While our culture prides itself on ancient stories and songs, much of the communal oral tradition has been neglected today in favour of an online network that we are continuously co-creating together with a ‘global community’ of internet users.
There is something anachronistic about listening, undistracted and quiet, to a song being performed live in a room. Indeed, a formal concert is becoming quite an old-fashioned way of enjoying music. It is a ritual, protected by tradition and by imagined boundaries and customs. These rules protect the music and preserve the performance space. Performers and venues must adapt to the habits of the audience, but then again, venues and performers can choose to some degree who the attract – using publicity shots and branding to weed out the people who might just spoil the show by talking or filming throughout.
In Ireland, the traditional seisiún amhráin is a pretty out-dated scenario. Maybe it always was. However, to enjoy music and literature with nothing but the human voice is as ancient as communication itself.
It is rare for young people anywhere in Ireland to gather in a technology-free zone, absent of sound systems, televisions, or mobile phones. Therefore, there is one series of non-verbal symbols that connects all of us online: binary code. As we hack a complex combination of 0s and 1s on a daily basis, we might be excused for claiming we have mastered another, new language; one that our ancestors could fathom only as science fiction. For all the complicated mathematical systems humans have conjured, binary code has broadened the horizons of modern technology.
Against this background, anyone who participates in a traditional song session is deciding to participate in something old, absent of binary code. It could perhaps be described as primitive. It is a conscious, or subconscious, act of preservation of an ancient form of art. Maybe it could even be seen as a political act.
While driving to Malahide (where I work at Fingal Academy of Music) today, I came across Heed Fm. I didn’t understand what it was at first. I heard a candid conversation between two people, the apparent interviewee sounded like a young man in his early 20s. It was very raw, unedited, long silences, swear words. This was daytime radio.
I looked it up online: “Heed FM is a twenty-eight-day anonymous sound portrait created through one-to-one and group conversations in Dublin with people aged 18–25 and from all backgrounds.” The project is committed to creating an authentic representational portrait of a generation residing in the Greater Dublin Area. Heed FM worked with over 100 subjects, which it calls “contributors”, from all backgrounds – some are users of social services and organisations in the fields of homelessness, mental health, and addiction.
The project said: “it is important to have an accurate portrayal of how this demographic normally communicates, beyond the limited way it is currently represented through mainstream media”. Minimal editing was employed to record “the most genuine possible representation of the conversations”.
One of the questions that was raised to this young man was about his Irishness. He had moved to work in New Zealand, and he was asked how he felt about being away from Dublin and about his identity as an emigrant. It was interesting that he felt that there was nothing unique about the idea of Irishness. With the majority of media consumed by young people (arguably by anyone under the age of 50) coming from the United States of America, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that we are more influenced by American culture than by Irish culture. The vast majority of Irish citizens are presented with USA politics much more often than they may read an article about domestic policy drawn up in the Dáil.
Regarding the ridiculous Presidential race taking place in the USA this year, it is a curious time to be an English-speaker. Along with Australians, New Zealanders, Britons and Canadians, Irish people are expected to engage with the democratic process of a foreign country as if it were its own. Is that not strange? Do USA politicians exercise more power of Irish citizens than their own TDs? It is clear that power is a clear and apparent indicator of capital – whether it be political, economic, cultural or social.
Tonight, I attended a workshop in sean nós singing. We sang a song called Éamonn an Chnoic. According to the sources most readily available through Google, the song describes a man called Éamonn Ó Riain (c.1670-c.1724). He was apparently considered to be the ‘Robin Hood’ of east Limerick and west Tipperary. He was sent to France to study in pursuit of the priesthood, but instead he returned and fought for the Williamite forces. Following the confiscation of Irish catholic land in the Act of Settlement 1652 after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, many dispossessed catholic landowners took to the forests and hills of rural Ireland to wage war against the British Crown forces. They were known as “raparees”.
Storytelling – whether through song or otherwise – is a reflection of a community’s shared myths and heritage. Is there anything separating the stories, the myths, the cultures of young Americans compared to young Irish people? Of course there is.
