‘I think everyone wants to enjoy themselves…
there’s nothing wrong with the idea of culture as ‘entertainment’...’
At 6pm last Saturday, 45 mezze boards covered the work surfaces of our cafe kitchen. Three of us filled them with dips, falafel, crudités, olives, cheeses and meat; a production line of colours, textures, tastes and smells. As we took them out to our pre-concert diners, I noticed a new kind of energy in the bar amidst the chatter and clatter, relaxed and heartwarming, like the candle-light on the worn wooden table.
Pre-concert food is a new venture for us at the Granary. We’re running a lot of pilots this year; art trips for schools, drop-in crafts for children, storytelling, BBQs and afternoon teas, all happily complimenting our live music and exhibition programme. They each generate their own ambience, partly drawn from us, but mostly driven by the people who engage with them. We spend time talking to visitors, thinking about what people do when they come here, observing the ways that they experience art and music and questioning what an Arts Centre is for. But if you really want a straight answer to something, ask a group of primary school children. ‘Why do people come to an Arts Centre?’ I said to Year 2. ‘To eat cake’ they replied. Indeed, our cafe has the most delicious sweet treats. But there were more hands reaching for the sky. ‘To enjoy themselves’, they said… ‘to learn about the world’ and ‘to be entertained’.
I particularly loved the last answer. ‘Entertainment’ has become something of a dirty word in the Arts. In an eloquently written defence of the short story, author Michael Chambon places entertainment in its contemporary context of faded grandeur; cheap, sequinned, with buzzing neon lights, ‘trading in cliche and product placement’. The idea of pleasure seeped into the word and with this, disapproval at its hedonistic, transient and mass-produced undertones and association with passivity: you entertain us, we are entertained. ‘Entertainment, in short’ writes Chambon, ‘means junk, and too much junk is bad for you’.
It wasn’t always the case. The original meaning of the word ‘entertainment’ is a lovely one; it comes from the Old French entretenir meaning holding together, or exchanging mutual support. ‘Like trees growing together’ says Chambon, ‘each sustaining and bearing the other… a transfer of strength and contact’. The verb ‘to entertain’ has retained something of this meaning: we entertain ideas, each another, theories, prospects and grudges. As a two way connection, as a bridge between people and ideas, entertainment is a job fit for artists and something that Arts Centres can aspire to.
But there is nothing wrong with pleasure either, as Year 2 reminded me. I think that people want to enjoy themselves when they come to the Granary, whether that’s eating cake surrounded by art, books and music, creating something or seeking inspiration. Being part of a live music experience generates an incredibly powerful feeling of ‘togetherness’; an overwhelming sense of solidarity, community and belonging. Sitting in a warm, still, softly lit concert hall, I can become utterly lost in music. I can hear forgotten or marginalised aspects of a familiar piece, or I can drift into the unfamiliar landscape of a new sound-world in a kind of dissociated self-exile. Getting lost in music revels in the joy of discovery and unknown outcomes; I think it's the most ‘real’ encounter you can have with music and it is far from passive. It’s liberating and it means you are following your own path, not a well-trodden one. The primary school children were right again: you can learn about the world if you’re willing to lose yourself in art or music.
Everyone’s idea of enjoyment and entertainment is different and everyone comes to music or art for unique and often surprising reasons. I was deeply moved when a lady told me that she came to a Sunday lunchtime viola concert because her late husband used to practise his viola at that time. A visitor to a recent exhibition told me that he sat in front of a painting for nearly an hour because it brought hidden and powerful thoughts to the surface. An elderly gentleman comes to our classical concerts to scrutinise the instruments; he used to be a luthier. Another audience member came to a piano recital, not to hear a specific piece, but to hear a specific note in a specific piece. Every human interaction - whether verbal (through conversation and written word) or voiceless (through music and art) - is an opportunity to understand and to be understood.
Culture is always a two-way process which has something to do with the Arts and something to do with ordinary ways of living; a vibrant, symbiotic flow between those who create and those who respond. We cannot and do not aim to please everyone here at the Granary. A bland, neutral one-environment-fits-all would result in an atmosphere of ambivalence, apathy and lethargy, where no-one ever asks a question and there is never any change. We want to offer a mezze board of rich cultural experiences that enable people to be curious, try something new, change their minds, return for more, pick and choose for enjoyment or entertainment or to learn about the world. In my two and a half years as CEO of the Granary, I’m endlessly grateful to - and fascinated by - our brilliant, unpredictable, individual audiences and visitors who shape and create the future of the Granary with us.
Kate Romano, April 2023