A new year. A cultural event. Not all cultures. Our culture’s.
Traditionally, at least in our culture, a time of misadvised, soon misplaced resolutions. Most are very personal. The one I want to talk about here is “for everyone”. Yes, that’s right, everyone! It’s an all-inclusive provocation. A call for change, for cultural change.
We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better.
We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a Fun Palace.
Now, call me miserly, but I’ve always been a little suspicious of the adage that “everyone is an artist”, and the idealistic notion that creativity can somehow, magically make the world a better place, and ‘radical fun’, and Fun Palaces. But, now is not the time to dig too deep here.
This is a critique (disparaged on my Twitter timeline before even coming into being) of a new year’s provocation entitled It’s time to make change.
The provocation begins with a brief affirmation of Duffy’s working class credentials. All good. It moves on to reference her involvement with the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations – another, for me, deeply suspect initiative that brings together project partners the Institute of Cultural Capital, pseudo-movement What Next?, and the middle of the road Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) whose current strapline is “21st century enlightenment” and whose leader is ex-New Labour strategist and fellow New Year’s Day author Matthew Taylor who called, on the same day as Duffy’s provocation, for a “moderate insurgency”. Let’s just say that there’s more than a whiff of the Third Way politics that took the centre ground by storm when introduced by Tony Blair and continues to influence many academics and politicians, including much current Tory party policy, today. Giddens and his pals have an awful lot to answer for, if you ask me, but that’s another different story. The point here is that any attempt to align art and civic roles and responsibilities is always, in my opinion, only going to lead to increased instrumentalism and standardisation; compliance and conformity. Let’s just say that the Civic Role Arts project brings together all the usual “arts leaders”, including Duffy, and a range of other “partners” including representatives of London’s Olympic Park regeneration and, most odiously, the Bank of America’s managed wealth arm Merrill Lynch – the one’s that caused the financial crisis in 2008!
It is worth briefly noting that, writing for the Civic Role Arts project, Duffy said that if everyone (that’s arts organisations and citizens, I think) worked together “we can together create a new culture – truly accessible to all, because it is created by all”. Eyebrow raising stuff! The mechanism for this “new culture” would be the mainstreaming of “civic and cultural engagement”. The solution took the form of “[s]haring power” which Duffy said would not be “easy” yet could yield “new cultural leaders” who would lead the people to “create a new culture, a culture (finally) for and by all”. The spirit of paternalistic hierarchy seemed destined for a reboot rather than a revolutionary demise in this “new [civic] culture”. The themes in this piece of writing seem to have formed the foundation’s for Duffy’s new year provocation.
Finally, after further background tinting, on to a discussion of the main body of Duffy’s provocation It’s time to make change.
Duffy seems worried that many Brexit voters don’t like arts and culture nor organisations “however small and underfunded, however vast and running the nation”, stating that ‘if we do not find ways to include them, on their terms rather than ours, they will find ways to exclude us”. More than a little taste of us and them evident here. The suggestion appears to be that both the arts and cultural sector (which, plainly, Duffy situates Fun Palaces within) and political elites must somehow attempt to “listen to” disenfranchised groups to avoid a potentially major political shift – the exclusion of “us” by “their” no longer voting for “us”. Interestingly, the words “small and underfunded” link to a donations page for Fun Palaces, thereby equating the campaign’s quoted income of (not much) “less than £120,000” – an amount later described in a clear plea for increased core funding as unsustainable given that the campaign had “doubled our output and impact in 2016 with no more money, no more staff and no more time”. This might be “radical fun” but it still happily provides data to the powers that be in return for funding (though don’t we all).
The picture painted here advocates strongly for Fun Palaces model based upon the idea that “all cultural organisations – all arts and all science – need to be for and of the people. ALL of the people”; for being “the change we want to see”; for an “inclusive, diverse, accessible, available to all” and a “boundary breaking, challenging, new” culture. This is a vision of a “new culture” must be created by us - by a new, open, inclusive and less-elitist cultural sector – built upon encouraging the majority excluded from the creation of “our culture” (that of arts and cultural institutions and the state, it would seem to me) to get involved. Nevertheless, Duffy is quick to declare that “cultural organisations cannot be the status quo” and that UK arts and sciences are for a minority, by a minority. The problem here is that, clearly, cultural organisations, or, more precisely, institutions, are part of the status quo and have been since at least the beginning of the Enlightenment. Apparently, “too much of our culture is hidden”. Low and behold, the solution is outreach! Nothing radical there then.
The provocation then takes a further Fun Palaces focused turn:
We have achieved it by putting people and communities first. By being very clear that we believe anyone can make a Fun Palace and we will support anyone to do so. By not only saying yes to everyone who wants to join in, but by actively inviting people to do so, by going to them.
So this is not about “everyone”, it’s about Fun Palaces. Fair enough. But the implication here is that their approach is something new when it is not. Other than the Fun Palaces brand, it is difficult to see how this approach is any different from those of older, and indeed current (although often ignored and under-/ un-funded), community and other grassroots arts practices. Their language of “everyday creativity”, “grassroots engagement”, “cultural engagement”, “active participation – for, by and with all, with an emphasis on doing, on taking part” parrots (to a great extent) that of the state. This is nothing new, just a new set of words for old community arts practice.
