Serious stories

‘I’m certainly not doing this for some high-flown reason. I don’t consider myself to be a reformer, and I don’t think this is going in any way whatever to affect the rate of crime.’

Paul Tuge where he hid after shooting a policeman in 2001 - David Goldblatt, 18 February 2010
Paul Tuge where he hid after shooting a policeman in 2001 – David Goldblatt, 18 February 2010

The auditorium is dark and quiet. David Goldblatt seems very small against the huge black and white photograph projected behind him. It shows two women in front of a house in Soweto where they were subjected to an attack that resulted in one of them being sent to prison. We’ve seen 15 or 20 such portraits of people at similar crime scenes in the last hour, some made in South Africa, where David Goldblatt was born in 1930, and some in Britain, made as part of a Multistory commission. The images are extraordinary, but so are the photographer’s stories about the people he has met and photographed. He speaks quietly and carefully, re-telling what each ex-offender has told him, avoiding judgements either of truthfulness or morality. It has been one of the most extraordinary hours I have ever spent in a cinema.

David Goldblatt’s talk at Plymouth University was part of day-long presentation of recent work by Multistory, a small community arts organisation I’ve worked with in different ways since 2009. Six artists spoke about their work. As well as David, there were presentations by Martin Parr, Margaret Drabble, Hans Eijkelboom, Mark Power and Susie Parr. All had been commissioned by Multistory to come to the Black Country and create work with local people about their lives. The resulting work, which is continuing and already includes more than a dozen other artists, is building into an artistic and social documentary project of national importance. It is also rethinking the practice of community arts in the 21st century. And so, naturally, it is as full of questions, ambiguities and uncertainties as it is of outstanding art. The need to step back, reflect and take stock of what has been done is growing and we’ve begun discussing how to do that: the invitation from Plymouth University was one step in that process.

Paradoxically, it is those very uncertainties that make me so sure that this work matters. At the end of his talk, David was asked about his reasons for doing his work. His reply was deeply serious, honest and challenging. Like his work, it deserves to be reflected on not only by those of us who work in community art, or even by artists, but by everyone, united as we are in our common responsibility for the world.

‘I’m certainly not doing this for some high-flown reason. I don’t consider myself to be a reformer, and I don’t think this is going in any way whatever to affect the rate of crime. But again I come back to the original impulse. I had a friend, Barney Simon, who became a famous theatre director in South Africa, who would say ‘The things that we’ve got to tackle are the things that we fear most’.

And, yeah, I am frankly shit scared of these criminals, many of them. We live in a house now with an electrified fence, electric gates, we’ve got an electrified alarm. We live in a society that is in prison. We’re in prison. And when I go into an area now where I feel that I’m going to be at risk, I hire a bodyguard, sometimes a man with a gun. I used to work on the assumption that if I showed people that I trust them, they will trust me. I can no longer do that, in all honesty, and I think that’s very sad.’

From Newspeak to Nonspeak

Albert Camus by Petr VorelGeneral elections don’t happen very often so it’s odd that this one should be so dull. The campaign has slipped from the headlines and radio presenters have even taken to reassuring listeners it will soon be over. It’s not as if there’s nothing at stake. The parties are not the all same: everyone will be affected, for better or for worse, by which eventually forms the next government.

The politicians’ refusal to meet the public has sucked the life out of this election. Instead, we have talks to people whose work is interrupted by politicians feigning interest in tyres or doorframes, and speeches to party members designed only to catch the next headline. But the headlines are all the same because political language has been vacuum-packed, emptied of all meaning. In the blue corner is a ‘long-term plan’: in the red it’s ‘a better plan’. This is not Newspeak: it’s Nonspeak. The only candidates who do speak with frankness—or the pretence of it—are insulated by not having to act on their words in government.

