Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Proust, Squid, Henley & Gove

Sometimes, if I'm feeling confident, I describe myself as a writer - lots of what I do under the Thinking Practice banner involves writing at some stage, as well as my creative writing, and it's just a more pleasing word than consultant. But actually, I'm more fundamentally a reader.

One of the books I've been recommending to people recently is Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, so I thought I'd do likewise here. It's an exploration of 'the story and science of the reading brain', and although it got a little stretching for my non-scientist brain at times, it's a fascinating setting out of the miracle that is reading, how it developed, and the difficulties some brains have with it - and the benefits of how they compensate.

Reading is a wonder because it is not genetic, unlike, say vision and speech. It's a complex process that literally changed - and changes - the brain, creating new pathways between the visual and pattern recognising bits of the brain, and the 'executive' bits that make sense of and apply all that. The quicker we can scan the visuals and decode into words, the more time the brain has for thinking about what it's reading, and the various layers of meaning therein. The more you hone the skills of reading, the more the brain learns to work in that way all the time - literally creating the pathways and connections. (Apologies to any cognitive scientists reading for any science-mangling in the last few sentences.)

There are lots of ideas in the book, which has elements of a cultural history of reading but is mainly to do with how the brain is brought into play with the various elements of reading. (There's not actually lots about Proust and his take on reading, which I found slightly disappointing, although I know for some people a little Proust can go a long way.) One of the most powerful strands of thought though is how important learning to read is in helping a person understand the world, and not simly at a practical level - and how for people who find that difficult (Wolf's specialism is the study of dyslexia), the brain compensates by becoming stronger in the right, more creative, hemisphere rather than the left, which is more involved in processing. (Something perhaps obvious to the high proportion of visual artists with dyslexia.)

It struck me though that Wolf is describing reading as perhaps the basic cultural skill. As she says with regard to 'word poverty': 'It is not simply a matter of the number of words unheard and unlearned. When words are not heard, concepts are not learned. When syntactic forms are never encountered, there is less knowledge about the relationships of events in a story. When story forms are never known, there is less ability to infer and to predict. When cultural traditions and the feelings of others are never experienced, there is less understanding of what other people feel.'

Which feels like a very sound argument for reading as cultural education, and for culture more generally: understanding what others feel, the ability to infer and to predict, to see relationships and grapple with concepts. This is what cultural education, starting for many with reading, can do. I've only had chance to read Darren Henley's review of Cultural Education in England once, quickly, so won't comment on it fully now. It seems a mix of welcome support for the role of cultural education, some obvious worthwhile ideas such as better working across government departments, an outbreak of new initiativitis including some reinventions and some slightly daft ideas - Downing Street Medals? Yet another go at a Culture Week? - with little mention of money and plenty of wiggle room for the masters of the actual curriculum.

I found the emphasis on 'knowledge' too redolent of Michael Gove's rhetoric for comfort, especially in the light of a largely unspoken but nonetheless very noticeable downplaying of the creativity agenda. This is about an education in culture as much as if not more than it is about education for culture. The question, then, is always whose culture and what can you then do with your knowledge, understanding and skills? 

Of course, my suspicious brain may got carried away and read too much between the lines. Anyway, it's an important document, right, wrong or a mixture. Some immediate responses include those from Arts Council England, the Prince's Foundation for Children and the Arts, BFI, and the Government itself

Monday, 27 February 2012

Positive imagination

I didn’t so much make a positive decision to give State of the Arts 2012 a miss as simply not get myself together in time to book a place before it sold out. I did, however, decide to treat myself to 3 days grappling with climate change, the environment and my green side at Tipping PointNewcastle. Having experienced the twitterage and bloggage about #SOTA12, and then spent time with more than 200 artists, scientists and others in Newcastle last week I can’t say I’m sorry it worked out like that.

Although I’m sure there were lots of positive aspects to State of the Arts – bringing people together, some great speakers, some interesting debates - the reactions to it seemed shape by the logistical and political limitations of that scale of event. This is neither about to what extent ACE does or should control the agenda, or about how individual artists are validated by either ACE or the other people attending. (Honestly folks, anyone waiting for validation from a funding body is on a hiding to nothing, surely?) But the ambiguities and creativities of arts people  and our work, individual and collective, seems to get lost in wanting to hear or have the case put, and positions staked out.

Tipping Point Newcastle had a focus of positive messages to energise creative responses to climate change. It started with a ‘sparky’ battle of the graphs between Kevin Anderson (of the ‘we’re doomed unless we change utterly’ school) and Matt Ridley (of the ‘it’s not so bad and the cure is worse’ school) that generated more heat than light for me. Following days though left me with a head spinning with ideas and a general positivity, despite the challenges environmental change represents to our culture in both the broad and specific senses of the word. Some quotes and thoughts amongst many others:

  • There was lots of talk of ‘sustained anger’, but isn’t that as oxymoronic as ‘sustainable development’ or ‘sustainable growth’?
  • Are we ‘constipated with choice’ as John Fox put it, in his inspiring defence of the imagination? (You can hear that, and a rousing rendition of 'All things bright and beautiful' here.) 
  • Seeing John Fox and Sue Gill in action again also mae me think how we need to pay heed and dues, and even homage, to some of the inspirational elders in the sector, as well as bringing in new people. (There was a healthy contingent of young researchers and artists too.)
  • Alan Davey made announcements (a few minutes after the ACE tweeters had said, but never mind!) about Arts Council environmental policies and new elements to funding agreements.  ACE has also been bringing down its own emissions and carbon use quite significantly – although reducing staff numbers will also have been part of that.
  • Lucy Conway of Eigg Box on the Isle of Eigg used the phrase that’s echoed most in my head since – ‘the idea of finite’, which is what islanders accept as natural. (The inhabitants of Eigg have agreed a ‘cap’ on their use of power, and must live within the limits of the island for many other resources.) This felt like the heart of the issues for me – do we accept the finite nature of our planet or live as if there are no limits? (Lucy also revealed that Egg has 90 residents and 22 committees - though the winters are long, and some only meet once a year.)
  • This helped me towards my own conclusion that for me environmental concerns sit within my socialism, rather than vice versa, and that the ideas of equity and balance cannot be separated out from changing behaviours to reduce climate change. If there was a button to push to make carbon harmless, I would still be arguing for some changes in behaviour.

