For an unproductive art

Reviews 10.05.2023

Echoing the latest Syndeac report, percussionist Sylvain Darrifourcq's recently published book 20,000 Words is a fascinating reflection on the question of artistic work - and "productivity" - in the "next world" and on the power relations that govern the cultural milieu.

In the Anglo-Saxon countries, there is a term, "Community art", which designates the practices of artists installed in a territory and working for and with its inhabitants. It is an artistic movement in its own right, born in Great Britain in the 1960s, which can find its roots in the notion of "social sculpture" developed by Joseph Beuys, and which overlaps in certain aspects with the "relational" aesthetics theorized by Nicolas Bourriaud or the "contextual" art of Paul Ardenne. A movement whose realizations, generally participative, at least collective, cut singularly with the conception still commonly admitted - largely marked of romanticism, and finally very overhanging - of the Work of art. A movement whose ambition is thus doubly political, since it is a question at the same time of fighting against the reproaches of elitism addressed - sometimes legitimately - to the medium of the art and of making, together, cultural work rather than simply artistic, by blurring notably the border between amateurs and professionals.

I discovered this notion belatedly - this autumn, during a research-action seminar on the Faro Convention (framework convention "on the value of cultural heritage") organized jointly in Bordeaux by the Council of Europe, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Region and the City of Bordeaux, in which a British community artist, Ed Carroll, was participating. And I immediately asked myself why I hadn't heard about it before, why this notion didn't exist in France. This is undoubtedly linked to the mistrust and negative connotations that, in France, surround the term "community", to which we automatically tend to attach the term "communautarisme". However, if we think of the "communes" of the Middle Ages or the "commons" of today, this is a term that is at least as fertile as that of "society" for thinking about a mode of organization and collective action. From the Chahuts festival in Bordeaux to that of Villeréal in the Lot-et-Garonne or to the Nuits d'été initiated in the Savoyard foreland by the Quatuor Béla, not to mention the artists of all disciplines who, in increasing numbers, are establishing themselves in a territory - generally rural - to share their practice with the people who live there, one could cite many examples of French-style "community art", of initiatives aiming to make art, in deed and no longer simply in discourse, into a vector for social transformation. Nevertheless, it would be very difficult to translate this notion other than by using terms - "socio-cultural practices", "participative forms" - that are still largely depreciative in the current institutional semantics. 

I thought about this notion even more recently, when reading the report published last March by the Syndeac (Union of artistic and cultural companies) under the title: "The ecological mutation of the performing arts: challenges, a will". A report that prolonged the one published a year earlier, " For a public service of art and culture ", formulating "13 proposals for a cultural New Deal", and formalizing in particular the notion of "situated project" to designate, precisely, cultural actions that could be similar to "Community art". Two fascinating documents, taking note of a need for a radical transformation of the cultural policy.

The 2023 report emphasizes in particular the "overproduction" of shows - at a time when, moreover, artists have probably never been proportionally so numerous in society - and the limits of a system based on novelty at all costs and on the rule of "more and more": a phenomenon that has been perceptible for a long time, but to which the Covid-21 pandemic has only underlined the urgency of remedying: "Always more" creations see the light of day each year in poor production conditions and without the possibility of being truly disseminated, "always more" shows thus suffer from being shown very little, "always more" artistic teams live under the constraint of new creation as the only engine of employment and therefore of economic survival. " Faced with this, the Syndeac invites us to go beyond the sacrosanct binomial "creation / distribution" - as exhausting for artists as for programmers - as the only prism of evaluation: for the Ministry of Culture to be more than a "Ministry of the Arts" (wording appearing in the 2022 report - better late than never), we need to "stop focusing our reflections on the number of performances. An artistic team also exists outside of its performances. Its presence on a territory, which is embodied by times of residencies and times of cultural action, must be valued." Apart from the temples dedicated to the diffusion of works, there are other ways of making culture together, in a more local way, more "situated", more modest perhaps, but certainly more effective in terms of what was formerly called "cultural democratization".

As we can see, the Syndeac report calls for a real paradigm shift. After Malraux, after Lang, the time has come to write Act III of a cultural policy that does not only think in terms of artistic offer. The report of the Syndeac proposes to think about a "self-regulation" which allows to produce less, but better. While recalling its attachment to the system of intermittence, it also calls for an in-depth rethinking of the valuation of artistic professions in order to prevent the impoverishment of an ever-increasing number of artistic teams - citing in support an extract from a fascinating work byAurélien Catin, a member of the popular education association Réseau Salariat, on the condition of artists-authors.e.s, Notre condition, Essai sur le salaire au travail artistique: "All of our derivative activities and our 'services' [note that this term is symptomatic of the way in which certain communities think about the value of our artistic work in a territory] are not bonuses [...] but productive work that should be remunerated as such

This question of the condition of artists - and of musicians in particular - and of the "necessary mutations of a world of culture in imbalance" is precisely at the heart of another recent publication: 20,000 words, a long interview between the percussionist Sylvain Darrifourcq and Antoine Lebousse. The reading of this book is first of all fascinating by the way Darrifourcq exposes, with a lot of clarity, lucidity and humility, his path, his vision of his practice and of the condition of the improvising musician in 2023, at the end of a confinement that gave him the time to question himself in depth on these: "Why have we built our careers, like our society, around this idea of production of services, of goods, of meaning and also, often, of void? Why is productivity the yardstick for the health of our society? These questions led me to rethink my career, my way of being in my environment, the way of being an artist in society, and more generally my way of being in society."

This reading is, above all, absolutely stimulating by its way, again of a great lucidity, to dismantle the cogs which organize the contemporary French cultural system, and to point out the contradictions inherent in this one: refusing to speak of "sacrificed culture" during the confinement, he prefers to underline how much the pandemic could have been the occasion to reflect on the "true disproportion between the aids to the creation of spectacles, which are numerous, and the organization of the network of theaters which does not allow a satisfactory diffusion" - this imbalance between production and diffusion that the report of the Syndeac points out precisely. And to express his "immense fatigue in the face of this operation that chosifies us, compresses us in a race for productivity that is increasingly harsh, in a hyper-competitive system whose rules seem particularly vague. (...) I have the impression that this word has not been heard, that it has been "stifled" by the louder claims of a part of the profession that was sorry for the "little consideration" that the government gave to the world of the performing arts, and that called for the return of the "sacrificed" culture. This speech, under the cover of good intentions, was based on the principle that the artists all had an irrepressible desire to go back on stage as before, as quickly as possible. And I'm in a good position to know that this is far from the case." 

In doing so, Darrifourcq comes close to Aurélien Catin in his way of asking, in filigree, the question of the commitment of artists. And the ways to restore the link, essential but so fragile, between art and community.

David Sanson

Photo Festival Villeréal © Champs libres
Photo Jazz à Luz © Y François AE Médias
Photo Chahuts © Pierre Planchenault

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