On Chester Performs, the role of art – and being Cestrian born and bred

Last week, I attended a Chester Rotary meeting at the Blossoms Hotel in Chester. I documented my thoughts on the event in question over at the mylocal.wiki blogsite, where I concluded that the RE:NEW project’s development director, Graham Lister, had – in his presentation that day – helped redefine and clarify what art should mean: a porosity to the outside world which allows the local and the global to inform and build on each other productively and creatively.

I then expanded on these thoughts at my hyperlocal blogsite, eiohel.wordpress.com, where I suggested:

Taking, then, the concept of glocalism, in particular definition 1 in the list I quote above, porosity and a bidirectional glocalism – where buying and owning local does not imply excluding the global, and where globalisation does not mean ripping the hearts, souls, livelihoods and tax receipts from multiple communities across the world – may provide us with protection in both senses: protection from the fiefdoms and parochialisms of small, often inward-looking (and therefore also ingrowing) cities and regions; but also protection from the rapacious power of transnational corporate capitalism.

Bringing together the breadth of vision of transnationalism and the engaging power of localism in a series of shared actions and approaches is surely the best way forward for us all.

I also added:

[…] Shop local, where you can; own local, if possible; but always be open to, aware of and excited by the influences which deep cultural rub – that exposure to difference which fruitfully disconcerts – can bring: not only to one’s self but also to one’s environment.

Don’t be a walled garden of ever-reducing pride.

Instead, be an open soul; a porous individual … an agent of fascinating experimentation!

So yes. It’s important to treasure, value and promote what we have on our own doorsteps, but it’s equally important to maintain a permanently open channel of congenial and respectful dialogue to and with the outside world.

Today, again at the kind invitation of Chester Rotary, I was able to hear from Alex Clifton, artistic director of the fascinating project Chester Performs (more here), the organisation which will be ultimately responsible for running the RE:NEW theatre, art and culture complex, once its construction is completed in late 2016.

Mr Clifton gave an enthusiastic overview of Chester Performs; its huge achievements over the past few years; his own part in this process; and, perhaps just as important, his capacity and status as a proud and creatively contributing Cestrian to an eager and growing sense of local community.

He was careful to underline the importance of doing all the above in a framework of respect, dignity, trust and self-esteem – matters which all communities which wish to flourish need to engender and develop.

I have spent the past decade, on and off, writing in favour of a more civic, civil and intelligent politics. It’s interesting that Mr Clifton, from a separate point of view, should feel the same about art and culture’s roles in society.

And yet.

And yet.

As I have recently suggested:

Take, for example, the role of art in society. Art isn’t there (ie here!) to make things easy: in fact, its fundamental responsibility is surely to make manifest both humour (scorn, sarcasm, anarchy, wit) and love (compassion, collaboration, communication, society’s peer-to-peer instincts) in the face of a rank and not-so-creeping authoritarianism, so that we all understand better – through the prism of painful self-awareness – the realities behind society’s façades.

In order, then, to renew democracy competently, we need simultaneously to promote both peaceable environments and disruptive ones. A massively tricky line to follow. Easily waywarded and channelled off into nether regions too, by those who would prefer to act in bad faith.

So whilst Mr Clifton is absolutely right to underline the importance of relating to each other as the adults we hope we can be, and whilst he is ambitiously correct in delineating in this way the goal of all good civil and civic society, I find it just as important to remember that art at its best does actually challenge us; horrify and terrify us; certainly make us rethink twice, three or a hundred times our easy assumptions; and ultimately, even, should end up disrupting our sense of wellbeing as we are forced to confront our own place in the universe.

As I said previously, and as quoted above, for our society to be as healthy and self-renewing as possible we need, truly need, to balance the accepted with the new; the comfortable with the uncomfortable; the curious with the curiosity; and the familiar with what many will consider the downright unacceptable.

Only then can we say we have arrived at a culture of artistic endeavour: a culture not only of beautiful reinterpretation but also of sheer, head-turning and world-beating originality.

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