Old Words: Essays on cultural democracy

This a new thread of old work—essays and talks written over many years but unheard except on the occasion of their delivery. A new one is published on the first Friday of each month, in PDFs and audio form; they’re also available as podcasts from miaaw.net, home to ‘A Culture of Possibility’. I’m not sure how many there might be, and I don’t know who might find them interesting: it’s perhaps just a form of tidying up. Life recently deprived me of new words, for now at least, so I fall back on old ones.

Arriving on 7 October Old Words #8 – Music and Social Change

Old Words #7 – The Shoreline and the Sea (2012-2022)

It once seemed to me that making a clear distinction between innate, unchangeable heritage and acquired, changeable culture was a useful way to think about how culture—understood in its broadest sense to include both heritage and art—is used by individuals and social groups. These days, however, it all looks more complicated, more ambiguous, than that. It’s true that we all have a heritage determined by inescapable facts, including our parentage and the date and place of our birth. And it’s true that we acquire culture through our own tastes and choices, throughout life. But I imagine the relationship between these two sides of a person’s or a group’s cultural identity now as a continual, fluid interaction, like the dance of the shoreline and the sea. 

Link to text and recording (2 September 202)

Old Words #6 – Cultural policy in a post-political age (2021-22)

This interpretation of recent developments in British cultural policy will strike some readers as controversial or unproven, and I accept that it’s only a first sketch of what might be happening. But I am concerned that neglecting the origins and principles of cultural policy is damaging because it will lead to confusion and/or illusion, both of which make democratic accountability more difficult. In that respect, these developments are in keeping with the powerful—and dangerous—practices of many politicians in democratic societies today. Cultural policy is not immune from this infection. 

Link to text and recording (5 August 2022)

Old Words #5 – Playful Adventures (2008-2022)

Children and young people get most from art when, paradoxically, least is intended or expected. When art is used as a tool for instruction—deliberately to build skills and confidence, to address ‘offending behaviour’, or to pass on cultural or identitary values—it becomes just another part of an inflexible education system. It ceases to be a space for learning and becomes, like maths or science, a means of teaching. The child’s experience switches from an active one of discovery to a passive one of reception. 

Link to text and recording (1 July 2022)

Old Words #4, ‘The Art of Uncertainty’ (2010)

Responding to uncertainty requires what Ralph Stacey calls ‘extraordinary management’—processes that enable organisations to move beyond an existing shared paradigm. Faced with strategic decisions involving high uncertainty and high disagreement, organisations need processes that are different from those on which they normally rely for operational ones. Leaders need to recognise both the situation and the anxiety that it naturally produces: that depends on a high degree of openness, honesty and trust. Developing this in organisations usually managed in rigid, hierarchical and rationalist models is evidently difficult. Distant, autocratic or unreliable leaders are not easily trusted when they invite people to be open about their ideas or feelings

Link to text and recording (3 June 2022)

Old Words #3, Prisoners of Love: Amateurs and Professionals (2012)

Art does not need protecting from untalented practitioners: it can look after itself. But untalented performers might need protecting from their more skilled peers who have an interest in controlling who is and who is not able to take part. There is a parallel with cooking. Preparing one’s own food, however basic or unappetising to someone with a more refined palate, offers satisfactions that the most expensive ready meal cannot give. It is doing, not watching others do. And by doing we can improve our technique and our taste. But it is not always in the interests of processed food retailers or restaurateurs— or indeed the professional arts world—to encourage people in that idea. 

Link to text and recording (6 May 2022)

Old Words #2, ‘Making Nothing Happen’ (2016)

In one of his finest poems, In Memory of W. B. Yeats, written in the shadow of war in Europe, W. H. Auden writes famously that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, a phrase that has often been taken as an admission of art’s essential uselessness. But there is another way of reading those words. Poetry makes nothing happen because, like all art, it is creative. It makes nothing into something: that is what creation means. The intangible, inexplicable poetry of Auden and of Yeats whom he is commemorating, did not exist before they spoke. It exists now, though they do not. They made ‘nothing’ happen. Nothing became something because of them.

Link to text and recording (1 April 2022)

Old Words #1, ‘Music. What is it good for?’

So, music can bring intense, immediate pleasures, it can create and share meaning, it can guide us to understanding honestly who we are and who we have been, it can establish bonds of solidarity and it can help us know, however incompletely, what it is to be someone else, to have experiences we will, can, never have. And it does all that in ways that no other art form can do—not better, but differently.

Link to text and recording (4 March 2022)