If life is art, then the documentary Ceremony by Phil Collins at the Baltic very much qualifies. Ceremony is a documentary composed of three parts; the transportation of a statue of Friedrich Engels across Europe to Manchester, the stories of the modern Manchester working class and the celebration of the statue being installed. Engels is known as one of the authors of the Communist Manifesto alongside his friend, Karl Marx. But before this in 1845, Engels lived in Manchester and wrote with Marx The Conditions of the Working Class in England based upon the working class living in Manchester at that time. The themes of temporary work and education that is influenced by the politics and religions of the ruling class in Engels work are still relevant for 2017, when the film was first released. One major difference however is that instead of just being a writers topic, the documentary brings the lives of the people into the forefront of the story. The experiences of people translated into art is a way of prompting action or a response and is the main area I will be looking at. (Well done for getting past the first paragraph, I can only write like a scientist. My apologies).
Of course people’s living conditions is a popular theme in art. Even Charles Dickens did this, specifically in his novel Nicholas Nickleby. Written in 1838-1839 it strongly critiques the Yorkshire boarding schools of the time. One in particular served as his inspiration: Bowes Hall Academy. This school had horrendous living conditions for its wards and was a representative of most at that time. Dickens witnessed students being beaten, widespread blindness and evidence of death. Charles Dickens used this experience to add depth to his characters; for example Smike the maltreated student, and the vicious headmaster Wackford Squeers. Eventually in 1840, many of these schools went out of business, and the gathered attention on this system by Dickens’ book arguably played a part in this. Dickens was known for his descriptions on a lot of the living conditions of the lower classes during this time and through his personal experiences of poverty.
Unfortunately poverty is also still present today. In 2014-2015 a documentary called Shy Bairns Get Nowt by Vice looked into food poverty in the UK. A food bank, located in the West End of Newcastle, was giving food parcels to 1000 people per week. The documentary primarily followed ‘Barry’ as he used this food bank. We get to know Barry more and more as the documentary goes on and we build up a closer depiction of what he is going through. Other people who use the foodbank and help there are also interviewed throughout the documentary. It represents these people’s reality in a way that evokes a response in you, which I believe art should do. Food poverty is a hidden aspect of society that can affect anyone. The title ‘Shy Bairns Get Nowt’ is a Geordie proverb meaning if you don’t ask you don’t get anything. How much that applies to the people who would rather starve than use a foodbank or a wider acknowledgement of the Shy Bairns of society that are ignored is anyone’s guess.
A major champion of ‘reality encased in beauty and truth’ (Joseph Ishill, 1931) is Emma Goldman. Emma Goldman was an anarchist feminist who wrote Anarchism and other Essays in 1910 (would recommend). She was a committed activist and lecturer who critiqued many different aspects of society such as religion, the Soviet Union, and women’s rights. She also worked to bring to the American public plays, such as Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and works by Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. She believed that great art has always gone to the masses, particularly that art and life are one and the same. She worked at this all her life bringing reality as radical thought into her discussion. Showcasing or creating art about the everyday life, like the examples given is as powerful now as it was back then.
Even if you don’t know about Friedrich Engels, Emma Goldman or Charles Dickens (I didn’t read Nicholas Nickleby, the internet is a wonderful thing). Showing any reality in an artistic format is what I love about art. Ceremony, Nicholas Nickleby and Shy Bairns Get Nowt are all examples of this. It is about showing people’s lives and struggles in a way that makes you think and even act. Which is what art should aim to do.
TL;DR showing people’s lives and experiences, particularly the lower and working classes at the forefront of art pieces is powerful and important.
References I used and further reading:
The Conditions of the Working Class in England and Ceremony
Nickleby https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/nicholas-nickleby-and-the-yorkshire- schools
Shy Bairns Get Nowt
Shy Bairns get nowt https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/dp5gwq/shy-bairns-get-nowt-inside-britains-biggest-f oodbank https://gdblogs.shu.ac.uk/b3023955/2015/05/07/shy-bairns-get-nowt-inside-britains-bigg est-foodbank/