With only one or two isolated breakouts of green self-righteousness, sentimentality or sense of humour failure, it was also a really positive but challenging group of people. Difference of opinion seemed easier to express than in many such discussions, although probably within a broad consensus. But I saw few artists looking for external permission or agency, perhaps because this was one of the contexts that demanded what re.think describes as ‘bigger than self thinking. I certainly came away with fresh determination to act bigger than self, and to write in that spirit too.

You can access a lot of material from Tipping Point and some excellent reportage on the Amplified site. 

Friday, 3 February 2012

Movingpictures 20: on happiness

We've not had a video for a while, so here's one for those of a certain age and disposition, since my last post about happiness and resilience generated a fair few emails, and even a few comments. 

One of the themes of responses was that happiness and artistic creation do not always go hand in glove. (Sorry, couldn't stop myself.) Even if the work is not sad, unhappy, depressed or depressing in itself, the artist or writer may be. This is one of the paradoxes of art - from the tragic comedian to the backstage transformation. It is what we want from art, and one of its limitations - sometimes, you can't write or sing or joke your way out of yourself.

Some years ago I did some research in the therapeutic benefits of writing, and whether quality, or trying to write well (as opposed to simply for therapy, regardless of literary quality). made any difference. I found some evidence that it did, both in writers' own testimonies, but also in psychological literature. There is something in making special, powerful images, which is good for you. (Virgina Woolf made the connection herself in her diary, when recovering from depression: 'returning health: this is shown by the power to make images...')

There is though, a paradox here too: writers, especially ones of a certain standing, are more likely to suffer depression and related illnesses. It may be that striving for excellence can become a burden to some when pushed too far - perhaps those with lower 'resilience', perhaps. 

You can, if you're interested, read the paper, 'Writing well: health and the power to make images', that came out of this research in the archives of Medical Humanities, where it was published. It feels a long time ago now, but I was happy to be reminded of it, and particularly the other Woolf quote I use at the end, which I'll share here for those not minded to read the full thing:

“And now with some pleasure I find that it's seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down”

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

...and always wear the happy face

My work around adaptive resilience in the last couple of years has showed me some people react negatively to the word. It is defiantly unsexy, un-’transformational’ for many cultural folk. Having a Northern miserablist somewhere within me, I don’t mind this, but some people do, finding it a bit negative or defensive – not creative somehow. (I am pondering swapping adaptive for creative in some contexts, as all my research is highlighting the role of creativity in that adaptive capacity which is central to my vision of resilience as a positive force, but that’s a longer and different bit of writing.)

I was reminded of this by Andy Burnham’s recent speech about mental health, and the ‘happiness’ agenda, and reactions to it. You can read a summary here . His argument is that the happiness agenda places too much emphasis on material wealth and is essentially ‘middle class’, and there ought to be greater emphasis on resilience – are people ‘coping’ or ‘getting by’, rather than being pressured to 'get happy'.

Whilst acknowledging the kernels of truth in Burhnam’s argument, it may well be a misunderstanding of happiness as a concept or agenda, and is definitely not what I mean by resilience. As The Happy Museum project note in their introduction to a project exploring how museums needs to adapt to support transition to a ‘high well-being sustainable society’, research shows that material goods play considerably less of a role in determining well-being than our spending patterns might suggest. Charles Seaford of the New Economic Foundation has argued there is a clear synergy between the research on happiness, well-being and the social justice agenda which Labour ought to occupy. (I was going to write ‘fairness’, but that word seems to have been put through the washer by so many people it looked feeble. Shame.)

Resilience is not simply a defensive, survivalist concept – though it can help with both defence and survival in a crisis. It is a way of thinking about the characteristics and resources that allow people (and organisations and sectors) feel and act more positively, whatever their context, however challenging it may get. This does seem to me to support happiness rather than run counter to it. Just as resilience will go up and down, and won’t protect you from every risk or change, so happiness won’t be constant, and having some of the characteristics, skills and resources of resilience to draw on may help. To suggest that the working class are more concerned with survival than happiness feels to me like a misunderstanding at a cultural level, mistaking the material signs for the deeper ones. Of course, we all need to ‘get by’, but that is very different for each person. 

If anything I’d have thought the archetypal ‘middle class’ version of happiness preferred to talk about spiritual or cultural things rather than ‘vulgar’ goods – hence middle class outrage at poorer people ‘frittering’ their money on big tellies and nights out. I very much prefer my Labour politicians to be closer to ‘Nothing’s too good for the working class’, as Nye Bevan (or Wobbly leader Bill Harewood, or various others) said, than ‘Poor but Happy’ or ‘Poor but Resilient’, which Burnham comes perilously close to.

What’s this to do with art? Well, substitute ‘great art’ for ‘happiness’ and see how it fits. But also there is an implication in Burnham’s comments that culture, as a higher good, may not be so relevant. I’m sure that’s not what he meant, of course.