Just do it

The March 3 edition of Arts Watch pointed me to the recent discovery by the LA Times that making music has more profound effects than listening to it. Given that we know that babies aren’t made by watching blue movies, it is perhaps surprising that this revelation is deemed newsworthy.

I guess the not inconsiderable investment in making us believe that ‘the arts’ is all about the epiphanies we can experience through witnessing the performance of the Artist is paying off.  Our own paltry efforts are implicitly trivialised in comparison to the excellence of the expert.

Anyway, the LA Times has discovered that ‘if you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, you need to be a participant, not just a listener.’

This, in contrast to the now discredited ‘Mozart Effect’: The belief that exposing babies to the recordings of Wolfgang Amadeus turned them into bright(er) beings.

There is now considerable research to show that making music produces physical change in our brains. And there is lots of speculation as to how these changes may (better) equip us for life’s journey. I’m on side with those that think that an increased skill in, and enjoyment of, co-ordinating one’s actions with others is the foundation of becoming active social beings – and that music-making offers precisely that opportunity.

Do we need a new language?

Bill Ivey, U.S. author and advocate for matters creative has been struggling for years to make a new language for arts policy.

Douglas McLennan, the editor of Arts Journal, recently hosted a week-long conversation dissecting Ivey’s concept, Expressive Life.

Douglas begins by asking, ‘are the terms “Art” and “Culture” tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances “Expressive Life” as a new, expanded policy arena – a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside “Work Life,” “Family Life,” “Education,” and “The Environment.” Is Ivey on the right track, or is “Expressive Life” a dead end?’

The debate is fascinating. As one of the participants says at the conclusion: ‘the dialog here has made important and critically necessary contributions to the process of developing a robust conceptual and intellectual framework for the argument that all individuals have a right to fully experience their creative capacity’.

Thank you Arlene Goldbard for drawing my attention to this debate.

NSW Labor shows its true colours

ccdnsw shut up shop last week after failing to renegotiate continued financial support from the NSW state government.

In justifying the decision, NSW Arts Minister Virginia Judge, is quoted in the Sun-Herald as saying:  ‘ccdnsw is an advisory body.  It does not create or program any arts events.  [That is, it doesn’t offer me enough photo opps]  It started 25 years ago [that is, I’m bored] when community cultural activities were not as prolific and as advanced as they are today’ [1985 was a high point for community arts – one could easily argue that it’s been downhill ever since].

The apparent bureaucratic excuse for the withdrawal of support was that ccdnsw failed under the ‘audience development’ criterium.  Apart from providing the justification for defunding, one can only speculate why this criterium was applied to this organisation, especially when their entire focus, at least figuratively speaking, is about getting people out of the auditorium and on to the stage.

Fact is that the concept of community arts is fundamentally subversive.  That is, it stands in direct opposition to the prevailing ideology of marketisation.  The idea that art might be a process in which ordinary people engage (making their own culture) cannot help but be an anathema to those that see the arts as an industry in which specialists produce commodities for sale to passive consumers.  What’s more, the very concept of active engagement has to be viewed as dangerous by power-brokers whose comfortable existence is dependent on an acquiescent public.

ccdnsw, on it website, claims that its ‘primary role and purpose is to be the leading voice advancing social change through the arts’.  The bigger question might be, how did they manage to scam money out the NSW government for so long before getting the knife?

Interestingly, some years ago, NSW did expressly force ccdnsw to not offer training.  No wonder really – the last thing they want is some social change.

It is tempting to speculate that ccd has become a victim of its own success – that Labor has ‘defunded’ it because of the trouble they’re causing.  If only.  More likely is that the bureaucrats have become bored.  After all, ccd doesn’t do foyer like the big boys.

Might not ccd be better off free of the fetters of governments whose fundamental beliefs and behaviours are diametrically opposed to the values it promotes?  Possibly, but bucks are still needed for workers, rent and so on.  We are lucky enough to live in a society that at least nominally, recognises that the state has a responsibility to support (minimal) dissent – just as long as it doesn’t get too entrenched would appear to be the rider.

Seems like ccdnsw’s demise is a done deal.  Scott O’Hara (Arts Hub) and Phoebe Coyne (New Matilda) have written perceptive pieces to no avail.  With qcan’s departure late last year, and the earlier destruction of Artwork magazine, ccd.net and indeed the Community Cultural Development Board of the OzCo, it would appear that the free marketeers are well on the way to achieving their goal.  Makes the title of the OzCo’s latest research tome, ‘More than Bums on Seats’ ring pretty hollow really.

Where art fits in a hierarchy of human needs

There’s a comprehensive piece in today’s Australian on Maureen Wheeler’s philanthropic initiatives.  Her support of the Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas is wonderful.

However, towards the end of the article, Ms Wheeler offers an analysis of the place of the arts in the hierarchy of human needs with which I feel obliged to take issue.  She is quoted as saying: ‘So to me, the cultural nourishment of people is a luxury … culture should not be a priority of aid … art comes second (after the essentials of survival – medical support, food and drinking water)’.

Yes, health and sustenance are absolutely fundamental, but if achieving them requires any level of social organisation, collaborative art-making enters the picture – not as a luxury – but as the essential activity through which we learn to work together.

