16th August 2017
A new role for the artist?
16th August 2017


An 8 minute ‘bite’ delivered by John Fox and Sue Gill in Queen Elizabeth Hall
for SouthBank Centre’s Festival  "Art will Change the World"  25th June 2012



“Art will Change the World”

As a pathological optimist I endorse this but there are questions. Such as what kind of art and whose world do we have in mind? I advocate a vernacular celebratory art that is integrated into our lives, which offers a creative outlet for the majority, where process comes before product and where participation is all. It is energized through an altruistic gift relationship . It is playful and improvised and includes carnivals, cooking, gardening, building houses, telling stories, making music, seasonal festivals and marking key life changes with new ceremonies for essential rites of passage.

Such an art currently only exists in the western world in occasional pockets of community art often token and frequently surrogate social work in disguise.

Artist/poets can shift perception and demonstrate imaginative possibilities. Unfortunately like so much else in our market driven culture much ART has become institutionalized bureaucratized and colonized by investment ,celebrity, novelty, spectacle and dodgy sponsorship. It has become a consumed product controlled from a huge pyramid of desks and relationship managers, rather than a ground up creative process accessible to all.

Then lets look at the world. Other cultures do not separate art from life and segregate aesthetic experience to the exclusive realms of the museum, art gallery, theatre or concert hall. Some cultures integrate art and nature with a holistic perspective and reverence which is missing in our dominant culture. And to be blunt if we do want to change the world may it not be better first to look at agriculture, water supplies and sanitation before art? Or are we to rationalize that the lateral thinking we associate with art education will facilitate imaginative solutions for even these issues?

If I were to be really grim I could ask too you how will art help our grandchildren deal with the alleged coming storm of 2030 when population growth and food and water shortages (exacerbated by climate change) will generate a crisis for the whole world ? Even now 18 million people are facing starvation in Africa.

Currently our financial and religious structures are collapsing so can art help us mark significant priorities ? Well first we need new structures of thinking.

What really gives us peace of mind ? How may we select and celebrate true priorities?. How do we create a universal non eurocentric, ecologically minded culture which may be less materially based but where we all participate and rejoice in creative moments which give meaning and purpose to our lives?

Here are a few positive examples from our own work where we have been wrestling with such questions for over four decades: Talk to slides.


For 25 years in Cumbria we orchestrated the annual Ulverston Lantern Parade. A multigenerational event that created its own tradition and grew to 4 separate rivers of light that flowed together in the centre of this small market town. An evening where families come together to celebrate with artworks made with their own hands and their imagination and creativity. The materials are simple – willow sticks, masking tape, tissue paper and candles. Each lantern is handmade with the help and encouragement of skilled artists.

The Lantern Parade reinforces pride of place and reminds us of seasonal rhythyms – it is always at the start of autumn. A moment of excess where we shut the streets to traffic and connect with neighbours and friends. It costs nothing to be involved and draws a huge following. People who participated themselves as young children bring their own offspring to the event as a rite of passage. Art has certainly changed this small community.

Lantern Parades form this prototype are now to be found all over the world from Vancouver to Darwin to South Africa to the Shetlands. The townspeople of Ulverston are now running this on their own.



A precursor to our successful Arts Lottery bid of 1996 was a self built cruck barn. Connecting head hands and heart and revitalizing the brains in our fingers. Researching traditional Cumbrian building techniques and recruiting a gang of twenty volunteers taught by master green wood carpenters, we built the barn over one long hot summer. Topping out and other ceremonies were spontaneously integrated into the course of the work.

Could this be one solution to young people’s housing needs? A different housing benefit maybe?


This was a secular requiem using site specific theatre techniques to commemorate and memorialize the sinking of scores of Grimsby trawlers during the Battle of the Atlantic. It started with a musical vigil round an ice bound trawler then expanded to burning ships and a final unlikely vision, as a giant haddock descended from the night to present a tiny crystal trawler to a survivor in a rowing boat. Actual survivors, very old veterans of the battle read out the names of their dead comrades. Musical accompaniment was a Brass band and a specially written song - “The longest street in Grimsby is called Hope.” Which it was and is.


As we all get older our friends start to die. I don’t know about you but we’ve been to some truly awful funerals. the conveyor belt sort where, as one funeral takes place inside the crematorium, the next is lining up outside. It does not have to be like that.

So the next phase of our work began, using creativity and arts practice to find a way to improve funerals, to create new secular ceremonies that are still legal and dignified, yet are distinctive and have meaning for those involved.

Coombe, made by Duncan Copley, is a sculptural waymarker and at the same time, an urn for ashes.

How do you express the inexpressible at a time of grief and loss? We need poetry, song, music, as well as the visual arts, dance, silence ... we need to find these languages which permit us to feel things we have maybe never felt before. Art can change our death and dying.

We published the Dead Good Funeral Book–a no nonsense guide to creating your own funeral, and 7 years on there is a measurable change in the funerals industry – more flexibility, more choice, more transparency, more ecological awareness.

We also run a programme to train people who want to be independent celebrants – not just for funerals but for ceremonies to mark many other of life’s milestones. Birth and marriage –yes – but also the darker side – divorce, redundancy, illness, loss.

And this is Wishbone House, a portable ceremonial space that has witnessed many ceremonies.



As dominions of economics, religion and art break down, some people respond to such change as an exciting challenge. Some give up. Once the old frameworks and supportive iconographies have disappeared and until new patterns can develop, a depressive and fearful violence can permeate the vacuum of uncertainty.

So, let us start in a small and a domestic way. Make life and art work together. I work for my neighbours to the best of my ability. Last week we painted signs for our village coffee morning; over the weekend I played in a community street band for the Great North Swim and next week I am playing accordion on the pensioners’ sunset cruise on Coniston Water.

I wish to find and maintain a playful art that demonstrates what it is to be human; where consciousness is shifted to a realm of poetic resonance, a realm of visceral, sensual, aesthetic collaboration. A truly ecological poetry. One of love and collaboration For me if science is “a way of thinking” then Art is “a way of being”. And we urgently need more of it. A lot more.

JUDE KELLY asked each contributor to bring a short ‘tool’/ practical piece of advice for changing the world:



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