However, the storytelling tradition in Ireland is obscured to a frightening degree by the contemporary media. The cultural appreciation of Irish literature and art is weak compared to American cultural self-appreciation. The USA is a source of wealth. Within a capitalist system, producers/creators of services or products are drawn towards wealth. So it is more economically viable to indulge in American cultural practices. Ireland has hardly any indigenous cultural capital; very little that can translate into money anyway. Ireland’s successful industries today are largely imported. The industries that remain intact and successful to some extent are inevitably exported – especially cultural products. And to where are they exported? Largely to Irish America.
If it is possible to remove the modern concept of capital from our judgment – replacing a 21st century value system with another, more traditional one – maybe it is possible to appreciate the Irish culture at a higher level. Listening to Irish voices through a project such as Heed FM might be a way for us to access ourselves, rather than tuning into foreign accents, speaking about familiar but foreign concerns. It is no surprise that the accents of young Irish people are homogenising. It is no wonder at all.
Tonight, Eithne Ní Chatháin sang Éamonn an Chnoic to a small room of listeners. Yes, there was a transaction (we paid for the class). But was there something else happening? Another transaction? Maybe Eithne’s form of storytelling – an sean nós (the old way) – arguably one of the only ‘indigenous’ art forms still active on this island – just maybe it is preserving something invaluable.
If we could view our own cultural practices in this way, as something timeless, something priceless, then we could develop an appreciation of our heritage that straddles the old and the new. Without this, money talks. And only the valuable remains in a capitalist world. And it looks like that’s where we’re headed.
This piece was written as the final assignment of the Music & Social Action course with coursera.org and Yale University (USA) on 5 April 2016.
On the island of Ireland – both Dublin and Belfast specifically – political conflicts remain regarding the acceptance and tolerance of certain groups (eg. migrants). I see xenophobia and social exclusion as problem both socially and politically in my community.
Artists, as citizens, can make a positive contribution to society by organising and creating spaces where more cultures are shared. There are many people who are not touched or included by mainstream activities. I see a potential role for artists in working with migrants, refugees, Travellers, and/or other groups to facilitate the expression of that community’s identity. If artists choose to work with under-represented groups, they can begin a process of community-making.
The Artist's role
As Dewey and Barnes expressed in their letters, art can be “soul-thrilling” and makes us pay attention for moments of beauty. It draws us into a different space, out of our daily lives. It takes us to a different way of feeling something. Often that feeling happens for no longer than a moment – but people hang onto those moments. This usually comes from an aesthetic experience; as Maxine Greene says in “Releasing the Imaginations”:
Aesthetic experiences require conscious participation in a work, a going out of energy, an ability to notice what is there to be noticed in the play, the poem, the quartet. Knowing ‘about,’ even in the most formal academic manner, is entirely different from constituting a fictive world imaginatively and entering it perceptually, affectively, and cognitively.
Art changes the way we participate in communities around us by expanding our understanding of what forms of participation are possible. It gives us a sense of control over our communities, so that we may imagine what it could be and then organise and mobilise people to make that happen.
So what can the artist achieve by working in the community? Greene writes that experiences with the arts can open us to new ways of seeing things. Our assumptions about the way life can be can fundamentally change. This “imaginative opening” comes as a result of “aware engagements”. Greene believed that “art allows people to write and rewrite their own lived words”.
“Community cannot be produced simply by rational formulation, nor by edict. Like freedom, it has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognise together and appreciate in common. It ought to be a space infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to imagine alternative possibilities for their own becoming and the group’s becoming.”
As a performer, you are given a room, an audience. You are granted value in that context. People will listen to you, however momentarily, and then maybe take an interest in your performance, your ideas or your story. They may at least consider things they might not otherwise have contemplated.
The performer should not be a DISTRACTION to the music. If the performer is a persona – or a commodity – then the person in the audience may be discouraged from really listening – because of what the persona represents. Likewise, art is separated from the mass of people when physically located in a preserve of some kind.