It’s partly due to a breakdown in trust between leaders and citizens that was evident in Question Time, a rare moment of real dialogue between them. Politics hasn’t adjusted to the ubiquity of cameras and the speed with which recordings circulate. When any elector can broadcast an unguarded moment that might dominate the headlines, it’s understandable if candidates are on their guard. They will eventually adapt, as they did to newspapers, television and universal suffrage, but for now politicians are caught like rabbits in the lights of the selfie phone. 1429837491525

Artists should be able to disrupt this broken relationship but they seem absent from the ritual of collective self-examination. A few have offered party endorsements, but that is just the act of a citizen: anyone with a little fame can do it. The distinctive creative power of art—much vaunted  when artists defend their funding—is to challenge convention, stale thinking and (self-) deception, blowing air into stale rooms. Where is it? We owe the election’s only powerful image not to artists but to the Amnesty International campaigners who put body bags on Brighton beach to represent the failure of European governments to prevent careless death in the Mediterranean Sea.

Albert Camus, perhaps the greatest French writer of the last century, is a model of how artists can balance engagement with independence. For Camus, it is the writer’s independence that gives value to their engagement. Like George Orwell, he saw writers as custodians of language. In reading the best of them we sluice cant from misused words, and are reminded of what really matters—in life, as well as in elections. So here is a little clean water from Albert Camus’ 1957 Nobel Prize speech:

For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.

That is worth holding onto in the torrent of nonspeak that will crash over us in the coming days.

Whose line is it, anyway?

LedburyOne lovely evening this summer, I stood waiting in the lobby of the Market Theatre in the Herefordshire town of Ledbury. The sunshine spilling through the windows was starting to get uncomfortably warm, but no one seemed to mind. The space was crowded and there was a babble of anticipation as people waited for the first public reading of Life Loves to Change, the poem written with, about and for Ledbury by Philip Wells..

This commission, like past Rural Media Company projects, involved an artist working with a community. But writing poetry tends to be a solitary activity, at least in Western culture. Except for creative writing workshops, which support individual writers, poetry has been marginal to community arts since its emergence in the 1970s. And community arts practice, in various ways, has underpinned the Rural Media Company’s work throughout its 21 year history. Film and media projects typically involve many tasks and roles that non-professionals can take on, acquiring technical and creative skills in the process, but this one needed another approach. The poem would be composed, from start to finish, by Philip Wells, but drawing on the stories, ideas, even the words of people he would meet in Ledbury.

This approach intrigued me. Since the emergence of community arts in the 1960s and 1970s, and the visual art world’s simultaneous exploration of happenings and ‘participatory’ work, various theories and practices have competed both to explain and to justify the blurring of a boundary—between professional and amateur—that modernism had gone to great lengths to establish. An artist making work is a self-explanatory activity. It can be judged, if necessary, by those who view, watch, read, listen to or otherwise engage with what the artist has made. But the work of an artist who involves other people in its creation is not self-explanatory, especially when those they involve don’t have the professional label ‘artist’ and the authority it confers.

A new set of questions presents itself. Is the artist using people as raw material, as Spencer Tunick might be said to do in the vast carpets of naked people he lays over familiar landmarks? Or is it their experiences that are being consumed, as material for an artist in search of ‘real life’? Is the process of creating the work important. More important even than the final artistic production? And beyond these questions of art philosophy, are more fundamental ones about the ethics of human relationship. Where does power lie? Who is in charge? To what have participants consented? Is the work exploitative? Does it instrumentalise people as the means to another person’s goal?

Continue reading…

Life Loves to Change

Whose Line is it Anyway? The creation of a poem for Ledbury

This is the opening of a new essay called Whose Line is it Anyway?, which reflects on changing ideas of authorship in community arts since the 1970s. It was commissioned by the Rural Media Company and published in a book about the Life Loves to Change project. To read the complete essay, please click on the links below:

An artist out of time

I was driving home through the Scottish Borders—like Debatable Lands everywhere, this lovely region is used to strangers—when I passed a sign to Abbotsford. I’d seen images of Sir Walter Scott‘s home that had given me the impression of a vast faux-baronial pile, filled with the historical paraphernalia one might associate with the creator of Scottish Romanticism. That culture, like Scott’s writing, had never held much appeal for me. But I like writer’s homes and I’d been told that the Abbotsford Trust had just opened a fine new visitor centre so, with time to spare, I turned off.

