The Blog

Tough Times? Art Is Always the Answer

The thing about art is that it asks of us everything. An artist brings to the moment of making - as painter, as actor, as welder, as dancer, as poet, as playwright, as draftsman, as precision tool engineer - every memory, every fine-tuned muscle, every last drop of knowledge and experience and focusses them all in the act of creation.

'The world is too much with us. Late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Little we see in Nature that is ours.

We have given our hearts away ...'

William Wordsworth wrote that 200 years ago.

His poem is a great wail of grief for a way of life that the poet believed was in danger, a life sensitive to, joined to and in tune with the ebbs and flows, the cycles and continuities of nature.

'This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune -

It moves us not.'

Why? Because the process of industrialisation, which had begun in the cotton factories in the north of this island, was in full swing.

Driven into poverty by the enclosure of their land ('enclosure' being officialise for theft), tens of thousands who had lived by agriculture had no alternative but to enter the vast, dark sheds that were thrown up in the fields and to become factory workers.

In the course of a no doubt strenuous working day, farm workers accomplished many different tasks requiring many varied skills. Now they became semi-automatons, repeating a single action, day in day out, mere threads in the unbreakable web of creation and destruction known as capitalism - that same enduring system, powered by the 'getting and spending' of which Wordsworth speaks, as a consequence of which, so Wordsworth says, our powers are wasted.

Well, what a great deal of 'getting and spending' has gone on since then.

In the course of the 19th century, many groups of people tried to break free and set up communities - isolated from the web - in which they could relate to each other in more complex, more intimate, deeper, more imaginative ways.

Karl Marx had some ideas on this subject. But the philosopher of early anti-capitalism who these wonderful Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries brought to my mind is John Ruskin.

Ruskin, like Wordsworth, saw the world's greatest wonder, human beings, losing so much of what was best in them: that each human being is unlike any other that ever has been or ever will be; the wondrously linked skills of brain and hand and eye that enable us to express through art, through craft all that is deepest, most meaningful, never to be repeated, if never spoken or written or painted never to be known.

For Ruskin, each human being has the potential to be an artist or a craftsman. And in the century and a half since he wrote, scientists - geneticists, neurologists, linguisticians - have all agreed. We know, there is no doubt, that Homo sapiens is hard-wired for creativity.

And yet the way we organise our lives condemns millions - in this country, billions across the planet - to frustration, to anger, to depression and sometimes to violence because they never have the chance, not ever, to become the people - the artists, the craftsman, the makers, the creators - that they, that all of us, have it in us, inherently, profoundly in us, to become.

Well, it's tough times just now. Austerity and so on. Suffering, our political leaders tell us, is inevitable, even necessary, because somehow, for some mysterious reason on which economists simply cannot agree, we're not doing enough 'getting and spending'.

We've been foolishly distracted onto other things. So just put up with further enclosures - of our health care system, of our education, of our transport and communication systems - and very soon we can all get back to 'getting and spending' as much as we ever did.

Sometimes when I speak like this - and many who run theatres and galleries and dance houses do - I am accused of being anti-business.

I'm not anti-business. I run a business. My father was a business man in a middling sort of way, both my grandfathers and my father's mother too. Business is what I come from.

And business is, of course, one of the ways - like art, like sport, like science - in which people achieve their potential, in which they can become truly and uniquely themselves. Business is organised trade and anthropologists will tell us that, in the far distant reaches of time, trade was the beginning of everything.

But when I hear the common phrase 'business is business', I imagine good old Wordsworth writing his poem. 'Business is business', there's nothing more to be said. No other kinds of relationship - friendship, kinship, the bonds of community - can be allowed to stand in the way. They all dissolve in the doing of 'the deal'.

No matter what destruction and suffering ensue, the forest must be cut down, the coal must be dug up, the oil piped to the surface, the village razed, the community scattered. Capital must be accumulated, that's the way of world, that's how things are, it's natural. Or so our political leaders ask us to believe.

And, sadly, many of us do so believe. As the brilliant economic journalist Paul Mason has written, (paraphrasing Frederic Jameson): it's easier for young people to imagine the end of the world than the end of our kind of capitalism.

All the air has been sucked from the room, all escapes blocked off. There is no alternative, there's only one logic to the world. These are "the mind-forged manacles" of William Blake, perhaps the greatest of the 19th century poet defenders of the vulnerable against the machine.

The thing about art is that it asks of us everything. An artist brings to the moment of making - as painter, as actor, as welder, as dancer, as poet, as playwright, as draftsman, as precision tool engineer - every memory, every fine-tuned muscle, every last drop of knowledge and experience and focusses them all in the act of creation.

And as audience, to be a great audience, full fellows in the making of art, we need to do the same. Whole human beings in the wholeness of our being.

Speaking for myself, I want everyone to be an artist. And I believe - more than believe, I know because I've worked all my life in organisations in which people, young and old, discover themselves, become themselves, in all their contradictoriness and complexity, by releasing their creativity - that we can be.

But just now, as I say, austerity and the rest of it, it's tougher than it's ever been in my experience for young people, bursting with potential, to find the way in.

Well, these Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries are ways in. Each is a little miracle, all 40 of them. And more, we hope, to come. Each an individual doorway.

They are of immense, incalculable value - to those that receive them and to us all. They're a marvellous act of creativity. We should all be moved by them.

This speech was given by David Lan to mark the launch of the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries at Jerwood Space, London on 16 June 2015