Dancing down the years

The pleasures of one generation are often incomprehensible to another. I first heard the phrase ‘Old Time and Sequence Dancing’ when a couple wanted to print a poster advertising sessions they ran at the local community centre. I was 25 and they were retired. Their artistic tastes seemed exotically remote to me then, like those of a distant culture. Now it’s the tastes of 25 year olds that seem distant.

What hasn’t changed in those decades is the importance of dancing among people entitled to a pension. I’ve learned more about it over the years and come to appreciate a rich, sophisticated aspect of contemporary artistic life. It involves millions, and is of real cultural and social importance, but doesn’t get much attention. Perhaps that’s why Daniel Baker calls his project about older people’s dancing, Unknown Empires.

Unknown Empires 2

Daniel is an artist and, in his own words, an amateur anthropologist. We met during my work on Winter Fires, when, as Education Director of Cubitt Studios in Islington, he put me in touch with several of the older artists who participate in the workshops and events he organises. His site is a lovely evocation of movement and mutuality (which I suppose is just a long way of saying dance)  tracing his journeys among  groups in London and elsewhere. As he says:

From Scottish Circle, to Sequence and Line, from Disco and Ballroom to Balkan Folk, the dancing is varied and full of life. The music, customs and practices are unique and contemporary: creating new traditions instead of reliving scenes from the past.

In February, he will present the project* in the context of a Science Museum exhibition of photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr documenting, in the curators’ words, ‘the eccentricities of English social customs. It will be an intriguing juxtaposition of cultures, though I wonder just who is calling who eccentric.

* To book follow this link: Unknown Empires

Who speaks?

Who am I? It is one of the basic existential questions that human beings have been asking themselves since they became able to call themselves human beings—Homo sapiens sapiens, the being who knows that she knows, who is conscious and aware of her own consciousness. Each of us must answer it in her own way, to the extent that it troubles us.

But it is also one of the questions that people come to this site to have answered. People, I imagine, who have come across something I’ve written, students tasked with critiquing some study I’ve done, or delegates attending a conference I’m at.  They wonder who is speaking, and it is a reasonable question—up to a point. I answer it on the ‘about’ page that every website needs and in the 100-word biographies conference organisers ask for. In this neoliberal world, where people are commoditised, a freelancer must be ready to stand in the shop window, if not the auction block, in his best clothes. We’ve all got an elevator pitch now.

But that is not who I am: at best, it’s what I have done. I gave a more personal account in Bread and Salt, because the book is so concerned with the identitary interrogations the strong impose on the weak, but even that is not who I am. It is a small part of where I come from, a response to the questions I’m asked about my name and origins.

Who I am, even in the limited sense that this question can be legitimately relevant to my work, is complicated by the gap between ideas and reality. Occupations are simply ideas that help us organise and understand reality. If we mistake them for reality, we inevitably have to start manipulating that reality to fit our ideas, like Procrustes stretching or cutting people to fit his iron bed. Reality is always far larger and more complex than our ideas.

For instance, take the possibility that I ‘am’ an artist. The signs (evaluators prefer the more scientific sounding synonym, ‘indicators’) are ambiguous.

Signs that I am an artist:

  • I’ve earned my living in the arts for 35 years;
  • I’ve staged plays, painted murals, printed posters, run art workshops and published drawings;
  • I’ve published books and other texts.

Signs that I am not an artist:

  • I didn’t attend an art school and have no relevant qualification;
  • My ‘practice’ is not recognised by critics;
  • I don’t call myself an artist.

The underlying problem is confusion between doing and being. I have often performed an artist’s role. But I am not an artist in the way that I am male, a father or have brown eyes. Doing art is a matter of choice and, perhaps, of performance standard. The essentialism that defines—and limits—people by what they do or don’t do mistakes ideas that help us interpret the world with underlying realities.  It is also lazy.

Western culture has lost much of its confidence in authorities since the 1960s. We are insubordinate. We want to know why we should listen to Professor A, or Minister B. We have rightly emancipated ourselves from cap-doffing respect for our ‘betters’.  But we seem unwilling to take responsibility for the freedom we have won, which means making our own judgements about who to trust, and living with the consequences. So we behave like surly teenagers, demanding credentials and resenting those who present them. Are you an artist? Who says so? Prove it.