Abbotsford 0

The visitor centre was all I’d been led to expect: well-designed in a contemporary idiom that seemed both to suit the site and to try to place Scott in today’s world. Indeed, at the entrance to the museum that occupies much of the ground floor, there’s an amusing virtual debate about Scott’s merits, problems and legacy as a writer. Beyond it was a rich and well-conceived display of artefacts that described the author’s life and work in the context of Scottish history at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries.

Happily, this new building does not upstage the house itself. Now relieved of the need to tell its owner’s story, Scott’s home feels intimate and surprisingly moving. On a sunny-rainy midweek October morning, once a coach party had left, we were just a handful of visitors. And the house Scott built was far from grandiose: no more than a prosperous Edinburgh advocate might have put up. There were swords, claymores and stuffed animals in the entrance hall and an anteroom, but the dining room, library and Scotts’ own study were such that any rising middle class family of the day might have aspired to—albeit with more books.

It was in that dining room, 201 years ago almost to the day, that Scott died, the most celebrated and certainly the most popular writer in all Europe. In a handful of epic poems and a series of historical novels he had not only recast Scotland’s image and imagination, he had established a literary market from which other writers would benefit immensely. His influence on artists, philosophers, politicians and princes was immense during his lifetime and for many decades afterwards. In any reckoning of the most influential writers in European history, Scott ranks alongside the likes Shakespeare, Goethe and Cervantes.

So why is he so little read today?

Even after spending time at Abbotsford and developing a respect and affection for Scott’s spirit, I don’t find myself wanting to pick up Rob Roy or Ivanhoe.  Those claymores leave a bad taste. And that’s the problem, really. The sanitised but perfectly real weapons, the medievalising decoration, the romantic nationalism—they’re hard to like or even to understand today. Scott’s novels seem trapped in their time, as those of his contemporary, Jane Austen—about whom he wrote an appreciative and influential essay—are not, although her world is superficially so much more constrained.

Ezra Pound writes somewhere of art that is of its time, and therefore powerfully resonant and popular, and art that gives to its time, and so may not be truly valued until much later. Insofar as that is a defensible analysis, Walter Scott’s writing  seems to belong to the first group. But it’s a sobering example. How many of today’s wildly celebrated writers and artists will look, in years to come, obsessed with ideas and forms that have no more resonance for humanity?

National Treasures

08225lGunnie Moberg (1941-2007) was a photographer, painter and designer, born in Sweden and an Orkney woman by adoption. A small grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has enabled Orkney Library and Archive to acquire and conserve her archive. A website has just gone live to begin to tell the story of Gunnie Moberg, her work and her important place in Orkney’s remarkable post-war cultural life.


There are photographs of the natural world of the Northern Isles, including birds and seals (a particular love), of the ancient past, of friends and her connections with George Mackay Brown and other Scots artists. But the page that sent a shiver up my spine was the archivist’s thoughts about the intimacy of handling a person’s leavings;

Today in the strongroom I came across a note from Gunnie, perhaps to herself, it has cup rings and a torn edge. I think it helps me think about what makes her vision of Orkney so important. It was her recollection of the artist Paul Klee’s quote: ‘Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.’

In the last years of her life, I got to know Olive Cook, writer, painter and archivist of her late husband’s photographic legacy. In her nineties, she still lived alone in the home she had made with Edwin Smith, 30 years after his death. He was a living presence, always referred to by Olive as ‘my darling’.

A pastel sketch by Edwin Smith of Olive Cook and (knitting) his mother. It was given to me by Olive at our first meeting in the 1990s/
A pastel sketch by Edwin Smith of Olive Cook and (knitting) his mother. It was given to me by Olive at our first meeting in the 1990s.

