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So like me, you may have been driving home Monday night and heard an interview on NPR conducted by host Mary Louise Kelly with poet Tess Taylor discussing art as civic repair. Taylor talks about how a plethora of festivals in Belfast have helped people to come together peacefully since the Good Friday Agreement brought about a general cessation of violence in Northern Ireland. She draws some parallels to political division in the United States.
She tells a story about being assigned to write a travel story about Virginia shortly after the 2016 election. She arrives in Floyd, VA, a mecca of bluegrass and is torn between being upset at the election results and wanting to square dance.
KELLY: You write, (reading) I realized I could either be mad or I could dance, but I can’t do both, so I’m going to dance.
TAYLOR: There might have been so many people right then at that square dance with whom I really had nothing to say about politics. But while we’re doing this dance, we’re actually partaking in a community action that takes place with an old pattern, and people swing around, they have to change partners, nobody can be left out, everybody is called in, and I understood the square dance is a ritual meant to build community and meant also to be sure that people had some relationship with one another so that they were kind of agreeing, perhaps, in a rural, small community to care for each other in some way. But I also felt very amazed by the ability of the dance itself to make me feel more able to work with people around me and to feel as if somehow, in that moment, we had put aside our differences and come together into something bigger.
As the interview closed, it was mentioned that Taylor had written a longer piece on this subject for Harper’s this month so I sought the article out.
There was a great deal of nuance in Taylor’s piece which was careful to say while there were similarities between the friction in the U.S. and Northern Ireland, there were differences that made them, and thus the solutions, distinct.
What I really appreciated was just how much Taylor’s article paralleled my post yesterday about viewing the arts as a prescriptive solution for problems. While Taylor cited research that showed how arts activities can create bonds of friendship, empathy and cooperation, she also noted arts weren’t, and will likely never be, the totality of the solution for Belfast in and of themselves. (my emphasis)
…Artists knew that arts programming was an effective means of weaving people together; they had written many grants justifying projects in these terms, and some were tired of the process. Some expressed concern about instrumentalizing art. “It’s not as if you put in ten pounds of arts funding and get out twenty pounds of peace,” said Glenn Patterson.
…But Durrer is the first to say that investments in reconciliation are naturally hard to quantify: “It’s not as if you can count the number of Protestants and Catholics who sat next to one another in a theater and know anything about how well people are actually reconciling.” My friend Stephen Connolly, a poet, warned me that the festivalization of Belfast can at times feel like a “manufactured peace.” Others felt uneasy about looking to anything in Northern Ireland as a model. Everyone stressed that what had been achieved in the north of Ireland has since frayed and grown tender.
But FitzGibbon, who has collaborated with Boyd on outdoor performances and directed the Belfast Children’s Festival for thirteen years, also emphasized the giddy feeling of making interventions that seemed to result in collective delight.
There is a lot of thoughtful reflection in the Harper’s story and it bears looking at regardless of whether you are considering connecting the arts with social change.