Stories, Research & Projects
Music & Social Action
This piece was written as the final assignment of the Music & Social Action course with coursera.org and Yale University (USA) on 5 April 2016.
On the island of Ireland – both Dublin and Belfast specifically – political conflicts remain regarding the acceptance and tolerance of certain groups (eg. migrants). I see xenophobia and social exclusion as problem both socially and politically in my community.
Artists, as citizens, can make a positive contribution to society by organising and creating spaces where more cultures are shared. There are many people who are not touched or included by mainstream activities. I see a potential role for artists in working with migrants, refugees, Travellers, and/or other groups to facilitate the expression of that community’s identity. If artists choose to work with under-represented groups, they can begin a process of community-making.
The Artist's role
As Dewey and Barnes expressed in their letters, art can be “soul-thrilling” and makes us pay attention for moments of beauty. It draws us into a different space, out of our daily lives. It takes us to a different way of feeling something. Often that feeling happens for no longer than a moment – but people hang onto those moments. This usually comes from an aesthetic experience; as Maxine Greene says in “Releasing the Imaginations”:
Aesthetic experiences require conscious participation in a work, a going out of energy, an ability to notice what is there to be noticed in the play, the poem, the quartet. Knowing ‘about,’ even in the most formal academic manner, is entirely different from constituting a fictive world imaginatively and entering it perceptually, affectively, and cognitively.
Art changes the way we participate in communities around us by expanding our understanding of what forms of participation are possible. It gives us a sense of control over our communities, so that we may imagine what it could be and then organise and mobilise people to make that happen.
So what can the artist achieve by working in the community? Greene writes that experiences with the arts can open us to new ways of seeing things. Our assumptions about the way life can be can fundamentally change. This “imaginative opening” comes as a result of “aware engagements”. Greene believed that “art allows people to write and rewrite their own lived words”.
“Community cannot be produced simply by rational formulation, nor by edict. Like freedom, it has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognise together and appreciate in common. It ought to be a space infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to imagine alternative possibilities for their own becoming and the group’s becoming.”
As a performer, you are given a room, an audience. You are granted value in that context. People will listen to you, however momentarily, and then maybe take an interest in your performance, your ideas or your story. They may at least consider things they might not otherwise have contemplated.
The performer should not be a DISTRACTION to the music. If the performer is a persona – or a commodity – then the person in the audience may be discouraged from really listening – because of what the persona represents. Likewise, art is separated from the mass of people when physically located in a preserve of some kind.
One of the biggest challenges is actually getting people’s attention. So the artist must always be careful when relating to a pre-established community. As Austin Stewart has said, there is a distinction between performing ‘at’ the public instead ‘for’ the public. In the words of Oron Catts, the artist works as a ‘cultural producer’, producing sources of cultural life. Once it’s released into the wild, the artwork has its own life.
Art and Politics
As for this social or political role of the artist, Herbert Marcuse said that: “Art is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination and reason”. Furtwangler famously said that art and politics have nothing to do anything to do with each other. However, Marcuse also said that, the more immediately political the artwork, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical transcendent goals of change. Transformation doesn’t mean a rejection of the world, but instead might demonstrates to a person that the world is plastic, is malleable, is open to change and is open to their presence.
Oron Catts argues that art is more powerful when it is ambiguous. This way, you force the audience to be challenged by the issues rather than by your opinions as the performer. When you become too literal, so that they know what you think, then the audience addresses you as a person, your opinions, and they don’t address the issues.
A suitable model of artistic action might be resistance and critique. Resistance means, rather than reforming or improving (because this is often impossible to gauge without hindsight), we can only resist with good intentions. Resisting something we disagree with, in an active yet peaceful manner, is the very basis of democratic citizenship. You can also be “critical”. Rather than social activist/advocate, a critic is a very important role. Music/art can be a way to “depart” from the things you oppose. Bring people together with you in peaceful opposition.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." - James A. Baldwin (Notes on a Native Son, 1955)
Art can provide a space and the freedom to say unpopular things or the freedom to say beautiful things, that perhaps have ‘no point’. Indeed, artists don’t have to sign a dotted line that claims that what they do is real or true. They can claim to be doing one thing and actually accomplish another thing.
Greene discusses how Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech made visible an abstraction (rather than a reality), but also made visible the faces of particular people in the minds of the listener. Artists can provide the imagination to move beyond the actuality/reality, taking us to a point where we feel better equipped to act. An artist’s vision can provide us with evidence, or language, or belief that had not yet existed. With this new resource, we are better positioned to do something. In MLK’s example, Americans in the 1963 could listen to the conviction behind MLK’s words, his utter faith, and believe that this new reality might indeed be possible.
Many believe that, if you’re motivated by social activism, it’s not just your practice – it’s what you do everyday and it’s how you feel about everything. Just like art. Dublin artist Emily Robyn Archer has said: “Philosophically, art should birth an idea of a new world… Individual artworks are tiny increments of that happening… I hope for someone to think about something they’ve never thought about before even though that might not seem like an ambitious target”.