She had hoped that the house, with its handmade wallpaper and  collection of books, papers and artworks would be preserved after her death.But it went to auction, although her personal and professional papers were acquired by her former Cambridge college. When we heard about the sale, my wife, Carol Crowe, went to Cambridge and rescued some of the things that had least value to collectors – the folios of artwork from the 1930s, old sketchbooks, postcards Olive and Edwin had exchanged and so on. The jetsam of a life. One day we shall have to find a good home for it, for the sake of their work and its contribution to mid-20th century English art. But also for the sake of the remarkable woman that we were lucky enough to know.


Last week the art world was frothing excitedly at having ‘saved’ a Constable landscape for the nation, at a cost of £23 million. Apparently, it was ‘unimaginable that this particular painting might have ended up anywhere other than in a UK public collection’. It’s a fine painting and an important piece of English cultural history, but I can’t say  I would have minded particularly if the residents of Los Angeles, Tokyo or Buenos Aires had got the chance to enjoy it in their public collections. We are not really deprived of Constables paintings in Britain’s galleries. But £23 million?

The Gunnie Moberg archive was saved – yes, really saved – at the cost of £78,500. There are many Gunnie Mobergs and Olive Cooks who have helped make our culture what it is. These are truly, in Carol’s words, national treasures. We should celebrate them more than we do – and appreciate them while they are still alive.

Artful integrity: on Alistair Cooke

New York

In August 1983, New York experienced a heat wave of unusual ferocity. One evening, in his 15th floor apartment overlooking Central Park, the BBC’s correspondent, Alistair Cooke, sought to divert himself with a video. He was disappointed to find the screen displaying only bands of illegible colour, though the sound appeared unaffected. Thinking the tape must be faulty, he took down another from a library of about 100 videos he’d collected either as home recordings or gifts from the television companies. The fault was repeated a second, third, even a fourth time.

Next day, a BBC technician advised him that the tapes had shrunk in the intense heat. There was nothing to be done. Lamenting his loss of so many cherished recordings, Cooke reflected that a 100-year-old book, unaffected by the weather, would have been as accessible as the day it was printed.

Alistair Cooke died in 2004 at the age of 95. He had been broadcasting his weekly 15-minute talks for 58 years; his final broadcast was made only three weeks before his death. Many of the early recordings have been lost, but the BBC has painstakingly assembled an archive, plugging some of its own gaps with recordings made off-air by loyal listeners, much as Cooke himself had recorded his favourite television programmes in the early days of video. Many of his 2,869 ‘Letters from America’ are now available online, where it is to be hoped that they will safe from the obsolescence imposed by the progress of technology, as well as the vagaries of the weather.


It is a great gift to be able to listen to Cooke’s broadcasts again. They form an unparalleled historical record of the second half of the 20th century, not because they tell us things we would not otherwise know (although they do) but because of how they tell them. The story of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1983 can be read in a growing number of books about a period that is indeed passing into history. But to listen to Cooke’s broadcast on from June 1983, purposely recorded 24 hours before the event, gives a unique sense of how it was felt at the time.

‘The American commentators dispatched to London confess themselves bewildered. They don’t understand how a country with the heaviest unemployment since the great depression, a people paying more taxes than they did four years ago, with industrial productivity down 10%, can somehow seem not to let these things count when it comes to picking the next Prime Minister.’

Alistair Cooke, ‘Letter from America’, 10 June 1983

But it is not even the immediacy of hearing the first rough draft of history that makes these broadcasts so compelling. It is their exceptional quality as literature that is important. As even this brief passage taken almost at random illustrates, Alistair Cooke was a great writer. He is a prose stylist as fine, in his own register, as P. G Wodehouse. His command of the English language is so skilful that it can pass unnoticed, as it should, since style and substance are one in great art.

