It’s a widely held idea that art is dangerous—or at least challenging. It threatens established thinking, especially the complacency of the bourgeoisie. It dances barefoot on the ‘cutting edge’.
I’ve never been wholly convinced by that belief, though it flatters the egos of artists and their admirers. The truth is that most art, most of the time, exists to reinforce the values and beliefs of the people it is produced for, whether they are the faithful praying with Bach at the Thomaskirche or the fatuous preening at the latest controversial exhibition. And the affirmation is vital, though it does open questions about the values being affirmed.
Stockton International Riverside Festival
Be that as it may, there’s another sense in which art is seen as dangerous nowadays: the possibility that audience members might hurt themselves on it. Yesterday I spent a great day in Stockton-on-Tees at SIRF 2013, the Riverside Festival that has been enlivening the town’s artistic, social and economic life for a quarter of a century.
I saw Inspector Sands perform the latest iteration of their original and moving High Street Odyssey, and Tilted perform the spectacular Fragile in a council car park. I watched the Carnival parade, caught a moment of Motionhouse and glimpsed all sorts of colourful performers from the corner of my eye as I walked Stockton’s sunlit streets.
I chatted to locals and visitors, artists and organisers, with no particular intent, just because everyone was happy and friendly. It’s the essence of a good festival atmosphere. I had a quick lunch with Frank Wilson, founder of SIRF and still associate artistic director, and Jan Doherty, whose first Festival this was as its Artistic Director (and found that we’d both worked as community artists in the Nottinghamshire coalfields in the 1980s). I was guided throughout by the estimable Jo Burns, friend, colleague and Chair of the Without Walls consortium that has done so much to support the development of outdoor art creation in the UK. Could there be a nicer way to spend an August Saturday?
On Trinity Green I spent time with Oxford Contemporary Music’s installation of wind-driven instruments, Audible Forces. In some ways, it was the most memorable experience, perhaps because it was so visceral. It bypassed the intellect (although there was plenty to think about) as unfamiliar sounds whirred, whined and thumped, tweeted and clicked their way into your body. The artists were on site, charming and happy to talk about their ideas. The whole thing was a model of how to make ‘difficult’ art approachable.
Proceed with caution
But when I wanted to walk under the tree from whose upper branches two golden strips of copper were dancing in the dappled sunlight, there was a rope to hold me back. My experience was abruptly halted. A border kept me outside as effectively as the iconostasis of an Orthodox church: it made me a spectator of other people’s mysteries.
The reason? In case I should be hurt in some unspecified way by the tree or the flapping metal securely fastened to it high above my head.
Such protectiveness now so normal that we rarely notice it , unless, as artists now do, we have to do the risk assessments and mitigation work. One person told me that an education authority he works for requires a risk assessment if the session is in a community hall rather than at school: among other things they have to record whether any radiators will be on and what severity of burn they might inflict. Another told me about a health and safety manual for their organisation—which admittedly promotes public events—that is inches thick. A third told me of the cost and difficulty they’d had in obtaining public liability insurance for a performance in which it was literally impossible to imagine how anybody could possibly be injured.
Accidents do happen though. In 2006, Maurice Agis’ Dreamscape V, an inflatable environment, was blown into the air, resulting in two deaths and many injuries. It was perhaps especially shocking because of the contrast between those deaths and the peaceful nature of the artistic experience of Dreamscape.
Life is precious, not safe
This was a devastating incident for those involved but life is precious, not safe. Death and catastrophic injury are everyday risks in sports, such as rugby : one 2005 survey calculated that the British suffer 22 million sports injuries a year. RoSPA reports that slips, trips and falls in the home bring more than a million people to hospital each year. Such events happen, and we must look after ourselves.
No one wants a cavalier approach to health and safety. Risk assessments are needed in the arts as elsewhere and sensible mitigation should be in place to protect artists and audiences alike.
But we must also take responsibility for our own actions. We must make our own judgements about the risks we are prepared to take. Otherwise we become children whose decisions and experiences are determined for us by ‘grown ups’. And few things are as destructive to art than infantilising its audience.
Art can remind us how precious life is, just as Inspector Sands did. It should never deceive us into believing it is safe.
I had a fabulous day in Stockton, but I did get sunburnt. Mind you, I could get sunburnt standing too long in front of an open fridge. You could say it was my own fault for wearing a short-sleeved shirt and not thinking about a hat or sunscreen.
On the other hand I imagine that SIRF has public liability insurance…