Georgina Barney – An Artist on Farming

Georgina Barney is captivated by farming, in theory, art and practice. Today she publishes GB Farming: An Island Journey, a book that records her time on 14 farms and her subsequent artistic investigations of the culture of farming in Britain. This text is my introduction to her work. To download extracts from the book or to find out about launch events, scroll to the bottom of this page.  Follow this link to download a PDF of this introduction

There are artists who find their language early and whose work consists of retelling the world in their own voice. It’s what makes a watercolour by Samuel Palmer or Eric Ravilious distinctive and recognisable. There are others whose discovery of the world is the means of finding an artistic language. Georgina Barney may be one of them. The difference is not in talent or sensibility but in their relationship to things, to the world around them and to themselves. Hesitation and doubt nourish the desire for truth. They make bold leaps – then stop; and question. Their course is jagged and can be hard to follow. With frequent breaks and changes of direction it can appear chaotic but is better understood as exploratory.

These artists – if they make progress at all – tend to be appreciated critically in this uncertain postmodern world, sceptical of progress and yet entranced by ideas. To other tastes their work can seem difficult. Fragmentary, searching and tentative, it’s like the field notes of a lost expedition. But if we invest some imagination and respond actively to exploration’s traces, it can be immensely rewarding.

This book works in just that way. Part journal, part essay, part sketchbook, it records one artist’s engagement with farming – the idea and the experience – over a long period of time. At its heart, is a logbook documenting a journey across Britain made by Georgina in the winter, spring and summer of 2007 and during which she lived and worked on some very different farms. But that story has been unpicked and remade several times in the intervening years, as the artist undertook a succession of projects, exhibitions, installations and reflections around an experience that, like grass in cow, has taken a lot of digesting. Sometimes in fleeing her own work she has gained distance and insight to understand it better on her return.

What emerges is not one story but several. There is a story about farming, certainly, rooted in the physical realities of production and consumption. But there are stories about politics, the environment and aesthetics too. There are human stories – of people met and of the artist’s own life, including her emergence from depression. And there is the story of the telling itself as straw is spun into gold. Each reader will follow their own thread. Every reading, re-spinning each book, is unique.

Still, all this circles around farming likes flies on ripe fruit. Perhaps the fascination remains because watching farmers at work allows her to unearth what it is, at least for her, to be an artist at work. Nothing clings like the clay on your boots.

The physicality of farming life is a constant. Muscle, milk and shit. Meat. The fragile transience of fruit and flowers. Rain, cold, sunshine. Rain. The embodied knowledge of men and animals, their actions not unthinking but unselfconscious. Stone underfoot, brambles snagging, hills: the land imposing itself on calves and thighs. The varied textures of soil and the variety of what they produce. Flat land, garden land, reclaimed land. Animal warmth and aching muscles beside the fire.  Birth, sometimes quickly followed by death; blood and placenta and piss. The hand on a cow’s flank to reassure before another to the teat. The calm of the abattoir conveyor belt; the stun; the slit.

Underlying it all, the knowledge that, whatever else we might be, we are animals who must eat to stay alive. What we eat and how we get it raises questions about economics, justice, science and morality, but eat we must. And shit too, whether on rustic planks above sawdust, chemical toilets or porcelain bowls flushed clean out of sight and mind. We too are part of a food cycle that lets nothing go to waste. Egg shells are ground up and fed back to the hens that laid them; unsold radishes rot in the furrows whence they were pulled. Pigs will eat what we will not. And when our time is over, we will go the same way: earth to earth. You know the rest.

It’s not a thought to cheer a sad heart, you would think – the shadow of death on animals sent to market on Friday morning, before a breakfast of bacon and sausage. But the demands of other beings, who must be milked at seven whatever the state of your hope or your hangover, cannot be ignored. Hay must be made while the sun shines, pregnant ewes helped now, when they are in trouble. Hail, frost and rain can make you flush or broke in days. Such realities take no account of opinions or spirits.  So the young artist finds something good in hard work, in monotony and repetition that has a purpose and is not about herself; in companionship with others, for whom this work will still have to be done tomorrow, next week and next year; in seeing her dexterity grow with her understanding; in knowing that the dairy floor is clean enough to eat off, or at least make cheese on; in callouses on her hands and the browning of her skin; in finding the courage to watch death come to an animal unaware; in getting on; and getting through.

There’s much to think on too, food for contemporary art’s critical feast. Farming economics are not straightforward. There is vast capital but it is not always productive or even accessible. Many incomes are low, and not only for the Poles picking leeks and potatoes while they save for something better at home. They cut, wash and prepare carrot sticks for office workers who can pay to eat well and easily. Children visit the city farm to learn where their food comes from, but most of us think little about the origin or moral cost of our meat and two veg.

Curious that all this movement, skittering from one farm to another, is inspired by stasis. Farming is, quite literally, rooted in place. Businesses relocate; families move house. Farms stay put, adapting to change where they must. They make the most of the land they have: lettuce from Fenland peat, lamb off Cumbria’s hard fell. There is an old lesson there for a globalising world mesmerised by further and faster movement.

Still, farms don’t escape those forces. Mechanisation has steadily plucked workers from the land. Agriculture’s version of offshoring is to bring people here to do the backbreaking work that’s left. Worcestershire strawberry beds and Lincolnshire potato fields are harvested – for now – by hands from the poor parts of Europe. Some are not beyond sending Chinese cockle-pickers illegally into Morecambe Bay: the cost is lower than the tide.

