Sermon from Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton – Arts As Action

I attended the service at St John the Baptist Church in Newcastle yesterday to listen to the sermon given by the Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton.  He spoke about the Arts As Action Conference we had recently run at Northumbria University.

We had clearly stimulated a good discussion –  An except from his sermon follows below

2nd Sunday after Trinity – 9 June 2013

“The other day I attended a conference at Northumbria University, called Art as Action.

It was organised by Alan Lyddiard and the Cyrenians arts and media programme, also responsible for producing the big performance event that is going to be taking place here on the 27th of June. You will all have seen the posters, I assume… Anyway, the conference brought together a number of groups and individuals involved in social work and community arts, many of whom specialised in working with some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society – including the homeless, prisoners, asylum seekers and so on. And indeed, this type of work was the main theme of the conference and much of the discussion it provoked.

A number of questions were raised. Are the arts relevant to those on the fringes of society, or are they – as often perceived – a middle class preserve? Can the arts – and specifically community arts projects – help empower people to change their lives? And if so – and I think it was pretty clear that this is indeed the case – then how? In the presentations, workshops and discussions that took place over the course of the day it emerged quite clearly that participatory or community arts projects, that is to say, some sort of creative activity that engages people in a cultural practice – often facilitated by a professional artist – can be and very often is a catalyst for personal and social transformation. And in all this, the key term that cropped up again and again was ‘wellbeing’. Participatory community arts projects improve wellbeing, self-esteem, and so on, because what happens is that people are enabled to tell their stories, and in the process, to change the story other people have of them – as being no good, a burden on society, or whatever – and this in turn enables them to change their lives and the world as they experience it.

Art really can do all of those things, because it enables people to express, reflect on, and share their stories of who they are and how they create meaning. And, most importantly of all, when people are given a voice, they are able to re-write their story. And it struck me, during the course of the day, that the crucial element in all this, and the thing that makes art different from many other kinds of participatory activity that may also have therapeutic benefit in enabling self-expression or relationship building, is that generally speaking, at some level, artistic activity implies an audience. It is not just about self-expression, but also about being witnessed: being seen, being heard. The significance of this can perhaps best be understood by thinking about the implications of not being seen. We know that to feel as if one is invisible is soul destroying, miserable. It is to feel as if we do not even exist. It is no accident that the word ‘regard’ has meanings that include both ‘looking at’, and ‘holding in esteem’. Our sense of self is affirmed by the regard of others – in both senses of the word. Our very existence depends on being seen and valued by others. To count for something, to be valued, really is a fundamental human need. Without it we lose our humanity. Without regard we are as nothing.”

The Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton