Home is Where We Start From

Home is Where We Start From

This is my paper given as part of the Movement for Cultural Democracy panel at the Raymond Williams Society Conference in Manchester on 26th April 2019. It’s a mash up of some previous work but I think it is a succinct account of where my thinking is at about cultural democracy and working-class culture.

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Home is where we start from: Cultural Democracy and Working-Class Struggle

Home is where we start from: Cultural Democracy and Working-Class Struggle

The struggle for cultural democracy is part of our fight back against those who have always sought to keep us down – who have always told us: “KNOW YOUR PLACE!”

I know my place: it’s called HOME. We all have homes of one sort or another. And home is where we start from. Not art galleries or spectacles or museums or whatever else we are told are “cultured” places. HOME. This is the place where we build our own cultures, our way.

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Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

This is the text from my workshop “Caught doing social work?” which was part of Manifesta 12’s M12 Education Club conference in Palermo on 19th October 2018. The workshop was held in the community centre in the ZEN social housing project. The text was used as mini provocations which led to a really interesting discussion about instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing.

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In my beginning is my end - a film about the impact of neoliberalism on our cultures, the instrumentalisation of art, & cultural democracy

In my beginning is my end - a film about the impact of neoliberalism on our cultures, the instrumentalisation of art, & cultural democracy

This is a film with narrative from a performance I gave in Belfast earlier this year about neoliberalism, instrumentalism and cultural democracy.

“We must trust in our individual and collective selves.  We must remember our struggles.  We must remember that official arts and culture and, for that matter, the creative industries, reflects only one rather small part of our arts and culture.  We do not live in a cultural democracy.  The cuts to state-sanctioned arts and cultural production makes this assertion starker as each day passes… And cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful.”

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'Of the “Devil’s Party”: Creative Commons – A Marriage of Heaven and Hell?' Transcript of recent talk at Birkbeck...

'Of the “Devil’s Party”: Creative Commons – A Marriage of Heaven and Hell?' Transcript of recent talk at Birkbeck...

I took part in Communalities, urbanities and artistic commonalities - a symposium at Birkbeck School of Arts on 5th June 2018. This is a transcript of my talk. I billed it as the meeting of William Blake and Half Man Half Biscuit via a trip to Trumpton. There's a video to accompany the talk which I'll upload soon...

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In my beginning is my end - transcript of my prose poem and film performed at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast

In my beginning is my end - transcript of my prose poem and film performed at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast

I was really privileged to be invited to take part in What Next for the Arts? - an afternoon symposium which was part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - on 12th May 2018. As I like to do whenever I get the chance nowadays, I performed the piece with accompanying film and audio. This is the transcript... A test recording of the film will be uploaded soon...

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The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song. A transcript of my talk @panda_arts & link to my presentation with notes.

The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song. A transcript of my talk @panda_arts & link to my presentation with notes.

This is the transcript and presentation with notes from my talk at Panda (The Performing Arts Network) in Manchester on 28th March 2018. The event was a celebration of the network's 15 years working with artists and communities but it was also tinged with sadness as they announced that they were unable to continue to operate due to the toxic arts funding environment and local council cuts. I spoke of two songs with two very different fields and two very different chains.

The first is the song of neoliberal state-sanctioned power and control; of compliance and conformity; of commerce and economics. This is the siren song of austerity and the systematic destruction of our communities, of our lives. This is the song that has sunk so many hopes and dreams.

The second song is that of childhood, of freedom, of creativity, of disobedience, of hope.

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Extracting New Cultural Value From Urban Regeneration: The Intangible Rise of the Social Capital Artist

Extracting New Cultural Value From Urban Regeneration: The Intangible Rise of the Social Capital Artist

This article was first published in print in Sluice Magazine and then on their website in 2017. I've decided to publish it on my website because I hope its content still resonates in 2018. It addresses issues of instrumentalism in the arts, artwashing, living creatively and cultural democracy. As I wrote in 2017, I believe "it is still possible to conceive of art as part of living creatively, as part of everyday life, as local cultural democracy, as artistic autonomy." It's time to talk about how...