We want to police the world according to our own expectation and demand to see the identity papers of all persons of interest, who, as in the world of policemen everywhere, are often just those we mistrust because they might have some power we don’t understand. And not accepting your rules, your authority, your interpretation of the world can be a frightening power.

We feel entitled to our opinion—which we surely are—but then mistake what we believe for what is true. My opinion about community arts practice might be worth listening to, because I have spent many years working in the field. My opinion about the structural viability of a bridge design certainly isn’t. The right to an opinion is only the right to be wrong.

We want freedom without the work that freedom entails. If we are going to make our own judgements, rather than kowtowing to the Brains Trust, then we had better be ready to put in the work that comes with it: finding out, learning, making judgements and, above all, thinking—with hearts as well as minds.

Something is not good because an artist, even a celebrated artist, made it. The criteria for judging the value of a work should not be situated in a taxonomical convenience that cannot be consistently defined or applied. Nothing is true or false because of who has said it: a liar can speak truth, a good person can repeat a lie.

Do not look to the person to judge whether an act is justified. Look at the act.

Who am I? Does it actually matter to you, beyond curiosity? Better to ask yourself, if you are interested in what I have to say at all, how much of truth, value or meaning it holds.

  • There’s a mirror image of this post, with one salient difference, on the Parliament of Dreams site.

The story of the story

‘What is this shit?’

The opening words of Greil Marcus’ 1970 review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait have become a meme: the only thing that many people know about the record, if they know anything at all. It was certainly a startling way to open an account of the latest album produced by one of the age’s most influential artists. But Marcus is a great writer on American music and culture and it is unfair that his complex and clever 7,500 essay on Self Portrait should have been reduced to this.

Dylan in Woodstock (john Cohen) 2

That the album merited at 7,500 word review in a national magazine is itself part of the point. In 1970 rock music mattered in a way that it just doesn’t today. It was the frontier territory in which Western society was reimagining itself. Each new record was a despatch from the front, and Bob Dylan was for many the most interesting, Insightful, and important correspondent. Self Portrait’s seemingly careless gathering of syrupy country standards, covers of lesser artists’ songs, instrumentals, and concert tapes stood in the sharpest contrast to the electrifying music Dylan had made during the 1960s. Hence the question raised by Marcus’s friend, and reported in the review:

‘Were we really that impressionable back in ’65, ’66? Was it that the stuff really wasn’t that good, that this is just as good? Was it some sort of accident in time that made those other records so powerful, or what?’

Although the record sold quite well, for many of Dylan’s admirers it marked the start of a period during which it was hard not to hope too much and then feel guiltily disappointed by each new record. Actually, Dylan’s pursuit of his vision has often disconcerted fans who had invested in the idea of him as a particular kind of artist, and his records sometimes sound better to people after a passage of time.

Another Self Portrait

In August 2014, Bob Dylan released volume 10 in the Bootleg Series of archival recordings. Entitled, in a gesture some reviewers found almost provocative, Another Self Portrait, it offered 35 previously unheard recordings of songs that appeared in very different style on Self Portrait and the following album. The often-sparse arrangements create a very different impression, both of the music, and of the artist’s intentions. The reviews have been as consistent as those of 1970, but completely different. They have been brief, because a saturated cultural press now sees even a few hundred words as generous, but they have been universally positive. Uncut and Mojo both picked the record as their reissue of the year, and accolades which clearly pleased Bob Dylan’s people, who added the articles to his official website.

Bob Dylan Studio

So why the change? Of course, the new music is different, its acoustic settings both in tune with the fashion for ‘Americana’—itself part of the rehabilitation of country music since 1970, when its redneck, conservative image seemed to many just what the counter culture was against—and with the folksinger authenticity of Dylan’s earliest records. But the key difference is not musical but contextual.

Music in context

Self Portrait mattered in 1970. It was a field report, a bearing, in relation to which many people, Including other musicians, sought to position themselves. Rock music was not entertainment like the commercialised corporate product of the pop world.

