In another of our occasional series on the place of writing in the contemporary world, Jez Noond offers an impassioned argument for why art in general is more important than ever …
We need to read and hear each others stories more than ever, honest and truthful, undistorted by media. We need to read and hear each others stories because this is how we read and hear each other.
The world is more connected than ever before. Those who are accustomed to power are frightened when ordinary people read and hear each other across borders. The more communication we have the more the powerful increase their attempts to corral us into manageable herds, flocks pitted against each other, suspicious of manufactured and exaggerated differences, fearful of the "other".
A writer once remarked that we are all more alike than we are different. A politician reminded us recently that we have more in common with each other than we do with our respective leaders. We should know that leaders are never the people. Forget the dismissive comments directed at the "citizens of nowhere" and consider that four million years ago our common ancestors walked from what we now call Ethiopia to populate the world. We all come from the same place. Our stories reflect this origin. And whilst the beautiful spectrum of indigenous cultures around the world are testament to the innate creative capacity of all humans we must constantly remind each other of the common emotions we share, that we are, literally, one.
We live in challenging times. As members of our human family continue to be marginalised and slaughtered by the forces of bloated globalisation and militarism it cannot be a surprise that we may wonder what "the arts" are even for.
Some arts events are still free to enter. But how can those who live in the suburbs and the estates enjoy them when they cannot afford the family bus fare into town or walk because the only shoes their children have to wear are too small for their feet? When your material circumstances alienate and exclude you from even the most mundane of trips to the local shop — if there is one — you may not care to prioritise the latest arts event. This is a tragedy for the arts themselves on a grand scale. Succesive governments have marginalised the teaching of arts subjects. The arts have become the preserve of the educated and the wealthy. The promise of a liberal education where the arts are valued has all but crumbled.
We are in danger of seeing the arts disappear as the financial constraints placed on education suffocate anything that cannot be quantified by the sum at the bottom of a column of cells in a spreadsheet. I have been thinking about the phrase "hard subjects" in relation to education for a while and have come to the conclusion that it is used to imply future durability in the workplace rather than subject challenge. If this is the case, it is an incredibly short-sighted and limited view of education. It is also a massive lie in terms of "the future". The evidence is there though. Our education system has relentlessly focussed on narrow measurable outcomes at the expense of emotional intelligence and self-actualisation. Why is this? Self-actualised people tend to question the world around them. Governments and institutions do not like people who ask questions. We will need the arts more than ever, though, when the hard robots arrive and replace those of us whose jobs depend on the production of narrow measurable outcomes. We will need the broadest language the arts grant us in order to navigate our potential and safeguard against the darkness that will threaten.
Social media has provided a great networking opportunity for the arts. But we have all been caught out by this technology, tricked into believing that talking with our friends is the same as reaching out to everyone. We need to ask whether we can continue to pretend we are committed to a better future if all we do is reflect back at one another while the world burns. Remember the Luddites. Technology still robs us of our dignity and humanity.
The times are never ideal for creativity. Creative endeavour that encourages the involvement of all people — messy, unpredictable people — are what the arts need in order to function. The arts are not part of the civil service or a social modelling programme. The arts are a force for good for all, acknowledging all, speaking to all. The arts are rebellious, fluid, the creative spirit that sees a common water level in the playground puddle and the bomb crater, a reflection of resiliance, the desire to play and share that echoes our earliest ancestors' ochre hand prints daubed on the walls of caves. If the arts are to reflect the beauty and complexity of common human experience they should embrace and reflect the cultural diversity and social spectrum of the world.
With kudos now running as the premium currency among producers of art, is it not time we acknowledged that the arts do not function fully if they only flourish within exclusive arenas? An exclusive version of creativity serves its self-image only, excluding wider participation. We should be saddened when we can not see the common puprose and future we could share with each other merely because we do not belong to a particular vein of creative output. If we do not feel saddened, we are in danger of becoming extinct as the law diminishing returns means our collaborators comprise solely of our immediate friends.
I consider myself lucky to have received a fine art education that encouraged me to play and develop both resiliance and self-reliance, free from the burden of personal debt. A library stocked with books was my companion. Where are those libraries now? Living through a screen is not the same. We should embrace the arts in its widest sense, including the applied practices. Let us not look down on anything and instead see the commonality between all practice.
It is not enough to make our art, to write our books, we must engage with our fellow human beings. Get out into the real world and share our visions and listen to each other. We are all storytellers, problem solvers and communicators. We may not know the latest cultural movements but we are creative visionaries in our hostile world. It is not possible to stifle our creative drive when we encourage each other to explore. We find our commonality when we read and hear each other.
Jez Noond is an artist, games designer, and writer. His work has appeared, amongst other places, in the anthologies Quartet, Whate Lies Within, and the forthcoming Ruins.