This not an argument for supporting books or opera (another of her loves) but for making sure that people (especially children) have the regular opportunity to sing and dance together – this is how we learn to co-operate and to enjoy co-operating.  Without this experience, we condemn ourselves to atomised individualism (thatcherism or reaganism perhaps).

Seems to me that hierarchies are always problematic, and human needs are a case in point.  We have a spectrum of needs, all of which are important.

Canadian arts mandarin argues for everyday arts participation

Simon Brault, head of Canada’s National Theatre School and vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts has become the latest spokesperson for the need for government to acknowledge, honour and support ‘amateur practices’.

Dismissing the preoccupation of arts funding agencies with ‘audience development’, he is pushing for an arts version of ‘Participaction’ (a Canadian version of Australia’s ‘Life Be In It’ campaign). This program was designed to stimulate Canadians to get off their arses and shake their tail feathers and has apparently been widely successful.

He sees a similar program being essential to developing sustainable connections between professionally produced arts and the wider population.

James Bradshaw’s Dec 4 report in Canada’s ‘Globe & Mail’ offers a thumbnail of Brault’s recent pronouncements and activities. Good stuff.

Sport is about health … duh

I never thought that I’d find myself on the same side of an argument as the Chair of Fosters. But when his antagonists are the rabidly right wing media, led by a bunch of so-called journalists claiming to speak on behalf of the people of Australia, it’s impossible just to sit silent and observe the blood spatter.

The Report of the Independent Sport Panel does not recommend reducing government funding to ‘elite’ sports (even so, Coates called its members ‘ignorant and disrespectful’ – which means they must be doing something right) BUT it had the temerity to suggest that community sport and physical activity in schools might possibly be higher priorities than winning more Olympic medals than every other country in the world bar four.

They even went so far as to propose ‘a broadening of the definition of sporting success to include measures of our nation’s fitness and participation in activity’. And, unlike in the arts, when they say participation they mean the people on the field, NOT in the stands.

Outrageous really. London to a brick, the Murdoch backed hacks will whip enough of a frenzy to ensure that the FedGov declares a foul and Coates and his cronies will fill their snouts to the fullest.

Nevertheless there is some sweetness in reading a report where every mention of ‘sport’ could be replaced with ‘art’ and we’ve have something approaching a decent arts policy.

Music in the air

Yesterday, I gave the final session of the lecture series I’ve been doing at Melbourne Uni. Normally, Kat McFerran and I co-deliver, but as she was off doing another gig, we decided to use the last session to show the students the recent pbs(US) doco, The Music Instinct because, as well as being well made, it covers very much the same ground as the series. I look forward to it being broadcast here.

Not being used to being a lecturer, I find the moment of saying goodbye quite odd. What effect has twelve weeks had? Will any of the 160 see the world differently as a result? And so on …

The night before, on ABC Radio I listened to some of the Australia Talks show, Music & Identity; its guests included Shelley Morris who I had seen the week before in dirtsong. The talk was of the connections between people and place through music – how we discover through music a sense of belonging, and how we celebrate those connections musically.

And then this morning, found that the Music Show had a couple of segments on grassroots singing: inspirational tales of women who have devoted their lives to bringing out the singing in others.

All of which made me feel some nostalgia for my time with Community Music Victoria.

Calls for new cultural policy abound

It’s way too late at night for me to be thinking clearly, but I have to put this stuff up, if only because of its synchronicity. On the western side of the Pacific, we have Oz Arts Minister Peter Garrett announcing a ten point framework that may lead to a national cultural policy.

And, on the other side of the ocean we have ccd advocate Arlene Goldbard giving us the backstory to a not dissimilar push for a new cultural policy in USA.

Both polemics emphasise the capacity and value of citizens telling their own stories- making their own culture. How much of this good, and well-expressed, intent survives the ravages of future phases of the processes will depend on many factors, not least the commitment of cultural activists to engage in the debate.

These initial expressions, along with Jordi Pascual’s recent work in Europe (see my post of 25/10) are moving the issue into new territory, making it possible to imagine that the ways we go about making sense together may become a topic debated on the street, in community halls, in schools by ordinary folk,

Some signposts

I’ve had a series of overhead projections (being unwilling to engage with PowerPoint) for some years now that I’ve been using as summaries of various aspects of my post Four Pillar thinking. Viewed sequentially, they read a bit like a guide through the rooms of the virtual building for which the pillars are the facade.  While I’m ambivalent about this metaphor, I do find these ‘Cultural Displays’ quite useful when I’m trying to sort out what I’m on about. I’m hoping others might find them similarly functional.

Culture and sustainable development

This morning I received Circular 33 from the Agenda 21 for Culture crew in Barcelona.

It announces the online publication of a report by Jordi Pascual entitled ‘Culture and sustainable development: examples of institutional innovation and proposal of a new cultural policy profile’. Jordi has been pushing a ‘fourth pillar’ perspective for some years now and this report is not only a fantastic overview of some interesting examples of cities that are working through this planning model but also contains some truly wonderful lists and charts (I’m a sucker for such things) that will come in very handy for anyone wanting to introduce this sort of thinking into their workplace.