I was hugely fortunate last week to take part in Bivouac1, a (free – free!!) gathering of artists (mostly visual), facilitated by Eden Arts in Cumbria (here’s Adrian from Eden Arts talking about how the two days were for them – clearly we’re coming from the same place). It was a talking, sharing, confiding, considering, thinking, walking, drinking, EATING, pasta-making, death-discussing, faerie-making, magical (literally), gathering. Meeting. Engaging. It was about conversations, nothing led or panel-debated, nothing decided beforehand to any huge level, just a bring them together and see what happens thing. It was bloody brilliant. There was also some Alan Lane passion & politics (plus Fairy Portal) which is always a joy.

And although a lot of the people who contribute to Fun Palaces are visual artists, my own art work has mostly been theatre and writing, so I’ve had less conversations with a variety of visual artists. I liked having conversations with them. Liked it a lot.

One of the reasons I liked it a lot is that, in every conversation, the visual artists I talked with were speaking about community, about other people, about engagement, participation, creating together. They were NOT talking about ‘great art for everyone’.

I’ve written before about my concern with the ‘great art for everyone‘ tag and those two days last week reinforced my concerns.

When we put ‘great art’ first, when we fly in a ‘world-class’ artist to a school or a community, what we are doing is alerting/exposing people to art. As if art is the thing that can make a difference in and of itself. And obviously it does for some people, but if ‘great art’ really made that much of a difference for all people, then we (the arts ecology) wouldn’t be worrying so much about audience development, we wouldn’t be freaked by the Warwick Commission Report’s 8% stat, and the people who paid £400 each to go to Theatre2016 wouldn’t have spent so much of their  time talking about how to get people into their buildings. (nb – there are a lot of views on that £400 each, some pro, some anti, some somewhere in between, Jake Orr’s version is very interesting re who paid and how much, and here’s Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s speech from the event about buildings and what we might do with them.)

There is another way, that doesn’t involve treating artists as special and different, and everyone else as something to be helped or saved by art – it’s the way of Fun Palaces, it’s what SlungLow do, it’s what Eden Arts helps facilitate, it’s what all those artists at Eden Arts last week do, and it’s what loads of people and places are already doing, all over the UK – they’re just not getting quite as much attention as the ones with all the money who get to shout about their ‘great art’ and beg you to come to their buildings.

That other way is to help people be artists. To enable them to make their own art – ‘great’ by their own standards. That other way is to stop behaving as if there is an us (artists) and them (audience, consumers, clients), to stop treating it as a hierarchy, and to acknowledge that the only way we are ever going to encourage people to love arts, to ‘get’ arts, is to help them DO art, BE arts-makers themselves – ‘artisting’ as Francois Matarasso brilliantly puts it at the end of this piece (whole piece def worth reading too).

I have no doubt that the people I met last week make art that is great – but the really great bit about their art is that they do it WITH people, and then those people get to make art too.

As ever, it all goes back to Joan Littlewood’s ‘everyone an artist‘*. Everyone an artist is the only way we’re ever going to help everyone access the arts.

And hey, maybe when everyone artists then those buildings will just fill themselves – when people feel part of something, they tend to like supporting it. (See : sport.)


*Yes, we – Fun Palaces with the British Science Association and Wellcome who support our workshops – are also working on Joan’s ‘everyone a scientist’ bit too.