The True Role of The Artist and Poet as Curator in Society Today

May 2012

Here I attempt to explain why I believe that the true role of the artist and the poet in society is that potentially they are curators of the community and that we need them in order to educate society into understanding that we are all co-curators of planet earth, (our only home in this solar system) and each other, and how this can play an important role towards social unity and cognitive behaviour in the community.

I shall do this by examining and by making reference to a series of nine events called ‘Catalyst’ staged between 1991 and inclusive of 2006 that occurred in London, Sydney and Brisbane. These were mixed media and multi-media events designed to bring members of the community together through a collective creative collaboration.

Catalyst III – 1992 – Press Release

The purpose of these events was to unite people through the umbrella of ‘The Arts’, utilising all the different genres as a vehicle to ‘Plant seeds of consciousness’. Seeds of consciousness might be described as ‘Food for thought.’ The purpose of this approach was to inspire growth and encourage expansion through varied forms of creative self-expression in order to facilitate a communal gathering and sharing.

This was achieved through a cross-pollination of creative mediums, such as music and poetry, film and photography, fashion and choreography, fine art and design, technology and media, or indeed as many artistic genres as possible all under the same roof, at the same time. The cross-pollination of so many artistic genres allowed for a gentle invigoration of the imagination in an unobtrusive way by creating a fertile environment in which to incubate seeds of positivity and foster inspiration.

Catalyst III – 1992

One of the ways this might be achieved would be to stage a themed event. A previous popular theme, coined for several Catalyst events, was entitled ‘The Recycled Experience’. This theme was designed to assist with the raising of environmental awareness through the use of recycled materials further endorsed by holding the event on ‘World Environment Day’. ‘The Recycled Experience’ theme specified that all work to be showcased had to either have been made from, or include, recycled materials.

Catalyst III – 1992 –  Green Left Weekly Interview

This proved to be very successful as even though it set parameters for what the artist or exhibitor could use, the individual still had infinite freedom to exercise ones imagination. Another reason for the success of events utilising recycled materials was largely due to the ardent support for the conservation of the environment, particularly in Australia.

Catalyst III – 1992

However, in-built up urban areas such as Hoxton and Whitechapel in East London an equally popular yet more appropriate theme was ‘Unity in the Community’ which addressed issues of social distancing and alienation experienced through urbanisation and development construction.

Here the emphasis was to create an all-inclusive environment based on cooperation as opposed to competition. Each participant was required to choose a poem from a selection of twelve, which they were then required to reinterpret and express in their own medium and style. This model facilitated an authentic uniqueness by bringing creative individuals together in a supportive environment where they could share ideas, express themselves and feel appreciated.

Catalyst IX – 2006

A selection of poems expressing a variety of sentiments formed a structure that encouraged the fundamental notion of ‘Union’ through the sharing of personal truths. Choosing a particular poem or written-piece that resonated with ones own personal thought processes acted as a starting point for engaging with ones own emotive creativity. This encouraged individual methods of interpretation and/or embellishment suitable for audience appreciation.

Catalyst VIII – 2005

This empathic approach also acted as a form of bonding among the participants in the show whilst also bringing different circles of people together throughout the course of the evening. The collective were united through their artistic ability and also through a philosophical consensus of opinion.

In this way by practicing the art of non-attachment with the ‘letting go’ of ones work, in this case a series of written works and poems, the works were able undergo many different levels and stages of development, taking on a previously unforeseen enrichment through community interaction.

Musicians and bands were asked to open their sets with an interpretation of their choice of poem (or in some cases poems), after which they had free reign to perform their own material thus catering for the collective shared experience of friends, family, fans and other musicians, etc., whilst also complying with the unifying theme of the evening.

However, the collective shared experience regarding the human condition is often defined by peoples’ subjective and sometimes ill-informed beliefs about what constitutes ‘Us’? For who does this concept of ‘Us’ include and exclude? Does it include black people, Chinese people, indigenous people and third-world people? Or is it just westernised people? Once a sense of us as a collective is identified as a human race, then one can extend empathy forwards into the future and collectively implement plans of longevity for a more sustainable and more inclusive future, for as Herbert Spencer, (a Victorian English philosopher, sociological theorist and prominent classical liberal political theorist) once said: “No one person can be free until we all are”.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

By offering empathy through poetry, music, lyrics, theatre and visual art, one can offer up a broader understanding of all different states of humanness, not just ones that are socially acceptable but including less socially accepted states of humanness such as depression, mental illness and trauma which carry a certain amount of social stigma.