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Dandelions & dissent: A review of 'Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement' edited by Alison Jeffers & Gerri Moriarty

Dandelions & dissent: A review of 'Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement' edited by Alison Jeffers & Gerri Moriarty

This review was first published in November 2017 for Artworks Alliance. It was the first review of the book which is published by Bloomsbury and can be purchased here. I am publishing it on my blog in the hope of stimulating new discussion around cultural democracy, community arts and everyday art and creativity - an area I'm working on quite a lot at the moment.

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The Status Quo Will No Longer Do! (The Corporate Takeover of Art & Artwashing, or Social Justice in a Cultural Democracy?)

The Status Quo Will No Longer Do! (The Corporate Takeover of Art & Artwashing, or Social Justice in a Cultural Democracy?)

I was kindly asked to talk alongside Labour MP Laura Pidcock, Jessie Jo Jacobs (Policy and Campaigns Officer, Northern TUC) and Ramona McCartney (National Officer for the People's Assembly) at the People's Assembly event, "In Place of Austerity", in Newcastle on 20th January 2018. It was an incredibly inspiring day! This is the transcript for my talk...

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Neoliberalism, language and engagement - A workshop

Neoliberalism, language and engagement - A workshop

This is the transcript of my 3 very short provocations presented to stimulate discussion during my workshop at the Sound Connections Social Justice Conference at Cecil Sharp House on 30th November 2017.

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Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

 

This article seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy.  It focuses on issues of instrumentalism with the arts and explores how state-initiated ‘community engagement’ programmes like Creative People and Places may effectively reproduce state agendas linked to social capital theory and thereby to neoliberalism.  It asks a series of questions: Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Do people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  If cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?

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Unlock the all-inclusive fun of a “new culture” with added “genius in everyone” NOW! (A reply to Stella Duffy's New Year provocation & arts "campaigns" like Fun Palaces)

Unlock the all-inclusive fun of a “new culture” with added “genius in everyone” NOW! (A reply to Stella Duffy's New Year provocation & arts "campaigns" like Fun Palaces)

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.

The call comes from Stella Duffy on behalf of her Fun Palaces campaign.  The campaign manifesto claims:

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.

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A Policy for the Arts: “excellence” within the reach of everyone? A contribution to #ArtsPolicy50

NPG x184224; Aneurin Bevan; Jennie Lee

It’s been almost 50 years since Jennie Lee published her white paper A Policy for the Arts – The First Steps (1965). It was Britain’s first state arts policy. Some revere it. For others, the white paper ushered in a period of government instrumentalism in the arts, increasing the powerful influence of the Arts Council. Writer and theatre maker Stella Duffy has called for the arts and culture community to mark the anniversary and is asking people to consider ‘how far we’ve come, how far we HAVEN’T come, what has changed, what else there is to do – what hope is still here for arts for all’ (Duffy, 2015). I thought I’d respond by suggesting that there is little to celebrate in Lee’s white paper. Perhaps things haven’t really changed that much?

First, let’s look at some positive responses to Lee’s A Policy for the Arts. Deborah Bull, a dancer, writer and broadcaster, and director of cultural partnerships at King’s College London, described the 50th anniversary of the white paper as ‘a significant date’ for ‘anyone with an interest in policy and the arts’ in her foreword to the recently published report Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014 (Doeser, 2015, p. 3). The report suggests that without the ‘persistence’ of ‘pioneers’ like Lee, we would not have arrived at the ‘general consensus in the arts sector and government about the value of arts engagement for children and young people’ that we, apparently, have reached today (Doeser, 2015, p. 4). I must point out that the report is not complacent about the tasks still facing arts education in future years.