He does not need or wish to show us what he can do. His writing, even when it is about him—which it is quite often—actually never is about himself. He becomes a sort of Everyman, a witness to events great and small on behalf of all those he addresses. He is always more interested in what is happening around him—and his interests were remarkably wide—than in himself. I have no doubt that he will come to be seen as one of history’s great eyewitnesses: a 20th century Samuel Pepys.

But unlike Pepys, we can hear him read his words. As a broadcast journalist, his art belongs to the 20th century whose technology created it. The warm, educated mid-Atlantic accent, the faultless delivery, the actor’s pauses and emphases, the underlying humility, the humour—all are central to his art. Again, the style and the substance are one. They have the integrity of art.

Commentaries that are wise after the event are ten a penny and do nothing but contribute to the self-esteem of the commentator. Some time ago I went through some yellowing files of two famous British weeklies, which, as prophets and recorders of events, were at the top of the heap in the anxious years of the 1930s. One was not what would be then called right wing; it was decently, prudently, thoughtfully conservative. The other was frankly left wing: bold, fearless, much like the American magazine The New Republic, every week sounding frightening and very impressive warnings about where Europe was headed. Look at their editorials and their predictions today and they were both, well, not dead wrong, only about 90% wrong. Life, hearing itself so noisily described and advised, simply tiptoed out of hearing and went its different way.

Alistair Cooke, ‘Letter from America’, 10 June 1983

In his wisdom and humanity, Cooke puts me in mind of the Roman Stoics, sometimes engaged in the history of their times but always reflecting on their experience and trying to find a path of truth and honour in an imperfect world. Perhaps, in some afterlife, Seneca, Cicero and Alistair Cooke observe the continuing follies of mankind, with Montaigne and Shakespeare, clear-eyed but never less than hopeful.

Numerous collections of Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ have been published over the years and at least some of those volumes stand a fair chance of surviving whatever humanity and climate change can throw at them. But they will only ever be a shadow of Alistair Cooke’s art. Fortunately, the BBC and other institutions are starting to take seriously the need to preserve the archives of 20th century electronic media and to make them accessible to everyone.

What is the Parliament of Dreams?

Jochen Gerz, ‘Platz des Unsichtbaren Mahnmals’, Saarbrucken, 1990
Jochen Gerz, ‘Platz des Unsichtbaren Mahnmals’, Saarbrucken, 1990

When I started this site, at the beginning of last year, I called it the Parliament of Dreams because I’ve used that metaphor to suggest how I see the unique place of art in democratic society, It was an idea that I had been thinking about since the late 1990s but I hadn’t found an opportunity to explain it fully until I was invited to speak at a conference in Tasmania in 2010. Here is the text of that lecture.

Does art matter? That is a fiercely contested question these days, given an additional twist as the rich western democracies cut back public spending after the 2008 banking crisis and the consequent recession. Just three short words, but two of them are as slippery as language comes. How people respond to the question depends almost entirely on how they interpret the words ‘art’ and ‘matter’. One problem is that words that seem straightforward in everyday use become less so the more they are discussed.

Art is not a difficult concept when parents are asked whether it should be part of their child’s school curriculum: people have a clear idea of what that means and there is usually a high level of support for art in education. But once discussion turns to actual examples, consensus about meaning rapidly falls away. Is art what artists produce? If so, who is an artist? Are they born or made? What is the difference between a good artist and a mediocre one? What comparative value can be placed on different work? And, does it matter?

The question is so tricky because it envelops two complex, intertwined and unresolved questions people have asked themselves since they have been people: what is a good life (what matters) and what is the purpose of creativity (why do people make art)? This is not the place to rehearse 3,000 years of philosophical debate. Were I even capable of it, it would not be necessary to my purpose, which is only to propose a pragmatic answer to that question: not definitive but good enough. In other words, I want to show why art matters, in principle, so that it is possible to move on to more practical and urgent questions about what might follow for cultural policy in a democratic society.

To continue reading, download the full essay:

All I wanted to do

‘This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.’