A London-based charity called CoolTan Arts is run by and for adults with mental distress. They believe that ‘mental well-being is enhanced by the power of creativity‘ and they aim to ‘promote positive mental health/well-being, bringing about a change in how participants perceive themselves, enabling people to gain greater focus and to re-establish their relationship with society‘.

The sharing of less widely accepted states of mental health offers a greater insight into and an understanding of these states which can then be extended as an aid to restore well-being and promote healing. Especially as people often suffer in silence believing that they have somehow been singled out by their experiences which make them different, or that these dark secrets would alienate them from society if people found out due to the perceived stigma, even though depression is now the nation’s number one modern-day psychosis described as ‘impaired contact with reality’.

Free and Quiet Minds was an exhibition of artwork in Oct 2011 from the mental health unit at Stepping Hill Hospital, run by Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust created through a partnership between the Occupational Therapy (OT) Service at the hospital and Arc (Arts for Recovery in the Community), and funded by the Lankelly Chase Charitable Trust. It featured a selection of paintings, collages, 3-D artwork and photographs produced by patients over the past five years. Alongside the artwork were also testimonies from patients, staff and artists who have experienced at first hand the impact that creativity can have in crisis and the transformative effect it can have on a recovery journey.

Christine Buckley, OT Service Manager from the mental health unit at Stepping Hill Hospital, which is run by Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust sees clearly that the arts have played a vital role as part of the patient’s journey. “It has been a means for them of keeping in touch with their identity prior to illness or hospitalisation, discovering new facets of their identity, exploration of self-expression, self-management of distressing thoughts or symptoms, distraction within an unsettled or unfamiliar environment – a means of escape.”

In the Ibid Lecture XXII on ‘The Paths to the Formation of Symptoms’, published in 1916 Sigmund Freud points to a connective tissue linking madness and something approaching creative insight. Freud suggests that mentally ill people, like artists, see and come to know things about themselves and the world that other people do not. Artists and the insane share a psychic pathway leading from fantasy to reality and although ‘neurosis is always close at hand’, their mechanisms of repression are less insistent. Artists differ in their ability to give external and independent form to their fantasy. They ‘understand how to work over their day-dreams, they lose what is too personal, making it possible for others to share in the enjoyment of them’. The artist ‘possesses the mysterious power of shaping some particular material until it has become a faithful image of his fantasy… repression is outweighed and lifted by it.’

Sigmund Freud (1856 -1939)

I think it helpful in this quote to replace Sigmund Freud’s choice of the word ‘fantasy’ with the word ‘Vision’, as this word suggests that it is possible to bring through a form of considered intelligence that comes from an assured sense of self-acceptance. Which for artists, writers and composers, who often spend the majority of their time solitary and alone in their studios, dark-rooms, or at desks and computers, is a most important quality, as the process of creativity often demands a certain amount of self-discipline, self-belief, dedication and sense of purpose up front, in order to be able to spend so much time isolated and alone, with only ones craft and ones ideas for companionship.

Once completed however, these creative ideas may be collectively appreciated through the process of an exhibition, album launch, book launch, poetry reading, fashion show or other group event, even though the initial process of an idea’s inception is largely a solitary process.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh – At Eternity’s Gate (1890)

Many now famous artists such as the painter Van Gogh and the poet John Keats died alone and in poverty believing that they were a failure. However, the works they produced in their life time have taken on a unique connective longevity through the continued appreciation of their works long after the artist/poet’s life has expired. A kind network of kindred spirits is possible, inspired by a mutual appreciation of an artist, writer, particular works or an event, that can extend into the social fabric of a community long after his or her death.

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

For example: John Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s famous 1969 Amsterdam bed-in was a well publicised non-violent protest in support of peace. John Lennon had openly been wrestling with his childhood demons throughout his song writing career self evident in his song lyrics such as ‘Mother‘ and ‘Julia‘ sparked from never truly knowing his mother or father. Perhaps writing about and expressing his emotional vulnerability with such an open honesty helped him to find some personal resolution and inner peace. Had he come from a normal parental background perhaps his creative genius would not have been quite so profound or connective with his following.

 John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Amsterdam, 1969

However it is through this act of sharing such deep and meaningful personal truths the artist now becomes ‘curator’ of the ‘shared experience’.

The word ‘Curator’ means: ‘One who cares’, from the Latin cūrāre to care for, from cūra care. And it is through this sharing of ones personal cares, which may also extend a cathartic healing experience to ones appreciative audience. ‘Catharsis’ is described as ‘the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music’. So in this instance the curator now becomes the ‘facilitator’ of the shared experience. The Random House Dictionary description of ‘Facilitator’ is: ‘a person responsible for leading or coordinating the work of a group’.

