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

Art As Action

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We are organising last minute details for our conference that is happening tomorrow

I am trying to stay calm but things are moving so fast and, on a limited budget, it is hard to keep things on track.

But in terms of the big picture I think it should be good. We have some great speakers and an amazing group of people coming. It will be, as they say, a good and lively debate.

I am speaking for ten minutes in the morning and have been thinking about what I might say. I will be very optimistic  about the people engaged with this conference. We have such a good cross section of people from many different sectors of the community, the arts, local authorities, charitable organisations, people working in areas of health and well-being and academics. A lively mix. But I am quite concerned about the way we currently work together, how we organise ourselves and how the funding works etc. I have a nagging suspicion that we could work better together and we should consider each other as complementary partners and not forget who we are working for.

I am currently working for a group of people who are living pretty chaotic lives. I am based in a homeless hostel in Newcastle’s West End. Sometimes it can be depressing. I work to try and take people’s minds off the things that trouble them – which can lead them into taking an excess of drugs or alcohol to dampen the pain that I imagine they feel. I hope that by introducing some creative projects into their lives that, maybe for a time, they will see an alternative to the deadening of their minds, their emotions and their creative spirits.

I have worked here for two years now and I know it has been useful for some people that I have been around. Many people have told me that their relationship with the arts has given them something extra, something that their support workers, the probation service  and the health workers cannot give them. It is a privilege to see the the progression that some people make with their lives and working with them teaches me about resilience and determination and the joy of the simplest thing. Sometimes I see people make incredible progress only to then see them fall back into their old ways. That makes me really sad.

But I also know the arts have helped some of them to grow – helped them in their battles with addiction- helped them feel better about themselves – helped them to live healthier lives – helped them to progress to independent living – helped them look at the world differently with more optimism – helped them to see a brighter future for themselves – helped them to lift their spirits when they have felt depressed and helped them in more ways than iI can imagine.

I believe the work will also have saved money for local authorities across the country and national governments. In the age of austerity governments and local authorities have a duty to consider what the arts are able to do.They should accept the finding of many reports that tell them that the arts are extremely good value for money. That they are helpful in creating better  lives for all citizens.

We must change the attitudes of the people in positions of power  that believe the arts are irrelevant – because they are simply wrong.

I hope our conference goes a little way to helping us achieve this goal.