Expanding their horizons

Government-funded programmes are helping underprivileged children through music. But might they also help us to redefine art itself?
November 17, 2010
Teenagers at a music class at the Pie Factor project: “we don’t ban songs about drugs…”

“Through music-making, any young person, regardless of their background, should have opportunities to discover their creativity and fulfil their potential.” This is part of the mission statement of Youth Music, perhaps Britain’s highest-profile and best-funded community arts organisation. Founded in 1999, Youth Music receives around £10m a year through Arts Council England, with which it has funded 830 projects during its first ten years. Since 1999, it has reached over 2m children and young people.

Community music was once a politically subversive grassroots movement. As the rise of organisations like Youth Music testifies, though, it’s increasingly a top-down, policy-directed exercise. And this means it’s also a field that’s close to the heart of a decades-old debate over what the arts are really for—and why the taxpayer should fund them. Should we take the so-called instrumental view, and define the value of the arts in terms of their good effects on individual and social wellbeing? Or should we follow much of the art world in taking the view that art is indeed useless, and this is its glory?

With the Arts Council facing spending cuts of close to 30 per cent in the wake of the government’s October spending review, these are urgent questions for many organisations. The culture secretary Jeremy Hunt declared, while still in opposition, his desire to “move on” from the conflict between instrumental and ineffable views, instead “accepting both the intrinsic value of the arts and also the social impact of an enlightened arts policy.” Yet the discussion hasn’t “moved on.” It has simply been abandoned, with the two kinds of artistic value stranded on either side of an unbridgeable divide.

The transforming social potential of music has perhaps been most famously demonstrated in recent years by Venezuela’s publicly financed music education programme El Sistema, which among other activities runs music schools for a quarter of a million children—some of whom go on to play in ensembles like its world-class Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, which sold out the Royal Festival Hall this October. Stories like El Sistema’s are an advert for how excellence and outreach can combine. Yet in most community work there remains a profound disjunction between the language of high art and social realities.

It’s a disjunction that’s firmly embedded in Britain’s cultural landscape. At spaces such as Tate Modern, we see forms of art that strive to become ever more separated from norms of any kind: social, material, generic, whatever. Meanwhile, a world away, we find cultural practices like amateur orchestras and dramatics, jazz jam sessions in pubs, pop bands rehearsing in church halls. Their primary reason for existing is neither performance for a paying public nor reviews from critics. They exist, above all, to foster social interactions.

Except—when the pop band in the church hall is being coached by somebody called a project leader, with guitars and recording gear subsidised by the taxpayer, we want to know: why are we paying for this? Does it matter that the music produced is “good” in artistic terms? Or is the value of this project that it keeps the band members off the streets and off drugs? Here, if anywhere, one would surely find the instrumental view of art in its purest form: an enhanced sense of community cohesion, feelings of increased self-esteem, a more positive outlook on the world. These were my expectations when, earlier this year, I spent some time at two Youth Music projects. What I actually found, though, was something rather different.

The first project I visited was in Margate, where Youth Music runs weekly classes in song-writing and sound production in a converted church known as the Pie Factory. The space has been converted on a shoestring, with chipboard walls dividing the area into rehearsal rooms and studios. Andrea and her friend Amy, both in shell-suits and baseball caps, have been coming almost every week for four or five years. Has it changed them? “Yeah, I’m more confident,” says Andrea, “and being around other people really helps. There’s this girl we know who’s had a really rough time but she just gets on with it, and that’s really inspired me. I come nearly every week, and I know I’ve got much better at song-writing and stuff.” I ask Amy whether her musical tastes have changed. “Yeah, I was very narrow when I came, but now I listen to lots of different stuff. It’s down to the project leaders really.”

Andy, a lean young man with a permanent frown of concentration, who’s been nominated for an award at the National Drum ‘n Bass Arena Awards, is labouring on an album with his friend Matt. “Working with these people, it brings out the best in you. The Pie Factory has given us that grounding,” he says, smacking one fist into his palm for emphasis. So he’s keen to improve? “That’s the main thing. I’m learning new stuff every day. People say ‘you’ve made it already,’ and I say, ‘no way, man.’ ”

As for the project leaders, they have the challenging job of trying to guide the youths who come to the project—complete with very definite tastes and ideas about the songs they want to write. This can be a problem. Mike Fagg, managing director of the Pie Factory says: “We had a real issue with the lyrical content of what the young people were writing about. It was all about getting drunk, fighting people, stabbing people… I listened to them and thought, this isn’t good, I can’t give them a CD of the recording session and say, ‘well done…’ We have a responsibility.”

