Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Over the Rainbow

So, here in CAP we are intensely interested in the social dimension to not only arts but the creative relationships that can underpin community development. And within that, we have assumed that we all understand what we mean by community as well.  In these times of deepening crises and social uncertainty, there are some things that it seems we still respond to as a community, as a people and a place, with a set of self-determined values against a backdrop of shifting variables like health, economy, environment etc.

Our substantive meaning of community as a group or network of persons who are connected to each other by a relatively stable set of social relations that extends beyond immediate family or genetic ties, and who mutually define that relationship as important to their social identity and practice. But of course, these social relations do not necessarily have to be framed in the physical world – increasingly we are members of on-line or virtual communities where we are united relationally by a set of ideas, or notions and affiliations that spring from them. 

The ‘ties that bind’ concept of made-community demands that as the connections that we make to each other are strengthened, then the relative health and resilience of any given community is increased. 

Win, win.

This weekend, we have seen a huge groundswell of support for inclusion in a sense of shared community flowing from Ireland’s remarkable referendum result for Equal Marriage. We also see the contrast elsewhere all the more starkly.

Protecting the vulnerable; including those at the margins to become part of a more resilient and self-aware whole; legislating for social harmony not divisive chaos; allowing voices to be heard, balanced and acknowledged; respecting identity; supporting choice.  It could be the ambition of a far-sighted campaign, or the ideals of community development but it is also a theoretical space that community arts practitioners inhabit.  For others again, it might represent what we have come to know as the equilibrium struck in the ‘social contract’ of post-enlightenment political practice. Whatever it may be, socially cooperative societies recognise that the destructive forces that besiege our lives, should be countered by the determination to minimise their impact. That instead we must try to enhance our collective ambition. We empower people to champion and influence decision-making in this pursuit. The test for their success is not how much better off ‘the better-off’ are, but how much safer and protected the most vulnerable and marginalised are. For many today, the only spaces that truly allow for such an ethos to be understood are the arts, where a concept so utterly wedded to the notions of civility and humanity as to embody the most noble aspiration for a community as possible can exist. And exist supported by notions of elegance, beauty, design, inspiration, imagination, artistry, colour…

Whilst the recognised rights to equal participation in democratic society are enshrined in a range of documents, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to, our own Good Friday Agreement, we constantly observe the undermining of such communitarian values by others.  

For us in community arts, it is so affirming to see those at the margins included. It is what socially-inclusive creativity is all about. But, others create even greater challenges for our collective sense of society when passively they allow the most vulnerable to become even more marginalised and worse, when actively they advance the means to penalise the poor further for the precarious nature of their marginalised, less-favoured lives. This defies logic and indeed, our innate sense of social and human responsibility.

The tremendous power that the arts hold in general and community arts uphold in particular, is that democratic recognising of people and their individual place in a collective project– of little-heard voices being celebrated, of hidden talent and worth being unearthed and new opportunities and ideas created. Our society is made all the better for it. Great art makes you well. Great works of art and pieces of music and vistas of outstanding beauty heal. This is now scientifically proven http://positivenews.org.uk/2015/culture/art/17334/art-nature-spirituality-prevent-disease-study-finds/

Here and now, we need as many new opportunities as possible if we are going to move forward as a vibrant, sustaining place for real people, with real concerns, real families and true connections and human value. The health of ourselves and our fragile emerging sense of community must be nurtured at the same time as opportunity for development exploited.

It shouldn’t be the reverse.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

After The Gold Rush...

So, as we dust ourselves down after the election and take stock of where we are, the reality for most involved in culture and arts work is that it will be more competitive to find funds and for many that will mean really struggling to provide public service through arts activity.

But, for our communities, especially for those that CAP serve, the impact of the second term of Tory austerity may well see the advances that have been made, undone, with our local devolved political institutions powerless to resist, as valiantly as some may advocate.

We also see the Tory austerity determination to isolate Britain from the rest of Europe. That might be fine if you live in London, or trade transnationally with finance centres globally. But to those that have a land border with the European Economic Area and who have enjoyed billions of public investment that has made a real and lasting difference to life, it is totally different. And that’s us, here.

Then there are the constitutional arrangements. Seceding from the European Union will mean we will no longer be protected by working time directives, or have our rural agricultural services supported by the Common Agricultural Policy or Human Rights legislation. On this point, as the campaign for the administration of justice has pointed out in their open letter to the Tories, any retreat from the full expression of the current Human Rights Act may leave the Good Friday Agreement in an ultra vires position – ie illegal.

For those of us who dedicate our working life in the support of the ambition and development of others, it is deeply worrying to contemplate the destructive effect that such huge changes to life and living standards and conditions will have.  For the well-spring of creativity, the arts, to be made so vulnerable by successive years of cuts, as demanded by these waves of austerity from Westminster, speaks volumes about what costs are attached to things and what their actual value is; as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing’. This was his, or rather his character Lord Darlington’s answer to the question ‘what is a cynic?’ It is utterly cynical, within this facet of its meaning, to reduce the social, educational, economic, developmental, and the health-related impact of the arts down to just how much do they cost. Rather, those that see beyond the cynicism, would ask how much impact do the arts have and how could we improve their benefits?

That would be a breath of fresh air, a nugget. Imagine politicians promoting how something is valued and recognising an intrinsic worth and all the indirectly beneficial impacts. We have heard a few over the years try to articulate this. But in times of austerity, especially when utterly ideologically driven, one doesn’t look for value or benefit. Except of course, when it comes to those favoured as creating wealth – not health, or public benefit, or social cohesion, or joy, or wonder, or beauty, or breath-taking performances, or moments of sheer rapture, or peace.

No, just wealth.

It is a short-sighted cynic who believes in the alchemy of wealth creation and attributes it to only the so-called 'creators', not the actual producers or the users or customers. And of course, we all recall the saying “Your health is your wealth”, not Oscar Wilde, but Virgil I believe. 

For those more far-sighted, there is a realisation that there are fundamental requirements for people and society. The ability to express and receive ideas and enhance one’s life chances through creativity, has been central to the evolution of our species over the millennia. Indeed, as a species, we declared in 1948 in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a whole range of “red lines”, inalienable rights that we agreed were the bedrock of civilisation.

For many lucky folk, who are energetic and healthy, they indeed are wealthy, relative to this view. But starved of actual opportunity, as so many who share these attributes are, by austerity and its consequent poverty, what happens?. And if avenues to alternative ways to well-being, and feeling valued are also choked off, where next?

So, as we hear of further reduced support for the most vulnerable in our society and a determination by government to widen the already gaping chasm between rich and poor, well and unwell, educated and failed, optimistic and despairing, we must redouble our determination to celebrate the best of ourselves and the good things in life. We must challenge those with a narrow view of life, to broaden their horizons and embrace the freedom that creativity can offer and the incredibly transforming and sustaining power that the arts hold, for all of us. And we should demand an equal right to participate in this society, and make our mark.

Stick on your favourite record and ask yourself what that songwriter would have made of austerity. And ask yourself what that album is worth to you. Or that painting. Or that film.
The ArtsMatterNI.