One of the biggest challenges is actually getting people’s attention. So the artist must always be careful when relating to a pre-established community. As Austin Stewart has said, there is a distinction between performing ‘at’ the public instead ‘for’ the public. In the words of Oron Catts, the artist works as a ‘cultural producer’, producing sources of cultural life. Once it’s released into the wild, the artwork has its own life.
Art and Politics
As for this social or political role of the artist, Herbert Marcuse said that: “Art is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination and reason”. Furtwangler famously said that art and politics have nothing to do anything to do with each other. However, Marcuse also said that, the more immediately political the artwork, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical transcendent goals of change. Transformation doesn’t mean a rejection of the world, but instead might demonstrates to a person that the world is plastic, is malleable, is open to change and is open to their presence.
Oron Catts argues that art is more powerful when it is ambiguous. This way, you force the audience to be challenged by the issues rather than by your opinions as the performer. When you become too literal, so that they know what you think, then the audience addresses you as a person, your opinions, and they don’t address the issues.
A suitable model of artistic action might be resistance and critique. Resistance means, rather than reforming or improving (because this is often impossible to gauge without hindsight), we can only resist with good intentions. Resisting something we disagree with, in an active yet peaceful manner, is the very basis of democratic citizenship. You can also be “critical”. Rather than social activist/advocate, a critic is a very important role. Music/art can be a way to “depart” from the things you oppose. Bring people together with you in peaceful opposition.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." - James A. Baldwin (Notes on a Native Son, 1955)
Art can provide a space and the freedom to say unpopular things or the freedom to say beautiful things, that perhaps have ‘no point’. Indeed, artists don’t have to sign a dotted line that claims that what they do is real or true. They can claim to be doing one thing and actually accomplish another thing.
Greene discusses how Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech made visible an abstraction (rather than a reality), but also made visible the faces of particular people in the minds of the listener. Artists can provide the imagination to move beyond the actuality/reality, taking us to a point where we feel better equipped to act. An artist’s vision can provide us with evidence, or language, or belief that had not yet existed. With this new resource, we are better positioned to do something. In MLK’s example, Americans in the 1963 could listen to the conviction behind MLK’s words, his utter faith, and believe that this new reality might indeed be possible.
Many believe that, if you’re motivated by social activism, it’s not just your practice – it’s what you do everyday and it’s how you feel about everything. Just like art. Dublin artist Emily Robyn Archer has said: “Philosophically, art should birth an idea of a new world… Individual artworks are tiny increments of that happening… I hope for someone to think about something they’ve never thought about before even though that might not seem like an ambitious target”.
Art gives people a voice
When people feel like they don’t have the knowledge or the speciality to comment on something, to have their opinion heard, it’s important to help them do so – to reach out to venues outside the gallery space, to connect with communities.
“The arts are not for the privileged few, but for the many. Their place is not at the periphery of daily life, but at its centre. They should function not merely as another form of entertainment, but, rather, should contribute significantly to our well-being and happiness – John. D. Rockafeller III.
Jane Jacobs advocated for the enlivening that arts organisations can bring to an area. Cities were successful when they stimulate informal street-level interactions, creating a “feeling for the public identity of people”, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in times of great community need.
We want to encourage citizens to become curious about other people in their city, rather than fearful. We want people to feel more connected. You don’t have to climb out of your community to make it awesome! You don’t have to go somewhere that doesn’t belong to you. You are the creators of your own place. Art isn’t defined by some other community – you can be the drivers of that. Arts exist in every neighbourhood! It’s happening – they just need space and materials. It’s happening in people’s bedrooms, in basements, in alleyways. Initially, Pablo Casals thought that the music scene in Barcelona was not representative of how much talent and creativity was in the city! So he took action!
Ai Weiwei, the infamous Chinese dissident artist, has said: “I think my stance and my way of life is my most important art… I want to prove that the system is not working. You can’t simply say that the system is not working. You have to work through it… As an artist, you see different forms and different ways; to find a new way of communication and reach out.”
A lot of artists have totally isolated themselves emotionally and physically from society. This is where their art comes from and it is interesting and important because it is a reaction to something within that society – it’s perhaps a statement that this particular artist feels like her society is unworthy of respect/tolerance. It gives the audience a new perspective; an outsider's perspective. That is a political and social action in itself, albeit an individualistic one.
