Yesterday two short conversations reminded me of the pitfalls that make words so elusive, so fascinating and so important.
The first was a question after I spoke at the Teach Through Music conference in Deptford. I’d been asked to give a talk about the value of music that I wrote for Sage Gateshead last year. In it, I’d made a distinction between the value of participation and the value of participation in the arts. It’s an idea I first wrote about in Use or Ornament? and it simply recognises that many benefits linked to taking part in arts activities are also associated with taking part in other social activities, such as joining a cycling club or being a member of a church. (There’s a good account of that in the late Michael Argyle’s book, The Social Psychology of Leisure.) This being so, it seems vital that artists thinking about the value of their work with people give attention to the particular value of being involved in an arts activity, such as music, in order to understand and explain their practice.
For the questioner, who was a teacher, I had seemed to be making a simple distinction between participation in music as a player and listening to it. It was a good question but it sprang from a different understanding of what participation might mean. In my answer, I explained that I see listening to music and playing it only as different kinds of participation. It was only later, as I listened to two music teachers presenting their work, that I understood how the curriculum could separate performing, composing and listening/critiquing in such a way that ‘participation’ might not be seen as applying to them all.
The second conversation was with the artists Ken Turner and Amanda Ravetz, whom I met at the gallery where they have been contributing to a film by Huw Wahl about the origins of Action Space and community arts. It’s a fascinating and valuable project, which I’ll return to another time, but for now my focus is on words – in this case, the phrase ‘community art’. As we talked I saw that the three of us were using the term with quite distinct ideas of what it meant. The differences I glimpsed have given me lots to think about but in themselves they highlight how difficult it can be, even for people who have spent decades professionally engaged in a subject to share their ideas. We can be deceived into thinking we understand one another – even that we agree about things – if we interpret words as we use them not as the person who spoke them does. It’s not that one meaning is ‘correct’. It’s how easy to think they are the same.
As a writer, I’ve become used to people telling me what my words say, knowing that what I’m hearing back was not what I intended to communicate. It’s true of all the arts because the person who sees, hears, looks or otherwise experiences what an artist creates is an active participant in that process: a re-creator. This is unavoidable, and it would be pointless to complain about it. But for anyone who invests heavily in shared understandings of experience, including artists, it is essential to stay alert to these multiple interpretations.
Physicists and philosophers debate the idea that there may be not one universe but an infinite number of universes in which all that can happen does happen. Whatever the truth of that idea, a version of it seems already to exist in the alternative versions of existence that we each hold. We need words to communicate, but each one contains worlds. We may be on the same one, but see it from different sides. It’s not that human understanding is impossible, just that getting closer to it requires constant vigilance about what we mean when we speak and when we listen. If that’s not active participation, I don’t know what is.