From Matt Hargrave, Senior Lecturer in Drama & Applied Theatre, University of Northumbria
‘Helix Arts are to be congratulated on a clear and accessible framework that contributes to a vital debate.
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The document has made me think a great deal and I would be interested in engaging in more dialogue. Overall, I think that the issues of socially engaged practice – and any art practice for that matter – are more complex than the current model allows. The Quality Framework, as it stands, does not address the primary question of aesthetics: namely, is the work is any good? When I say ‘good’, I mean, does the work itself – the object or the event – persuade me that there is a better (more complex, nuanced, ambiguous, sensuous, more amusing, surprising, heart-stopping) way of seeing the world? To foreground ethics at the expense of aesthetics is to miss the function and value of art. The model suggests that one has to choose between ethical practice (good) and appropriating ‘real’ people to meet the artist’s needs (bad). Kester’s side of the table is presented in fragrant purple; Bishop’s as darkest black. Is Bishop the dark night of the artist’s – or the participant’s – soul? I don’t think that the choice is so stark, or it should not be.
A concrete example of an artist working with a group of untrained artists to produce an aesthetically rich and ambiguous work would be Alan Lyddiard’s recent – and ongoing – collaboration with the Cyrenians, presented at the University of Northumbria, last June. Where to place this work on the continuum? I would argue, in this case, that the continuum itself breaks down. The ‘author’ was Lyddiard, clearly, but the artefact itself was a teaming heteronymous universe: trained and untrained performers working together, ensemble moments, virtuosic individual moments, and often improvised sections that defied the notion of authorship altogether. One could reduce the actors’ participation to that of ‘material for an artist’s work’. More productively, the work might be considered as a deeply complex work of art, which translated a particular social context into a complex aesthetic, changing – or at least widening our perception of – both fields. Two moments stand out for me: first, an untrained performer forgets his lines and is supported to conclude his part by the director; second, an ‘authentic’ refugee, who delivers a story about a racist attack is revealed, in the post show discussion, to be a trained actor, practiced in counterfeiting emotion. The first moment shattered any distinction between artistic and social roles, as we witnessed one person supporting another, whilst maintaining the integrity of both. The second, like the curtain reveal in the Wizard Of Oz, expressed what we know, but sometimes do not wish to admit – but fortunately Picasso reminds us – that art is the lie that tells the truth.