Grizedale Arts

The Grizedale Summit

Wednesday 13 June '12
(from The Grizedale Summit)

Understanding how Grizedale works won’t stop it from working

By Sam Thompson, University of Liverpool

Firstly, many thanks for the opportunity to attend the Grizedale summit. It was a privilege to spend time in a beautiful place with such interesting and committed people. I completed agree with Gill’s point that two-days would have been even better!

Reflecting back on the day, I’m aware that I was playing the awkward devil’s advocate in the final plenary (I hope this wasn’t uncomfortable for anyone!). The reason, I think, is because I strongly resist the idea – which seemed to be an undercurrent of the session – that social scientists trying to understand how the world works are in the domain of (to quote from Michael Davis’ summary piece) “logic, cold numbers and reason”, as if this is incompatible with profound experiential knowledge of the kind that we often value in the arts. I think this kind of “science from the head, art from the soul” discourse is unhelpful, inaccurate and, potentially, divisive.

But I thought it might be worth exploring this a bit further, as a contribution to our post-summit conversation.

In his summary, Michael Davis notes that “One of the difficulties of taking part only in discussion with arts groups is the continual drift back toward arts thinking.” We might well ask: what is “arts thinking”? I guess this could mean many things, but in my experience, one characteristic is a tendency towards idolisation – of the art work, of arts praxis and in some cases of the artist themselves. For me, “arts thinking” is sometimes reflected in a desire to bracket-off “the arts” as something different from the rest of human activity, impervious to analysis by the tools and methods by which we make sense of everything else.

It’s not a way of thinking that I share, and to explain, I’ll digress to an area of artistic endeavour where I have more personal experience…

I studied music at university and spent many years as a passionately enthusiastic classical musician. During this time, I frequently came across people – often wonderful, insightful musicians – who were quite opposed to the idea of analysing music or even, in some cases, studying it academically at all. Music was magical, ineffable, resistant to deconstruction and inexplicable through words (“Writing about music”, as Frank Zappa is alleged to have said, “is like dancing about architecture”). Attempting to lift the bonnet and dismantle the engine was dangerous – what if you couldn’t put it back together again? You might never able to enjoy music again in the same way! Worse, wasn’t it all a bit unnecessary and, frankly, tawdry? After all, if you really got music, you wouldn’t feel the need to question it.

This never made any sense to me. Not because I didn't “get” the magic of music – I lived for it, and still do – but precisely because I got it. I knew first-hand that music was amazing, powerful and transformative, and I wanted to know why! And I thought that by knowing how it worked, I’d have have more chance of helping other people experience something of what I did when I listened and played.

Back to Grizedale. The thing that excited me most about the Grizedale project was that it seems to be an exceptionally generous and open-hearted attempt to render the arts more inclusive and relevant. I love the questioning of “art” as such, the democratisation, exploring the idea of the artist as social actor and agitator, the enthusiasm about making links to history and community, situating arts practice in the context of wider social and political challenges.

And yet, throughout the day I kept feeling that there was resistance to defining social outcomes, dislike of thinking about the project as (even in part) instrumentalism, reluctance to acknowledge that there might be elements of a Grizedale “model” that could be distilled and transferred to other settings, discomfort with adopting an objective and analytic stance… For me, these are examples of the “continual drift towards arts thinking” that Michael warns of – because to embrace rather than resist them would also be, in a way, to normalise Grizedale and render it tractable and explicable. It would be opening the bonnet and peering inside the Grizedale engine.

Arts thinking – or, at least, the kind I’m talking about – worries that once you’ve allowed this move, the magic disappears. But I’m not so sure. For instance, it was noted in the plenary that some of what Grizedale does looks a lot like asset based (but non arts based) community development. This seemed to provoke a degree of discomfort, followed by reiteration that Grizedale is unique, individual and so on. But where is the threat? It would be extraordinary indeed if some of the characteristics that make Grizedale successful were not common to other approaches. It’s not clear to me how Grizedale’s uniqueness is put in jeopardy by saying this out loud.

We also talked a good deal about defining outcomes and that dread word “measurement”. Again, there seemed to be a strong resistance, couched as a concern to avoid instrumentalism. But again, I don’t see it. Using, for instance, socio-economic impact tools to understand the changes that come about during a Grizedale initiative does not thereby “reduce” Grizedale to “just” those impacts. It doesn’t devalue the project as a whole. It doesn’t stop it being art.

I could go on (and on, and on…) but I’m sure there’s already plenty there for people to disagree with, so I’ll stop for now. Thoughts on a postcard…

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