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Arts should not be free

“Arts are free. The artistic freedom when artists creates arts must be un-negotiable – or else its quality decreases”.

Such comments are normal when someone talks about integrating a perspective such as gender equality in artistic processes. Or wants to take ethnicity, class or disability as a starting point when working with arts. 

A plausible summary is that the artist should try to isolate the work from outer influences that might interfere and risk the quality of the work. For me, this notion of the freedom of arts and its connection to quality is a widely spread, obsolete, un-modern and dusty misconception about how meaningful and fulfilling art can be.

For three years [since year 2009] I’m working as arts director, executive manager and director at the children’s and youngsters’ stage, Stockholm city theatre in Skärholmen. We make theatre and performing arts for children and youngsters between 5 to 19 years of age. It takes about 20 minutes to go from Stockholm city to Skärholmen. It is a huge city district with 33 000 inhabitants, having a background from 150 countries and where more or less every belief, music taste, sexual orientation, food culture, gender and skin colour is represented from all around the globe. Many people who live in Stockholm but not in Skärholmen would probably say that Skärholmen is sort-of in the periphery. That it isn’t the centre. That it isn’t central. Skärholmen is not the place wherefrom you describe and interpret the world and tell stories about it.

But for me, when working as a director and now when taking decisions as a manager in Skärholmen, my point of view has been precisely this: looking at things with a perspective that is not the dominant one. To stay critical towards the norm.

By norm I mean those things that we take for granted, that we think concerns everyone, that are perceived as pivotal. Skärholmen as a place is not the norm. The dominant perspective doesn’t dominate here. Therefore, it’s optimal working as a theatre manager right in a place such as Skärholmen when you want to work norm-critically.

The norm-critical perspectives are the basis of all our activities but especially in the artistic work at the theatre. Every project is thoroughly checked and what’s interesting right now decides the organisation of the process. Those stories and expressions we choose, are often about playing with the norms and making them visible for the audiences. In the plays of Orlando and The meaning of life that we’ve been working with this autumn [year 2012] gender and age norm are in focus. Who is man and who is woman? Does an 8- and 80-year-old see the world that differently? Putting Orlando – this modern queer classic - on stage in Skärholmen is norm-breaking as such: what kind of stories are to be told and in what kind of places. Come on, does Orlando really belong to a multicultural suburb? Yes, indeed it does – the norm-critical perspective is what the suburb and the Orlando figure have in common.

Carrying norm-critical glasses as an artist allows you to consciously look at the world: how the norms shape our values, how they control, exclude and limit our living space in so many ways. For those who are inside the norm but primarily for those outside.

If you don’t scrutinise the dominant perspective, if you don’t look at it critically, if you don’t develop a norm-critical perspective and let it be your guiding star in the artistic work, I believe that arts become both limited and limiting. It is both a responsibility and a duty for those working with arts financed by public grants to actively and consciously work to carry those norm-critical glasses. Through them you can ponder about yourself and the world around you.

And only then can arts be free and liberating. Accessible and relevant to everyone. Outside and inside the norm.

More about Skärholmen theatre from their own website.

Carolina Frände 2012

English translation by Nardin Crisbi

[note] = notes by translator are marked in square brackets

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