"Humanity is the goal"
Art and community are inextricably linked. The art we make is informed by the place where we are, the community we’re in. And vice versa: there is an imprint on public life because of the activity and the process of being an artist in a community. Artistic projects are often a response to some cultural behaviour or trope. In turn, art influences culture because it’s what we see in the streets, it’s what we listen to in our bedrooms, it’s what we read on the bus. Indeed, Bronislaw Huberman said: “The true artist does not create art as an end in itself. He creates it for human beings. Humanity is the goal”.
For Daniel Barenboim of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra said: “Within the communion of the orchestra, people can open themselves to each other.” Instead of making an overt political statement with the music, Barenboim said that the music-making process creates a setting in which people can engage directly and peacefully with the issues: the orchestra “is, of course, unable to bring about peace. It can, however, create the conditions for understanding, without which it’s impossible even to speak of peace. It has the potential to awaken the curiosity of each individual to listen to the narrative of the other and to inspire the courage necessary to hear what one would prefer to block out.”
Of the orchestra, Edward Said commented: “strange though it may seem, it is culture generally, and music in particular, that provide an alternative model to identity conflict… Ignorance is not a strategy for sustainable survival… The art of playing music is the art of simultaneously playing and listening, one enhancing the other... This dialogical quality inherent in music was our main reason for founding the orchestra… Separation between people is not a solution for any of the problems that divide us, and ignorance of the other certainly provides no help whatsoever.”
Jazz pianist and composer, Vijay Iyer talks about performance as an opportunity to be present with others: “Everyone becomes an equal participant in that respect. It therefore opens a possibility for community.” When we gather, we have an opportunity to think about who’s there, who isn’t, and why. And what dynamics are in the room that link us. And also what separates us.
It is this sentiment (reiterated by so many of the specialists in this course) that I think is important for me as an artist – as a performer and as a community music education professional. To paraphrase Iyer, performance is a service. It’s about community and collaboration, about connecting with each other in a human sense and sharing a common experience. The artist cannot impact on people’s behaviour – the artist can only influence the minds of those people who engage with the artwork.
The revolutionary values of creativity
Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire said that a “humanist, revolutionary educator… must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power”. In Freire’s problem-posing teaching format, the teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and reconsiders her earlier considerations as the students express their own… [P]eople develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.”
Therefore, the teacher is not presenting something finished; there is always something to discover by the learners, together.
So, by entering a classroom, not expecting students to acquiesce, the teacher has to respect what the student might bring to the teacher, and realise that the students’ thoughts/reactions may be much more valuable to them in their everyday life than what the teacher is trying to impart. The knowledge of the teacher is not more important than the student’s experience. Where a teacher demonstrates excitement and passion, energy and enthusiasm, this might be the most valuable lesson in music education.
As well as these values, a starting point for any artist hoping to combat social exclusion through community arts practice might be the idea of TOLERANCE. Freire said that “being tolerant is not being naïve. There is an ethical, political duty to be tolerant. But it does not demand me to lose my personality.” Tolerating difference in society, in democratic governance is highly important to art.
Art provides for creative spaces in which we can experience something different/new in a safe space. Music has a temporal, performative quality. To experience it, people have to be captive at the same time. This is where a lot of the power lies.
Written as part of course study in Music and Social Action (Yale/Coursera).
Speaking at Amherst College in 1961, US President John F Kennedy said: “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world, in pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time.”
He was continuing the American discussion of a “cultural democracy”, a concept dating at least to the New Deal era. In the 1960s, the tensions of the Cold War were deepening.
I am not an Americanophile (why isn’t there a better word for that?) by any means, but this Yale course is presenting US ideas on the arts alongside an American interpretation of democratic values. They're worth the analysis, particularly for how we comprehend the social role or artists.
Philosopher and aestheticist Maxine Greene remarks on Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s (MLK) “I have a dream” speech. She says he was opening possibilities for the audience. MLK's words didn’t guarantee anything but drew attention to the suffering of the characters he invoked. The speech made visible an abstraction (rather than a reality), but also made visible the faces of particular people in the minds of the listener.
