Nicholas Wilton’s most recent post gives food for thought, again. I find his sharings always thought provoking, and they definitely give me insights that help with my work. This one though, hit a nerve.

I happen to be wrestling just now with the part of my book in progress that is about art and livelihood. I’ve found a way to sidestep the money is good vs money is evil discussion by asking, ‘which story do I want my energy to contribute to ‘. It isn’t about money anyway, it is about creating meaning. What image of life do I want to strengthen by giving it my time and energy?’

If I jump whole hog into the art as commodity reality, then I am supporting an economy based on money as the bottom line for determining value. By proxy I am acquiescing to exploiting people and resources to get high profits. I am saying yes to non-ethical long-term negative consequences of short term thinking. I’m using my life to perpetrate a system I don’t stand behind in any way at all.

My heart, unlike Nicholas’s was never wholly into selling my art as a life goal. I wanted a more collaborative, connected, kind of art. I wanted to do good, add value to life, and there weren’t channels for that kind of socially engaged work until just recently.

What I get from Nicholas’s post and from his art, is that it isn’t a black and white thing. There are artists like him, who seem to be able to dance with the marketplace without losing the gift aspect of their art- the aspect connected to the muse, to the sacred, to the greater things. The kind of art that carries a connection with life’s mysteries and large questions, the kind of art that can soothe souls and inspire people to either make art themselves or make changes in their lives to let in more play, imagination, connection.

The danger in approaching art as commodity/product is that this aspect is too often lost in the fray to get the work seen and sold. An artist starting out with all her values intact can easily get overtaken by market values.

I guess this is the essence of my problem with saying ‘there is nothing BUT money in art’, it places art squarely in the marketplace. Seeing the world as it is now, in seeing old systems collapsing and creativity needed for renewal in every part of life, I would ask, do we need more art products? Or do we need artists leading authentic lives, creating from their heart and soul to bring these much needed values into the world? I learn from other artists all the time, that it isn’t either/or.

But I want to make a case for the alternative to seeing art, like everything else in this society, as a transaction.






choc rain in germanresized

I’m so excited. I received the German edition of my book in the mail yesterday. Originally published and available from Hawker publications, they have sold the German rights to Hans Huber, a large international publishing house with branches in most major European cities.

I’d seen one other translation they’d done of one of Hawker’s books- it was well done and ‘clean’, but the same handling of my warm, hand crafted book   would have killed it. I wrote the book and illustrated it, then Hawker gave me free hand in designing it. I also set it up in InDesign and prepared the  preproduction process which was a steep learning curve for me. So you can imagine, after having been able to design each and every page and spread, and attend to every last detail to the fraction of a millimetre, how hard it was to let it out of my hands. I hadn’t been consulted on the translation at all, so I was preparing myself for a major let down as I was opening the package.

Well, I hardly have words to say how beautifully the whole thing is done. Whoever handled the art direction loved this book as much as I did. The spreads were preserved, all the design was intact. Even the most difficult, hand-written spread was done as well as I could have done it using my own handwriting. There is so much care put in to preserve the spirit of the book in every way, I am infinitely grateful.

So Chocolate Rain is going out to an entirely new public, where hopefully it will connect people to the power of the arts to move, engage, bring healing and comfort to people with dementia, their caregivers and families.

To start at the beginning of this extended book review of Between Grace and Fear by W. Cleveland and P Shifferd follow this link. To see previous post, scroll down page.

The last posts dealt with devaluing of the arts and marginalising of artists; what artists need to change in order to do something about the situation; and what it is that artists contribute to positive societal change.

In this concluding post I’ll talk about community arts – this topic was actually the strongest binding factor throughout the interviews in the book. It is here that the socially engaged arts are most visible, and acknowledged as being of great value. And perhaps it is also where the arts are most needed.

Repeatedly as a theme in the interviews, it was stressed that the artist can no longer be seen as an isolated individual with no relationship to- and no responsibility to the surrounding community. In community projects across the globe, artists are working with conflicting cultures, underprivileged groups, and war torn villages. Creating a safe and inspiring space for individuals to express themselves through dance, painting, theatre, song, story-  the artists are helping a community bring forth its creative impulse so it can make its needs and dreams more tangible.

This is different from artists going in to ‘educate’ a community about art. In Holland I often see an attitude toward participatory arts which is oriented first around the artist- a sense of the artist going in to show people what culture is. An exception to this is the HEIM2012 community performance project done by some friends of mine at Moving Arts (Dutch language site).

Whereas in the UK and USA the emphasis is on discovering with the community what the need is, and bringing in one’s creative skills to help those people heal, vitalise and enable themselves. By giving people means to tell their stories and to give them form through the arts,  the arts are helping people move from being passive to being empowered.

