People Make Theatre: The role of the arts in the new politics

Great blog post by Jonathan Petherbridge that we just needed to share with our followers!

Jonathan issues a challenge to Arts Council England and arts institutions: Think about how art can be a process, an experience - not a product to be consumed.

We hope this reblog of Jonathan's post will stimulate further debate and, more importantly action - self-organising.  The time is NOW!


People Make Theatre: The role of the arts in the new politics

The role of the arts in the new politics

It's the day after the full election result. Saturday. The radio and papers are full of bemused reflection - how did the opinion polls get it so wrong, where has liberalism gone, what direction should the Labour Party now take, whither proportional representation ? Friends, family and colleagues are slowly emerging from shocked despair and bracing themselves for five more years.
But what's to do ?

Partly inspired by Stella Duffy's listing of her practical response and partly provoked by the fallout from Participation on Trial, I am wondering if the electoral outcome actually offers a challenge to the arts sector.

My fear is that the result of the election showed middle England's default position. People might flirt with Lib Dems but when the chips are down the tick goes to Conservatives - or possibly UKIP. I am trying to put myself in the position of a young first time voter not living in London or one of the cities like Leicester or Bristol that shunned the Tories. The serious conversations going on around this young me are about jobs and mortgages. My parents and teachers talk about interest rates and eradicating the national debt. I turn on the TV and any debate is framed almost entirely in the language of numbers and the context of money. In my area schools are becoming academies and seem to reinforce this default thinking. In the state schools too, arts subjects are becoming marginalised. And in the current climate my mates sort of think this is rational. Arts aren't going to get you a job - well not a proper job.

Is this the dominant thinking that young people are growing up receiving and believing ? Is it therefore becoming normal - even cool - to vote for a party that puts the individual before the society ? The shareholder before the customer. The self before others.

I think we should assume that these are now the default values of middle England. Beyond London apart from a few northern outposts and a scattering of island-cities surrounded by a sea of blue voters, for the majority the dominant values are the values of the market.

So what's to do ?

A coherent political response is going to take some time to formulate and I fear it's going to get worse before it gets better. But while we're waiting for the party wheels to grind I think the arts, especially participatory arts, can offer a surprisingly different way of looking at things.

Arts activities offer young (and old) people a space where things are valued differently. In the best cases they offer a space where we value ourselves and each other differently. Countless arts projects involve people in playing, making, writing and performing, and these operate through a different set of values. Most encourage co-operation, accessibility, listening, respect. Many build work from individual personal narratives, but artfully amplify these with the contributions of many. A recent piece at the Young Vic was woven from the testimonies of female carers over several months*. I was fortunate to catch one of the performances given by a cast of about 30 female carers. The sense of solidarity was tangible. The exploration and celebration of an abstract concept ('care') had the audience doing that smiling/glowing thing. And the dancing was fantastic. The values on show, and I suspect throughout the process offered an alternative argument of what is important in life, and - and this is key - that argument was registered emotionally and physically.

In many instances art is increasingly regarded as a commodity rather than a means of self and/or group expression. Even in participatory arts there seems to be a greater emphasis on the product rather than the process and I am seeing a growing tendency to think about the market and the wrapping of the goods for sale, right from the off ? Sometimes our responses themselves are monetised - if a viewer or participant values art for what it does to their mood or mind, spirit or soul, then that response may well appear on the billboard or in the funding bid for the next endeavour.

I think many of us are falling into this money and numbers game - it's not surprising. The number one coffee break conversation at any conference is going to be funding. The number one piece of work will be a spreadsheet. The first demand from a funder will be outputs - or outcomes measured numerically. And artists continue to talk about how they are paid (or aren't paid) - publicly.

But we must hold our nerve. The default political position described above leaves a vacuum. I like to think (and this may be very old fashioned) that people require other things. Friendship, connection, love, humour - soft and squidgy sort of spiritual things that make it worth getting up in the morning. Things that some link to the concept of Wellbeing. The arts - especially participatory arts - offers space where people can experience this - other places do too, faith groups and sports clubs, the WI and the allotment. But participatory arts spaces have less of an agenda and are more explicit about stating the rules of engagement - the ethos. Skilled facilitators - be they a conductor or youth theatre leader will mediate a space where teamwork is all, they will foster and monitor a atmosphere of connection and creativity. And the dancing will be fantastic (and it will include seated dancing too).

While society sorts out how it wants to be represented politically, I think it is important that the arts offers opportunities for people to meet and work positively together. Non-religious, non-institutional, open and accessible spaces where an alternative set of values can be experienced. I challenge the Arts sector - the Arts Council and the 'institutions' to consider how they can present art not as a product, but as a process, to be experienced - not consumed.