Mike White is an old friend who has made a huge contribution to the field of arts and health, in practice, research and writing. Illness has recently brought him into a different contact with medical services and he has written a moving piece about the experience, for the Centre for Medical Humanities blog.

Mike was one of those who worked to bring The Angel of the North to Gateshead, a process of long community engagement that is rarely appreciated by the sculpture’s many imitators. One small element of that was the gift of a series of photographs documenting the making of the angel to Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where Mike is now receiving treatment. It is the sight of those images, when viewed from another perspective, that he writes about.

It’s a reminder, if any were needed, that all these ideas about people’s experience of art are, when they are true, connected to everything that makes our lives matter. Behind the blether of policy, ideology and opinion, the arguments in parliament and the media, there is life and death, love and pain and courage, the everyday lives people lead in the hope of making a difference.

Angels have become oddly popular in recent years, appearing in all sorts of places and contexts as rather ambiguous symbols of hope or spirituality in a culture that has lost much of its religious faith. This trend has often seemed close to sentimentality—what I think James Joyce describes somewhere as ‘unearned emotion’. But art walks the border between sentiment and sentimentality, true and false feeling, and the risk of falling on the wrong side of it is worth taking because it’s so valuable to be on the right side. So here’s an example I came across recently, from the great Australian artist, Michael Leunig, that for me at least does just that.

Leunig - At the Top

A Wider Horizon

A Regular Marvel about tastes in art

66498_weeding-the-onionsDid you fall for drama in your first primary school play or learn to samba in your sixties?  Do you hate what they’ve done to Blandings or just prefer Borgen? Do you have a passion for country music or the novels of Jane Austen? Or perhaps you like both…

In 35 years working in the arts, I have met many people who’ve told me they don’t understand art, or that they have no interest in it, or that it’s not for them. Generally, as we got to know each other better, I saw that what they meant by art was some version of the oil paintings/orchestras/unmade beds idea of art.

It is not surprising if many people feel disconnected from that stereotype. After all, as John Carey argued (in The Intellectuals and the Masses) some artists have gone out of their way to separate themselves and their work from most people. And from the other side, various ideologues and their cheerleaders in the press have tried hard to stifle artists who might be different or just difficult.

If Jesse don’t like it then it’s prob’ly not art
Jesse knows what’s good Ol’ Jesse is smart
And if you don’t like that don’t feel sad
‘Cause the art that you like is probably bad

Jesse Don’t Like It’, Loudon Wainwright III

But in 35 years in the arts I have never met anybody who had no artistic tastes, or interests or sensitivity. What is interesting is not whether people like art but what values and ideas different art works offer. What’s interesting isn’t what is called art and what is not: it’s which art is better, why and whether we can explain why we think so to each other.

'Jimmy', Rosie Redzia
‘Jimmy’, Rosie Redzia

A Wider Horizon, which begins later this month, aims to understand better how we form our artistic likes and dislikes, how we find, choose and change our tastes. I’ve been thinking about these things for many years, but this is the first chance I’ve had to really test some of my ideas and assumptions.

The project is linked to a touring programme run by Creative Arts East in the English Fens and Breckland, and area that is seen as having little access to the arts. With funding from Arts Council England through the National Lottery, CAE will be putting on theatre and literature events in pubs, libraries and community halls between this winter and 2015.

One of the things A Wider Horizon will try to understand is what world this touring work is entering and what the people who live there make of it. It will do so through a series of conversations and meetings with people, happening slowly over the next couple of years: there’s no rush. In fact, it’s the slow pace of things that might be most helpful in allowing us to see how things might change over time.

I’m very happy that Rosie Redzia, a wonderful artists who lives and works in the area, will work with me on the project. The image above, taken from her series about Woodlands organic farm, near Boston, gives a sense of how the art work in this project might develop.

There’s more information on the project page, or you can download an information sheet.

45 years of hope

Be like water

Be Like Water – Hetain Patel

The ruler has already been a language teacher’s cane and a samurai sword dancing and slicing the air. Now, in the darkened studio, it’s being flicked at speed across a beam of light, allowing a few words to hover momentarily in the air, fragile, temporary. The artist, Hetain Patel, silently says how his father has worked hard for 45 years so that his son wouldn’t have to, how his father has fought some tough battles so that his son wouldn’t have to.

This is the poor parent’s mantra, the sacrifice of one’s self for one’s child. It is particularly the experience of migrants because the enormous decision to try to graft oneself onto a different tree is energised by the hope that things will be better. Eventually.

But as the flickering wand moves on, Hetain admits that, sometimes, he also wants to work hard. He also wants to fight his battles, if not like Bruce Lee then at least in making himself understood by his Chinese co-performer, or his audience.

Be Like Water is a remarkable performance in many ways. It’s funny, clever, moving and profound. More unusually still there is a real humility in the artist’s exploration of self in relation to others. Although it’s hard to imagine anyone disliking the piece, it never exploits its likeability. Grown out of the particular experience of a migrant’s child in late 20th century Britain it could not have been made at another time, in another way, by another person.

As I watched the unfolding of this beautiful, complex piece, filtering it through my own experience of hybrid identity, I felt growing dismay at the challenge I have set myself in Bread and Salt. This sets the bar so high. At the same time, the performance is also a sign of change in the art world, of accommodation if not acceptance. Perhaps those 45 years of hard work really have made things better.

Fortunately, though, we still have to work hard. And we each still have our own fights to win, whether or not our opponents are actually there.

Be Like Water is on tour now, but there are only a few dates: if you are in Bournemouth, Lancaster or Manchester, do go. If you’re not, go anyway.

‘The Crystal Quilt’, Suzanne Lacy

On Sunday, the American artist Suzanne Lacy will create a new performance piece called Silver Action at Tate Modern in London. She has invited hundreds of women who have participated in political action in the past and are now at least 60 years old to take part in unscripted conversations about their experience.

The piece echoes an earlier work by Lacy, The Crystal Quilt, which invited 430 women, also over 60, to talk about their experiences of growing older. A video of that performance was shown at Tate recently, and the gallery has made a short film in which Lacy talks about the work and her own practice.

The Crystal Quilt, even in its trace on video, is a beautiful and moving artwork. It values solidarity and the collective experience that can be woven from individual strands. It recognizes the underappreciated aesthetics that women have always applied to domestic labour: the quilt, useful and ornamental, is richly symbolic of everyday creativity and deep human hopes about love and the meaning of life.