It would be sentimental to mourn the labour that once crippled agricultural lives, though scything for self-sufficiency appeals to some. But the passing of Thomas Hardy’s world is one cause of our ignorance about what sustains us. We watch Lambing Live on the BBC but think little about the chop on our plate or why the mange-touts came from Kenya. Unlike John Gray, we don’t see that ‘intensive agriculture is the extraction of food from petroleum’. Machines and fertiliser have enabled us to feed billions but without hydrocarbons – they stop.

It is oil that shifts food from pack house to distribution centre to supermarket to fridge and then, shamefully, often to landfill. More journeys criss-crossing the island, the continent, the world. Another turn of the food cycle from here and back again.

Georgina’s journey offers glimpses of all this and more. She brings an artist’s tools and training to the huge, complicated, vital world of British farming. She is curious. She wants to see, to smell, to touch. To understand how and why things are done. But she wants to experience it too. She knows that a few days packing vegetables beside those who do it to put food on their own table is, in some ways, an indulgence. She sees the hitches, both in what she observes and in what she is doing.

But the artist as witness is an honourable role. She reports not only what she sees and thinks, as a journalist would, but what she feels too. Vulnerability can be a unique resource and Georgina does not balk at putting herself into difficult situations. She ups sticks and moves on every couple of weeks. Each time, there are new people to befriend, new ways of life to learn. Temporary homes, transient shelter. Belonging and outside. Wanting to learn, she does not hide from others her ignorance, her incompetence. And she accepts the need to explain, sometimes even to justify her self-imposed mission.

Weeks pass, winter becomes spring becomes summer, and the journey maps an artist unfolding the physical, cultural and emotional realities beneath the abstract ‘farming’. She finds parallels between an artists’ life and a farmer’s. Materiality, again, is part of it – or it was until artists freed themselves from stuff with virtual means of expression. Planting seeds, gathering seaweed, trimming vines or milking a goat: like carving stone or handling a pencil, such skills unite hand and mind. Their truths are partly rational and partly felt, conscious and unconscious in the same breath. The sculptor’s embodied knowledge is counterpart to the shepherd’s. Such labour teaches respect for the otherness of things and beings which, resisting malleability, must be worked with or destroyed. And, like the weather that decides how you will use your day, it can be a path to patience and humility.

Georgina sees that few farmers or artists are in it for the money and it’s true that both jobs make more sense as vocations. They are a way of living in the world whose choice enacts beliefs about what matters. Farmers and artists earn to sustain their occupation. They pay for their choice, in time, uncertainty and loss of things others deem essential. They gain what Epicurus considered essential to a happy life: freedom from orders, being among like-minded people and having time to think. For all their doing, artists and farmers are deeply concerned with being.

Artist and farmers both have a sense of shared enterprise with others on the same road. They are members of a community of practice that stretches back beyond memory and forward in hope. Above all, they are creative – not in the sloppy, easy way the word is used today but literally, factually. They bring things into existence. Animals, stories, fruit, pictures, crops, music, vegetables, performances and so on, and so on… Their creativity is life affirming and life sustaining. Without it, everything stops.

As days become weeks and months, the seasons turn. Warmth returns to field and byre, animals are born, plants grow. Like time itself, none of this is stoppable. And slowly, one spring evening, Georgina  looks at some plastic bales of silage and she wants to draw again. The journey’s arc returns, bringing with it a changed person, someone beginning to be reconciled with a role – a vocation – and its place in the world. This is not fairy tale, though. There is no easy ending. There is no gallerist waiting to pay a premium, no hungry collectors: in fact, years will pass before the artist even knows whether she has anything to send to market. As to what it’s worth, both farmers and artists know to mistrust the auction price. There are other benchmarks of value.

The journey goes on. Like all pilgrimages, it uncovers its purpose in its progress, not in a destination that, if it could even be reached, might only disappoint. It has brought growth, though; and on that both art and life depend.

Click on these links to download extracts from the book:

There are two launch events, where you can meet the artist and buy the book and artworks,

All images on this page © Georgina Barney

Álvaro Restrepo: ‘Education is useless’

‘If education does not strengthen us, if it does not reveal us our vocation, our inner voice, and if it does not help us to get rid of frustration and the fear of failure, then what is the bloody purpose of education?’

Álvaro Restrepo is a Colombian artist, choreographer and educator who has run an extraordinary youth dance organisation in Cartagena-de-Indias for the past 20 years. El Colegio del Cuerpo is not just about teaching young often vulnerable people about movement and creativity. It is a holistic educational programme that changes lives because its vision of child development is so profound. Children learn about dance and self-expression in a school of the body that also addresses nutrition, biology, narcotics, violence and sexual health. The effects of Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict are the inescapable background for artists working so that children can ‘be as happy as [they] can humanly be in the midst of this terrible and wonderful world‘.

I first met Álvaro, his co-director Marie-France Delieuvin, and the rest of the team in 1998 when they invited me to Cartagena and I’ve watched their evolution with huge admiration. Ten years ago, I was able to help in bringing the company to Yorkshire for an unforgettable week (some of the photos here are from that visit). A few days ago, Álvaro published an article in El Espectador, Colombia’s leading newspaper under the title ‘La educación no sirve para nada’ (‘Education is useless’). reading it I understood for the first time some of the roots of his thinking about education. I’m very happy to be able to share an English translation of that article, with Álvaro’s permission, here. His inspiring vision has a universal resonance.