The shared experience is therefore extended to the network of social groups taking part in the event and therefore to their respective collective audiences. The potential here is for the artist and poet as curator to facilitate well-being and the alleviation of tension in urban environments providing relief from the stress of modern living.

Modernisation is generally associated with progress. Progress may be determined by technological advancement, business development and construction, resulting in fast change, particularly in cities where no building is held sacred no matter how long it has endured the test of time before being spied as a lucrative business opportunity.

The by-product of constant urban gentrification, regeneration and change means that members of the community are denied the opportunity to build a relationship with the places where they were born, grew up, work or live, particularly when familiar old landmarks can disappear over night and are replaced with impersonal concrete, steel and glass structures which are quick and cost-effective to erect.

In the accompanying publication with the exhibition ‘Inner Worlds Outside’ at the Whitechapel Galleryin 2006 it sites Karl Marxon the subject of ‘modernity’ that in modern societies alienation extends to every type of relationship – between ‘man and man, man and object, man and society, man and myth, man and language… the fact that we live, work, produce and form relationships, means that we exist in alienation.’

‘Inner Worlds Outside’, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 26 April – 2 July 2006

This has become all part and parcel of urbanisation and the technological generation we now live in and as a consequence of accelerated change, alongside with the explosion of global media we are constantly being bombarded with information. Much of this information can serve as a distraction away from knowing and understanding ones true self, perhaps buying into the seductive life style illusions of advertising and the media.

The filtering process for what is useful information and what is disinformation can become garbled through so many distractions, changes and choices that are presented on a daily basis which can lead to indecision and missed opportunities. Perhaps what people are now suffering from in our technological era is the fall out from information over load which may prevent one from being able to hear the inner workings of ones heart and therefore from following ones dreams contributing to a depressive empty-handed state of regret.

In history there have been some great artists who have expressed their dreams and visions for the future potential of humanity through their art, for example Leonardo da Vinci who was also a polymath, expressing aspirations for a world where people would work together as holistic communities and unified teams, problem solving through the progress of technology and also through the evolution of humanity’s triumph over ones lower emotions. For without emotional maturity and intelligence there is not much room for the possibility of ‘enlightened living’, as has been the downfall of all extinct human civilisations before ours including The Mayans, The Aztecs, The Sumerians, The Babylonians, The Phoenicians, The Toltec, The Maurya, The Minoans, The Ancient Egyptians, The Greeks, The Romans and others.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Carl Jung who was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology perfectly describes how to achieve emotional maturity and intelligence when he says; “The best political, social and spiritual work we can do, is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

Where artists are able to inform, motivate and inspire the public through collaborative projects such as exhibitions and live performances they become catalysts for social change. One of the definitions of a catalyst is: ‘an agent of change and transformation’. A catalyst may achieve change and transformation within the community by serving to encourage individuals to process strong feelings constructively and responsibly in spite of personal damage or social pressure thus inspiring well-being and good conduct.

Luciano de Crescenzo says; “We are each of us angels, with only one wing. And we can only fly by embracing each other“, suggesting that in embracing our own limitations and damage, that we are able to embrace those of other people’s and is in fact what is required of us if we are going to achieve greater social unity.

The Mayan saying; “The good artist is wise. God is in his heart. He puts divinity into things”, postulates that the artist is somehow communing with God, and that if God has bestowed one with such heavenly gifts, then it is ones duty to utilise these gifts for the benefit of community. Vladimir Lenin suggests that; “Writers are the engineers of the soul” implying that writers have the ability to communicate deep and meaningful truths from a special, seldom accessed place within.

The possession of inspiration, vision and talent are commonly considered to be gifts from God. The idea of the artist, writer or composer channeling ideas or divine inspiration is not new. In the book ‘The Gift – How the Creative Spirit transforms the world’ by Lewis Hyde, he says; “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it: we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us. Thus we rightly speak of ‘talent’ as a ‘gift’, for although a talent can be perfected through an effort of the will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance. Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift. We also rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phase comes to mind, a colour falls into place on the canvasThe spirit of an artist’s gift can wake our own.

D H Lawrence further endorses this theory when he says; “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me”, suggesting that he is a conduit for something greater to pass through him. Inspiration has often been referred to as ‘divine inspiration’.

