New Internationalist

Keynote

Issue 144

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ART [image, unknown] Reclaiming our creativity

[image, unknown]

Chris Sheppard [image, unknown] Chris Brazier
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editors: Chris Sheppard and Chris Brazier

Artists are deities, set apart from the rest of us. At least that’s what we’re taught. Femi Ajayl-Wood shows how individual creativity has been taken over by the global arts industry - and why we should reclaim it.

Rock drawings remain of large animals scratched
carefully on rough surfaces of caves and cliffs by
hairy people who ate roast meat and swung axes.

Long ago the person and the artist were inseparable. They lived in a world which demanded constant participation. Food had to be hunted or coerced from the earth. The body needed shelter from harsh weather. The ‘gods’ were the only ones who could ensure a plentiful supply of rain, fertile crops and long life. So they had to be placated.

The hunters learnt to use song and dance as a medium to approach the gods. Their painted bodies and masks contained the spirit of the animals they hunted. They were our first artists. They expressed their attitudes to life, their experiences, joy and pain through body and voice.

We are all artists. We all possess creative potential: whether it be to carve rock drawings, to embroider, sing, act, dance, body-pop, paint murals, sculpt, draw or sew. The manifestations are many and infinite. In each one of us there is an instinct to create something out of our lives, out of our experiences. It is present at birth and it disappears at death. But in too many of us it remains latent and unrecognised all our lives.

The worst evil is that we have accorded hands-off status to the few who have recognised, developed and marketed this instinct in themselves. We tip our hats and whisper ARTIST! from the grey sidelines. When they pass the million-dollar mark in the performance arts we breathe STAR. As adults we hang their work in our living room, as teenagers we pin their faces on our bedroom walls. And each time we do that we resign ourselves to being ordinary. We teach, lay bricks, go to offices, have a drink at the pub, chauffeur children, feed dogs. We can never be like them. So much for the Renaissance.

The culprit responsible for the mystification of art is money. In the West what was once human expression has now become the arts industry in which the key words are profit and loss, consumer, markets, box-office, image, packaging and product. These are bandies about by agents, managers and go-between wh, by keeping the artist and the public apart, sharpen consumer appetites and keep them looking to the artist for more as opposed to looking inside themselves for inspiration. At one point in 1984 Michael Jackson was selling 72 records or tapes in the time it took to snap his fingers. Jackson’s rise to global super-stardom shows how culture flows around the world. He typifies the new heroes, fads and images which have sprung up as the traditional barriers of nation and language have been eroded by the internationalisation of pop culture.

But the arts industry does not rest with re packaging the finished product. It also seeks to talent-spot raw art at street level. The most recent manifestation of this is the phenomenon of body-popping and break dancing. The craze began in the streets of New York’s black and Hispanic ghettos. In the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem, groups of unemployed teenagers gathered on sidewalks to while away their time and compete with each other in ways less violent than gang welfare. The distorted yet rhythmic movements had no sooner attracted middle-class audiences than they were removed from their street environment and marketed. Break dancing is a rebellion against social and physical constraints of film and television studios. Only the burgeoning rate of unemployment who are least likely to be persuaded that they are creative – the arts industry is not interested in people who cannot consume. Yet the most moving art evolves in situations of deprivation and distress and all over the Western world unemployed people are filling their time by engaging in do-it-yourself schemes which draw on their own creativity. The term community arts throws up visions of housewife poets, dole-queue dancers and drop-out photographers. And that’s as it should be - people are beginning to reclaim and assert their own creativity.

But the international arts industry is less interested in housewife poets than it is in turning to developing countries for new ideas and inspiration. Consumers in the West continually demand more of the unknown, the exotic in their art. They find it in societies whose art still means something, in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Traditionally art was not something separate but an integral part of communal life in which everyone participated. In Swahili, for instance, there was no word for music because it was inseparable from the rituals and rhythms of daily life. Art that is not divorced from people retains the energy, the preoccupations and the changing tides of its community.

This artistic gold mine has not gone unnoticed by Westerners, who have continued to make ‘looting expeditions’ to Africa, Asia and the Caribbean and America’s Black South. The modern trend in avant-garde theatre to push back the walls of the proscenium and involve the audience is a return to the African tradition of the storyteller. But the most glaring examples are in music. Twentieth-century composers such as Stravinsky, Wei II and Poulenc have drawn on the black American musical folk tradition, from blues to spirituals, urban jazz and work songs. Much of this black music was not written down and the fact was seized on by the white jazz bands of the 1920’s who published these complex jazz ‘arrangements under their own name.

