Yes, of course I know what Melvyn Bragg and Grange Hill are.....

Published 20 November 2012 / By COMPAS Communications

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By: Ida Persson, Research & Communications Officer

In all its various forms “Art”, it is said, is meant to transcend the physical and touch the individual on an emotional level. The beauty of art is meant to cross boundaries and differences. But what happens when the art becomes dependent on a shared understanding, be it of language, culture, background etc.? Art is all about interpretation but what if the piece of art is reliant on such factors to be ‘complete’ (i.e. understood beyond the individual response/interpretation)?

If one assumes that integration requires a proficiency in the language of the society, and that that language is not only the spoken language but also the cultural language, what does this mean for an individual’s sense of integration if there are barriers to this proficiency?

Art and integration have been widely discussed in terms of being a means to integration via the engagement in and practice of art (such as joining music or theatre groups), the representation of migration, the migrant experience and integration (through music, theatre, films, photography, graffiti etc.), and the appropriation of forms of art by migrants (e.g. migrant comedians using their experiences as the basis for part of their routine). But how can art be used/understood as a sign of or indeed hindrance to integration, not by those who practice it or are represented in it, but by those simply encountering it?

Of course understanding and liking don’t necessarily go together, but if you understand a joke, appreciate a song, or love a painting because of its background, its references or its heritage, in a new country or culture, does that mean you are any more or less integrated that someone else? One can ask if not understanding it because one doesn’t get the references might create a sense of isolation, or a feeling that you’ve missed something and that you are not part of the society’s shared experience. Would it make you reluctant to engage in active attempts for further integration?

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Much comedy is universal. We all enjoy non-verbal physical humour that can, in a simple moment, communicate a ludicrous but shared human experience (the pratfall, the farcical entrance/exit, the run in with a lamppost). There is a reason the quiet but physical Mr. Bean is one of the most internationally loved and understood characters, in the same way that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were. But what of the comedy that relies on cultural references, on a particular language, or a background understanding?

I think comedy is one of the arts in which a shared background, a linguistic understanding (e.g. play on words, double entendres etc), references to cultural behaviour, will definitely affect a person’s understanding and/or enjoyment of the art.

Although you might enjoy Monty Python’s The Four Yorkshire men sketch, to take a very simple example, do you fully understand it without having an awareness of the socio-economic and cultural statement being made?  If you’ve recently arrived in the country and hear a joke about Wayne Rooney and are expected to find it funny, without knowing who he is, does that create a sense of unease?

I am the only non-English member of the sketch group The Dead Secrets. The six members all write sketches and do improvised comedy together. I normally pride myself in my cultural knowledge and understanding, cultivated by my international upbringing. But I find there are moments where a cultural reference passes me by, and therefore the joke.

This can be anything from references to 1980’s children shows, sports personalities, political events, or artistic reference (e.g. I recently wrote a character that all the other 5 members referred to as the “Melvyn Bragg character” until I had to fess up that I didn’t really know who Melvyn Bragg was…)

This still hits me with a passing sense of exclusion, as “the outsider”. And, I imagine, does the same for anyone trying to experience comedy.

“I don’t know much about art but I know what I like”
A painting, in the same way as comedy, can have a meaning beyond that seen by the neutral observer. For example, the Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square on White Ground can for those not interested in modern art (such as myself) be thought wholly unenjoyable and pointless. But when set in the context of the political and historical environment in which he was working it suddenly takes on a fuller and more interesting meaning.

Music is the result of its historical and social development. It has often developed, in fact, by it’s use by “the outsider” as a means of expression and communication. It continues to do so today. For example, hip hop is commonly used as a tool for integration by groups of young people in a diaspora as a means of reinterpreting forms of belonging (B.Gidley, COMPAS) and creating a space for being. However, again, what if you are not trying to create it, but just understand it?

This of course can apply to everyone, not just those seeking to integrate into a new society. But is there something about the historically and socially shared experience that perhaps somehow immediately disadvantages “the outsider”? Something that creates a sense of a barrier to overcome to fully engage in the cultural life of a society?