Art gives people a voice
When people feel like they don’t have the knowledge or the speciality to comment on something, to have their opinion heard, it’s important to help them do so – to reach out to venues outside the gallery space, to connect with communities.
“The arts are not for the privileged few, but for the many. Their place is not at the periphery of daily life, but at its centre. They should function not merely as another form of entertainment, but, rather, should contribute significantly to our well-being and happiness – John. D. Rockafeller III.
Jane Jacobs advocated for the enlivening that arts organisations can bring to an area. Cities were successful when they stimulate informal street-level interactions, creating a “feeling for the public identity of people”, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in times of great community need.
We want to encourage citizens to become curious about other people in their city, rather than fearful. We want people to feel more connected. You don’t have to climb out of your community to make it awesome! You don’t have to go somewhere that doesn’t belong to you. You are the creators of your own place. Art isn’t defined by some other community – you can be the drivers of that. Arts exist in every neighbourhood! It’s happening – they just need space and materials. It’s happening in people’s bedrooms, in basements, in alleyways. Initially, Pablo Casals thought that the music scene in Barcelona was not representative of how much talent and creativity was in the city! So he took action!
Ai Weiwei, the infamous Chinese dissident artist, has said: “I think my stance and my way of life is my most important art… I want to prove that the system is not working. You can’t simply say that the system is not working. You have to work through it… As an artist, you see different forms and different ways; to find a new way of communication and reach out.”
A lot of artists have totally isolated themselves emotionally and physically from society. This is where their art comes from and it is interesting and important because it is a reaction to something within that society – it’s perhaps a statement that this particular artist feels like her society is unworthy of respect/tolerance. It gives the audience a new perspective; an outsider's perspective. That is a political and social action in itself, albeit an individualistic one.
"Humanity is the goal"
Art and community are inextricably linked. The art we make is informed by the place where we are, the community we’re in. And vice versa: there is an imprint on public life because of the activity and the process of being an artist in a community. Artistic projects are often a response to some cultural behaviour or trope. In turn, art influences culture because it’s what we see in the streets, it’s what we listen to in our bedrooms, it’s what we read on the bus. Indeed, Bronislaw Huberman said: “The true artist does not create art as an end in itself. He creates it for human beings. Humanity is the goal”.
For Daniel Barenboim of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra said: “Within the communion of the orchestra, people can open themselves to each other.” Instead of making an overt political statement with the music, Barenboim said that the music-making process creates a setting in which people can engage directly and peacefully with the issues: the orchestra “is, of course, unable to bring about peace. It can, however, create the conditions for understanding, without which it’s impossible even to speak of peace. It has the potential to awaken the curiosity of each individual to listen to the narrative of the other and to inspire the courage necessary to hear what one would prefer to block out.”
Of the orchestra, Edward Said commented: “strange though it may seem, it is culture generally, and music in particular, that provide an alternative model to identity conflict… Ignorance is not a strategy for sustainable survival… The art of playing music is the art of simultaneously playing and listening, one enhancing the other... This dialogical quality inherent in music was our main reason for founding the orchestra… Separation between people is not a solution for any of the problems that divide us, and ignorance of the other certainly provides no help whatsoever.”
Jazz pianist and composer, Vijay Iyer talks about performance as an opportunity to be present with others: “Everyone becomes an equal participant in that respect. It therefore opens a possibility for community.” When we gather, we have an opportunity to think about who’s there, who isn’t, and why. And what dynamics are in the room that link us. And also what separates us.
It is this sentiment (reiterated by so many of the specialists in this course) that I think is important for me as an artist – as a performer and as a community music education professional. To paraphrase Iyer, performance is a service. It’s about community and collaboration, about connecting with each other in a human sense and sharing a common experience. The artist cannot impact on people’s behaviour – the artist can only influence the minds of those people who engage with the artwork.
The revolutionary values of creativity
Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire said that a “humanist, revolutionary educator… must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power”. In Freire’s problem-posing teaching format, the teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and reconsiders her earlier considerations as the students express their own… [P]eople develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.”
Therefore, the teacher is not presenting something finished; there is always something to discover by the learners, together.
So, by entering a classroom, not expecting students to acquiesce, the teacher has to respect what the student might bring to the teacher, and realise that the students’ thoughts/reactions may be much more valuable to them in their everyday life than what the teacher is trying to impart. The knowledge of the teacher is not more important than the student’s experience. Where a teacher demonstrates excitement and passion, energy and enthusiasm, this might be the most valuable lesson in music education.
As well as these values, a starting point for any artist hoping to combat social exclusion through community arts practice might be the idea of TOLERANCE. Freire said that “being tolerant is not being naïve. There is an ethical, political duty to be tolerant. But it does not demand me to lose my personality.” Tolerating difference in society, in democratic governance is highly important to art.
Art provides for creative spaces in which we can experience something different/new in a safe space. Music has a temporal, performative quality. To experience it, people have to be captive at the same time. This is where a lot of the power lies.