Greene believes that artists can provide the imagination to move beyond the actuality/reality, taking us to a point where we feel better equipped to act. An artist’s vision can provide us with evidence, or language, or belief that had not yet existed. With this new resource, we are better positioned to do something. In MLK’s example, Americans in the 1963 could listen to the conviction behind MLK’s words, his utter faith, and believe that this new reality might indeed be possible.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually."
Art may also have a role in criticising institutions. In these lessons, I’ve found myself considering the critical role played by journalism in upholding democratic values such as transparency, accountability, etc. It’s certainly important to distinguish the functions of art (aesthetics) and journalism (reportage).
Journalism employs evidence to construct arguments about a given situation. Whether as an editorial, a comment piece, or investigative reporting, journalism is vital to our knowledge base. Bias is, therefore, an even more important concept to understand in all its complexity. We only see what we are shown.
According to this course, the artistic process has a public role while also being intensely personal. I think it's the capacity for abstraction that grants art its power; we can learn about something by experiencing something else. We can learn about the natural world by looking at a painting. We can learn about the gods by listening to a violin.
The artist cannot necessarily impact on people’s behaviour. The artist can only influence the minds of those who engage with the artwork. Art doesn’t have a concrete effect on how you view the world. There's no tangible way to quantify its effect. Do I walk out of a concert more able to view my state as corrupt? Or my romantic relationship as unique?
Rather, art encourages creative thinking; about beauty, about love, about religion, about governance, etc. It's often a personal experience, a private reflection. Maybe an artwork invites you into a community with others?
On this point, I recently read an article about the phenomenon of the silent disco. There were commentators bemoaning the breakdown of social relations, especially via the arts – dancing to music alone. Not merely alone, but deliberately shut off from a communal experience by wearing earphones. The horror!
But isn’t this missing the point? The communal experience is relative to that community, and the audience is always evolving. Technology dictates the possibilities of the day, and silent discos are still a novelty for many of us. So why shouldn’t we share in this unusual communal experience?
Another commentator remarked that record players, and the subsequent culture of solitary listening, could be seen as a negative indictment of the communal function of music. However, bringing songs into the home means that thousands, millions can share in the same experience of a commercial recording. I can listen to a song anywhere in the world and know for a fact that someone on the other side of the world is doing the same thing – for precisely the same length of time, sharing a moment. Isn’t that a feat of communal experience?
Especially if we engage with the song. Regardless of where in the world I may listen to a song or watch a YouTube ballet clip, I can be challenged by the work in the same way as an old woman in Japan. This sense of shared openness is intangible and immeasurable, but it serves to bond an audience into a community.
Community cannot be produced simply by rational formulation, nor by edict. Like freedom, it has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognise together and appreciate in common. It ought to be a space infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to imagine alternative possibilities for their own becoming and the group’s becoming. - Maxine Greene
We can be bold in the way we perceive the future, but we must accept that it’s going to take generations to evolve that vision. Community is a constant process of ‘becoming’; constant challenging, constant striving, never-ending. It’s a community-in-the-making. So the question for us is: what can a community of creative citizens achieve together?
I am doing a good bit of research these days into the connections between folklore and community identity. This has involved a long hard look into folk songs and traditional song, in particular. I’ve been reading a short book I found in a charity shop called Ireland: Towards a Sense of Place. It’s interesting because it was published in 1985, though many of its ideas have yet to bear fruit in Ireland today.
A lot of Irish lore delves into life on this island – as well as life off this island. Emigration is a major theme in the songs and stories because it seems we are never done leaving. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Irish about emigration, or indeed about any of the recurring themes in our local stories. The reason they are popular is that they are universal, human themes: love, loss, death, revelry, magic, etc. Irish folk culture has been influenced by other western European cultures for as long as we can tell.
In the category of the so-called emigrant’s farewell, we can understand the sense of place that has become so important in Irish culture. With a diaspora spanning continents and millions of people who feel Irish, this sense of place is a fascinating one 100 years since the foundation of an independent Irish state. Although a very young political entity, Ireland’s sense of history seems timeless.
