Do we need an organised movement to spread ideas?

Brilliant Speakers with Brilliant Ideas – but is that enough?

At the ArtsWork Conference in Dundee the other day there was a call from the real David Cameron , the Scottish presenter, trainer and consultant, to create a movement/institution, to change perceptions about community arts.

In another presentation from Alain De Botton at  ‘La Ciudad de las Ideas’ 2013 , he argues that we should look at religion as a model to create such an movement –  he suggests that because religion has been the most powerful institution to spread ideas through the world we should look at how it educates us.  He believes that culture can replace religion, as the new way for people to receive ‘meaning, consolation, the difference between right and wrong and the sense of community’. He argues that we should examine the way that religion works in order to learn how this idea might become wide spread.

He says that one person cannot do that alone  and we must create an institution, a movement to make these ideas a reality.

I really enjoyed listening to the real David Cameron, a brilliant presenter of ideas. I also enjoy listening to Alain de Botton. I heard him speak live at The South Bank Centre in London last year and he was very inspiring – but I am nervous of institutions and movements.

‘Owning our own truth is possibly the hardest thing we have to do’

I recently found this quote in an article about my friend Mark Clements, a british theatre director living and working in USA. It struck a cord.

At the conference I felt uneasy about the idea of another movement, another institution. My fear was that it would create another place for the articulate, the experienced performers and people who were confident – to shine – and it would leave the outsiders, the fearful and the powerless – in the shade. In the field of community arts we often express the idea that we represent people who are disadvantaged in some way, yet at the ArtsWork Conference I didn’t meet any participants from any community  project. I was only there for one day and of course I didn’t meet everybody and maybe there were people there who had become engaged in the arts through one of the projects – but they certainly were not centre stage on the first day.

A lot of brilliant people doing wonderful projects but where were ‘the changes in peoples lives’ that are often quoted as a ‘raison d’etre’ of community arts projects.

For me it was great being back in Dundee  and seeing the amazing developments happening in the city. I loved the Pecha Kucha presentations and I enjoyed David Cameron’s provocations and I met some great people. But the dilemma for me is to find a way to have less of the people who think they know about community arts and more from the people who have experienced something, who want to share that experience with others and have found new ways to communicate ‘their own truth’ by being involved in the arts.

Recently Dundee lost a brilliant advocate of the city with the early death of Singer/Songwriter, Michael Marra. In his quiet way he was able to express his admiration and love of the people who were outside the mainstream because he, himself, felt outside it.

I worked with Michael on his first steps into ‘professional theatre’ – ‘from the outside to the inside’ – another well used phrase of the ArtsWork Conference – and last week I was reminded of this teachings. In our first production together “They Fairly Mak Ye Work” at the Dundee Rep he sang a song that will always be with me and teaches me that I need to listen to the voices from the outside more than those on the inside because they give me comfort in my search for my own truth.

I don’t know how to embed this video but please click on the link to hear

Michael Marra’s “Here Come The Weak”

According to religious teaching “the weak will inherit the earth’ – I don’t see that to be true. From the typhoons in South East Asia to the refugees from Africa and the Middle east to the homeless to the infirm to the challenged to the Bedroom Tax in the UK the weak across the world are suffering.
Are we still waiting for that moment when the weak will be strong – Is that one of the promises that religion offers to help people believe that things will get better?
Can the weak express themselves through religion?  Can their voices be heard?

Or can their voices be heard louder through culture, through arts?


2 thoughts on “Do we need an organised movement to spread ideas?

  1. Hi Alan –
    I like your question about “where are the changes in peoples’ lives?” because, more often than not, I think they are not apparent after the fact of the social art project or engagement. This claim of impending transformation is regularly cited in support of participative art work (I use it myself) but in the general absence of proper post-project monitoring and time-based (3 months/6 months/2 years) outcome and impact evaluations of these “changes” how can any of us really assess the transformative value of our involvement – if indeed, we ARE offering “change” along with the art?

    Of course, there will always be a place for the wonderful magic of the one-time only creative experience but the original driver of community arts work all those years ago, WAS to create something lasting in the lives of others and, when watching some of the fascinating Pecha Kucha presentations, I certainly found myself asking what happened, or will happen, afterwards. What will underpin any “changes”? And what constitutes “change” anyway? Is it a construct of the participating artist or is it a concrete movement of a community, a group or an individual towards a new (and preferably sustainable) reality that is seen to be a positive one? And who by?
    In this regard, I am reminded of the long ago gable end mural project in various communities in Glasgow where the then Scottish Arts Council funded a series of “transformative” artworks on gable ends in the city. One still exists in Garnethill. I can’t remember the community that was due this treatment but the scaffolding duly went up and the scene was set for the artists to work the metamorphosis. Brushes at the ready, overalls and toories on, rollies in the pocket, they were greeted by a formidable group of arm-folded local women who told them in no uncertain terms to take themselves off the premises as they were “not a deprived community and didnae want wan o’ thae murials.” A great example of non-negotiated community arts practice and unwanted “change.”

    On the other hand, however, I do not doubt that contact with a creative experience can contain the possibility of transformation and change – it happens to me all the time – but I question whether this is an offer we can always properly follow through on as artists working in community/participatory settings. Should it be on the agenda at all? The aim is laudable but not practical, for after all, artists are not community/care/social workers and often we are simply not in place long enough for a community to be “classified” by them or for people to have the chance to see your contribution in a meaningful-to-them context.

    In my own work nowadays I don’t know whether I am proud or slightly embarrassed to say that I find myself thrilled when someone attends a drawing workshop of mine and, on opening a box of utterly beguiling and beautiful chalk pastels for the next drawing, says on departure – “I’m off to buy a box of those!” That is the kind of change I aspire to engender these days if I’m honest – it seems do-able to me – for anyone – and it is the idea of people being at the heart of an art experience that still spurs me on to pursue modest goals of creative engagement – change will and should take care of itself.

    On another point altogether I wanted to ask whether any actively teaching staff of our art colleges and other creative institutions attended the conference? In the absence of a participant’s list, it didn’t appear to be the case so do I have to wonder if these fundamental influencers of current and future arts development still need to be convinced that a participatory arts practice has value and offers a creditable career for graduate artists? Apologies if some of you were there and were just quiet.

    Note for Artworks Scotland: re a participant’s list, will one be forthcoming? Details of who and where from/what they do etc would be worthwhile.

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