Woody Guthrie wrote these words on the typescript submitted for copyright of ‘This Land is Your Land’. They are entirely in keeping with the man, his beliefs and actions. They also represent an authoritative challenge to all writers and artists who want to protect their copyright.

1103px-Woody_GuthrieAt the heart of that challenge is the artist’s natural desire to be rewarded for their work. But what kind of reward do we want? For Woody Guthrie, the reward came first from the satisfaction of achieving something good and secondly from seeing people respond to his creations, in recognition, laughter and enjoyment. And he saw no better confirmation of that than hearing people sing his words. The oral transmission of stories, music and ideas is much older than the Internet.

Most artists, writers and musicians want the same: an appreciative audience. But they also need to feed themselves and their families, so the reward of being paid is also important, especially in those forms, like writing, that take time and offer limited opportunities to earn through one’s art.  Copyright, as first conceived, was an effective way of securing a writer both recognition and the livelihood that would enable them to write more.

Of course, as art became commercialised for large markets in the course of the last 150 years, some artists have done more than earn a living: they have become immensely rich. One would have to be a very principled or very unmaterialistic artist not to desire at least some of those rewards for oneself. But that doesn’t make it right, or wise, to define one’s goals in the terms of a society with a questionable attitude to money, especially if one claims a critical position towards that society’s values.

I’ve touched before on the problems of defending the market value of creative products in a digital age and I’ve thought for some time that the answer must be to uncouple the two kinds of reward–recognition and money–that are currently bound up in the single concept of copyright.  Creative Commons and similar approaches to licensing seemed to be one way of doing that, by allowing people freely to use, distribute and even to adapt work while preserving the creator’s right to be recognised as such. I’ve made my work available in that form for a number of years: it is widely distributed online, though the two things may be unrelated.

But reading a critique of the Creative Commons approach by Florian Cramer has given me pause for thought. Among other things, he contrasts it with the Open Source movement, which he sees as having brought many benefits in software development. The connection with existing forms of copyright and the complexities of legislation make it hard to establish genuinely free approaches without the clarity of the open source.

As a writer I place more value on being read than being paid. I don’t—couldn’t—earn a living through royalties: that has to be through my other work. But I have seen Creative Commons as a way of keeping some control over what I say, or at least of distinguishing what I have written from what I have not. The idea that speech is an act in the world, and therefore that it carries ethical, philosophical and political meaning is central to my thinking. A writer is responsible for his or her writing, as each person is responsible for their actions. Because writing for publication, whether in the form of a book and lecture or a blog, is a public act (it’s in the word) it carries a different kind of responsibility. So Creative Commons seemed a way of acknowledging responsibility for what I’ve written but not for what somebody else makes of it.

Having read Florian Cramer I’m not so sure that distinction can (or should) be made. Indeed, I’ve often written about the autonomy of the reader—the necessary audience who hears, watches, looks at or otherwise recreates a work of art. And having spoken to many people who have formed quite different ideas of what a text or lecture I have written meant, I have to accept that, in truth I cannot control what people make of it. So perhaps it is wisest, having tried to write as well as I can, simply to let things go and like Woody Guthrie, be happy if anyone reads it, reflects on it, quotes it, reworks it or builds on it. Writing it is all I wanted to do.

PS Many thanks to Juli for letting me know about Florian Cramer’s paper; her own work on copyright and digital piracy in a post-communist Bulgaria will be published shortly.

Copyright vs. the Honesty Box

‘Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing… Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors… to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families.’

The Statute of Anne (1710)

Sherlock Holmes (Moore & Reppion)The digital reformation

The effect of new digital and communication technologies on human society is truly revolutionary. Computers, smartphones and the Internet are now so commonplace that it can be hard to recognise the importance of the changes they are enabling. In the early 1980s, I worked in community printshops, which had the avowed aim of giving people better access to the means of cultural production. That dream has been achieved to an extent and in ways we couldn’t imagine in the days of hand-cut stencils and electric typewriters.