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Álvaro Restrepo – ‘Education is useless’

Several months ago, I received a call from Pedro Medina, a self-described ‘business man, educator and catalyzer’ and an alumnus of the same Catholic private school for boys where I studied—and suffered—many years ago: the elite Colegio San Carlos in Bogotá. Pedro is an interesting and complex character. He successfully introduced McDonalds into Colombia and during 7 years served as CEO of the operation. He is also a university teacher with a lot of titles and degrees and directs a foundation called I Believe in Colombia. I had never met Pedro until recently but found him to be a high-speed motor of optimism and ideas. I once heard a talk he delivered at a conference and had to really concentrate in order to follow his fast-paced rhythm. Pedro is also the vice president of the board of alumni of Colegio San Carlos, my alma mater.

Here’s why Pedro reached out. In the year 2007, I wrote a long and painful article about the eleven years I spent at Colegio San Carlos entitled, ‘Llora et Labora’ (‘Weep and Work: Memories of the Flesh’). It was published in one of Colombia’s main newspapers El Espectador and in Número Magazine. I indeed wrote the piece with genuine tears and blood and maybe because of this, it made a great impact on people. That year, the article earned me the  Simón Bolívar National Prize for Journalism.  The process of writing ‘Weep and Work’ served as both a catharsis and an exorcism for me. In this chronicle I related, year by year, the physical and psychological ordeals and abuses I suffered at this very prestigious training ground for high-class kids in Colombia which has groomed the likes of President Juan Manuel Santos, former  President Andres Pastrana, former Vice President Francisco Santos, Minister of Finance Mauricio Cárdenas, the President of the Inter-American Development Bank Luis Alberto Moreno, the President of one of Colombia’s leading universities, Universidad de Los Andes, Pablo Navas, and many other successful men. In my case, I always knew I was in the wrong place. However, eleven years had to pass before I could gather the necessary courage to turn on my heels and walk towards Liceo Boston, the school that saved my life in a moment in which I had been convinced by the guardians of my education that I was a good-for-nothing.

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The article ‘Weep and Work’ fell like an atomic bomb on Colombian society. It was published at the same moment when the Colegio San Carlos was celebrating its 45th anniversary and its  headmaster was receiving the most important award my country bestows upon its citizens: the Cross of Boyacá. My intention was not to ruin the party. However, I did consider that it was important that a voice, my voice, could speak out to give its version of what had happened in this strange, and for me, sordid place.

Most interesting and revealing to me after the publication of my article were the different and very acid reactions that were sent to the mailboxes of El Espectador, Número Magazine and to my own mailbox: alumni, teachers, writers, journalists, young students of San Carlos and ordinary people wrote very polemic reflections. Some alumni insulted me and classified me as mentally weak; other people expressed their solidarity and thanked me for my courage; yet others said that my story was a pale reflection of what they had lived or were living at the moment at the institution. In response, the school decided to maintain a total and very mysterious silence. I had been expecting—indeed,  I was almost hoping—that the school would sue me for defamation. That would have helped to cast some light over a serious debate on the very sad matters I was denouncing. Yet apparently, the decision was to let matters be and to wait until the storm passed.

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Several years later, Father Francis Wheri, the school’s headmaster for more than 45 years, declared in an interview for Semana Magazine  at the time of his resignation, that the most difficult moment in his career had had to do with my case: a talented and misplaced artist, whom the school had not been able to deal with because he (I) didn’t fit in one of the school’s accepted ‘boxes’. In his interview, he recognized that my failure at San Carlos, had also been a failure for the institution. It was a vindication, of sorts.

But let’s go back to Pedro Medina and the alumni association. A recent series of suicides and deep depressions of students and alumni of San Carlos students had raised serious alarm bells at the school. Pedro wanted to have my opinion. He had read my article and had closely identified with it. In a recent conversation he had had with Father Francis about this crisis, the former headmaster recognized that the school prepared the students very well for traditional success, but not for failure, nor to be artist, nor even just an average professional-citizen, anonymous or even mediocre. I remember that while I still was part of the school’s pack, the message was very clear:  the world is divided in two types of ‘hombres’ (a very North American classification and very much in the line of the present ‘Trumpian’ sensitivity): winners and losers. Success and most importantly, economic success, were the only means of measuring achievement and fulfillment. I rejected and still reject this premise.

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Very often I say that my decision to establish my socially-oriented dance centre El Colegio del Cuerpo (The School of the Body) was an act of resilience, a loving way to come into terms with my own educational process and with education in general. In recent times, I have been giving talks about what I consider should be the main and most important goal of education: to help us discover who we are and why we came into this world. I’m convinced that education is useless —absolutely useless—if it does not help us in this discovery to find our mission, to enhance our talents and our gifts. I’m convinced that we are all geniuses for or at something—and that our education should help us to be as happy as we can humanly be in the midst of this terrible and wonderful world. If education does not strengthen us, if it does not reveal us our vocation, our inner voice, and if it does not help us to get rid of frustration and the fear of failure, then what is the bloody purpose of education?

There are no tests, no evaluations that can measure our degree of realization and fulfillment when are doing and being what we love. This is a new notion of wealth and of success that a good (new) education should instill in us. I will never tire of quoting Gabriel García Márquez’s magical formula for happiness: ‘work in what you love, and only in that’.