Sogyal Rinpoche who wrote the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying in 1992 says: “Each individual act and manifestation of creativity, whether it is in music, art, or poetry, or indeed in the moments and unfoldings of scientific discovery, as many scientists have described, arises from a mysterious ground of inspiration and is mediated into form by a translating and communicating energy

In Tibetan Buddhism the Nirmanakaya is envisioned as the manifestation of enlightenment, in an infinite variety of forms and ways, in the physical world. It is traditionally defined in three ways. One is the manifestation of a completely realized Buddha, such as Gautama Siddhartha, who is born into the world and teaches in it; another is a seemingly ordinary being who is blessed with a special capacity to benefit others: a tulku; and the third is actually a being through whom some degree of enlightenment works to benefit and inspire others through various arts, crafts, and sciences. In their case this enlightened impulse is, as Kalu Rinpoche says, ‘a spontaneous expression, just as light radiates spontaneously from the sun without the sun issuing directives or giving any conscious thought to the matter. The sun is, and it radiates.’ So couldn’t one explanation of the power and nature of artistic genius be that it derives its ultimate inspiration from the dimension of Truth? … A great work of art is like a moon shining in the night sky, it illuminates the world, yet its light is not its own but borrowed from the hidden sun of the absolute.”

Rinpoche postulates that “Art has helped many toward glimpsing the nature of spirituality” and that the loss of this knowledge of art’s “unseen sacred origin“, whose “sacred purpose is to give people a vision of their true nature and their place in the universe” and also “to restore to them endlessly afresh, to the value and meaning of life and its infinite possibilities“, could be 
one of the reasons for the limitations of modern-day word-bound conceptual art, exhausted by its verbal description.

Rinpoche suggests that “The real meaning of inspired artistic expression, then, is akin to the field of the Sambhogakaya(the subtle body of limitless form), “that dimension of ceaseless, luminous, blissful energy, which Rilke calls ‘the winged energy of delight,’ that radiance which transmits, translates, and communicates the purity and infinite meaning of the absolute to the finite and the relative”, in other words “from the Dharmakaya(the truth body or reality body, one of the three bodies of the Trikaya) “to the Nirmanakaya(the dimension of ceaseless manifestation or form body).

Sogyal Rinpoche (born 1947)

In the film ‘Sylvia’ about the life of the poet Sylvia Plath who was married to fellow poet Ted Hughes (starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, directed by Christine Jeffs), Ted says to Sylvia in a conversation about poetry; “It’s magic. It’s not about magic, it’s not like magic, it IS magic, and it’s REAL magic, not conjuring tricks or pulling rabbits out of bloody hats. Incantations, spells, ceremonies, rituals, what are they? They are ‘poems’. So what’s a poet? Is a shaman, that’s what he is.” (“Or she.” adds Sylvia)

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)

A shaman is described by as: ‘a person who acts as intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds‘. This would suggest that Artists and Poets are blessed with power of insight which when utilised positively may act as influential instruments for change, transformation and social well-being.

Carl Jung also believed that “The unconscious is the basis for imagination.” He saw the unconscious as a creative inner sanctum where one is able to visualise plans and birth ideas, but also a place from where one can communicate universal truths. The power of the imagination is also well-known as a tool for creative visualisation to manifest ones true desires.

So by communicating deep and meaningful truths and varying states of humanness in simple and uncomplicated ways one can create empathy through the sharing of personal experience and powerful emotions through the use of the creative imagination. This insight promotes empathy which in turn promotes a sense of unitedness.

Individuals who have a sense of vocation, determination, an iron inner-will, an inner-voice,  who are passionately motivated, driven from a deep place within the psyche to communicate something meaningful, who feel a necessity to express the truth as they see it, who sacrifice career opportunities and relationships because they feel a calling that simply cannot be ignored, these are the true Artists of the community. For these people it is perhaps their true purpose in life and their unique contribution to the community at large, or indeed the world.

Endymion by John Keats (1818)

Krishnamurti believes that: ‘Truth is a pathless land. Man has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection’. Essentially what Krishnamurti is saying here is that there is no short cut to experience. One cannot merely intellectualise ones physical existence in order to truly understand, one must fully immerse oneself in the world of physical manifest and the path of experience, in order to collect the prize of hindsight, which can only be attained upon completion of a cycle.

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986)

In 500BC Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher known as the weeping philosopher and a pioneer of wisdom, was known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe, in which he speaks of the holos, a model universal mind which is dynamic, plural and complete unto itself, which enables ‘all men to know themselves and to think well’. Holos is Greek for whole, complete, ‘Where all parts are present and working as a whole – ie: as the total, which is greater than the sum of its parts’. So to speak ones truth is to make one whole, through the act of personal integrity whereby the cycle of upholding and fulfilling ones inner truth into ones outer reality makes one complete, achieving inner and outer unity.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

My point is that social events have the potential to develop, improve and enhance the quality of social cognitive behaviour and inter-relatedness through the power of ceremony, the ceremony of music, dance, theater, performance, visual arts and media. ‘Unity within the community’ can be achieved by bringing people together through a common interest, ideology, philosophy, belief system or umbrella, such as ‘The Arts’. This social dialogue can serve to promote healthy functional growth and awareness, which in turn can serve to uplift and inspire ones spirits through thought-provoking and engaging material. This in itself can unite an audience. A spontaneous round of applause is a sign that the audience is in unison, as is a standing ovation, as is a moment’s silent reflection before applause.

