In preparation for “Made in Lewisham” the programme that is developing out of Intangible Lewisham, I’ve been thinking about definitions of creativity and concepts of arts and cultural heritage in relation to city dwellers and to residents of Lewisham in particular.
In the name of research, I’ve also read lots of reports about how good arts and culture are for us, how accessing and experiencing them creatively improves lives and creates bright futures. Unsurprisingly, many of these reports are written by organisations such as the Arts Council , and yes it is all true, but I can’t help but feel that all of them are missing the point.
To fully appreciate today’s ideals of what it is to be creative you have to start right at the beginning, and embrace the idea that what marks human beings out from other species, is not just what Jung described as our “universal unconsciousness”, but rather our desire to understand why we have one, our “universal consciousness” if you like. There is something implicit in us, an inherent restlessness that refuses to let us just “be” but insists that we define ourselves as “being” – an overwhelming desire to make the intangible, tangible. Arguably, it is this very quest for understanding that takes us ever further away from the bliss of universal unconsciousness leaving behind a gap that knowledge cannot fill, and here perhaps lies the source of our creativity.
All very nice, but how does this relate to Lewisham and our current attitudes to arts and culture I hear you ask.
Well, looking at Lewisham from an historical perspective, large chunks of the borough’s housing stock stand as a testament to the industrial success of the Georgians and then the Victorians, who built enthusiastically and without concern or reference to the area’s previous agricultural past. Twentieth century town planners thought this such a good approach that they continued where the Victorian’s had left off, building large new estates over farmland in places like Downham and Grove Park.
Cultural roots run deep however, and Lewisham’s largely forgotten rural heritage, obliterated in the name of progress and railways, still manifests itself in a scattering of pictures, stories and place names, and in the bite of a deliciously sweet/sour apple picked from the descendent of an ancient fruit tree.
If like me you acknowledge creativity as an important part of everyday life, it would be easy to romanticise a preindustrial existence, where it was taken for granted that arts and culture would be expressed and experienced by all and celebrated informally through the intangible rituals of religion and folklore. That said, I can’t help but wonder at the liberation of a time where natural artistic skill may still have been praised and celebrated, but “creativity” as a measure of external achievement wasn’t the primary objective and this meant you were free to create without inhibition.
Of course the adoption of industry as king changed our view of creativity forever. The expansion of the city, bringing people together not just from different rural communities but from different cultural communities, forced us to find common ground and a new type of collective consciousness. As a rule the creative and cultural richness of our rural past was ditched in the everyday, in favour of a convivial homogenisation or commonality imposed by the dominant culture and class, that allowed us all to get along with each other. I would say that was a fundamental tipping point affecting how and why we engage with arts and culture and measure our own creativity today.
Inevitably, like everything else, creativity became industrialised, and because an urban existence meant that individual creativity became inhibited by time and social constraints, there was a need to fill the creative gap. This led to the professionalization of the creative process and the gradual dominance of artistic and cultural creation for the masses not by the masses.
With the commercialisation of creativity and the promotion of artistic or cultural experience as audience rather than participant, comes the separation of the individual from his/her purpose in a collective meaning. John Steinbeck in his novel East of Eden voices his fears for this as status quo:
“When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger”.
It would of course be wrong to suggest that modern day engagement with mainstream arts and culture is worthless or indeed dangerous. In a post-industrial world, they remain as essential as they were in an industrial one, but a perhaps unwanted hang-over is the sense that we are for the most part passive recipients of creativity, and a much used argument of the non-engaged is that it is “not for them” but rather the domain of a professional, wealthy and celebrated favoured few.
In reality it is much more complicated than that. Despite everything I believe we still retain an instinct that creativity should be a collective human experience engaged in by everyone. People from all walks of life still immerse themselves in arts and cultural experience. Projects and programmes that encourage participation in arts and culture have a proven track record and it is no coincidence that in times of trouble or anxiety people turn to arts and culture both for comfort and as a way to express complex emotions.
The problem is that we have got used to seeking out creative opportunities and getting solace from arts and cultural experience delivered to us from outside sources. We’ve forgotten that we are all wired to be creative, that it is an undeniable and intangible human condition, as natural as breathing. For the most part in our busy lives we suppress our conscious creativity, we measure it against professional artists and only allow ourselves to be consciously creative when given permission on a special occasion or in a professional setting.
By not remembering the importance of personal creativity in our daily lives from cradle to grave, we deny ourselves access to a powerful tool for healing, discovery and wellbeing. By seeing arts and culture as separate from our everyday experience, we deny our creative heritage and our humanity. And, on a practical level, until reports on the benefits of arts and culture see creativity as a basic human right and not a privilege, arts and cultural engagement for all will remain unachievable and unsustainable. For as the famous novelist, lecturer, philosopher and poet John Cowper Powys said The Meaning of Culture: “In the lovely-ghastly world … we are all of us half-creating and half-discovering.”
Katherine Perry @storyperry