For recently departed Arts Council England Chief Exec Alan Davey, Lee was a key figure. He singled Lee out for praise in his evangelistic article entitled Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet! (2012):

In the time of Jennie Lee, the first ever Arts Minister, appointed in 1964, we probably reached an equilibrium for the first time: that we fund the best - from wherever it emerges or is shown - and make it available to the most. No dumbing down, no condescending - we make the best art happen and we make sure as many people as possible can benefit from it. That's what Great Art for Everyone is. That's why I'll shout it from the rooftops. (Davey, 2012)

 

Today (25th February 2015), acting CEO of Arts Council England Althea Efunshile blogged that a ‘key theme’ of Lee’s white paper ‘was the better alignment of “excellence” on the one hand and “greater engagement” on the other’ – influences that remain ‘twin pillars’ of Arts Council England’s mission of Great art and culture for everyone (Efunshile, 2015). So it would appear that, for some (perhaps many), the legacy of Jennie Lee lives on – an arts policy that’s worth celebrating. I have some serious reservations…

I wonder whether that, by sticking to an outmoded and weak arts policy that’s now a bit long-in-the-tooth, arts and culture are in danger of missing an opportunity to REALLY redefine how we think about, fund, promote and work within the field and, critically, to rethink arts and culture from the grassroots up, rather than the top down. As a critical theorist, I’m suspicious of policy. The spectres of hierarchy, paternalism, bureaucracy, technocracy, homogeneity, etc. loom behind a thin veil of ‘it’s for the people – for everyone’ rhetoric. Lee’s paper, like current arts policy, is an attempt to democratise the arts. It ignores the more radical ideology of cultural democracy. Present policy wants to get more people to get involved in existing arts and cultural provision – it supports an ‘official culture’ and ignores or belittles other equally valid forms of cultural activities. This causes justifiable concern amongst some people involved in the field, myself included, because, as Eleonora Belfiore pointed out in 2002, ‘the fact that so much of public money goes to art forms the consumption of which is effectively still the reserve of the well-educated and the wealthy (after over 50 years of “pro-access” policies!) is undoubtedly a source of unease’ (Belfiore, 2002, p. 104). I suggest little has changed since Belfiore wrote so candidly. Lee’s white paper was one element in an arts policy that led actually excluded many working class people (and people from many other backgrounds as well). Sophie Hope explained this concisely quite recently:

With their intentions to democratise culture and take “quality art” to the working classes, the TUC, Centre 42 and the Labour government in the 1960s missed the opportunity to recognise cultural democracy by failing to acknowledge or fund the “cultural practices of the working classes” (Hope, 2011, p. 16).

 

So I’m suggesting that cultural democracy was side lined by central government arts policy, suppressed in favour of the far less democratic democratisation of culture. Undoubtedly, as David Looseley suggested, Lee ‘brought a change of direction… [b]ut the Arts Council’s position changed little’ (Looseley, 2012, p. 10). This is writ large in the rhetoric of Arts Council England today. Lee, perhaps, in her call for calling for ‘universal access’ to the arts in the 1960s ‘gently rocked the boat rather than setting it on a new course’, fortifying the idea of arts for everyone but allowing old practises to remain relatively unchallenged and unchanged (Lewis, 2014 [1990], p. 87). I believe, as did Justin Lewis, that the roots of UK arts funding lie in ‘the paternalistic conservativism of the 1950s and 1960s’ from which was born an arts policy based upon paradoxical aesthetic values (now often termed ‘quality’) ‘that simultaneously promote elitism and universal accessibility’ (ibid.). I also contest that successive governments have, to varying degrees, maintained the principles enshrined within Lee’s white paper right up until today.