The umbrella of The Arts can serve as a vehicle to express and discuss ideas within the context of social, political and global situations via open mics, photographic exhibitions, stage plays, poetry performance etc. providing a sense of connectivity through shared truths. This shared experience may cover a wide range of different situations and emotions including the interjection of ‘humour’, laughter being a uniting bond between strangers and a healer of all ails.

So armed with insight, inspiration and laughter, the artists and poets of the world are well equipped to save us from ourselves. ‘Poetry is the sacred incarnation of a smile and a sigh which dries tears. It is a spirit, which settles in the soul, whose heart is nourishment and whose wine is affection‘; Khalil Gibran.

Kahlil-Gibran (1883 – 1931)

Poetry is a rainbow in the clouds‘; Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou (b. April 4, 1928)

Sigmund Freud says: “We have left it to the poets to depict for us the conditions of love” which brings me onto the subject of love as the basis for social unity. In the 1940 publication of ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ it describes the difference between personal love and unconditional love: ‘Ordinary love is selfish, darkly rooted in desires and satisfactions, divine Love is without condition, without boundary, without change’, suggesting that real love is enduring. The anonymous book entitled ‘A Course in Miracles’, a role model book which kick-started many a new age writer on their path of writing, further endorses the concept of love as an omnipresent energy where it says: “The opposite of fear is LOVE but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.”

My argument is that all these ‘conditions of love’ are experienced as a sense of unity, connectedness and oneness (as opposed to a sense of separation) between individuals that enables people to ‘respond’ to each other, rather than to adversely react, and it is these social skills that I am interested in reintegrating back into society through events and cultural social gatherings. The purpose of which is to encourage people to re-engage in constructive interpersonal acts of non-judgmental, non-prejudiced day-to-day relatedness and to re-cultivate the art of one-to-one conversation by creating an interest in others, thus taking the focus away from the personal and the self-absorbed preoccupation with the ‘I’, the ‘I Am’, or the ‘Id‘, that can occur from spending so much of ones time in front of a computer terminal, laptop or smart phone where dialogue via email, instant message and text is entirely constructed inside the head without ever reading facial expressions or hearing vocal intonation and is therefore open to gross misinterpretation.

I believe that by encouraging an emotionally intelligent inter-relatedness, based upon a form of non-attached loving kindness, that it is possible for humanity to reach the next level of emotional evolution.

For what this new millennium needs to see is the emergence of a deeper level of responsibility towards Earthly affairs and towards each other, beyond the man-made arena of greed-centered commerce, so that the world’s nations understand that we are all co-curators of Planet Earth, and that we all have a valuable role to play in this joint-responsibility, to take greater care of our only home in this solar system, to cultivate eco-centered sustainable business with a deeper level of intuition and sensitivity which in turn develops into a greater sense of fairness in all human affairs, whether worldly, family or personal, and therefore resulting in a greater sense of Reverence for all things natural.

For to evolve through LOVE, is the greatest spiritual teaching on Earth, from personal, through transpersonal, to unconditional and Universal, a conscious choice everyday, there really is only one way forwards, everything else is resistance.

The inscription inscribed at the entrance to the Ancient Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi was ‘Know Thyself‘ which is the first step towards co-creating a shared reality of peace. For one cannot extend love to another until one has learned how to extend love to oneself first, for without this revelation people will continue to project their lack of self-love and take each others pain personally.

Yet it is the artists, poets and philosophers of the world who contribute to the day to day convivial atmosphere of our society. They are in fact the glue of the community which upholds the fabric of our social network by providing us with intrigue, controversy, personality, eccentricity, intellectual interest, entertainment and a welcome distraction from the pressures of everyday life. In essence they help to unlock the inner-artist, the inner poet and the latent inner philosopher that potentially resides within all of us, which in turn can help us to better understand our relationship with ourselves, with the world at large and ones place in it. Therefore conviviality is conducive to an air of social well-being with a beneficial effect upon societal inter-connectivity and the collective cognitive psyche. This is a much needed and a much under-estimated role within the community that is in fact necessary and required in order to maintain a sense of communal peace, empathy and relatedness through the sharing of personal truths, ideas, thought processes and ones understanding of the human experience, the creative process of which serves as an agent for beneficent social change and the preservation of unity.

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