whom he is commemorating, did not exist before they spoke. It exists now, though they do not. They made ‘nothing’ happen. Nothing became something because of them.


Old Words #3 – Prisoners of Love, Amateurs & Professionals, 6 May 2022

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 technique and our taste. But it is not always in the interests of processed food retailers or restaurateurs— or indeed the professional arts world—to encourage people in that idea. 


Old Words #4 – The Art of Uncertainty, 3 June 2022

Responding to uncertainty requires what Ralph Stacey calls ‘extraordinary management’—processes that enable organisations to move beyond an existing shared paradigm. Faced with strategic decisions involving high uncertainty and high disagreement, organisations need processes that are different from those on which they normally rely for operational ones. Leaders need to recognise both the situation and the anxiety that it naturally produces: that depends on a high degree of openness, honesty and trust. Developing this in organisations usually managed in rigid, hierarchical and rationalist models is evidently difficult. Distant, autocratic or unreliable leaders are not easily trusted when they invite people to be open about their ideas or feelings


Old Words #5 – Playful Adventures, 1 July 2022

Children and young people get most from art when, paradoxically, least is intended or expected. When art is used as a tool for instruction—deliberately to build skills and confidence, to address ‘offending behaviour’, or to pass on cultural or identitary values—it becomes just another part of an inflexible education system. It ceases to be a space for learning and becomes, like maths or science, a means of teaching. The child’s experience switches from an active one of discovery to a passive one of reception. 


Old Words #6 – Cultural Policy in a Post-Political Age, 5 August 2022

This interpretation of recent developments in British cultural policy will strike some readers as controversial or unproven, and I accept that it’s only a first sketch of what might be happening. But I am concerned that neglecting the origins and principles of cultural policy is damaging because it will lead to confusion and/or illusion, both of which make democratic accountability more difficult. In that respect, these developments are in keeping with the powerful—and dangerous—practices of many politicians in democratic societies today. Cultural policy is not immune from this infection. 


Old Words #7 – The Shoreline and the Sea, 2 September 2022

It once seemed to me that making a clear distinction between innate, unchangeable heritage and acquired, changeable culture was a useful way to think about how culture—understood in its broadest sense to include both heritage and art—is used by individuals and social groups. These days, however, it all looks more complicated, more ambiguous, than that. It’s true that we all have a heritage determined by inescapable facts, including our parentage and the date and place of our birth. And it’s true that we acquire culture through our own tastes and choices, throughout life. But I imagine the relationship between these two sides of a person’s or a group’s cultural identity now as a continual, fluid interaction, like the dance of the shoreline and the sea. 


Old Words #8 – Music and Social Change, 7 October 2022

Re-reading this text, it struck me as rather dense, perhaps because it deals with questions I have thought about for many years and might have needed more pace and time to explain fully. It’s mostly concerned with the false assumptions about art and people that lead funders (and often artists) to conceive, plan and evaluate arts projects in ways that are misleading or worse. At the heart of it is Socrates’ undeniable perception that ‘it’s beyond [people’s] capacity to make anyone either wise or foolish’ (in Crito). Artists don’t control the outcomes of their creative activity, thank goodness, but too often they behave as if they did, with very problematic results. The text questions the very idea of ‘impact’, and the inequality it embodies. It concludes by making a case for moving towards probability as a way to monitor and understand the outcomes of creative work.


Old Words #9 – Another Angle of Vision, 4 November 2022

In 2011, I spent time in in Orkney, researching its lively cultural life. It’s an unusual, somewhat intimidating task, to come as a stranger and tell people about themselves. The attention of an outsider can offer fresh insights, provided it’s done with respect, even humility. Like much of my work, it’s not a role I sought, just a door that opened when I pushed. And like other things I’ve been paid to do, I’m well aware that I do them without training or accreditation. I have learned by doing and the work must stand or fall on its own merits. A couple of years later, when I was invited to back to Kirkwall to give a talk about my research, I needed another way of telling the story. I found it in a poem by Robert Rendall, one of many fascinating and impressive cultural figures who have flourished in Orkney. A poet, businessman, naturalist, and archaeologist, Rendall was largely self-taught, and that too was a bond I felt. At the heart of my thinking about community art is the defence of alternative forms of knowledge and meaning-making, so I was sympathetic to Orkney’s self-reliance. I don’t undervalue universities, cultural institutions and other centres of knowledge production: I just think it would be dangerous if they ever gained a monopoly on meaning making, so that the rest of us had only to admire their work or join them. Orkney’s thriving culture shows how wrong, and unnecessary that would be.


Old Words #10 – Approximate Projections, 2 December 2022

This essay, written as a lecture for the University of Antwerp, and given on 26 March 2012, relates to British government structures and cultural policy as they were in 2012 based on data current at the time. To that extent, it’s a historical snapshot, which it is neither possible nor useful to update. The political crisis that has engulfed the UK since its decision in June 2016 to leave the European Union has destabilised everything, including the British government’s idea of culture. In seven years, there have been nine Secretaries of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, none of whom showed conspicuous interest in or understanding of their responsibilities. Two have been contestants in the reality TV programme, ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’, while still sitting as Members of Parliament. They say they want to humanise politicians, but simply help make the difference between government and entertainment meaningless to many, with dangerous consequences.  The lecture is not concerned with cultural data as such, but with what it is imagined to be and represent.


Old Words #11 – All in This Together, 6 January 2022