Here is an extract of an essay written by Raymond Williams. The title of the essay is ‘Art: Freedom as Duty’. And the rather wonderful book in which this essay appears is called ‘Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism’.
I think that the need for freedom in the arts is, above all, a social need. I think that the very process of writing is so crucial to the full development of our social life that we do, in an important sense, need every voice. The extreme complexity of any historical and social process being lived out in a particular place at a particular time, the extreme complexity of the interaction of individual lives with all those general conditions, means that you can never at any time say that you have enough voices or that you have representative voices, or that anybody can say in advance what are the important things either to be said or to be written about. This need for many voices is a condition of the cultural health of any complex society, and so the creation of conditions for the freedom of the artist is in that sense the duty of society, not for the sake of any individual artist and not in terms of some abstract argument about rights, but simply because society needs all the articulated experience and all the specific creation it can get.
That is why, among other reasons, I refuse to join in a way of talking about cultural production in our kind of society which I find very widespread and particularly, perhaps, in university, professional, literary, and cultural circles. I mean that way of talking in which it can be said that down every back street somebody is writing a novel, in every kitchen or on every suburban Sunday somebody is painting a picture, a sense really that the world is being overrun by writers and painters and artists of every kind, with a strong tone of condescension towards these pullulating amateurs which easily communicates itself as a professional tone. Now I’ve seen a good deal of this work myself as an adult education tutor, and what I am not intending to say is that all of it is work which can immediately command respect or interest from others, but I am stating that this very widespread kind of production does correspond much more nearly to the way in which I think the processes of writing and the desire to create have to be seen. It is because of this correspondence that I want always to talk of this multifarious production at least neutrally, because after all it isn’t possible to say in advance down which of those back streets a novel of great interest to others will be written. There is no guarantee — indeed, the case is often quite opposite — that the significant work is going to come from the recognized centres or in the recognized modes or under various otherwise authenticated or fashionable auspices. I believe that it is even necessary perhaps for many people to try and to fail if some are to succeed — the hypothesis which someone once put that to get one painter you need a thousand people painting and that there is no real way of knowing in advance, or even knowing for certain very early, which one that is going to be.
Taken From ‘Art: Freedom as Duty’. An Essay by Raymond Williams Verso London. 1989.
I found this essay to be genuinely hope inspiring and affirming for me as an artist and a thorough believer in what I am calling ‘home made creativity’. Larry Lessig (watch the TED talk) talks about amateur culture production, which is essentially the same concept, and David Gauntlett in ‘Making is Connecting’ believes increased social capital and general happiness comes from people making things and in so doing engaging directly with the world they inhabit – actually filling their world with meaning.
I wonder when, in the spirit of professionalism, standard became concrete or fixed? Who decided that there was a definition for quality? This strikes me as relevant not only to my general interest in culture, art and multimedia but also my studies into the mainstream of education. When was a canon of creative art works closed? No wonder we struggle to help young people grow and develop in creativity when we have defined a standard; when we have defined value in terms of cultural production. When all creative works are assessed and some considered to be ‘poor’ or worse ‘incorrect’. When we have collated and closed cannons of literature that do not include graphic novels or screenplays. In the extract above, Williams talks particularly about the academic university world which enjoys some kind of power by deciding what is of artistic value and what is not, but in popular culture the same elitism occurs – the ‘muso’ attitude, the NME magazine critique that attempts to take some sort of jurisdiction over what is of artistic standard and what is is not. Or the attitude evident in some of the popular press which talks of the ‘dumming down’ of culture and in so doing turns its nose up at vocational models of learning.
I hope that, like it did for me, the extract from William’s essay renews your hope in a collaborative pluralism of creative expression. A huge affirmation that the novices and amateurs brave enough to pen their poems and compose their songs and paint their pictures are directly contributing through the risk of artistic expression to a state of creative social health. For me, it is the reason I love an open mic night or an acoustic open performance – just bring your guitar and your words… Such artists are not trying to sell their wares, most are not buying into the latest critically approved standard, fame is not usually the final intended outcome but instead the goal is to risk being heard, to share a wisdom, to collaborate in the great sport of imagination. Such shared amateur culture is a necessary component of a dynamic and hopeful state of life and in this context, wisdom is found in a crowd (or at least a group). And while some artists may be more experienced, prepared, skilled or accomplished than others, all the patches woven together make a fuller quilt.