A Culture of Possibility Podcast #12: A Culture of Possibility Year One: A Reflection by François Matarasso and Arlene Goldbard

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 12th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available on 17 December 2021. You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.

Be sure to also read François’ latest blog on podcasting, which includes links to all the past episodes.

What ideas, work, issues, questions would you like to see featured on “A Culture of Possibility” in 2022? Drop me a line. We’d love to hear what you think.

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In this blog, I mention some of the ideas that resonated with us as we reflected on the first year of “A Culture of Possibility.” Tune into the podcast to hear them connected to the people and the work we’ve featured over the last year.

François began by talking about the podcast’s title, which was inspired by one of my books. “It resonated with me so strongly,” he said, “because it’s integral to what I think my work in community art has been about. It has always been about the idea that people should have the possibility to express themselves creatively in whatever terms made sense to them. For me, that’s the key difference between a community artist and an artist to who involves people in their own work. I’ve always thought that my job was to accompany people on the journey of finding who they are creatively and what they wanted to say.”

There’s another reason, he added. “The political landscape, which has always had its darknesses. There’s an idea going around that we’re more divided than we were. It’s certainly clear that in America, in Britain, in many European countries, there are very real divisions. But I worked through the Thatcher years, as you did through the Reagan years, and they were as divided, I think. Maybe the difference is the rigidity of the way in which people talk.

“There is a growing refusal to accept the good intentions or the good spirit of people on either side of the dividing lines. And so things are either right or wrong, you’re either on this side or or you’re on that side. For me, the culture of possibility is about defending the space that says, I don’t know, I don’t understand. I’m not sure. I think this but I might be wrong. And to make art which is exploratory, which is not deterministic, not sloganeering, not certain of its own moral or artistic rightness.”

I agreed. “If I if think of our guests’ faces and voices, one thing they all have in common is that in their work and in their lives, they want to inquire into the world rather than to beat it into submission. That’s kind of a rare thing these days.” 

So what did we learn from these conversations? Time stood out for me, time for reflection and emergence.

“We heard this word emergence a lot. What people meant wasn’t like building a building: you decide what you want to do, you make a blueprint, you execute the blueprint, and voila, you have the building. It wasn’t like that. It was to create an encounter, to enable a set of circumstances to unfold in which a group of people, some calling themselves community artists or other allied names, some calling themselves students, community members, parents, whatever roles they’re bringing to the work. Then within the container that’s created by those conditions, everybody has a voice.

“It’s almost always a situation of true dialogue, not where the leader is waiting for other peoples’ mouths to stop moving so they can say what they really think is important. It’s a situation of deep listening and emergence; from that listening and dialogue, it becomes clear what people think it’s important to do. What they’re being summoned by something inside of them or outside of them to do, and then how are they going to do it together emerges over time.” Having time to reflect as the work unfolds also came through in a lot of episodes, particularly because for some people, the pandemic despite its horrors forced a slowdown, opening up that time.

If you’ve been listening to the podcasts, you’ll already know how frustrating the two of us have found it that most of the institutions, policymakers, and funders who can support the work seldom get this. “The challenges that came up—and they came up in a bunch of different ways depending on where people were located, and exactly what kind of work they do—had to do with the fact that virtually all the support systems don’t really recognize that open-endedness, that ongoing creativity, and that sense of having ample time to actually relax into the work and allow it to flow.”

François pointed out that by starting our podcast in 2021, we were dipping into a very different reality than when we each began doing community-based arts work decades ago.

“This practice that when you and I were at the beginning of our working lives was very contested, very marginal and marginalized, very critiqued by the art world, has now become normal. Sometimes I would say appropriated by the art world. There are a number of things that are problematic about that. It’s actually part of a wider bureaucratization of art that has been happening: the idea that there’s a project, this is what it costs, this is what it will achieve, and you just go out and deliver it. In fact, even that word delivery I’ve written about in the past objecting.

“If you know what you’re going to achieve by the end of it, then you may be making art, but you’re making bad art. You’re not open to that culture of possibility, which implies that you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know what might happen. One of the reasons you don’t know is because you are willing for other people to change it. Unless you subscribe to that commitment, then I think you’re not making work that has integrity in the way that I would recognize. Yet that is what the funding system and the donors and all expect, essentially a product, not a creative work.”

For me, the idea of resistance stood out. “One of the shared values that you and I both have is resistance to this quantifying, quantified, mechanized, bureaucratized, systematized approach to cultural policy, cultural development, cultural support. It loves widgets. It loves best practices. It loves, ‘let’s have one of these. And now let’s have 100 of those.’ And that’s so antithetical to what we’re doing here. When we started the podcast, we knew there was a range of practice in the field. But that was expanded by people talking about their work. For instance, so many people have an individual artistic practice alongside their collaborative artistic practice, and neither is the right one, they both express a way that they want to be deploying their gifts.”

“I like that notion of resistance,” François said, “because all of the people we’ve spoken to are resisting, in their own ways, and according to their own lights, the things that that upset them or that they reject. The policy world likes to talk about impact. And I’ve objected to that for a long time because the person that’s having the impact is always the policy world, or the artist or whatever. And the person being impacted is always the community. So all the power is on on one side.

“I think that resistance is what prevents something from moving forward, a certain stickiness. I have no illusions about being a brave revolutionary person who’s going to stand on the barricades, but I think resistance is something I can do, I can be sticky, I can dig my feet in. A lot of us are capable of that, being the stickiness that prevents bad things from happening, because we won’t go along with with them. At its most basic, I think community arts is defending a set of values and rejecting a set of other values. And it only needs to do it by existing and being true and sticking to its own values, and preferring not to go along with with the ones that that are so dominant in our world.”

Solomon Burke, “The Other Side of the Coin.”

A Culture of Possibility Podcast #12: A Culture of Possibility Year One: A Reflection by François Matarasso and Arlene Goldbard