Michael Gilkes, formerly Reader in English and Head of the English department at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, has been a teacher all of his adult life. A founding member and first artistic director of the Barbados-based theatre company Stage One, he has been involved in the theatre arts for over 40 years as actor, director, playwright, dramaturge and filmmaker.
The Arts Forum elicited his views on the role of the arts in the growth of the individual and the society.
Ameena Gafoor (A.G.): Michael, would you define art for us? What is art?
Michael Gilkes (M.G.): Most people, when asked that question, hesitate before answering. Art is universally regarded as an Important Thing; but it is an amorphous concept, difficult to talk about and problematical to define. Art, like religion, comes from an innate quality of human desire and experience that we cannot explain logically.
There is no obvious need for Art as there is, say, for food or air. We do not die if we are denied Art. So first we need to remember that there are two kinds of awareness which humans are capable of experiencing. There is the world of reality that everyone accepts: the [real] world we all live in. But there is another world, the world we would like to live in. That other world informs our response to the ‘real’ world, and vice versa.
There is constant dialogue between the ‘real’ world and the world of imagination. The latter is the world in which Art functions and plays a vital role. That role is to make the ‘real’ world significant and meaningful beyond the basic need for survival. That is my definition of Art.
A.G.: So, are you saying that art recreates life, or rather our life experiences, in a manner that goes beyond the materialism of the society, beyond the basic survival level and the wide divisions of colour, class and wealth? Is art an escape from poverty and other evils and inequalities we endure daily, including the breakdown of values and beliefs that we should be guarding from one generation to the next? Is this the “constant dialogue” you refer to?
M.G.: Yes. Art, almost by definition, goes beyond crude materialism. For the artist it may also be an escape from it. But this is true about Art in a modern, self-conscious context. Art, at its most basic, is an attempt, first of all, to express and record in music or song, dance or in visual representations such as drawing, writing, sculpture or painting, a significant idea or emotional experience or feeling: one that may have brought pleasure or pain. The aboriginal hunter, making designs on a rock-face (like the Amerindian Timehri) or painting his body or dancing in celebration of a successful hunt, is also creating Art.
A.G.: So, even so-called ‘primitive’ Man is already aware of the importance of art as a vehicle for expressing his emotions and experiences?
M.G.: Yes, you could say so, but for the primitive it is essentially a practical matter: a demonstration of his role in the larger community. The rock designs, dancing and body painting are indicators meant to inform or express the beliefs or status of the group or of the individual within the group. Forms of house building, body decoration, dancing and dress, even today, have a similar purpose. My reference to the aboriginal ‘artist’ is simply to make the point that Art is basic to life. It is an intrinsic ingredient in our awareness of and relationship to the world.
A.G.: Can you give any examples of this from the aboriginal world?
M.G.: Well, for instance, we can say that a matapi (a cassava squeeze basket) is an intricately constructed work of art, inspired by the shape and movement of the boa constrictor. For the aboriginal who makes it, however, it is essentially a tool for processing the flour that supplies the community’s staple food, cassava bread. In some tribal societies, the art of basket making is a sign of manhood and a mandatory, prenuptial skill.
So, to go back to your question, Art may, for us, be a way of transcending the materialism of life, but it has roots that go deeper than that. It is a practical and creative response to the material world. The world of the imagination and the material world, like the worlds of Science and the Arts, aren’t separate or opposed. It’s important to realize that the two cannot be separated.
Science asks the question ‘how?’ Art asks the question ‘why?’ Before that balance was disturbed by the overdevelopment of the scientific at the expense of the artistic, Art, religion (the earliest source of Art) and Science were regarded as an indivisible matrix of knowledge called ‘magic’ or alchemy. That imbalance, that seismic shift, was the result of what we call ‘civilization’.
A.G.: Our Caribbean societies certainly tend to treat Art as esoteric. It is studied by too few to CXC level and then abandoned for the more lucrative professions. Not enough students, certainly this is the case in Guyana, include the liberal arts in their post-secondary studies. Is this a disadvantage and how does one go about correcting this imbalance, as you call it? How can our young people be persuaded that the Arts are essential to their growth and development if our educational system doesn’t recognize the Arts in this way?
M.G.: I think that there is fear and a persistent lack of understanding of the role of the Arts in education. Art draws from the creative imagination and liberal ideas. These are often areas of darkness in the conventional school curricula. The artist is, therefore, in danger of being regarded as a maverick.
The major reason why our schools still do not actively encourage the Arts alongside the Sciences is that our school systems emerged from and were shaped by colonialism. Schools in the Colonies were designed to provide a level of basic educational competence among the poor as potential workers, but they were also designed to nurture a subservient educated class who could be groomed to become the captains of industry, judges in the courts of law, leaders of the organized Christian church and Heads of financial institutions while remaining loyal to the tenets of Empire. Our school systems still bear the marks of their colonial origins. The role of Art was never central to a colonial education, nor is it today, for very similar reasons.
A.G.: How does Art function? Is it a form of protest against crude materialism . . . is it a mirror held up to the excesses and ills of society, to our vanities and prejudices? Is Art subversive? Is it a struggle for the free spirit . . . a quest for truth . . . for self-knowledge … what?
M.G.: I believe Art can be seen as all these things. Like early religious forms of worship, Art is subversive. Above all, however, it provides a medium for helping to keep the emotional, interior life and the outward, material life in balance, in harmony. It can do this because it addresses the unseen urges and thoughts and feelings that power the visible, material world. What, for example, do we mean by ‘a free spirit‘?’
The very concepts of ‘truth’, ‘freedom’ and ‘spirit’ refer to the immaterial, invisible world of ideas: the world of the Arts. Today, that world is in peril because the private greed that often drives political power, money, war and trade has become more acceptable than the world of ideas or philosophy. Uncontrolled power spawns violence and destruction when pursued for its own sake. This is a scenario in which an awareness and study of the Arts becomes absolutely crucial.