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Mathematics, science and language are the three main axes education is based upon today, a very rationalist and square education that we are consumed with delivering and measuring. The arts, humanities, creativity, intuition, imagination, perception are considered minor, ornamental and accessory dimensions. We are preoccupied, indeed obsessed, by quantity indicators of an education that is concerned in over-developing just one of our mental hemispheres, as well as just one type of intelligence, as if our mind was solely confined to our poor brain and not as if our body, our whole body (physical, mental, spiritual body) was not the channel and the vehicle to incorporate knowledge, as a whole. When we speak today about educating a ‘complete child’, we should be speaking about a thinking/feeling individual who is able to deal not only with concepts, but also, to use the term of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, with ’percepts’.

Are success, failure, fulfilment and/or or frustration related to a short-sighted education that only contemplates and respects only one type of human being? Today, rational intelligence (related to the studies of mathematics and to science, serious and ‘virile’ subjects) is considered more important than felt or sensed intelligence (related to the arts, humanities, creative imagination and to those subjects that are regarded as ornamental, or effeminate). This can’t continue.

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At the time when I was studying at San Carlos, artistic careers were reserved for women and sissies.  Engineering and hard sciences were made for real men, true machos. Education for financial and political success, the one Colegio San Carlos has been adept at delivering for nearly half a century, is surely not answering the questions of those beings that are looking for other notions of fulfilment, of happiness and self-respect: what I consider real wealth and plenitude. It is very likely that  had I not had the courage and the clairvoyance at my 17 years to give myself another chance on earth, I would today be one of those sad cases Pedro Medina came to talk to me about, with authentic preoccupation and compassion.

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In defence of universalism

A text written for a workshop under the title  ‘Beyond Us versus Them: The Role of Culture in a Divided Europe‘ held at the Representation of the State of Baden-Württemberg to the European Union, Brussels on 2 May 2017. All the images in this post are by Bill Ming and taken from ‘Bread and Salt: Stories of Art and Migration‘, by François Matarasso (Vrede van Utrecht 2013).

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In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo asked ‘Civil war? What does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not every war between men war between brothers?’

Perhaps Hugo is saying that the way to go beyond us versus them is to reject the concept altogether. This is not a matter of piety or semantics. If we lose sight of the indivisibility of humankind, how can we defend concepts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The crucial importance of that text, however often we fail to meet its obligations, is to make no distinction between human beings.

The effort to establish universal rights was dearly bought. I am a child of those who suffered the massive exercise in self-harm we call the Second World War, the globalisation of violence before the term. My parents’ generation were the victims and perpetrators of unprecedented crimes. This was a civil war between people who had to persuade themselves of their differences in order to kill one another. I regret bringing such sombre reflections into a discussion of culture and its potential for healing, but it is necessary because that conflict is the origin of the post-war settlement that is now falling apart. And the foundation of that settlement is the concept of universal human rights established in the UN Declaration of 1948 and the European Convention of 1950.

The present rise of nationalism is ugly and frightening. But the assault on the idea of universal human rights is worse. The signs are everywhere. Sometimes the attack is formal and legalistic, as in the UK Government’s proposal to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights – not universal, by definition. Elsewhere, it is criminal and chaotic, as in the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines since the election of President Duterte. David Armitage, the American historian, writes that ‘around the world, democratic politics now looks ever more like civil war by other means’. In such a context, is that really an over-statement?

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There’s no need to itemise the current attacks on democracy, the rule of law and, above all, the foundational concept of human rights. It is a global phenomenon that is all too familiar. Its causes are multiple but, insofar as it exploits democracy itself, the fear provoked by very rapid social and economic change is a decisive and a divisive factor. Many millions of Europeans now believe, not just that their lives have got worse, but that their leaders consider their suffering an acceptable price for prosperity. That is interpreted, not unreasonably, as making them less valuable than other people. Where then is the universalism of the human rights convention?

What is most striking about recent votes – whether you look at Brexit, the American Presidential election or the Turkish Referendum – is how close the results are and how much people’s choice can be mapped on socio-economic conditions such as location, class, education and age. That sharp division makes thinking in terms of ‘us and them’ not just morally and legally wrong but dangerous as well. To say it again, you cannot defend universal rights by dividing citizens into groups. I’m with Martin Luther King here. We must be judged for our acts, not our ethnicity, religion, culture or beliefs. Only our acts are a legitimate basis for distinction.

So how can we act well in such a divided world? And does culture, which concerns us here today, have a particular role to play? Let me say at once that I don’t believe it’s culture’s task – or within its power – to solve such problems. But it does have a valuable role as a space of encounter, dialogue and – perhaps – better understanding. So I will share some examples of how artists – professional and non-professional – are searching for and often finding ways of reaching across those divisions today. 

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In Friesland, the agricultural heart of the northern Netherlands, Titia Bouwmeester worked with farmers to create an interactive theatre performance that celebrates their knowledge and labour in dairy farming as they coped with the abolition of EU milk quotas. ‘Lab Molke’ took place on a farm and the process of researching, creating, rehearsing and performing together was an open dialogue about different lives between people from urban and rural communities.

In Porto, Hugo Cruz and Maria João work in theatre with people from different parts of the city, including workers in the cork industry, the deaf community, old people, the gypsy community, refugees and children. After creating several productions with and for each group, they brought five of them together in MAPA, a spectacular community play about the city’s past and future in which their different perspectives were presented at the Teatro Nacional in the city centre.

In Alexandria, Hatem Hassan Salama, brought intimate performances to neighbourhood cafes in working class parts of the city. Working with a storyteller, a photographer, a dancer and a musician, he created impromptu events in places whose traditional and masculine culture was unused to such modern art. But the result was to open such rich conversations art, politics and morality that they went on for two or three hours after the show itself.

