Good fences make good artists – short thought


We are excited to introduce a new ongoing feature to you, our readers: “short thought” posts written by Art Radar founder Kate Cary Evans. These posts will introduce thought-provoking questions and observations that arise from an involvement with the art world.

When I was 14, I went to an all-girls boarding school. Although it was located in the centre of a small spa town in the west of England, there was not much interaction with townies. We inhabited a closed world for three twelve-week periods a year. I was homesick for the first few weeks because it was achingly different.

The school had its own language, rituals, patterns of behaviour and values, most of which were new to me. We were even given a book of acronyms and nicknames for key landmarks to help us get about. A dauntingly long corridor next to the library was called the M.C. Our new girls’ handy guide helpfully explained that M.C. stands for marble corridor. Most things were not explained though.

The school was very proud of its distinctive culture and though there were plenty of physical gates around us, the psychological fences were stronger. We were different. Even after school we stayed different and many of us were never able to break away entirely from the school culture. We would always be a little bit different. It was as much our fault as anyone else’s. Some of us failed (or wanted to fail) to open ourselves up to alternatives.

As the years have dimmed the sharpness of these memories and the fear that accompanies them, I have become more and more interested in how this community developed such a strong and distinctive culture so different from any other anywhere. We often hear talk about how important culture is. Architects, governments and other planners and builders are urged to nurture strong communities. Traditional cultures are vigorously supported by activists. Vibrant culture in a strong community is supposed to be the answer to urban alienation.

At the same time, there is pressure to nurture certain other forces for the sake of a healthy society. Globalisation and democratisation are encouraged. In and outside the art world, these forces, together with technology, are helping people to communicate more easily. Walls between countries, genders and generations are breaking down. Networks are being forged, people are becoming ‘friends’ and there is a lot of happy ‘liking’ going on. Great… smash those fences.

Yes and… your point?

It is not obvious but we have a dichotomy: we support community and culture but we also want openness and freedom. I am not so sure we can have both. My experience from school taught me that strong cultures are built behind strong barriers. You can’t have it both ways. Either you support vibrant cultural diversity in which case you must insist on barriers or you support the more bland homogeneous culture of a global connected world.

There is something Darwinian about the evolution of culture. Differences emerge on islands. This law applies not just to general culture, where we see the emergence of distinct languages, behaviours and values, but it also applies specifically to fine arts. If you don’t want to see homogeneous or derivative art, then slam the doors, erect fences. Original fresh practices evolve in closed communities. It is counter-intuitive. It is a conundrum.

Do you agree? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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Good fences make good artists – short thought — 5 Comments

  1. Globalisation and increased access to the Internet has enabled various subcultures around the world to expand beyond their geographical boundaries, yet they still manage to remain isolated from mainstream culture/status quo. Socially, these subcultures, though somewhat globalised, do create boundaries. Could creative evolution within subcultures drive innovation in much the same way that physical isolation is suggested here to do?

  2. Perhaps creativity will emerge behind new or different borders….I can think of at least three non-national types of borders separating people and creating different cultures eg urban/non-urban. But that is for another post!

  3. Globalisation makes evolution take only one route- the route followed by majority and the most popular with the result that the route is narrowed down and gets suffocated. Creativity evolved through centuries is getting lost as everybody follows a single path. Where is the place for proper evolution of various forms of creativity in such conditions? In our place centuries old art forms are disappearing and everybody is following one global culture and art. It definitely is a negative trend not a positive one.

  4. a bit mechanistic for my taste … for any innovation, would you argue that it happens best in closed conditions? i don’t think so … same with “fine arts” … anywhere that minds are open to subtler realms of consciousness, creativity happens

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