Jennie Lee’s call to make ‘Britain a gayer and more cultivated country’ is revealing. It is, perhaps, calling to make more people more cultivated in officially sponsored forms of official culture. Revealingly, Lee once said that ‘“if the world was made in my image it would be perfect”’, a position that Lawrence Black suggests she concealed ‘in favour of emphasising her “function is merely a permissive one”’ – she ‘played the populist’ (Black, 2006, p. 329). Critically, for Black, Lee’s defended ‘public spending on minority, elite pastimes’ by claiming that ‘improving access to them might have a cultivating trickle-down effect or therapeutic value, combating commercial, mass, American, popular culture’ (ibid. p. 330). She was clear that ‘“before we arrogantly say that any group of our citizens are not capable of appreciating the best in the arts, let us make absolutely certain that we have put the best within their reach”’ (ibid.). This was Lee mirroring the state’s wish to project a liberal tone - ‘permissive not prescriptive’ (ibid. p. 331). Her assertion that ‘“we should be trying to bring the best within reach of all; but at the same time. . . broadening of opportunities should not lead to a lowering of standards”’ was, for Black, a case of maintaining, as Keynes had previously, the ‘equation of culture, civilisation and “high” Western art’ (ibid. p. 331-332).

Following Black, I agree that ‘Lee did not contemplate Britain’s cultural life being moulded in the left’s own image’ and avoided ‘delivering the Arts as radical agency, in favour of enabling access to established providers, mindful of her non-prescriptive role’ (ibid. p. 334). 1960s Labour was, like Blair’s New Labour and, following Ed Miliband’s recent epiphany, current Labour, ‘a convinced advocate of traditional elite culture, liberal and inclusive in purpose’ – supporting exclusive classical arts, softly manipulating art as a welfare policy tool and developing its commercial possibilities (ibid. p. 335-336). I contend that Lee, like Keynes earlier, remain influential in today’s arts and cultural field. A field now rebranded and extended further towards businesses as ‘the Creative Industries’. Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al. saw this coming a very long time ago. For me then, Lee’s white paper was and still is a blueprint for the development of an official state cultural industry based upon the faux ‘democracy’ of the ideology of the democratisation of culture. This is not an anniversary to celebrate (unless you are part of today’s art world status quo). Instead, today marks fifty years of entrenched financial support for elitism and consumerism dressed down with occasional scraps of small-change for ragged grassroots arts and the 99% of artists struggling, as always, to make a living. We struggle for cultural democracy, to tear down the citadels brick by brick, for a truly equitable arts and cultural environment. They respond by building new temples and repair existing ones, by cutting funding to initiatives with potential to engage new audiences in (albeit often flawed) initiatives such as Creative People and Places, by telling everyone to BBC Get Creative! No money – just BBC Get Creative! I suggest we need to carefully consider the history of UK arts policy. To learn from it and make real changes, not just endless reports and new ‘contracts’ written by people with vested interests.

 

Bibliography

Belfiore, E., 2002. Art As a Means of Alleviating Social Exclusion: Does It Really Work? A Critique of Instrumental Cultural Policies and Social Impact Studies In the UK. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 8(1), pp. 91-106.

Black, L., 2006. 'Making Britain a Gayer and More Cultivated Country': Wilson, Lee and the Creative Industries in the 1960s. Contemporary British History, 20(3), pp. 323-342.

Davey, A., 2012. Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet!. [Online]Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alan-davey/great-art-for-everyone-is_b_2231085.html [Accessed 11th February 2015].

Doeser, J., 2015. Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014, London: Kings College London.

Duffy, S., 2015. Jennie Lee White Paper Anniversary – 25th February 2015. [Online] Available at: https://stelladuffy.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/jennie-lee-white-paper-anniversary-25th-february-2015/ [Accessed 11th February 2015].

Efunshile, A., 2015. The Legacy of Jennie Lee. [Online] Available at: http://blog.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/arts-council-england-blog/legacy-jennie-lee [Accessed 25th February 2015].

Hope, C. S., 2011. Participating in the ‘Wrong’ Way? Practice Based Research into Cultural Democracy and the Commissioning of Art to Effect Social Change, London: Birkbeck, University of London.

Lewis, J., 2014 [1990]. Art, Culture and Enterprise: The Politics of Art and the Cultural Industries. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Looseley, D., 2012. Notions of the popular in cultural policy: a comparative history of France and Britain. In: D. Looseley, ed. Policy and the Popular. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 5-19.