In Stoke on Trent, Anna Francis has been using her visual art practice to talk with her neighbours in the run down area where she lives. Last summer, she created a temporary community centre in a derelict pub and about 600 people came to fifty different activities in the month: plans are now under way to make this a permanent facility. It will signal new possibilities in a very disadvantaged place that is not much heard.

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These projects,  and hundreds of others in and beyond Europe, all see art as a place to begin conversations about where we are and what we might do about it. But they are art activities, not political or even social interventions. They nurture trust, skills, knowledge, confidence and networks because they do not try to produce those things. They happen without effort when people are engaged in and by a shared artistic project that speaks to their lives.

Art is a space where we can still meet, especially when the other platforms for dialogue, such as politics, the media and the online world, have become so polarised that we can no longer hear – or tolerate – each other there. Art can be safe because it does not check our identity papers on entry. It does not separate us from them. Indeed, as these examples show, art welcomes difference, complexity, even conflict – within the protective licence of character, symbol, metaphor and non-reality. Art allows us to enact our unspoken, even unconscious feelings and encounter other people, including the feared foreigner or despised neighbour. It encourages and enables reflection. Art has room for us all, and it can put up with all that we feel, think and want to say – not because it’s all good or even acceptable, but because it’s there and art knows that denying our feelings is more dangerous than doing something creative with them.

But this is just one vision of art. I know that.  It is neither inevitable nor uncontested. I respect but I do not share the fears artists sometimes express about instrumentalisation. Art is not self-sufficient. I believe in art for people’s sake because without people art has no meaning. It ceases to exist. But the trap of propaganda – especially well-meaning propaganda – is dangerous. It attracts those who strip art of precisely the complex ambiguities I value and enslave it to their vision. The risk is real and best avoided by listening, really listening, to those whose voices we find most uncomfortable.

If art is to reach across the divisions in our fragmenting world, it will do so only by being democratic, diverse and tolerant – a culture that lives up to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’ That would be a truly universal culture.

Europe is not a place. It is not a government or an administration. It is a culture, whose greatest values have been forged in response to its greatest traumas. We needed it in 1945; we need it today.

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The lawyer, the war criminal and the limits of empathy

Courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg was the venue for the post-war trials of Nazi leaders, so it is strange to learn that it is still used for the administration of justice. Strange but completely appropriate. Those trials established new principles of international law and the competing concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity. They also showed that what had happened under the Nazi regime was not above the law. The scale or horror of a crime cannot be allowed to take its perpetrator beyond justice, even if it takes them beyond comprehension and perhaps beyond mercy. At the same time, Courtroom 600 is a historic site under the care of the Nuremberg Trials Memorial which works to increase understanding of what happened here.

On 21 November 1945, the American Prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, began his opening speech by saying

‘That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.’

On 21 November 2015, in the presence of four people who had been there 70 years earlier, those words rang again in Courtroom 600. The occasion was not a reenactment but a remarkable performance given at the invitation of the Nuremberg Trials Memorial by the lawyer and academic, Philippe Sands, with actor Katja Riemann, singer Laurent Naouri and pianist Guillaume de Chassy.

‘A Song of Good and Evil’ is based on Sands’ 2016 book about the extraordinary and entangled fates of three lawyers who sat in Courtroom 600 as Jackson spoke. Two – Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht – were Jews who had studied law at the University of Lviv (now in Ukraine). Both had gone on to develop new legal concepts that would be tested in this court: Lemkin that of group destruction or ‘genocide‘ as he termed it, and Lauterpacht that of international protection of individual rights from ‘crimes against humanity‘.

The third lawyer was in the dock. Hans Frank had studied law in Kiel and represented the Nazi Party in thousands of court cases. He had been Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories between 1939 and 1945 and was now on trial for the unprecedented crimes committed under his command. Among the millions who died directly or indirectly on Frank’s orders were almost every member of Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s extended families.

Philippe Sands, David Fraser and Marko Milanovic, Nottingham University 14.3.17

The performance in Courtroom 600 was recorded and the film premiered on 14 March 2017, after a talk by Philippe Sands organised by Nottingham University School of Law. ‘A Song of Good and Evil’ combined elements of drama, recital, lecture and trial to create an experience unlike anything I’ve seen. As do trials, it walked the frontier between reason and emotion. Dispassionate exposition, court transcripts and documentary photographs rubbed shoulders with personal narrative, letters and – overwhelmingly – music. Although it was mediated by video, it was impossible not to be conscious that this was happening in the same place as the events it was describing, at a lifetime’s distance. It was also impossible not to respond to it except through the filter of my family history and identity, ensnared as they are in the crimes of that war and their consequences.

