Creativity as a human right: Jan Carson on the right to bear arts
by Eimer McAULEY
25 March 2021
Jan Carson compels Stormont to realise the transformative social and economic impact of the arts in Northern Ireland.
Jan Carson, East Belfast writer and community arts facilitator, made an urgent and moving case for greater appreciation and funding for the arts sector in Northern Ireland in an Imagine! Festival talk.
Carson is a celebrated writer, but it is her work as a community arts facilitator in Belfast — “the single most transformative” experience of her life — that makes her a well-placed champion of the arts. She has witnessed firsthand how in quiet community centres, over tea and custard creams, community arts can unite people from disparate backgrounds, change entrenched views, and give older people a new lease of life.
Yet for all the obvious societal benefits of this work, Carson does not sugar coat the bleak predicament that Northern Ireland’s arts sector is facing:
“The arts are underfunded and dismissed as irrelevant, yet the last 20 years pays testament to the crucial role that art has played in the peace and reconciliation process, bringing people together from divided communities for often the first time.”
Carson offered up a quote from Albert Camus’ essay Create Dangerously: “The aim of art is not to legislate or to reign supreme, but first of all to understand.”
“Imagine for a second that this was the mantra for Northern Ireland: to understand,” Carson posed, insisting, “arts speak to the value of shared listening, and the right to share stories, regardless of how different our perspectives may be. The more stories we share, the more we understand each other.”
Without the outlet of artistic expression being accessible to everyone in our society, Carson argued, “the feeling of being systematically unheard will first seal our ears and then our hearts.”
The economic benefits of a thriving arts sector are multitudinous, according to Carson; arts training in education increases young people’s overall employability, arts participation reduces older people’s rate of hospitalisation, and film-making and graphic design have become new thriving industries.
“The arts sector supports the infrastructure of Northern Ireland. You can build a hotel on every corner but if there is no live music, no theatre and art galleries, what are the tourists going to do all weekend?” Carson challenged.
So, that being the case, why is our arts sector in its current predicament? Carson said art is still not seen as a necessary commodity in Northern Ireland, yet she admitted that the cynic in her suspects there is another reason the arts budget is being systematically eroded:
“There is a wilful bias against the sector. I believe that many of our key politicians are actually afraid of the arts. Seeing art as little more than another wing of political expression, they apply the same sectarian pressure towards silencing artists with different political outlooks as they do their political adversaries,” Carson argued.
Still, she maintains that this is a place that will continue to be steeped in artistic expression. Carson’s talk concluded on a celebratory note as she detailed eight ways art positively contributes to our society; here are three of them.
Art fosters empathy
For the last two years Carson has been part of an Irish Writers Residency in a joint project by the Falls Women’s Centre and the Shankill Women’s Centre, where every Wednesday morning women on different sides of the peace line meet to create:
“The women wrote stories about their backgrounds, they listened respectively and not only were they open to learning from each other, but they were actively looking for similarities in each other’s experiences.
“One woman’s story about naming her child after the Pope started a conversation about where names come from and the particular resonance they carry here. Another woman’s story about her sense of belonging in her local Orange Hall opened a discussion on the meaning of home.
“The women were writing from very different outlooks, but they could see themselves in each other.”
Art brings people together
‘The history of Northern Ireland is one of separation, segregation, and subsequently mutual distrust. However, community art plays an essential role in the reconciliation process, by bringing together people who wouldn’t normally meet across the lines of gender, race, sexual identity, and disability — which constitute contemporary Northern Irish identity.
“Art brings people together to work on a common goal that is greater than their differences. I’m thinking of the two years I spent co-facilitating an Alzheimer’s group called Singing for the Brain. The 50-odd members came from a wide variety of backgrounds, who shared an experience of battling dementia and a desire to sing.
“When I think of all those dear faces gathered around the piano belting out ‘Molly Malone’ and ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’, I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s mantra, ‘I refuse the prism of “I” and choose the open space of “we”’.”
Art helps us move forward
“Engaging in art in any way involves moving beyond yourself. Whether you are reading or writing a novel, you are saying your own experience is not enough, and that is a healthy thing.
“Art has a clear trajectory, it is rarely stationary, rather it is always morphing, questioning, and challenging. Participants in community arts projects often get swept up in the same process.
“When we brought people to the dementia-friendly film screenings at the QFT, they got used to the cinema and started to go to normal screenings too. We need to acknowledge how intimidating arthouse cinema and galleries can seem, and not dismiss the impact of classism in our arts.
“Community arts projects show that everyone is welcome to art. I believe that everyone deserves access to the arts, not because I believe that this place is broken and art is a way of mending it, but because creativity is a basic human right.
“I know no better way of navigating the mess of modern life.”