Monday, 15 December 2014

The educational dimension

Last October, during the intermission of a performance of Brahms' “Requiem” by the Saint Louis Symphony, twenty three protesters sitting in various parts of the auditorium stood up and sang “Requiem for Mike Brown” (the black unarmed youth that was shot by a policeman in Ferguson). Some members of the audience were shocked, others applauded, the same happened with the musicians on stage. Noone interrupted the protesters, noone called the police. Maybe because what happened made sense, at that place, at that time, in that specific context. Music being an integral part of protest in Ferguson, this, acoording to one of the organizers, was an attempt to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable. You have to make a choice for just staying in your comfort zones or will you speak out for something that’s important? It’s not all right to just ignore it”. (read full article)

The recent killings of black people by police in different US cities have provoked an intense soul searching among cultural institutions in that country. In a recent joint statement from museum bloggers and other culture professionals regarding Ferguson and related events, one reads:

“The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)? (...) Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission. (...) As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case.”

Last August, serious controversy involved the decision of Tricycle Theatre not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival, for the first time in eight years. The reason was that the festival received support from the Israeli Embassy in London and, given the ongoing assault on Gaza at the time, the Board felt it was inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved”. They offered to provide alternative funding, but the Festival did not accept (read full article). The conflict in Gaza was also the reason why participating artists in this year’s São Paulo Bienal (later supported by the bienal curators) called on the organizers to return funding from the Israeli Conusulate. Negotiations resulted in the removal of the conusulate logo from the general sponsors and its association only to the Israeli artists that had received that specific financial support (read full report).

We may agree or disagree with the decisions taken by these organizations. But the questioning of the role of cultural institutions in today’s society, especially their educational role, must be permanent, constant. Just like Rebecca Herz, I believe that they shouldn´t act irrespective of their mission (as it is suggested in the above mentioned statement of the US museum bloggers), but any museum collection or theatre /orchestra / festival programme can have a connection to contemporary life and help shape the kind of society we need or dream of. As the work of many contemporary artists is a response to contemporary life issues, it is not unusual to find this kind of connections, and the fertile thinking associated to them, in the programming of theatres, companies or galleries (the Maria Matos Theatre, the Gulbenkian Programme Next Future or the alkantara festival are the first to come to mind, among the organizations whose programming I follow in Portugal, but there are others). Museums or orchestras presenting works that are not contempoarary are not used to linking their collections or concerts to contemporary life though or, if they do, it does not become obvious to me. Quite often I find myself thinking “What is the point of this exhibition or concert?”, “Why is this relevant?”, “How does this connect to contemporary portuguese society and its diversity?” (the inspiring work of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment comes to mind once again...)

This brings me once again to a recurring issue on this blog: accountability and responsibility. I don´t see cultural institutions as islands, cut off from what is happening around them. I believe they should make it clear for people how what they have to say or show can be relevant to them and a way of finding meaning; they should share their vision and objectives publicly and take responsibility for fulfilling them; they should be a public forum, where people can find comfort, but also the necessary discomfort. They clearly have an educational role (in the sense of providing what the Ancient Greeks called “paideia”), one that I wouldn´t necessarily make depend on what happens (or doesn’t happen) at school or at home and one that doesn’t firstly depend on an education department, but on the director him/herself.

Two museums directors and a curator will be with us next Tuesday, 16 December, at the Gulbenkian Foundation conference “What places for education? The educational dimension of cultural institutions” (more information). Charles Esche (Director of Van Abbemuseum and one of the curators of this year’s São Paulo Bienal), David Fleming (Director of National Musems Liverpool and President of the International Federation of Human Rights Museums) and Delfim Sardo (Curator, University Professor and Essayist) will challenge us to think on our responsibilities and practices in the current social and political context.