A.G.: It’s clear that you feel that Art is a vital reservoir of human values and beliefs (perhaps as vital as food) and, as such, is an important element in the cohesiveness of any society. That is almost an alien word in the Guyanese vocabulary. Can we talk about the role of the Arts in the healing of a society as badly fractured as ours?
M.G.: Of course, this lack of cohesiveness is a problem that affects even so-called “developed” societies. It’s a worldwide problem and a difficult one to solve. The role of religion (which served to keep societies together) has been compromised by the variety of dogmas that determine their function.
A.G.: Whereas religion is a more dogmatic discipline or philosophy if you like, the Arts form a more liberating, humanizing philosophy. If the problem of cohesiveness is so widespread and so difficult, how can the Arts help?
M.G.: Since — as you so accurately put it – Art (like religion) is a vital reservoir of human values and beliefs, the difficulty is that standards of behaviour and belief have fallen away. The level of the reservoir is dangerously low.
A.G.: Can Art help to stop this draining away of standards and beliefs?
M.G.: After the [recent] crash of the world economy (partly the result of the banks’ naked greed), the lies and scandals surrounding so many important people in high places and the worsening condition of the world’s poorest nations, standards of behaviour and belief have fallen away and have been replaced by anger and incomprehension. One result of this may be the extremism and violence that we see increasing globally.
Here in Guyana, as elsewhere, we are finding ourselves adrift in a society of rising costs and falling values, in addition to the violence. This is where an emphasis on the Arts can be of enormous help…. more concentration on the Arts is needed to help us find our lost selves.
A.G.: What practical steps can we take to make the society aware of the power of the Arts in the making of a more humane society?
M.G.: Remember that the degeneration of any society takes place over a long period. So the very young are at a disadvantage: If one has never experienced a high standard it will be difficult to identify a low one.
A.G.: So should this be the goal of the artist, [the writer, the poet] to critically analyze society with the aim of transforming consciousness, raising standards, altering attitudes and behaviour, changing perceptions, developing tolerance and compassion? And what or whose standards do we mean?
M.G.: That’s a very good question. If there are no universally agreed standards in a society or if everyone is willing to accept, say, greed or selfishness or wealth as standards to be adopted then we have a very big problem. Change can come only if people see and feel the need for it. That’s why there needs to be consistent Arts programmes in schools. It’s the young who must be targeted, whose consciousness must be nurtured and whose level of awareness must be raised from an early age.
I believe that a society’s fall in standards begins with disrespect, what used to be called “eyepass”. The existence of a coherent society depends upon the nurturing of a sense of community – “mattie”- which rejects and censures “eyepass”. Self-respect, however, is the starting point. An understanding of the Arts can be very valuable, because it encourages self-awareness and sensitivity to others.
A.G.: Are the subliminal messages and lessons encoded in the various art forms and the endless works of art that continue to be created, almost in defiance of the greed and materialism you speak of, of any use to us? Where has this strategy been successfully tried?
M.G.: Success can’t be guaranteed, but it is worth the effort. The educational systems will have to be modified to include the Arts as mandatory. There have been notable successes in the Folk arts. The rise of the Rastafarian artists, the music of Bob Marley, the dub poets, the hip hop artists are all examples of the Arts in action in the building of community awareness.
The art of the Calypsonian has also been a huge influence. All folk arts are connected to the matrix of their societies and they have proven their effectiveness in community and nation building. The more formal arts have been sadly neglected or sidelined, though their function is the same. Literature and painting have put Guyana and the Regional community on the world’s cultural map while class divisions, politics and economics have kept us apart as viable communities.
In Guyana, Martin Carter, ‘the poems man’, has been the voice of the nation’s consciousness. His work is still not a central part of the schools’ syllabus, nor is Lamming’s in Barbados, nor Walcott’s in St Lucia. The list goes on. The works of our artists are not studied or read as the cultural food they represent. As a result our youth are growing up culturally undernourished.
A.G.: What about the role of the theatre in society? Can the theatre arts play a part in the reconstruction of a community consciousness?
M.G.: The theatre arts can offer perhaps the most inclusive community experience. A live performance is usually a small cross section of the society on stage enacting a drama for an audience that is a larger cross section of the population drawn from the society at large. Here we have a community performing a community experience for a community audience. The ancient Greeks valued Theatre as a community builder. Citizens were required to attend the Festival of Dionysius, given time off from work, and had their tickets paid for by the government. Attendance was a civic duty.
A.G.: Are the theatre arts regarded as essential in modern society?
M.G.: Yes. In Europe, Africa, China, South America, India and our Caribbean neighbours, Trinidad and Cuba. Chris Laird’s locally oriented Gayelle T.V. station has the theatre arts as a central element, and has been receiving awards of excellence in the field of community awareness TV. Cuba has successfully used painting, filmmaking and music as a way of developing the solidarity of community – “Cubanismo” – that is one of its most impressive achievements. But it required a revolution before that change was possible.
A.G.: Would we need a revolution to make us understand the importance of the Arts in education in Guyana?
M.G.: Yes. We need a revolution in the education system that would usher in the obligatory teaching of the Arts as a means to developing a strong sense of self-confidence and community awareness. That’s where the future lies. W.H. Auden once wrote, “we must love one another or die.” Martin Carter, puts it in a starker context, and speaks to us directly.
Like a jig
shakes the loom
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved
all are consumed.
(“You are involved” from Poems of Resistance)
The editor of The Arts Forum’s column, Ameena Gafoor, may be reached on e-mail: [email protected] or by telephone: (592) 227 6825.
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