Hold Your Beliefs Lightly

Grayson Perry is my hero. I’d love to be able to claim that I was an early adopter and have been following his practice since the ‘80s, but I’m afraid I arrived fairly late to the party and have only really been aware of his work since he won the Turner Prize in 2003. Despite his best efforts to deify his lifelong companion, Alan Measles, he’s achieved something of a God-like status himself – straddling the insular culture of the art world and the popular consciousness of the British public, like a spectacular colossus in a pastiche party dress.

Perry’s landmark exhibition at the British Museum in 2011/12, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, is one of my top five all-time favourite shows. It was like an enormous playground and recalled the excitement I had running around museums when I was a kid. I was struck by the generosity shown to audiences; there were no ‘intellectual bouncers’ at the doors, you had the feeling that the artist was speaking directly to you and everyone was welcome. I bought both the catalogue and a fistful of postcards in an attempt to take as much of the show home as possible.

One particular postcard, showing a detail from The Rosetta Vase (2011), includes the sensible advice to ‘hold your beliefs lightly’. These words and this image come to mind frequently as I’m working on my Churchill Fellowship and exploring the creative process of museum educators. I like playing with ideas and theories and I enjoy the process of wrangling a sequence of isolated events into some sort of order. For example, I am visiting five arts organisations in the US in September and, in doing my research on each, I couldn’t help but notice patterns and similarities. Perhaps there are unifying trends at work; perhaps their common ground has something to teach us about best practice? When I was writing a blog post summarising my observations on the subject, I was also on holiday with my Dad, who is a retired academic specialising in Strategic Management. Naturally, I asked him to read what I was working on, and he offered me the same advice as that on Perry’s Rosetta Vase.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. It would be such a wasted opportunity if I met these amazing educators in the US and only attended to what confirmed my theories. Besides which, I’m most interested in what I don’t know. I want new stuff to think about, and the best way to achieve that is by ‘getting out of my own way’ (a great phrase). So I will aim to delay judgement and focus on observation and being in the moment.

‘Hold your beliefs lightly’ also feels like useful guidance when thinking about programming. I wonder what fundamentals of practice we cling to, repeat ad nauseam, build our views on, and don’t even consider challenging, because they are perceived as our bedrock. For example, is it the best use of our limited resources to try to cater for all audiences? Is the emphasis on peer-led programming inhibiting other ways of working with young people? Do we need both a core programme and short-term projects – could it be one or the other – could they be integrated? It used to be gospel that reminiscence was the best approach for working with older people with memory loss, but more recent thinking has challenged that. Placing emphasis on memory in creative workshops, when its increasing absence can be causing these participants a loss of self and a great deal of distress, doesn’t sound very constructive, and yet we all did it. With hindsight, it makes much more sense to focus on the immediate, expressive, enjoyable, attention-consuming and multi-sensory nature of making.

So what other beliefs are we holding too tightly?

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