Why do we like what we like?

Everybody likes art. They might not think they do, if they think of art as oil paintings, orchestras or unmade beds. And certainly, that is one way of describing art. It is often  the way that people who do like those things define art.

But art is so much more than that.

It’s the song you can’t hear without tapping your fingers or an ache in your heart.

It’s your favourite comedian and the jokes you never forget.

It’s the film you’re dying to tell your friends to see.

It’s the SF story that has fascinated you for years, the TV series you rush home for, the rug your mother made, the tune running round your head and that thing on the windowsill that you bought on a bric-a-brac stall and doesn’t even have a name.

It’s all those things, because all of them have meaning for us. They hold the stories with which we try to make sense of the world and share that sense with other people. They are what we value and so they become valuable. They are discoveries. They help us think about ourselves, our lives, what we desire and what we fear. We might outgrow them but the most trivial keep a place in our hearts and remind us of who we’ve been.

Culture can be described as how we do what we have to do. We have to eat, but what we  eat, how we prepare it and how we share it—all that’s culture. It’s what makes Sunday lunch, and it’s why Sunday lunch in France is not the same as Sunday lunch in England.

Art could be described as how we do all the things we don’t have to do. How we sing, dance, play, tell stories, make things up, share dreams, frighten ourselves, arrange objects, make pictures, imagine and all the rest. But don’t make the mistake of thinking those things aren’t important because we’re not obliged to do them. On the contrary, they’re so important precisely because we’re not obliged to do them. They’re important because we choose to do them, we want to do them, we wouldn’t feel ourselves if we couldn’t do them.

Art is wrapped up in everything we choose to do in our never-ending search to fulfil ourselves as human beings, to express our love, to speak our desires and our terrors, to create an identity, to build community, to make sense of life. Who likes art? Everyone likes art. We just don’t all like the same art.

Brass BandWhat’s the problem with art?

If everybody likes art, if everybody has their own enthusiasms and dislikes, why is it so often a subject that makes people feel insecure or ignorant?

In 35 years working in the arts, I have met very 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 one or other version of the oil paintings/orchestras/unmade beds idea of art.

It is not surprising if many people feel disconnected from that idea. 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.

In 35 years working 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.

Still from 'Sound it Out', by Jeanie Finlay
Still from ‘Sound it Out’, by Jeanie Finlay

A new arts programme for the Fens and Brecks

Creative Arts East (CAE) is a long established arts agency that works to give people living in rural East Anglia new opportunities to see and take part in the arts—music, theatre, dance, writing and visual art.

Over the next two and a half years, CAE will be putting on a variety of shows in pubs, libraries and community halls in West Norfolk and West Suffolk. The work is paid for by National Lottery funds through Arts Council England, partly because people living in this part of the country have less access to the arts than most. The aim is to involve people in seeing work they might not otherwise get a chance to enjoy.

Creative Arts East will have to report on their work to the Arts Council, so they will do a formal evaluation of the programme. They’ve asked me to do something a different, to accompany that report and put it into context—a more personal account of how people enjoy the arts. The final book will include illustrations by Rosie Redzia, an artist who lives and works in South Lincolnshire.

If what I believe about people’s interest in arts is true, I’m sure that the Fens and Breckland are no cultural desert. People are involved in all sorts of artistic activities, from dance to photography, playing or listening to music, reading, watching films and TV shows, crafts and painting and much more besides.

A Wider Horizon will tell a story of that existing artistic life, of how people get involved and form their tastes, and what they make of the new shows offered over the next couple of years by Creative Arts East.

An invitation to share experiences

Over the coming months, I’d like to meet people living in West Norfolk and West Suffolk who are willing to talk about their artistic interests and so contribute to a short book that will be published in 2015 at the end of the project.

What is involved?

Taking part in the project is easy. It involves three things: one or more conversations with me, a visit to a show in your area and a sketch portrait by Rosie.

We’ll begin with an informal conversation about art: what you like, when and how you discovered it, what you used to enjoy but maybe don’t any more, what you wonder whether you might like to try and so on.

And by art, as you’ll know if you’ve read this far, I mean anything from films to rock, from singing in a choir to the local drama group. You may paint or write poetry; you may have been to art school or teach music to others. Or you may not have touched a paintbrush since primary school or own a library card. If you’re interested enough to be willing to talk to me, there will be plenty of things you enjoy in the arts.

We can meet in a café, in a pub or in a library—anywhere that’s not too noisy and is convenient for you. The conversation might take an hour or a bit more: that will be up to you. And, as far as I can manage it, we can meet when it suits you.

After we’ve met, we’d like you to go to at least one of the new shows that Creative Arts East are putting on. There’s no rush—they’ll be happening in different towns and villages over the next two years, so you can choose what you want to see, when and where. Creative Arts East will be happy to give you a pair of complimentary tickets.

And after the show, I’d like to hear what you made of it. We might meet again, or talk on the phone, or exchange an email; you might even write your impressions on the project’s website if you like.

The third part is to sit for Rosie to do a sketch portrait of you that can be included in the final book. Again, that can be done at a mutually convenient time and place.

'no name', by Rosie Rdzia
‘no name’, by Rosie Rdzia
Why do this?

A Wider Horizon is part of a series of books about people’s experience of the arts. So far I’ve published Where We Dream, about amateur theatre, and Winter Fires, about artists in old age. Both have been very well received. A third book in the series, Bread and Salt, which is about migrant artists, will be published in Holland in June.

In each book, I’ve written about experiences that often undervalued by the arts world. A Wider Horizon also puts value on people’s actual experience of art and questions some of the ideas that cultural elites sometimes have of others. It will aim to show that a rural area offers rich, if different, arts experiences and perhaps challenge the idea that cities are the centre of everything.

I hope that taking part will be enjoyable and interesting because it will give contributors an opportunity to reflect on things that are important to them, but aren’t always at the forefront of our minds. Likewise, I hope that seeing a show and being sketched will be fun and rewarding.

All the contributors will get to read the draft of the book before it is completed, to ensure that they’re happy with how they’re represented. And they will get a numbered copy of the book and a print of their portrait.

What next?

If you think you’d like to take part in the project, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact Karen Kidman, Community Touring Manager at Creative Arts East, on:

Tel: 01953 713390,  Mobile: 07568 532744,  Email: karen@creativeartseast.co.uk

François Matarasso

8 February 2013

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