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Abigail's blog: The Roaring Twenties

Posted on 22 January 2020

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A wise man said to me last week that he thought that 2020 had not yet revealed itself. I agree. But fair enough –  it’s early doors.   Last week at the Glasshouse International Centre for Music we had a series of events called The Roaring Twenties. It was a look back at what was happening musically a century ago – that time when musical forms were blasting out of their long-standing moulds and recording stepped up alongside live music to put us on a trajectory to where we are now – when pretty much every single person on the planet hears music every single day.

In the 1920s, music roared like a lion. But it was not alone – an incredible creative explosion defines our recollection of the decade. At the same time the world was going through rapid economic, social and political change – the plates were shifting. The arts and artists were fuelled by and responded to this with bold, ambitious and often unsettling work. It was as if the arts and culture were crucial to making sense of and reflecting the rollercoaster pace of change. Will the arts and culture do the same in the 2020s?

I really hope so.

But back to 2020 itself.   The year may not have revealed itself yet. However, one thing has dominated and I think that there’s a fair chance that when we look back in December, it will still dominate. A continent is on fire. A landscape will never be the same again.  Closer to home, at a conference on climate change organised by the North East Culture Partnership,  I heard the MP for Sunderland Julie Elliott say last week that she used to get one official flood warning briefing a year for her constituency. Now she gets around 12. The Tyne and Wear landscape changes too – less dramatically for now, but even so.

On the face of it, it’s hard to see where the arts and culture fit into the fact that this decade will surely be defined by how well, globally, we respond to climate change. But arguably the pace of change required to take this on might mirror the pace of change in the 1920s and I wonder what this might fuel creatively.

Another wise man, from the continent which is on fire, wrote this last week. It’s a dense article, for a conference which focuses on the role of the arts and culture.  I think it gets to the heart of something.

On the surface it asks what the arts and culture can do when a landscape is on fire. Pretty much nothing, in policy or practical terms, is the honest answer. But they can be a vital part of the picture. If we are going to galvanise ourselves across the whole world to tackle climate change in the coming 8 years (the number of years it is widely accepted we have left to make change)  we will need to have empathy for others and their position. To understand that we should not just think from our own perspective. The arts and culture, argues Yaron, are one of our best bets for achieving this.

I am constantly asked ‘in real life’ to define the value of the arts and culture. At their best, the arts and culture help us develop empathy with ourselves and with others, they help us imagine beyond borders, help us tell stories to make sense of the world.  But the arts are not policy and it can be hard to quantify their value. In many ways they evade ‘real life’.  But they are true life. They are about people and how people feel, how people think, how people tell stories and how they change.  And they enable us to make change.  They may not, as we move through the 2020s, get top billing. But they might be one of the critical factors in whether we really step up to the plate on the climate or not.

To quote Yaron: The life of an artist is one lived with intensity and belief. It is difficult, fraught with insecurities and challenges. Not the least among these is the constant need to cross borders that do not yet exist with passports that have yet to be written.  This is vital, now as never before.

That might sound dramatic, but I’m not sure. In retrospect, the arts and culture always define their age. And in the coming decade we have such a dramatic matter to contend with that we will certainly need to cross borders. If the arts and artists help us make sense of this, think beyond ourselves  and in the process leave a legacy of bold, ambitious culture, let’s bring that on! So, just to ramp up the drama, I am pretty certain that whether we really engage with climate change will define the 2020s. Will the arts and culture play their part in this?

I really think so.

North East Culture Partnership is a unique network in the UK bringing together the arts and culture sector across the North East of England to discuss and work on big opportunities and challenges. In 2015 it published The Case for Culture setting out a blueprint for a region’s health, development and reputation to be built on culture.

Circa Contemporary Circus is one of the world’s leading performance companies, based in Brisbane and performing across the world.