The consequences of these changes are unpredictable, but they will be at least as profound as the introduction of printing in 15th century Europe (whose effects we are still living through). But it is already clear that a cornerstone of the cultural economics is being undermined. Copyright, which has developed alongside capitalism in the past 300 years, is unsustainable in its current form.

The concept was itself a result of the printing revolution as artists fought to protect their interests against those of printers. The problem was recognised in the Statute of Anne (1710), which first established the rights of authors to benefit from their work, a concept that has grown into the complex body of intellectual property rights which both enabled and governed the subsequent development of prosperous cultural industries.

Copyright and musicians

led Zeppelin Chicago 1975An early sign of the pressure copyright would come under were the stickers record companies began putting on LPs in the early 1980s, threatening that ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’.  Thirty years on, after the legal struggles over Napster, Megaupload and Pirate Bay and a complete reinvention of music distribution through Amazon, iTunes and Spotify, that early BPI campaign seems almost homely.

Whatever the morality of file sharing, it can at least be argued that musicians currently benefit more than suffer from the easy distribution of their work. The control of the big record companies has gone. Small independent labels thrive, while many artists self-publish music online. The economics of popular music have been reversed. In the 1970s, bands often lost money touring to promote album sales. Today, they give away music but capitalise on live performance – the ancient experience of hearing musicians play that cannot be pirated. Ticket prices for live music are at an all time high.

Visual artists and writers

But things are more difficult for visual artists and writers. Their work, so slow and painstaking in production, can be copied and distributed in an email attachment. E-books and digital publishing may eventually provide a financially viable outlet, though the success in this field of people like E L James obscures the much greater likelihood of publishing online never to be read, still less paid for. Without the possibility of playing live and touring, writers will always find it hard to build an audience.

A page on the website of comic book creators Leah Moore and John Reppion brings home the difficulty of making a living as a writer or visual artist in the ‘post-copyright’ age. Moore and Reppion are young artists who have been working together since 2003 and have an impressive catalogue of comics, illustration and other writing. In The Honesty Box they speak directly to readers who may have downloaded their work online without paying for it.

Leah Moore & John Reppion (DC Sterne)They describe exactly why this is ‘to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families’, saying openly that in the last tax year they earned £5,000 less than they’d have got by doing the same number of hours on the minimum wage.  They go on to explain that, as freelancers, future contracts often depend on sales figures of past publications, and how comic publishers need sales to invest in future productions. They give links to legitimate places where their work can be bought online, in book or digital form. And they conclude by inviting people who have read and liked their work to leave something in their PayPal Honesty Box.

The page is an eloquent and dignified statement by artists who, like most of those who comprise the core of the much-vaunted ‘creative industries’, are not rich or famous or powerful. They have no place in the legal wars between media corporations and Internet libertarians, neither of whom has much interest in their wellbeing though both exploit their creativity. Whatever economic structure eventually emerges from the current instability of copyright, what matters most to our culture and our democracy is whether it ensures that people like Leah Moore and John Reppion can sustain their creative practice and themselves.

PS – I did get permission to reproduce the work on this page!

Drawing together

JL-3-800x576A couple of years ago Deborah Aguirre Jones  began a project working with women experiencing mental health problems in Bristol, where she lives. Supported by a local organisation, Creativity Works, she invited the participants to make drawings to be given to local women artists, who would make a drawing in exchange. Over a period of weeks, a kind of visual conversation developed between women who never met face to face. It was a bit like having a pen pal, but using the intuitive and ambiguous process of visual art rather than words.

The results were published online and as a book, in which each sequence appears as a folding sheet. All the work can be seen online here: Drawing Together.

The experience was deeply valued by the women who took part and Deborah has done two further iterations of the idea, one involving many of the same participants, the other in a different city. There have been a couple of seminars as well, to reflect on the issues  raised by the work. Deborah asked me to contribute a short reflection to the book, which is reproduced below.