Duffy decries “top-down instrumentalism” and the notion that art is “good for people” on the one hand, yet the provocation appears to offer Fun Palaces as a replacement or simple mask for continued (perhaps slightly more democratic) forms “top-down instrumentalism” and shouts over and over that culture (and science) are “good for people” (perhaps people than presently engage with it but, nevertheless, still good for people). She is not calling for a revolution but a rebalancing of “our cultural ecology” for the sake of all society – a clear attempt to naturalise cultural imbalances. Then she calls for “grassroots-up cultural democracy” to be given “a chance”. Firstly, Fun Palaces is not about cultural democracy but an attempt to democratise “our culture” (read, their culture). Secondly, it will take more than a quiet plea for the kind of radical, systemic overhaul of the current state and its cultural elites demanded by the realisation of true cultural democracy.
Furthermore, by claiming that “no community in the history of humanity that has not created their own culture”, Duffy misses the point that it is also true that no culture has ever included “everyone” in the process of creating neither its culture nor its community. Of course, there are numerous, arguably almost infinite, cultures and communities. Some are accepted, others rejected; some celebrated, others despised; some canonised, others demonised; some “invested in”, others destroyed. Nonetheless, she is convinced that “only together … can [we] build an inclusive culture”. We again. Who is this “we”, I wonder? Is it a consistent “we” or a context-specific “we”? Clearly, the Fun Palaces “we” claims to be uncovering a previously untapped, perhaps almost mythical, “genius in everyone”. For me, the notion that there is “genius in everyone” is deeply problematic. It at once activates superiority in everyone whilst simultaneously devaluing superiority. Perhaps it is more equitable, more socially just to conceive of no one as being a ‘genius’ and everyone as being human beings struggling to live, to be creative, to exist in the place where they live. Either way, genius is always a marker for hierarchy.
Ultimately, the suggestion throughout this provocation is that if “everyone” works “together” “we can build an inclusive culture”. Yet what is this all-inclusive culture? One that excludes no one? One culture for all the people? A culture of all cultures? A culture that respects the elites, begs, Oliver Twist-style, and humbly doffs its cap when instructed, pleased to have been given some “more”? The notion of everyone working together for a fairer culture/ community could be interpreted as a rather socialist ideal. Not here though. This is not socialism. This is Third Wave 2.0. Cultural centrism for a frightened, neoliberal cultural elite. “Things can only get better” (or, in this case, more Fun Palaces) reheated for the proles, the culturally deprived, the disengaged – the Brexit voters! It is not, of course. Rather it is a salve for the middle-classes and a cudgel for what little remains of the troublesome revolutionary artists and activists stubbornly unwilling to become missionaries for a “fun” cultural mission aimed squarely at pacifying and civilising those unruly natives who hate galleries, museums, operas, theatres, and all the other officially sanctioned forms of culture. Those deemed uncultured are those deemed fit to be displaced from their families, homes, communities by a growing cultural elite. They need “us”. They need “fun”. They need “palaces”. They need art and culture. They MUST be included. They are turning against their masters. MAKE "THEM" PARTICIPATE IN "OUR" CULTURE!
The people who do not like arts and culture like other things, and that’s fine. Neither arts and culture nor science is for everyone. Perhaps everyone already has their own cultures? Who are “we” to tell them they need to make a new, all-inclusive, fully approved, falsely-democratic culture? To do so is, I argue, divisive and insidious. To do so is to enforce compliance and conformity to existing (and perhaps some new) norms. To put doing ahead of listening, looking, seeing, thinking, being is to ignore the importance of first understanding the world. To create new cultures in place of old (for culture is always in everyone) is a form of doing known as colonialism – the colonisation of people’s minds.
Many artists and arts organisations are very angry. As artist Ben Jones commented in response to the provocation, “A stench of repressive tolerance emanates from these palaces”.
For me, initiatives (oops, I mean campaigns) hoover up funding with their all-boxes-ticked approach and "fun" appeal. The effect is to (intentionally) further exclude truly autonomous art and community work, marginalising professional arts practices and many community groups and local people already deemed peripheral by the state, its quangos (like Arts Council England), and the NGOs and philanthropic foundations who are increasingly employed by and aligned with the state. Both Fun Palaces and other state-led "community engagement" programmes play on THEIR false, limited and middle-class notions of "fun", "diversity", "community", "art", "culture", "empowerment", "participation" and "place". It is a dangerous façade that masks close compliance to state (read Tory) agendas. This is all part of an attempt to destroy autonomous, dangerous, critical and challenging art and community work. Their intention is deliberate. Their happy photos and fun logos should fool no one. This is state instrumentalism delivered, kumbaya-style, to a small, willing and malleable section of a certain element of certain communities (the "least engaged", the "social housing tenants", the "homeless", etc.). No critique allowed. No political position other than some Third Way ideological centrism underpinned by the false hope of Habermassian deliberative democracy.