Folklore is a product of a people’s culture. Stories and songs are passed through generations to preserve the previous impressions of a community. These can be melodies, ideas, rhythms, stories or movements. Dancing and singing are age-old human pastimes. They are timeless. By participating in the traditional arts here in Ireland, we can share a moment of community with our ancestors (the people who lived here before us). Though removed in time, we are connected by place. A song can act as a time machine; or, as composer Michael McGlynn has said, songs exist “out of time”.
One of the reasons we enjoy the traditional arts relates to our constant search for identity. We crave a connection to people whom we perceive to be similar. Through the traditional arts, we can connect with people who are absent, who are gone, who have said what they wanted to say. By singing folk songs, we can feel a connection with such people in the past. Often, we pursue this connection backwards in time while ignoring or suppressing the social need to engage with others in the present, who might live and work and move around us every day.1
When we see artworks from another era, we can begin to imagine the culture of those peoples through their works of art. Therefore, we can have a more complex and personal understanding of the people. If these people come from our own place, we often feel we can better understand ourselves. Lore also has a narrative power when it takes the form of story and song (but can also be abstract) in that it allows us each to have an interpretation and thus add to the story as it is passed onto the next recipient. In this way, we are contributing to our own story, our own identity.
If we can participate in our own folklore, we are creating it in community with others. In practice, the artist constantly views the world around herself and, through imagination and a process of digesting the events of the day, produces work that represent the time she lives in. This way, the artist encodes the experiences of her own time. If we participate, we can also be a part of this process of encoding our own culture, actively making our own traditions.
On this point, I’d like to lay out a few of the fascinating ideas I’ve come across in my recent studies of philosophers John Dewey (“Art as Experience”, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934.) and Maxine Greene (“Releasing the imagination: essays on education, the arts, and social change”, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.).
It’s not that easy to participate in works of art - especially contemporary art forms. In the 1930s, Dewey wrote about the energy a person needs to apprehend art. It is not enough to merely walk through a museum. To have an aesthetic experience requires a personal commitment, an emotional and personal conviction, an effort to identify with the artwork. Maxine Greene refers to this as a “mind-opening” effect. Only when we ask questions of ourselves can we be receptive to a piece of art, a song, a painting. Greene believes that art opens us up to new ways of seeing the world. She advocated for “aesethic education” as an approach to open the minds of those people living at the margins of society, in order to present new possibilities for them of imagining new ways to exist in the world.
If so, we need certain things before we can engage. We need a reason to engage. We need a physical space in which we are comfortable enough to relate to the artwork, on our terms. It’s difficult to force people to connect to a performance if they are initially disinterested or disengaged; this may be as a personal response to the ideas presented, the space being used, or indeed the form being employed (ballet, sculpture, folksong).
Identity & the Other
Dewey writes that artworks can help us to appreciate and understand “otherness” and people who are outside of (or marginalised from) our own society. Dewey described art as “a continuity of experience” between people from different worlds; through a felt, imagined connection of individuals removed in time and place. Art can therefore be the source of a relationship with someone or something unfamiliar (a culture, person, idea). After an artistic experience, we can learn to see with someone else’s eyes, to hear with her ears.
In “Philosophy of Right”, Hegel wrote that each of us gains validity and finds satisfaction in others. In this way, we are very much social creatures. Hegel describes how individuals (the “particular person”) actually need others to accomplish their goals - whether in the context of work, friendship, family or love.
In his writings on civil society, John Keane reminds us of the inherit tensions of a pluralist, multiculturalist society. So we are presented with a picture of contemporary society as necessarily social yet inevitably conflicting.
Dewey wrote that “[moralities] are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order”. I think this means that rules and standards can become engrained in culture to the extent that they end up being outdated. However, Dewey believed the artist can generate meaning in the world beyond the evidence we can actually observe (eg. generalised ideas of right and wrong).
An artist’s ideas about the future come from her “imaginative vision”; in Dewey’s words, “change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor” to real-life changes.2
Representation Through Art
So we as citizens can unleash our own imaginations as to what might be possible in our own worlds. Museums play a important role in this process in providing a hushed atmosphere for personal reflection on artefacts and artworks. Of course, lots of people don’t feel comfortable in museums, so we must ask: for whom are such institutions a barrier to seeing the world in a different way?
In recent decades, artists have accepted that, by experiencing art in a more comfortable atmosphere, the audience is more open to the ideas within. Otherwise, when artists are obsessed with more traditional modes of cultural dissemination, people who are deemed to be uneducated/uninitiated can feel excluded from the process.
Thus, an “authentic invitation” can disentangle an artwork from the prestige or prejudice of its context. This is very important for any artist, or any innovator attempting to introduce a new idea to any audience. So how can we extend this authentic invitation? How can we engage citizens in a genuine dialogue about human values? Dewey believed that art gives us the capacity to sympathise, to identify with others beyond a relation to the past, and can serve as a way to see and imagine possibilities in the present (as well as the future).
By this reasoning, music could be seen as a powerful approach to fostering ‘community amongst any group of people, especially people who are already connected by place.
1) I think we choose to sing these songs because there’s a security in that distance, and this temporal abstraction keeps us safe. Although the function of traditional music in Ireland is highly social, we operate in a modernist society; one in which “hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”, Huis Clos, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1944). Perhaps the cultural shift that occurred in Europe throughout the 20th century, alongside the boom in interpersonal technological relationships, has rendered incompatible our own understanding of social function of traditional music and song in Ireland today. Of course, to appeal to contemporary audiences, the traditional arts must evolve although this might seem to contradict a purist’s idea of tradition.
2) The infrastructure of statehood illustrates one model of conflict management on a large scale. An authority chooses its citizenry, which it protects with laws and international norms. If there are citizens, by definition there must be non-citizens. The state owes little to no obligation in law to these alien non-citizens. The state may act as it wishes towards stateless individuals, who exist without an authority to defend them. For citizens to retain the legal protection they enjoy, they/we must abide by the rules and laws of the state. If not, they/we risk ex-communication. In recent history, this has been documented in Guantánamo Bay and in refugee “camps” (so-called as per Giorgio Agamben’s theory on homo sacer) constructed at Europe’s borders.