Outside Edge: Matt Hanson on the 12 steps of Arts Anonymous

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The Independent Culture
We're going to enlightenment through the 12 steps. Religion used to fill that role. Not any more.' Abigail - it's first names only here - is adamant about this. As an artist, she's experienced how the 12 steps have allowed her to regain control of her creativity. As a trustee on the board of ARTS Anonymous, she's intent on spreading the message.

'ARTS is for people who have trouble committing to their calling. Just like a great athlete may have a need to swing a bat or kick a soccer ball, many people need to make art. But look, we're all raised to get a job, a business card, work nine to five. All that stuff. You don't have that as an artist.'

The group can't remedy this. What it does aim to do is give a person the confidence to get past it. The organisation started more than 10 years ago in the USA, adapting the ground-breaking 12- step programme devised by Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s, to give help to writers, painters, film- makers - in fact, anyone having trouble getting in touch with the mythical muse. With more than 150 chapters in America, it's clear this phenomenon can't be dismissed as a faddish invention of an LA set addicted to therapy.

Abigail again: 'This isn't a support group or therapy but a way to understand our spiritual gifts. A way to hone our creativity. Look at the organisation's title, ARTS Anonymous. ARTS stands for Artists Recovering Through the 12 Steps. It's the R word - recovery - that is the most important. We can do this by building a solid spiritual base with our Art Buddy - a helpmate in recovery whom we speak to daily about our artistic work - and our chapter.'

The whole idea of sharing intimacies with a group of unknowns voluntarily might seem antithetical to the British reserve. Yet the first ARTS chapter in London has had a huge response. There are more than 30 members, covering a broad spectrum of disciplines, ages and achievements, who meet to discuss not only the essential 12 steps, but also creative tools, the rejection of negative thoughts, daily or monthly action plans and such intriguing conditions as the Anorexia of Avoidance. The first item on the agenda is a communal read-through of Trait 1: 'We grew up in an atmosphere of invalidation which resulted in ambivalence about our artistic expression . . .' A member of the London chapter, who preferred not to be identified, spoke of the difference the group makes: 'We are part of an artists' community - giving and receiving helps to honour our creativity. From an early age, and especially through our teens, this is sabotaged. Most of us need to heal.'

No matter if ARTS Anonyous to many is another manifestation of all that's bad about transatlantic culture, the refrain 'My name is . . . and I'm an artist' appears set to become commonplace.

ARTS Anonymous can be contacted on 071-222 1498. Regular meetings at 11.00am, Sundays at the Convent on Blandford Street, London W1

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