Note: For those who cannot be in Lisbon, the session will be livestreamed from 10am Lisbon time. The link for the livestream as well as a number of papers, posts, interviews in english may be found on the conference webpage (in “Oradores” and in "+Info")

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Monday, 1 December 2014

An apology of criticism

Critical thinking is a mental and emotional function in which someone - based on his/her knowledge and information available – decides what to think or do in relation to a specific situation. The result is a substantiated opinion. It is subjective. It may be positive or negative. It must be intellectually honest.

There is a tendency to associate solely negative aspects to the word ‘criticism’ and to see it as an attack. That´s why many times a critique provokes reactions such as “criticising is easy…”; or a hasty clarification by the ‘attacker’, such as “please, don´t take this as a criticism”; or even the need to declare that the ‘attacker’ has nothing personal against his/her ‘target’.

A couple of weeks ago, I reacted – critically - to the interview of a national museum director and, specifically, to a statement regarding an issue that is of extreme importance to me in our profession. This means that, based on my knowledge and the information available, I decided what to think of that statement and I shared that thought. Other people reacted to my criticism, agreeing or disagreeing or adding other aspects to the process of critical thinking. At a certain point, though, a colleague intervened to say: “One shouldn´t speak ill of colleagues on Facebook”. This intervention has kept my mind busy since.

I see a distinct difference between speaking ill and criticising. Speaking ill can only be negative and there is something too personal in it, something too sentimental, something that ends up neutralizing the strength of arguments and severely affects the credibility of the critic. Speaking ill is not constructive, it might be temporarily ‘therapeutic’ for the speaker, but it is ineffective.

Criticism is something different. Criticism is the wish to be aware, to put one’s knowledge in good use, to contribute for something better (through positive or negative appreciations) and also to assume responsibility. Thus, criticism is not easy.

Very little critical thinking is shared in public, with the exception, perhaps, of whatever relates to the governement and politicians in general – which makes me think that maybe we don´t feel as responsible for this country´s political life, thus, criticising (or speaking ill) becomes easy... In what concerns everything else, and considering specifically the cultural sector, public criticism and debate regarding decisions, positions, projects is rather limited. The professionals of the field might be feeling that all this is beyond their control and this feeling of impotence makes any intervention seem hopeless. Others might not like the exposure public criticism brings along, wary about personal/professional relationships that tend to get mixed up on these occasions. Others still might not like to take the responsibility of criticising publicly. Thus, as criticism is actually seen as something negative, as an attack, it is better kept behind closed doors, ‘in the family’, or, better still, untold. For some people, it shouldn´t be happening on social media. (I can´t help thinking that, when a couple of years ago I wrote positevely about an interview of the same national museum director, nobody told me I shouldn´t be doing it on Facebook; I suppose it was not considered criticism).

I envy cultural bloggers in (mainly) the US and the UK, who contribute to the open debate and criticism of all important matters, keeping the dialogue alive, their voice heard and the interested public informed. They are too intelligent to fall into the trap of ill speaking. This is an act of responsibility. This should be an expected act in a democracy. All important, major, things must be discussed openly, positive and negative things must be largely debated, responsibility must be assumed. The direction of all public cultural institutions concerns us all, starting from the professionals of the field.

Which brings me to another point: criticism is associated to accountability. When Nina Simon completed her first year as director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, she wrote the post Year one as a museum director... Survived!. Both accountability and criticism stem from a deep sense of responsibility and Nina´s text is the perfect example of what I would like to see happening here.  But it´s not happening. In a country where those holding public positions are not expected to be accountable – that is, to openly define their objectives and to regularly explain what it is that they do, how, why and how successful they are in it - criticism might actually make less sense and we enter a vicious circle. A circle where few substantiated opinions are heard publicly, having no impact whatsoever, and where things happen anyway, no matter what, and success is declared... no matter what. We even consider normal that someone with a public position might be defending the indefensible, might not be giving an honest opinion, out of duty to his/her superiors. A vicious circle, a game, where we sacrifice our intellectual honesty. What´s the gain? And at what cost?

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