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Page last updated at 12:42 GMT, Monday, 19 October 2009 13:42 UK
Art can make sense of messy world

Tom Shakespeare
By Tom Shakespeare
Chair, Arts Council North East

Tom Shakespeare
Tom will appear at the festival on Sunday 25 October

Tom Shakespeare appeared at the Free Thinking festival at The Sage Gateshead in October 2009 to discuss the use of art as a "tool for thinking".

What is art for?

There are dozens of answers to that old chestnut.

Culture is said to make the difference between just existing and really living.

Watching a film, reading a book or going dancing are ways that many people relax and revive after the pressures of work or study or family life.

Then, of course, there are the artists themselves, who make a living through their art (or try to). Mostly, they are driven by something else - the urge to create, to express themselves, to communicate.

In recent decades, people like my Arts Council colleague François Matarosso have also argued that the arts bring social benefits - for example, the role of arts in health or the way art can help build communities, or inspire young people.


In the north-east of England, we have plenty of evidence of the benefits of the arts in regeneration - just look at the Gateshead quayside and beyond.

Yoga instructor demonstrates on the 'fourth plinth'
Antony Gormley's One and Other captured public interest

However, I also think art has another role - it can make you think.

Maybe this summer's "fourth plinth" project by Antony Gormley, One and Other, did not quite work (unlike his marvellous Angel of the North). It was dubbed "Big Brother for Guardian readers", after all.

But a really strong work of art can make people understand complicated issues.

Sometimes, only art can do this. The celebrated example is Ken Loach's film, "Cathy Come Home" which communicated the reality of homelessness, and helped bring about the creation of Shelter, the homelessness charity.

Head-spinning dilemmas

As an academic, I have been interested in disability and in genetics, two complicated and often controversial topics.

There are so many different ways of looking at them, there are so many diverse factors involved.

Take the question of prenatal screening, for example. Do you listen to the doctors? To the parents? To people born with disabilities? To anti-abortion campaigners?

Can one person say what is right and what is wrong?

Carol White in Cathy Come Home
The TV drama Cathy Come Home had a big impact

Well, we social scientists can provide you with all the research about pregnancy, birth and disability. The medics can give you more facts and clinical opinions. And my philosophy and theology friends can give you plenty of arguments about reasons and judgements and values.

But, after all that, will you have any more insight or certainty as to the right way forward? Your head will be spinning!

Of course, it's always a personal issue. But I think art can play a role in helping us resolve the confusion.

Mixed-up world

A strong work of art can contain complexity and contradiction. It need not be linear, like the arguments in an academic paper.

Art can describe emotion, and can evoke emotion, something which dry facts or figures rarely do.

Art is often about stories, and characters with whom we can identify. Above all, art can help us imagine what it might be like: to face these agonising reproductive choices, to live that life.

I believe we need more thought, and more imagination. That's why I think art is important
Tom Shakespeare

Great art can be adequate to the messy, flawed, mixed-up world and the dilemmas we are faced with.

At least, that's what I think, and hope. This is why I put an artwork by British Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum on the cover of my latest book, Disability Rights and Wrongs.

It's a sculpture of a wheelchair, in clinical steel. It looks very cold and medical.

The chair has small wheels, and could not possibly be propelled by anyone sitting on its bare, uncomfortable seat.

But if you look closely, you see that the push handles are sharp carving knives, so no carer could push it either.

Tool for thinking

When I saw this sculpture, I thought it was a very powerful expression of the tensions and conflicts felt by many disabled people and their carers about independence and dependency.

Free Thinking festival logo
The festival ran from 23-25 October 2009 at The Sage Gateshead

It's an example of what I call "art as a tool for thinking". It may not be obvious what the sculpture is saying. I don't know what the artist herself thinks and she may not even be certain.

But, she has offered us an object which forces us to think, to imagine, and maybe to do things differently.

I happen to believe we need more thought, and more imagination.

That's why I think art is important.

Tom Shakespeare is chair of Arts Council North East and a member of Arts Council, England. He has lived on Tyneside since 1991, and has been active in academia and the arts, with particular interests in disability and bioethics.

He has written eight academic books, made TV and radio documentaries and performed comedy, monologues and dance at Live Theatre, Dance City and other venues in the region.

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