Leadership, Mentoring, Art and Music…

Last week, I attended the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks launch, which is focused on “Leading Through Practice: Artist-led Leadership in Participatory Settings.”

It was an amazing day (see the liveblog at amplified11.com/ArtWorksPHF ) and certain themes emerged, particularly as they relate to support structures for artists. The themes of sustainability and cross-disciplinary learning/practice came up a few times, which inspired me to think about how they relate to pop/rock musicians.

It seems that a lot of the infrastructural role that (often centrally funded) arts organisations play in the (broadly) non-commercial arts (dance/theatre/fine art) worlds are deferred in music to record labels – at least in the perception of the artists. When I asked on Twitter about where musicians get their support/encouragement/teaching/motivation from (all things that an arts organisation structure would supply in most other art environments), and whether it was ever distinct from the commercialisation of the end product, I got some really interesting responses from Mike Scott of the Waterboys, (@mickpuck on twitter), archived over on ExquisiteTweets. Click here to read that.

The conversation brings into focus some of the role of the Auteur in popular music – it’s great to read Mike’s response, he has clearly had a self-fed drive to produce music that is ‘great’ from an early age, taking the emotional inspiration of the great rock records of his youth and channeling the desire to connect in the same way into making his own music. (this article by Richard Curtis suggests he’s succeeded) – and the degree of success that Mike has had over the last 25 years shows that in his case, that innate drive was more than enough to produce great work.

But popular musicians in general have no culture – or indeed language – for ‘incubator’ spaces. Supported, mentored environments in which to make their art and think about what it means in the context of their own lives and their culture. We rarely consider what it would mean to do that, to do anything other than respond to that which we are most instinctively, viscerally drawn to in the music of our youth… Our incubator is the bedroom, the band practice room, and those who manage to introduce genuine innovation into their own practice are those who can self-motivate, whose innate artistic vision is already iconoclastic enough to push them to those ends.

What about the rest? What about the potential for such experimentation, for exploring what being human means through our music, that gets ignored because it’s never presented as a possible path, because the environment to do it in doesn’t exist? Because the words to describe it aren’t part of our music-learning experience. We’re either playing our instrument as a reaction to an unsatisfactory classical education, or via a handful of guitar/bass/drum lessons with a teacher that shows us how to play rock classics which most often stays in the realm of playing other people’s music, without much interpretation or recontexualisation, and certainly with little focus on creating something new and meaningful…

And of course, the converse is also, to some extent, true – there are entire fields of artistic endeavour where the creative iconoclast is seen as a maverick, a ‘threat’ to whatever establishment may exist. Rather than being resourced to share their experiences in self-motivation, in self-exploration, they are gently sidelined, often subservient to an easier-to-accredit educational path. Instead of becoming leaders, they are the exception that proves the institutional rule.

In his talk at the ArtWorks Launch, Sean Gregory, the director of creative learning at the Barbican and Guildhall School, highlighted a couple of things that feed into this. The need for cross-disciplinary work – both artistic practice and a project to find a shared language for what we do as artists, and it’s importance to our humanity, and our culture. The other was the importance of funding projects like ArtWorks. He highlighted the rarity of these opportunities particularly as they relate to cross-disciplinary work.

Fortunately, ArtWorks is – as we’ve seen from so many of the arts sector projects that Amplified has been involved with over the last couple of years – an expression of a shift in the perception of many arts organisations and funding bodies, towards a greater realisation that the combination of reduced government support for the arts and a vastly accelerated pace of change in art and technology points to an ever stronger need for spaces where artists can develop and explore their own practice, to learn from each other and to make sense of the world that we’re in. It’s not for nothing that the French government pledged an extra €100M of funding for the arts in response to the economic downturn, Sarkozy vowing to “make culture our response to the global economic crisis”.

I’m eager to see what kind of thinking and practice the ArtWorks project brings into being, but also anxious to see popular music pedagogy ‘grow up’ and start to absorb something of the spirit of open-ended research from projects like this, and see where that takes us…

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