One manifestation of that is the crack it has left in the value systems that could be thought to guide human beings before the Nazi ascendancy. The need to invent the new legal concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ in 1945 is one sign of how inadequate the events of the war had shown those values to be. Because my profession is art, not law, that crack has been most obvious to me in the failure of Enlightenment ideas about art. This is a huge question, rooted in the totalitarian challenge to the humanistic ideal of the individual, which those ideas depend on and defend. In the words of Theodor Adorno:

‘Auschwitz has demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed. That it could happen in the midst of the philosophical traditions, the arts and the enlightening sciences says more than just that these failed to take hold of and change the people. All culture after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, is rubbish.’ (Negative Dialectic 360, emphasis added)

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“A Song of Good and Evil” in Courtroom 600, 21 November 2015

Adorno’s anguish came back to me as I listened to Laurent Naouri sing ‘Erbarme dich‘ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Here’s the problem. In Nuremberg, in July 1946, Hersch Lauterpacht drafted the closing argument for the British prosecutor, Hartley Shawcross. He had recently learned that his niece alone had survived the passage of Hans Frank, whom he had observed for months in the dock of Courtroom 600. As he worked, he sought solace in a recording of the St Matthew Passion. In his prison cell Hans Frank had the same piece of music in mind. As Sands writes in East West Street:

‘I listened to … the Bach Oratorio, “The Passion of St Matthew,”’ Frank told the American. ‘When I heard the voice of Christ, something seemed to say to me: “What? Face the enemy with a false face? You cannot hide the truth from God!” No, the truth must come out, once and for all.’ Bach’s monumental work was quite frequently evoked by Frank, offering solace with its message of mercy and forgiveness. (Chapter 125)

How can this be? How can two men standing on opposites sides of a mass grave find comfort in the same piece of music?

Erbarme dich,
Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen! Schaue hier,
Herz und Auge weint vor dir
Bitterlich

Have mercy,
My God, for my tears’ sake; Look hither,
Heart and eyes weep before thee
Bitterly

In this performance, in the voice of Hans Frank, I heard only self-pity. The beauty of Bach’s music fell apart like ashes.

How can this be? As Adorno implies, we believe that the arts take hold of and change us, make us better, raise us to a higher, nobler spiritual plane. Even people who never listen to classical music often accept its claimed distinction and explain their lack of interest in it as some kind of failing on their part. Elite culture has a way of making those who challenge its authority feel small. No one believes in the transcendental power of art more than those who have felt it. They know how it has changed their life and they want to convince others that it can do as much for them. Their mistake – as is evident by Lauterpacht’s and Frank’s shared appreciation of Bach – is to think that what they found was in the art when it was really in them.

The beleaguered arts and humanities are often defended nowadays on the basis that they inspire empathy in us. Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s situation – to imagine how it must feel to be them. It goes further than sympathy, which arises from a common bond with another because it makes the imaginative leap to see things from a very different perspective to your own. The case was made by Peter Bazalgette, the retiring chair of Arts Council England in a lecture at the British Library in January 2017. But this is an old argument, as John Carey discussed in his 2005 book, What Good Are the Arts?, in which he questioned many common assumptions about art:

John Dewey, in Art as Experience, declares that art is ‘a means of entering sympathetically into the deepest elements in the experience of remote and foreign civilizations’, and that consequently it fosters global understanding. ‘Barriers are dissolved, limiting prejudices melt away, when we enter into the spirit of Negro or Polynesian art.’ Dewey does not explain how he knows when he has entered into the deepest elements of a Negro or Polynesian, and the most remarkable thing about his theory is that it could ever have been seriously entertained even for a moment. But it testifies to a deep wish among art-lovers to believe that art makes them better and more understanding of other people. (p. 108)

Hans Frank loved music and collected art. He counted the composer Richard Strauss and the novelist Gerhart Hauptmann as friends. None of these things made him interested in seeing the world through any man’s eyes but his own.

The simplistic idea that the arts strengthen our better selves does not survive the Shoah. It does not survive genocide or crimes against humanity. It does not survive the reality that a great jurist and a mass murderer can, in suffering, take comfort from the same piece of music.

It’s not that art has no truth or deeper value. It does. But you have to want to find it. I think it’s true that art can help us empathise with others: I’ve made that case myself in the past. I also think that art offers endless resources for personal growth and fulfilment. But we only find these things if we look for them. Every artistic experience is a meeting of minds – the artists’s and the audience, creator and re-creator. To imagine that we are passive receptors of some spiritual nourishment is absurd. We wrestle with what we encounter in an artistic experience, sometimes submitting, sometimes bending it to our own desires. We receive it through the filter of our character, experience and situation and we imagine it differently every time. Art is an extraordinary, limitless resource for human development. But it is we who must do the developing.

Adorno didn’t give up on culture after Auschwitz: he gave up on an outdated idea of what it was and what it could mean. As Elaine Martin concludes:

Adorno called neither for silence nor for an end to art. Rather he calls for a form of art, which bears witness to its predestined failure, artworks which present the fact that the “unrepresentable” exists.

Last night, ‘A Song of Good and Evil’ felt a bit like that paradoxical thing to me.

Cultural Collaboration and Civil Society

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Last year I spent some time looking at the work of Tandem, a partnership between the European Cultural Foundation and MitOst that connects cultural actors within and close to the European space. Tandem marked its fifth anniversary last autumn, and they asked me to reflect on what they’d done and what might change. The essay below is the result of that review, and it looks at how, practically and theoretically, participatory cultural action can contribute to civil society.

It was a great opportunity to meet artists and activists working in very different, often very difficult situations. At the moment, three of the programmes are active in Turkey, Ukraine and the southern mediterranean countries – all places where art, civil society and democracy are under threat. The courage and resilience of the people I talked to was impressive, but so was their sheer optimism and love of life. We may live in dark times, but there are so many people making light, including those I write about in this essay .