Listening and responsiveness need to be at the core of connected art. For an artist to really make a difference over the long term, strategies need to be created with and by people deeply involved in the situation.

‘Committed art activism provides a context for others to take action’.

Between Grace and Fear is a courageous and ambitious book. It is one of several pioneering efforts happening now which will help put art back in the middle of life. The people interviewed  are from diverse backgrounds and disciplines and are each inspiring. I found it at times more of a study book than a relaxing read, but that is because it is so densely packed with ideas and information. It is a wonderful resource for new directions in art and new perspectives about what art is and what artists are here for.

Cleveland ends the book with a bang! Chapter 31 is called ‘Bridges, translations and Change: The arts as infrastructure in a changing world’. It is an amazing and inspiring list of recommendations, actions, and ideas for integrating the arts into all our systems and daily life where they can do their much needed healing and transformative work. I’ll excerpt that some other time.

continued from previous post,  Organisations need to change but so do artists

For the first post in this extended book review click here.

How arts and artists can and do contribute significantly to positive change

The idea that the artist’s only job is to make things to hang on a wall or put on a pedestal is rapidly becoming old news.

Contrary to the thought that artists are grown ups who make vast amounts of money (or starve in garrets) by playing around making art ‘that my 3 year old could do’, artists through their training in creative process and experience develop important skills.  And these areas of expertise are actually vital to remedying the problems our society is in.

Intellect, logic, and rational thinking have led to the imbalance and breakdown of many of our systems.
In his book,  A whole new mind, Daniel Pink argues that a quiet revolution is now taking place where the right-brained skills of pattern recognition, empathy, design, meaning, play, etc  will be the tools used to build a more humane and sustainable future. Artists and other creative thinkers are in demand from corporations, government agencies, healthcare, education, to help them think outside the usual parameters of their systems, and in so doing, help renew and vitalise them.

Why artists?
Artists continually ask, ‘What could we change here? Why not try this? ‘

The artist’s core expertise is to improve on the previous state.

The creative process starts when a question or problem is posed, it progresses when the artist sets out for a basically unknown goal, making mistakes and correcting course until a solution is reached. In these explorations they hit on new insights and solutions which couldn’t have been found within the situation that produced them. Also, because artists operate outside organisations and professions, they are free of the preconceptions which so often limit creative thinking in those places.  This is why artists working, for example, with people with dementia, often get surprising results (lucid moments, deep contacts), with individuals whom the professionals have given up on.

Because the nature of the arts is to speak to the hearts of people, and to go past prejudices and conceptions, they are effective in bridge building between cultures and conflicting nations. They speak to the parts we have in common as humans and bypass debate and argument. So they bring people together in a common space with universal language of song, colour, play, and story.

When artists  run  projects in prisons, school rooms, or hospitals, these places and the people in them are left more vitalised than before the artists came. Arts enliven society and enable people to access their own creative abilities to begin to solve their own problems.

So the arts are vital to building healthy communities and healing damaged ones.  I’ll expand on the community building aspect of the arts in the next and last post about the book.

continued from previous post, The arts have a crucial role to play Part 2

Organisations need to change, but so do artists

By their nature, organisations and systems  don’t support change- they are designed to perpetuate ‘the same’, (‘We have always done it like this’), and will fight to stay as they are. As a result they atrophy and begin to break down- look at the banks, healthcare systems, education etc.

The problems these structures are facing can’t be solved from within the same paradigm that caused them, that is why creative thinking is needed and artists are being called on by every organisation imaginable from corporations to government bodies, healthcare institutions, prisons, and school systems. Artists bring the essence of creative practice to areas like these where it can make a difference.

One of the most important points in the book is that it isn’t just the system that needs to change in order to bring arts into a central role where it can do its transformative work, but artists too need to re-define their contribution and position.

Bert Mulder is a Dutch innovative thinker lecturer, author, futurologist, and information technologist. In Chapter 26, Between Grace and Fear he challenges us artists to get off our position of, ‘Oh, I’m just on the fringes and all these external factors (subsidy cuts, attitude toward artists, organisational difficulties, government policies) are against me getting work and making an income’. Mulder:

So, you see yourselves at the edges of society. But I was in the Welford School (UK) yesterday talking to a teacher and she said,

“Well, we had the national curriculum and we were all dying from it. It was horrible. So, we said we can’t go on like this anymore. Then we had a couple of artists coming in and all of a sudden, the artists said, ‘We will just start and ask the kids what they want to do’.”

The kids came up with ideas, which actually  deeply changed her view of what a child is.
For the first time, she noticed that kids can do much more than she ever envisioned. It actually transformed her notion, as an educator of what a child is.

How is it that you have to bring artists into the educational system to bring about that kind of transformation?