In a characteristically self-referential move, Dylan’s office invited Greil Marcus to contribute an essay to the ‘deluxe’ edition of the new album package. It’s short and not especially interesting, compared to the 1970 review, but it maintains the baby boomer’s belief in the seer’s authenticity of vision,

‘The voice is so clear, so convincing, so plainly the voice of someone who has weighed life choices and made his, that it shames your own compromises.’

But in today’s eclectic, postmodern world, where values are more often worn as fashion statements that as guides to action, rock music has become little more than a decoration for most people. Indeed, for the generation of baby boomers whose sensibility it shaped, the work of archival conservation and repackaging in ever more luxurious formats have reduced rock to an exploitable form of heritage fast becoming the responsibility of the National Trust.

National Trust - John Lennon's Childhood home

That so many of the reviews of Another Self-Portrait—and his own 2014 essay—referenced  Greil Marcus’ puzzled question of all those years ago underlines the distance we have come. Another Self-Portrait exists not just in relation to its predecessor, but to the writing and rewriting of the shocked reaction it first provoked.

This process is an inevitable part of the evolution of culture. The shock created by a new artistic statement fades and mutates into the story of the shock. Experiences become memories, memories become narratives, and before long we are remembering the memory not the event.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is famous because it did shock, not because it can shock. Daniel Auber’s opera, La muette de Portici, was powerful enough in 1830 to trigger the revolution that brought about the Belgian state; it is rarely performed or recorded today, and the idea that doing so might cause even a murmur is absurd. But we remember that it did.

Like all art, music’s meaning is only partly inscribed in the score. Its reception changes everyone’s understanding of a work (including the composer’s own) and its story becomes, in part, the story of its story.

Another Self Portrait

Richard Sennett

Philosophy Bites is a podcast that has been produced since 2007 by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. In the spirit of the Open University, where Nigel Warburton taught until recently, the podcast brings some of the world’s leading thinkers within reach of non-specialists. There are now more than 250 short interviews on subjects as diverse as love, free market fairness and the simulation argument (don’t ask – or rather, do).

In 2012, Edmonds and Warburton began a new series called Social Science Bites, and though fewer interviews have yet been produced, they offer equally interesting conversations with some outstanding thinkers. One of the first was with Richard Sennett, an American sociologist (for want of a better, single word description), who has written on culture, cities and social relations.

The interview was published on 1 May 2012, the day after Where We Dream, and it felt like a valuable affirmation of the ideas and way of working that I was exploring. Listening to it again, 18 months on, that seems even clearer. So here are a few extracts from Richard Sennett’s conversation that were particularly resonant for Regular Marvels. It helps, of course, that he speaks with such elegant authority…

Richard Sennett in conversation with Nigel Warburton

‘The methods I’ve used in my work are intensive interviewing, which is ethnography, a standard skill set for anthropologists, and now many younger sociologists have returned to ethnography. I’m quite interested because of that in issues of, philosophically, in issues of narrative, because ethnography is all about, they are, created narratives.’

‘Some of it also has to do with a very particular concern that I’ve had throughout my life which is how to write in such a way that connects with a reader, how to revive the idea of the long intense essay which was so natural to earlier generations of social thinkers and rather died out in our time. And one of the ways to do that is not to hide behind a mask with your readers so that they don’t know who’s speaking to them.’

‘I’d say this is another enormous challenge that modern human sciences face, which is how to learn to write outward rather than to talk down to readers.’

‘To me the canons of good social research are […] that you’ve done justice to the struggle that somebody else might have to actually say what they mean. Now that’s neither true nor false but it’s a canon of probity for the interviewer, and that means you don’t take people as examples of a social condition like being a white woman working class resident of Neasden, but that they exist as a competent subject struggling to make sense of their experience.’

‘When we read writers like de Tocqueville or Weber, we don’t read them in order to know ‘well he solved that one’, we read them because they’ve been able to put their hands on really significant issues and say something provocative about them. The notion that social science solves problems, you can forget about it because we have the data, it’s kind of an imperialist recipe that is to say that you don’t have to think about this anymore because we’ve solved the problem for you, I have all the data for it.’

‘My project is to write. I don’t want to go into government, I don’t want to be an advisor to anybody.’

The full interview and transcript can be found here: Richard Sennett on Social Science Bites.