Download the essay

Some thoughts on monitoring, evaluating and researching culture

Introduction

Last week, I participated in a round table discussion organised by the Cultural Value Scoping Project at Tate Modern. The initiative is a collaboration between the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation,  Arts Council England and King’s College London and King’s College London. It aims to explore how research, evaluation, evidence-building and analysis into cultural value might best be supported in the future. Those present included people working in cultural institutions, academic researchers and others involved in the field. About 15 speakers were invited to contribute a 10 minute reflection during the day, with the rest of the time given over to some fruitful discussion. My contribution  – the notes are below – addressed the question:

In what concrete ways could the new platform dedicated to research and analysis into cultural value support the cultural sector?

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Value is subjective

There is no universal agreement about what is valuable beyond a small number of essentials, such as life, shelter, education and so on. Because there is agreement about these things, they are described as rights, not values. But there aren’t many: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has just 30 articles.

Everything beyond that (and nowadays, even some of that) is subjective, a matter of choice, including culture. Human beings do not all value the same things. We sometimes find what others value ridiculous or even offensive, including culture. But in a society where human rights are respected, we tolerate other people’s choices.

Voltaire said, ‘Dissension is the great evil of mankind and tolerance its only remedy’. And politics is the means by which we negotiate our disagreements about value and the limits of our tolerance.

Value is comparative

Value is also comparative. Even absolute value, such as the right to life, is evident only when compared with alternatives: being alive is better than being dead. Disagreements about value are also understood comparatively. A democratic society is better than an autocratic one. A kidney dialysis machine is worth more than a public sculpture. Both of these statements are choices that reflect comparisons in the context of values held.

One of tasks of politics is to negotiate the relative value that we give to different things, expressed in the abstract system of money. How we gain and spend money – individually and collectively – is an expression of values, choices made on the basis of comparison. It’s messy, sometimes ugly and often unfair, but we haven’t got a better way of preventing our disagreements about value being resolved by violence.

Cultural value is political

It is many years since I began trying  to understand the value of participation in the arts, first in my own work and then in the work of others. Often that has involved working with people who want to prove the value of art or culture. I understand that desire. If your work depends on comparative choices made by other people, it is natural to want to persuade them that what you do has relatively high value.

The problem is that value, which is subjective, cannot be proven because proof is an objective concept used in the natural sciences. We can prove that the melting point of iron is 1,538 degrees Celsius. Once proven, it is no longer a matter for debate, or an ‘alternative fact’. We cannot prove the value of culture. We cannot even agree a definition of culture.

Acting politically

Those who want culture to have a greater importance in society, public policy and budgets, must act politically, not scientifically. They must engage others – and particularly those who disagree with them about culture’s value – in persuasive debate. Data, evidence and knowledge may all help in that task, but so will the ancient tools of politics: rhetoric, argument, emotion and the rest.

Trying to prove cultural value is like hunting the Snark, and while we are occupied with that fruitless search, we fail both to engage effectively in political debate about culture’s value and to learn from the knowledge that our research does produce.

The purpose of cultural research

If we separate debating value from understanding value we enter into more fruitful territory.  Instead of trying to find proofs that can persuade others to change their beliefs – which, insofar as it can be achieved at all, is a political task best undertaken with political means – we can look for knowledge that can influence the actions of those who already hold certain beliefs about the value of culture. In this context, there is practical value in testing individual subjectivity to find the common ground for shared judgements.

The proper purpose of cultural research, I believe, is not persuasion but improvement.  Whether that research is undertaken independently by academics, commissioned by a cultural actor, required by a funding agreement or simply done by a cultural organisation as part of its everyday operations, its purpose should be to increase knowledge and understanding of cultural activity.

How and why

As such, its questions are concerned less with whether than with how and why. Whether something happens is important, of course, especially to funders and in political discussion. How and why it happens are much deeper and more powerful questions because they have the potential to challenge the cultural actor’s own beliefs and assumptions. They have the potential to influence the way art is created, managed and presented, the programmes offered and the ways in which people are able to engage with them, the interpretation and meaning of culture itself.

In my experience, however, it is not only politicians who are uninterested in how and why cultural experiences produce value for people. The cultural profession – with exceptions – is not very interested either, especially if the insights research produces might point to ways in which they could productively change. As far as cultural policy and management goes, it seems all but impossible to get beyond ‘whether’ and the mirage of proving value.

What might be done?

As we all know, the first thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging. And I believe that research and evaluation into public cultural investment is in a deep hole. Let me clarify that I’m concerned here only with what is done within, and required by, the public cultural sector, whoever is doing it. I’m not referring to the growing body of independent, mostly academic research into the theory, policy, work, management or practice of culture.

The principal reason, as I’ve suggested, is that professional engagement with cultural value  is geared towards an unavailable proof, but over the years a host of subsidiary reasons – such as the adoption of inappropriate public management concepts and practices – have also contributed.

When I say, stop digging, I mean let’s take a pause and look around. The Cultural Value Scoping Project is an opportunity to do that, to ask what we are trying to understand and why. Then we might review what we are currently doing and apply a simple test to it: Does the use to which it is put justify the cost of producing it?

If it were possible to back out of the hole we’re currently in, I’d suggest a different approach to monitoring, evaluation and research, which would begin by distinguishing clearly between the three kinds of activity.

Monitoring

The foundation of knowledge about cultural life must be factual and at least where public spending is concerned, there is a great deal that can be known simply through the process of making grants and monitoring the resulting activity. It should be possible, especially now that the grant-making process is computerised, to design a system that can produce reliable data about the nature and extent of activity supported, say, by Arts Council England.