The same process is still going on. In the Sixties the Beatles went to India in search of music, mysticism and mantras - in economic terms they found all three. While in the Seventies British rock group The Police cashed in by merging punk’s raw energy with the strong beat of Jamaican reggae. Black beat plus white faces equals big money.

You could claim that the global trans-culture which has resulted from this looting has broken down the barriers between the West and the developing world. But the argument is weak. In fact strong cultural heritages are being diluted and distorted to fit the international market. Even the artists themselves are beginning to be influenced by the demands of this international market. The reggae which Bob Marley sang and earned millions for is much, much gentler than the earthy music of Kingston’s slums.

This is not free trade between cultures - it is a one-way traffic. The arts industry which controls the traffic employs standards which tilt all compromises towards the West. And it assumes that the culture of the developing world is of such little value that it can be understood, repackaged and sold in a couple of trips. They come this time, not with Bibles and swords, but with portable cassettes and cameras.

Behind this exploitation lies the Western view of art which fails to recognise each individual as an artist. Art has a copyright--the person. It cannot be separated from the person, taken away for packaging and selling to others who had no part in the original creation. Art has to be free to interchange, reflect and absorb daily events.

And that means being free to protest, too - to be used as a tool for changing our societies. The graffiti sprayed on tenement blocks and subways looks ugly, aggressive and is disturbing. And so it should be. It is coming from people who have no other way to attract attention to their problems of being overlooked, underhoused and mostly unemployed. We are not allowed to forget that there is an angry generation somewhere out there who have broken into our space.

Artists are in a strong position for they are the only established group of people, apart from politicians and sports people, who command such constant attention from the public. Growing are the tales of those who have been incarcerated or have had to go into exile because of their work. Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo, Wole Soyinka and Solzhenitsyn produced work which lay in seeming innocence on a page but had the power to rouse rebellious thought in thousands. Think then of what might happen if each one of us was to recognise the creative instinct in ourselves.

You as the artist seems a daring concept precisely because our own creativity has been blocked. I went to a school pantomime last Christmas. The girls were comfortable on stage - they played the recorders, sang, waved at parents and generally threw themselves into the spectacle. The boys perched gingerly on the edge of the action, their responses varying from shyness, amusement and disdain to clumsy self-consciousness. The oldest was no more than ten years old but already believed play-acting in funny hats was not entirely manly. What could have been a totally participatory exercise of fun and frolic turned out to be grim medicine for half the actors. Their blocking had begun.

Open up. Think of your senses - smell, sight, touch, hearing, taste. These are gateways to creativity. Look around you at familiar objects. Yes, I know that you’ve been looking at the same sofa for years. But have you really seen it? Can you remember why you bought it? Maybe because that green looked warm against the beige curtains and the oatmeal carpet. Green is such a lovely colour. There are many shades of green. But they all remind you of nature: a leaf, the Caribbean sea at night, flower stalks, grapes, cats’ eyes, ivy on the garden wall, mossy river stones.

Mossy river stones feel damp when you touch them. Their smell as you place them against your nose brings back memories of walking through wet fields in summer rain. You pull your jacket closer against the cold and think of warmth. Warm houses with families in them; people you love. At this point of rambling, you could go in any direction. You could remember painful experiences which blocked that love or happy ones in which it flowed. The point of deep recall, deep feeling is the moment to tap gently at your creative door. Before, you may have reached for a cigarette at this point, turned on the telly, gone off to the pub for a drink or called up a friend on the phone. Don’t. Engage your feelings instead. You have a mammoth choice. My only stipulation is that you take an active part in the choice. How about the furniture? Something about its arrangement does not suit your present mood. Re-arrange it using the energy of the mood to guide you, the sensations of what you recall. Anything missing? Flowers? A vase? Could be you hate flowers. The corner is a little bare. By choice? Or laziness? Or poverty? Decide. Difficult decision? Good. This means that your creative wheels are beginning to turn and weighing objects against the space which they occupy.

All of this is just a beginning. You will find more complicated variations as you go along. Travelling by train the repetitive, harshly musical sound of the wheels on the track might set up a corresponding rhythm of nonsense words in your head. Always have paper ready. Write the words down. Keep a diary. Be daily aware of feelings and responses. Write them down. Soon these feelings will urge you to make specific choices which will engage you expressively. Be ready to be open. Feel free to let thoughts ramble. Feed the senses. Touch more surfaces. Compare them. Savour the taste of your food. Which taste do you prefer? Sour, sweet, bitter, salty? Why? Put aside a section of each day to indulge thoughts of this nature and keep doing things in your leisure time.

Read the stories of how other people approach artistic expression ('Portrait of the artist'). See where their experience overlaps yours. Not to possess some degree of creativity is frankly not to be human. Go back now and dig for what has been buried. It is there. You will find it. It will free you.


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