And when artists bring about that kind of transformation in education, in business, in the care sector, and in democracy in the larger civil society, how are you (artists) dealing with it?

Is that a responsibility or do you still think that you’re at the edges of society…

Maybe I’m projecting onto you more than you want or more than you are able to respond to.
That could be a problem, because this need in society will be filled. If you don’t fill it, somebody else will, but not with the same kind of quality.

– Bert Mulder, from Between Grace and Fear.

Mulder goes on to say that artists need to take responsibility, for themselves, their work, their communities, and be intentional and committed.

In the 60s and 70s art activism was mostly in the form of political protest- think of John Lennon and Yoko Ono televised in their hotel bed in New York protesting war. Actions like these were mostly one-off isolated gestures. Our times call for a different kind of art activism.

Artists need to invest their time and energy in their cause and commit to it. They need to form relationships with individuals and organisations  related to that cause. And finally, to be effective, they need to embed themselves in the community where they want to see the positive change happen.

The new art activism engages people and provides a context for them to take action, making, creating and giving voice to their vision. Creativity becomes a tool to improve on the context, giving a gift to it, not using it for one’s own brilliant agenda (M.Matanovic). It is definitely about art in service to.

But the real message is that if we artists don’t take ourselves and our work seriously, no one else will either.

continued from previous post,     The arts have a crucial role to play   Part 1    Between Grace and Fear

Recently my plea for valuing arts as essential tools for healing and positive change has been strengthened significantly by the book, Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in a time of change, by William Cleveland and Patricia Shifferd.
This series of posts attempts to present the main themes running through the book.

Expanding the definition of ‘artist’

Art schools are preparing artists for a world that no longer exists- ie the independent artist living exclusively from her work.

1% of artists in the Netherlands are able to survive financially from their work.


Not only schools, but artists need to think more broadly about how professional arts training can be applied. There is a new definition of ‘artist’ emerging exemplified mainly though not exclusively by many 20-40 year olds working now- the hybrid artist worker who combines many skills in order to enable others to source their own creativity.

Young artists are gravitating toward an art that matters- a more socially engaged application of their creative skills. Jonathan Harris is my favourite example of this. His TED talks on emotions and the web is also worth seeing.

In a recent round table I attended on arts and dementia care, my colleague healthcare artists also commented how being an artist isn’t enough these days. To do our work within the healthcare system we need more skills, those of : diplomat, administrator, group leader, organiser, etc.

In this new way of thinking about artists, artists are appreciated as professionals of the creative process who can bring these skills into other disciplines to help energise and renew them.

In a larger context, as professionals of culture, artists are meaning creators. Through their stories, dance, music, painting, theatre etc. , they create new and hopeful narratives to help people move forward positively in times of change. I’ll leave it here for now, but for concrete examples of projects read the book.  Or see my blog posts on Lily Yeh or Milenko Matanovic.

In most Western countries, the arts are having a hard time.  Especially in the current financial crisis, the arts are viewed as non-essential. And the funding that is available goes to areas that are seen as more urgent like education and healthcare (oh, and—football and huge sports spectacles like the Olympics!!!- we’re talking about billions here, of government, industrial, and private funds).

In Holland where I live,  most people find the arts irrelevant to their daily lives. One Dutch right-wing politician recently wrote off all of human art and culture as  ‘a leftist hobby’. This slogan was gleefully picked up by the media, and is indicative of a fundamental mistrust of the arts that is alive in a large segment of the population. Granted, the contemporary art business hasn’t done a lot to encourage trust.

For many of us in the arts sector, though,  the budget cuts aren’t what hurt the most,  it’s the open attitude of contempt toward the arts and artists underlying them.
And, as destructive to the arts as this, is the total absorption of art into the consumer system, so that art’s value has come to be defined exclusively in financial terms.

The consequence of these conditions is that the real value of art to a human society is lost, both in the sense of being lost, as well as negated.

But what is that intrinsic worth of art, what do the arts do that makes them valuable in themselves?

What are the arguments for declaring arts and artist’s right to exist, for supporting them morally and financially, and locating them in a central rather than marginal role in the lives of the community?

This has been a vital question for most my life as an artist. And recently my plea for valuing arts as essential tools for healing and positive change has gotten a real shot of support from the book, Between Grace and Fear, the role of the arts in a time of change, by William Cleveland and Patricia Shifferd.
It is a collection of 30 interviews with highly credentialed professionals including social theorists and scholars, philanthropists, scientists, theologians, artists, community development-, and community arts activists.

The people interviewed were asked what, if any role, the arts have in bringing about a just and sustainable society.
This series of posts attempts to present the main themes running through the interviews. I’ve divided them into the following categories:

  • Expanding the definition of ‘artist’
  • Organisations need to change but so do artists
  • How artists contribute to positive change
  • The arts and community building

to be continued