If this sleep were on you in Cill na Dromad or some grave in the West,
It would ease my sorrow, though great the affliction and I’d not complain.
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, No. 68
In this poem, it scarcely matters where Cill na Dromad actually is. It could even be fictional, for all that it matters. The point is, as Seán Ó Tuama reminds us, we all know what Cill na Dromad is: “the centre of one’s universe, the beloved home-place”.
In all of this literature connected with place – even in the nature lyrics written by the monks in the golden age of early Christianity – there is no sense of the mystic presence of God or Spirit such as one finds in the literature of other peoples. Rather one is continually struck with the feeling that place and natural phenomena connote above all stability, certainty, eternity on earth… The traditional treatment of home-place and territory in literature survived in good measure the linguistic changeover in the nineteenth century from Irish to English.
In my research of religion in Irish folksong, I've repeatedly come across this idea that Christian values are largely absent from early Irish texts. Instead, there are much stronger pagan themes relating to the aesthetics of the natural world. Seán Ó Tuama reminds us that “there is no sense of sexual sin” in most of Irish literature.
no priest or friar will I believe
that it’s sin to couple in love
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, no. 73
Since the sagas of early Ireland, throughout the learned writings of the Middle Ages, up to contemporary folksong, Irish poetry would seem to embrace a carnal comprehension of love. It often alludes to the physical act in the wilderness of the land itself.
Interestingly, this love of home-place was tied up with the landscape, the indigenous animals, the rivers and hills, and the local language itself. Thanks to the translation from Gaeilge to English, we can now listen to the thoughts and ideas of our ancestors even if we weren't lucky enough to study Irish in a good school that encouraged us to keep it up long enough to interpret ancient Irish poetry. With poetry, melody or mythology, we can better relate to people who historically lived in Ireland.
I do not like referring to people who lived in 19th or 17th or 15th century Ireland as “Irish” because I struggle to accept that we have enough in common with their culture to claim to be compatriots. As far as people can be connected from such a temporal distance, we do share a lot. But I share as much with the people who lived in Dublin as I do with my own great-great-great-grandfather. Very little. I share genes with my family. I share the physical experience of this city with its former residents. But the city has changed so much; almost unrecognisably in many parts. So is it really the same place? Not to mention the evolving cultural influences that have impacted the city’s shapes, sights, sounds, smells, etc. Thanks to the supremacy of American media, Dubliners now have more in common with the Kardashians than with their own grandparents' generation.
As William J Smyth said in 1985,
“sense of place is bound up with memory, identity, caring; with articulating the true nature of our past experiences so as to enable us, more creatively, to engage the present, and through that the future.
It is possible to share these past experiences through the songs and music of the past. We can use these memories to help us define ourselves. Only with an appreciation of what's gone before can we cast judgement on our own past and our own identity. If we can't engage with our own community, we're left alone to forge meaning and identity through other sources; like American media.
Who we are is much more complex than our family history. Likewise, where we're from is much more complex than the physical space in which we find ourselves. Like a map, a physical location is “static” and “does not capture the rounded sense of place as experienced by the insider”:
This experience involves all the senses – of seeing, feeling, of sound, or touch or taste. The map does not capture the Proustian smell of hayfields and the cowhouse, the ritual of the calendar feasts, of places saturated with pain and love, meanness and meaning. Neither does the map capture the excitement and roguery of the market, the squalor and the songs of the back streets, the variety of human life in city, town and kitchen.
It's these 'memory-moments' that make us who we are. They grant us our cultural references. I believe that culture is behaviour; we are what we do. Smyth said in 1985 that, "To know who you are as a people is vital to the balance of all our lives." We have to be careful to stave off the gradual dissolution of local memory and therefore local identity. This could easily happen if we don't remember the things that brought us to where we are. It has happened before. Indeed, it's already happened in large parts of western Ireland where songs, stories, language has been lost. Looking at Dublin in 2016, is the cult of progress is "eliminating part of our memory, part of our identity, part of our future"?
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.