Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Identity and aesthetics = chicken and egg?

The Sustained Theatre project, which has launched a website and a number of provocative documents, is a rich example of what can happen when a funder – in this case Arts Council England – opens up projects to leadership by artists. The Whose Theatre report into black theatre led to Sustained Theatre which led to a number of papers, including the one by Professor Gus John and Doctor Samina Zahir, Speaking Truth to Power, which aims to shake up the national debate on ethnicity, identity and the arts.

The paper, which is the first epistolary strategic report I’ve ever seen, demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, how bloody hard our job is, at times. How do we change the way the arts reflect society, and ensure proper openness for people who are not white and middle class, without putting people in boxes, limiting identity and aesthetics and encouraging those in power to simply tick boxes? I’ve never been keen on the term ‘the sector’ which the artist steering group wished to use for the black theatre sector – to avoid the ethnic determinant – and it is clear that neither are many artists, some of whom prefer the term ‘black theatre movement’.

John and Zahir don’t agree with each other on this, or indeed, on much at all – or so it sometimes seems. Their debates are reflective of genuine difficulties, and the paper opens up a debate about aesthetics and identity I find really interesting. I think my aesthetics have played a large part in shaping - changing - my own identity, for instance, in that it was books and literature, not 'background', that led me into education and then employment in the arts. I rarely see my own background reflected well on stage or in galleries, and will swing for the next person who equates the white working class with Shameless-style fecklessness. (Okay, I won’t literally swing for them, as I’m now part of the middle class diaspora of my original ‘ethnic’ group, but they’ll feel the full force of a well-made point, don’t you worry. Then I'll go home to watch A Kind of Loving.)

I also put a tick against this quote: ‘We really must stop fashioning the world on the basis of the peculiarities of London.’ But that’s a whole other post…

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