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Open-heart surgery

June 6, 2012

Driving back from Brighton yesterday, we played Johnny Cash in the car. It was a ‘greatest hits’ album, containing a few tracks from the Live at St Quentin Prison album. Many of you may know the track on which Cash sings of a prisoner’s hatred for St Quentin, for its institutionally brutal pointlessness. The prisoners howl their approval. Cash is siding with the powerless and the dispossessed.

I do not particularly identify with prisoners nor advocate for them. I am not hostile, it is simply not a section of this messed-up chaos of a society that I have spent very much time thinking about. Yet I was deeeply moved by the crowd’s reaction to Cash’s singing. For just a moment, they hear their humanity being valued, amid an envionrment that denies they even have  humanity. It is a moment of ‘art’ characterised by utter, uncompromising open-heartedness. Cash is open-hearted in his acceptance that, whatever their crimes, their dysfunction, their violence, the men for whom he is performing are human and so have an unquenchable worth and dignity.

Later we listened to the news on the radio. It is emerging that some of those who made the ‘official celebration’ of the Queen’s Jubilee possible – some of the stewards who helped run the big official ‘River Pageant’ – were unemployed. They were forced to work as part of a ‘work-experience’ scheme. They slept in tents in the rain. Some even slept rough as no accommodation was provided. They had to change into uniform in public on the buses shipping them in to the capital city. No dignity. No recongition of human value. Just the hard necessity of delivering a ‘piece of culture’ that celebrates the idea of a nation, the symbols of a nation, the slogans of a nation. If, underpinning that, there is the ruthless exposure and exploitation of the inequalities of that nation, then that is probably only appropriate.

Later there was a big concert outside Buckinham Palace. Mass entertainment as millionaire entertainers claimed their places towards the top of the social hierarchy by paying public tribute to the very pinnacle of the corrosive, pointless, destructive British class system.

Part of the brief for DUENDE’s recent project at Huddersfield University, Re:Occupation, was to offer students experience of a ‘professional’ way of working. That required me to define what I considered a ‘professional attitude’ to consist of. Many of the behaviours I have witnessed over the years in ‘the profession’ has not been what I would want any emerging artist to aspire to. Laziness, competitiveness, complacency, fear (often hidden behind an attitude of contempt for ‘arti-fartiness’). The best approach I could make to  defining what professionalism means for DUENDE, is that you are expected to turn up on time, to accept the work of others without question, to value your pleasure, and to work hard, with an open heart.

An open heart. A healthy creative process is surgery for  reopening the heart. It cuts away the hardening of cynicism, the blockages of fear, the restricted blood-flow of a stifled creative imagination. A good process, fearless and  disciplined, makes healthy the very core of being human. It revives our humanity.

Not only for those who engage in the process, not only for the artists. An open-hearted process offers the chance for an open-hearted communication with audience. Far too often there are two major ‘sorts’ of art that are supported (through funding, through media exposure etc). One the one hand there is entertainment, which usually is encouraged to be unchallenging and ‘distracting’. It is the ‘circus’ in the famous fomulation that suggests that governments pacifiying their populations with ‘bread and circuses’. Or there are ‘idea-driven’ projects – an ‘idea’ is presented to those who can support work, and if they like the idea, the work is given life. If they reject the idea, the work is never born. In some ways the quality of the final work is irrelevent, what matters is whether the ‘idea’ is attractive. What matters is the articulation of the concept.

But there is other work. Work that is neither ‘entertainment’ nor ‘concept’. There is the work of lived experience, the work of direct communication, the work of the open-heart. I like entertainment and I like conceptual art. The best of both types of work transcends their categories and becomes direct communication between artist(s) and audience. But what I really like, really value, is the work of direct experience, the work that seeks  a vibrant, unique shared experience. It is the experience of one heart speaking to another, and because the heart doesn’t speak words, it is, of necessity, communication that is poetic, evocative, ambiguous. It is the art of live experience, of the indefinable, of the complex. Sudden laughter, unexpected tears, the rising of the hairs on the back of the neck….

Usually it is not art that can be ‘defined’ before it is made – perhaps that is why it is so hard to attract funding for it. Or perhaps governments and bureaucracies prefer to know in advance what they are buying. Human experience is such a slippery, dangerous thing…..

I am certain of this. We need art that makes us feel and respect our shared, essential, unquenchable humanity. We need art that allows a heart to experience the similar and different rhythms of other hearts. This is not fashionable in this fearful, cynical, competitive, conservative, intellectually-impoverished, celebrity-obsessed age. I don’t care about fashion. As an artist, my job is to keep an open heart, with myself, with collaborators, with audience. When I feel blockages, I need to operate….

A Jubilee circus serviced by those forced to work for fear of losing their already-tiny income has no heart. Johnny Cash singing to the men of St Quentin has an open-heart.

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