Accountability in grant making should be achieved mainly through monitoring, not evaluation. If the activity was assessed as having public value at application stage, and monitoring shows it to have been completed as expected, then it should follow that its value was delivered in terms of policy and spending decisions.

Refining the application and reporting requirements so that they are factual, consistent over time and used in across the sector, would enable ACE and independent researchers to analyse the resulting data from different perspectives and produce reports that highlight patterns or inconsistencies.

Evaluation

With monitoring processes that are capable both of demonstrating the public value of grants and providing big data that can be investigated for trends, the evaluation process can be freed from the need to justify spending decisions. It can then become a truly open-minded inquiry into how and why results have been produced from which things can be learned and changes to practice made.

In this context, the Arts Council’s recent focus on self-evaluation is very welcome. Evaluation is a critical part of creative work which artists and arts organisations should be doing naturally and in order to improve their work. It will be very difficult to change a culture that sees evaluation principally as a tool of self-justification. But with time, training support and a greater use of monitoring in assessments, some progress could be made.

At the same time, self-evaluation needs to be reported in a form that can be shared internally and with peers. Again, the collection and cataloguing of this material would provide a huge body of data that could be investigated by researchers.

Research

With more reliable data produced by reformed monitoring and evaluation activity, a body such as the Arts Council would be in a position to commission a range of external and independent studies of cultural activity. Some of that might test the self-evaluation process by looking at a representative sample. Some of it might use the data in order to answer specific questions about sub sectors or kinds of practice. This approach would allow the regular publication of good quality thematic research reports that can contribute to debate within the sector and at the Arts Council and thus lead to changes in policy or practice.

In conclusion

This is no more than a sketch of some ways in which research into cultural value might change to become more influential than it has been to date. This may not be the best approach and, to be honest, even if it were I’m doubtful whether it is achievable given the  entanglement of judgements about the value of individuals and of practices with financial decisions. Better research can give us better knowledge but in the end, politics will determine the decisions we make.

Post-script

I’ve been writing about cultural value in one way or another for a long time: some of my previous posts on the subject can be found here, though I’m aware that there’s a certain amount of saying the same things again and again:

Happy New Year – from Angela Merkel

Thanks to Judith Knott for translating Angela Merkel’s New Year Message for 2017: a much-needed lesson in human values and democratic leadership.

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A number of today’s papers have carried parts of, or references to, Angela Merkel’s new year message. Given the vacuum in political leadership in the UK, I decided it was worth translating in full.

For any cynics who may read this: I’m not blind to Germany’s faults. Indeed, I’ve got a blog in the pipeline about a German tax issue that shows some of those faults only too clearly. But at least they have a leader who is worthy of the name.

“Dear fellow citizens,

2016 was a year of difficult challenges. I want to talk to you this evening about that – but also about why, despite everything, I am confident for Germany, and why I am so convinced of the strengths of our country and her people.

The most difficult challenge is without doubt Islamic terrorism, which has had us Germans in its sights, too, for many years…

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Please don’t close the shutters

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The view from 2003

Recent developments in my country, before and since the Referendum on 23 June 2016, have been very disturbing. Post-war gains that I believed were permanent, such as respect for international conventions of human rights, are now in question. In this context, I remembered a public lecture I gave at the National Museum of Scotland in January 2003, in the anxious lull between the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. In it, I set out an argument about the difference between culture and citizenship and the vital role of cultural institutions in diverse, divided societies. I re-read that lecture today, expecting it to seem dated but, apart from a few clumsy phrases, there was nothing I wanted to change. So as a small counterargument to some of what I hear now, here is that talk. I’m afraid it’s a long and serious read and, for once, un-enlivened by pictures, but that suits the times. A printable version is available by clicking on the link below:

 

Getting On: Culture, Diversity and Belonging

Public Lecture by François Matarasso at the Museum of Scotland, 9 January 2003

When I was last in Edinburgh, knowing that I was due to speak here tonight, I took the opportunity to visit the Museum of Scotland. I was particularly curious to see how a new national museum would approach the presentation of a collection intended, in its own words, ‘to explain the land and its people’.[1]

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Making nothing happen: art and civil society in troubled times

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This is the text of a talk given on 3 September 2016 in Berlin at an event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Tandem Exchange programme. 

On the morning after Britain voted to leave the EU, the novelist Philip Pullman tweeted:

‘We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can’t walk, and we still have the headache.’

This image seemed to catch something important about the world we’re living in. We face grave problems – everyone knows that – but we and, more importantly, our leaders, often seem confused about what those problems are. Without a clear understanding of the actual challenges that face us, we thrash about in pain and fear and choose bad solutions. To take one current example, it’s hard to see a connection between controlling how women dress and overcoming terrorist murder, yet politicians still ban the burkini because action of some kind is symbolically necessary.  In our distress and confusion, we do not respond: we react. We lash out and put a bullet in our foot.

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Remembering Craigmillar Festival Society

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Craigmillar Festival Society was one of the pioneering community arts organisations in Britain. It was particularly important in being created and controlled by local people. This short documentary, made by Plum Films in 2004, captures something of the creativity, passion and vision of the people involved. It is an inspiring glimpse into another time.

These people’s work – and their view of community, activism, art and themselves – is worth reflecting on today. It challenges many well-established assumptions about how and why participatory arts is now done. Fifty years on, you wonder what we have learned – and what we have forgotten. As one speaker in the film says:

‘Art was always used at Craigmillar as a frontline activity, as a language of regeneration: it was about fighting talk where the people of Craigmillar would not take no for an answer.’

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