Drawing together

Drawing inferences

Talking to no one is strange, Talking to someone is stranger

Kevin Coyne, 1971

Humans are social beings. We need to talk to each other, to share feelings, ideas and experiences, to find common ground and build solidarity.Our mental health depends on interaction, which is why solitary confinement, except for very short periods, is widely considered a form of torture. We learn to understand ourselves, and others, by talking things through. Without language, we’re borderline human. And yet talking can be risky, even perilous.

You might be in danger, yeah, If you say too much in this world

It’s so easy to say the wrong thing, to put your foot in it, to wound someone or in turn face judgement and hurt. Even the most assured can be tongue-tied in unfamiliar situations. Some need a lifetime to find the confidence to speak; others lose it through painful experience.If we need to talk but are fearful of opening our mouths, we’re cornered.

Art can help us out of that dead end, which is one reason for its existence. It lets us say things we can’t – or won’t – put into words precisely because they aren’t said; they’re suggested, implied, inferred and open to interpretation.Art is a safe place to share thoughts and feelings because everything is deniable. ‘You see it like that? Well, how interesting, but it’s not what I had in mind…’ We can hide behind the idea that the work speaks for itself, which it does, of course; but what is it saying?

Whatever art is saying nowadays, it often seems to say it very loudly. It’s true that artists invented rhetoric, and having the confidence to broadcast oneself can be seen as part of the job: hectoring the world with a bullhorn.But there are other, more intimate ways of making art, and they are sometimes more profound. They don’t shout or draw attention to themselves. They take time, but they repay it with unfolding layers of meaning.

All art is a dialogue between the creator – the person who makes it – and the recreator, the person who sees, reads, hears, feels, thinks and imagines it.What we call art – a picture, story or song – is just a link connecting two minds. That connection is usually limited because the recreator cannot return anything to the creator. It is, after all, one of art’s capacities to enable communication across space and time between people who don’t or can’t know one another.

This project is different. It makes the partners in artistic dialogue equal because each is both creator and recreator, a drawer and an interpreter of drawing. And it is the untrained, nonprofessional artist who starts, who creates a space for sense and who sets its tone. The invitation made to a professional artist, to respond to something made by another, is already a subversion of the normal relationship between artist and public.

But then the artist’s response requires its own answer, like a letter from a friend.  It’s not an email or text that appears – ping! – and gets an instant message back. This drawing is on paper and like a letter it must be physically carried from one hand to another.That takes time and it gives time – time to reflect, to wonder, to imagine. Time to get to know one’s correspondent through the images they offer. Time to think through what to share and how to share it.

But first you must decide what’s being said and, since this is a drawing not a letter, that’s open to question. Curiously, though, the ambiguity is not threatening: it’s liberating. No honest, open response to a drawing is ‘wrong’: there can be no misunderstanding. So what goes back, after careful study of each image, is a truthful reply. And that in turn invites a reply…

The exchange of drawings, like all gifts, creates obligations. You must give something in return, not just a picture but, in it, something of yourself. You must give a little trust, a little truth. And so the threads of relationship are plaited and strengthened until, like climbers, we’re ready to trust our weight to them.

There are always people on the margins of society. The strong take their places in the sun, uncaring or unconscious of where falls their shade. Those who can speak, and are listened to, easily take that gift for granted. They may believe that others, if they’re noticed at all, are silent from weakness or choice. Things are not so simple. And even if they were, everyone is still entitled to take part in the endless human conversation: listening in is not enough. It’s a bit like solitary confinement, with the sounds of everyday life drifting through the bars.

Art can be exclusive too; it’s not immune from the forces that shape the rest of human experience. But it doesn’t have to be. Artists have ways of opening up to the margins, of creating a dialogue with people on life’s riverbank. In fact, being naturally curious and working in that safe space in which people do say all the things they can’t say, they may be especially adept at making those bridges.

Talking to someone may be strange indeed, but it’s life, and life is strange.