The solution was to devise a set of criteria for acceptable lyrics, which involved trying to foster a sense of self-awareness. “We don’t ban songs about drugs. One young man wrote a song to make the point that he deals in drugs because that’s the only choice he has in life. We allowed it, because he’s not glorifying his choice. What we don’t accept is a rap about how cool the AK47 is, which we sometimes get. Half the time they’re just pretending anyway. I mean this is north Kent, not the Bronx. I ask if they’ve ever actually seen an AK47, and they look sheepish.”

Similar problems arise at the project run by Youth Music at Aylesbury Young Offenders’ Institute, which incarcerates the longest sentenced young men in the prison system. Classes are run here in many subjects, but the governor admits that getting the lads to attend, and to pay attention when they do, is a struggle. But the music sessions are a different matter. The small room—like any other classroom apart from the iron bars on the windows—is jammed with desk-tops and samplers and mixers. The lads, who are inside for murder and armed robbery, are seated one or two to a workstation, engrossed. A close eye is kept on their subject matter, and anything that glorifies violence is wiped.

Here, as in the Pie Factory, one hears that these lads value music partly because it creates a private space, something they can “lose yourself” in. Here one gets a whiff of those subjective, intrinsic values of art. But what they really value is the chance to create something that will be better than their last effort. And with the effort to get better goes a widening of horizons. “When I first came to these sessions I was only into garage,” says Vinny, “but these guys [the project leaders] have opened my ears to lots of other stuff—electronica, funky house, deep soul…” Have the sessions helped in other ways? “Yeah, I had a lot of violent feelings. I’ve been robbing all my life, but when I come here I get encouraged to think about the positive stuff, like looking after my mum or finishing a course.”

What each project has in common is that results matter. Each session is a step on the way to a final product, in the form of a public performance or a recording of a finished song. Christina Coker, Youth Music’s chief executive, feels that the sense of achievement this engenders is bound up with other good effects. “For me it’s all about broadening musical horizons. If all these kids ever encountered was rap, that would be wrong. I’ve noticed that the ones who really thrive are the ones who get involved with other musical genres. That’s what a really good project leader will do, as well as insisting on the highest quality of everything they do.”

There are some who feel that Youth Music goes too far in deferring to young people’s musical tastes, and that it should instead be leading them towards the sunny uplands of high art. Others, meanwhile, feel it doesn’t defer enough. One of them is Mark Rimmer, a cultural studies professor at Leeds University. In an article in the International Journal of Cultural Policy, Rimmer compared the effects of three different Youth Music projects and found that, in two of them, the participants were alienated by the projects’ emphasis on “structured music-making activities.”

Rimmer’s approach follows a pure 1970s cultural studies paradigm, which is more interested in sub-cultures than in Culture with a capital C. In this worldview, sub-cultures are good, because they are the spontaneous expression of self-forming groups, free of any authority. Meanwhile, culture is always conceived of as oppressive. This love for sub-cultures leads to a suspicion of adult authority. An author of a recent report on community music projects in the northwest, quoted by Rimmer in his article, says: “Too often… I have seen the desire to gain a creative product take over, and arts workers having to be directive to gain a quality end result.” There’s much talk in the community arts counter-culture of participants having ownership and powers of decision-making. But decision-making has to rest on an informed freedom to choose between different options: something disaffected youths, marooned in their sub-culture, cannot be expected to have—at least at the outset.

This surely is the project leader’s task: to lead the youths out of their narrow space into the grown-up world. It’s a role brought into sharp relief in Laurent Cantet’s 2008 film Entre Les Murs (released in Britain as The Class). A teacher of literature in a tough school faces a class from a local sink estate. “Why are you telling us this shit?” they ask, “What does it mean to us? Why don’t you speak to us in our language?” “Because,” he retorts, “I don’t want to live in your ghetto, and neither should you.”

This seems a long way from the high-flown debate about intrinsic versus instrumental values in art. But perhaps it isn’t—because it may be in the backstreets that a different conception of art’s intrinsic values is emerging. This new conception is not exalted. It starts with plain social fact: the business of people coming together to make something “useless,” like an artwork or a performance. It acknowledges the idea that value can inhere in artistic practices themselves. It understands that this value emerges the more strongly the more attention is devoted to achieving a high- quality result.

This new conception is modest, preferring to discover a common ground through negotiation rather than by conforming to a set of canons established in some Great Tradition. But common ground and agreed standards there must certainly be. Youth Music’s purview may seem modest too, inching out gingerly from rap to electronica to deep soul. Mozart seems a long way off. But Rome was not built in a day, and a genuinely radical, new sort of arts practice will surely be decades in the making.