This is a video recording of my lecture entitled Rethinking the role of artists in regeneration contexts. It was recorded at Northumbria University on 24th November 2017. Includes a short Q&A at the end.Read More
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.Read More
This is the second of two blog posts examining recently published reports. The first post focused on the civic role of arts organisations. This post is a response to Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone and some of the other discussions that developed from its publication.Read More
Two new reports were recently released about how the arts and creativity might engage with society and communities in more meaningful ways. The first was Rethinking Relationships – an enquiry into the civic role of arts organisations commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; the second was Towards cultural democracy, commissioned by Kings College London. Both reveal, for me, different and yet loosely interrelated attempts to find new ways to advocate for the arts or “everyday creativity”. This is the first of two blog posts in which I begin to critically examine the reports. The focus here is on Rethinking Relationships.Read More
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?Read More
This is a copy of my abstract submitted for the forthcoming Creative People and Places conference entitled (unbelievably) People, Place, Power. It was rejected. Perhaps it was not academic enough or badly written? Or perhaps it might have been a little challenging for some panel members? Anyway, I stand by my words...Read More
Oh, look: "Good news" for the (implicitly neoliberal) "Creative Industries"! MORE NEW BUILDINGS!
[Sounds of corks popping.]
Hang on a minute, isn't there a big fiscal black hole that needs filling? Not to worry, that's not Art's burden. Not Art that's part of UK's world dominating Creative Industries (and I mean that in an Imperialistic colonising sense, of course).Read More
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 , 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.
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 . 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.
Doctor Faustus in a magic circle, Woodcut, 1648
I have always been perplexed when people talk of “quality”. It’s a strangely powerful word, given that it is essentially neutral. Colloquially, people say things like, “He’s a quality player,” meaning that the person has an excellent footballing attribute (or attributes): goal scoring, tackling, whatever. In science and philosophy, a quality is one element amongst a host of attributes (or qualities) that make up an entity – each quality can be good, bad, etc. In business, quality refers to fitness for purpose, defined by a company in relation to their chosen target market’s expectations; it is often qualified, internally, by judgments of what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. Clearly, the word “quality” has different interpretations in different situations but always requires qualification. So, when I hear the term used in discussions about art or artistic practice, especially when delivered without qualification, I always shrug.
Let’s be honest, quality in art usually means (and is usually qualified as meaning) “excellent” (or at least “good”). When used without qualification, quality still implies “good” or “excellent”, so why not be honest? Well, we live in times when “excellence” can sound elitist so, perhaps, it’s best not to say as much. We also use quality to refer to an aspect of a work of art in relation to its other qualities. There are qualities in art objects and art processes. And, of course, we’re well aware of the creeping managerialism that seeks to standardise arts practice with the aim of professionalising the arts (and artists). This is good for funders and policymakers and good for academia but not necessarily for artists. And what field of the arts is most prone to attempts at standardisation and professionalisation? Participatory arts. So, when I saw Quality in Participatory Art by ex-Helix Arts Chief Exec, Toby Lowe, on the #culturalvalue initiative website, I was intrigued (Lowe, 2015). This blog post attempts to critically respond to some of the perspectives raised in the essay in the form of a discourse analysis.
The #culturalvalue initiative curator Eleonora Belfiore introduces the essay by situating “quality” as “… a key criterion to establish where funding should be directed” (Belfiore, 2015). She immediately follows this by asking: “What is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?” (ibid.). I think this seemingly naïve position masks her understanding of and role within the debate. Belfiore makes this clear by placing “quality” amongst the “fundamental questions of arts policy” – a place “where discussions of cultural value usually run aground” (ibid.). She then points out that, although widely referred to by “policy makers and funders”, they “shy away from defining” what constitutes “quality” in the arts (ibid.). I wonder how this allegedly ill-defined term can be considered, as Belfiore does, “a key concept in cultural policy” (ibid.)? Surely, policy should be built on firm foundations, not the slippery mudflats of an artistic estuary with many aesthetic tributaries? I contest that cultural policy makers know full-well what they mean by “quality”. They mean “excellent”, “good” or “high”. These are dangerous words in today’s publicly funded arts world; close to the supposedly bygone days of a “few but roses”. It is also worth mentioning that when quality is qualified as “excellent”, etc., it creates a dialectic: for every “excellent” there must be (at least one) “poor”; some “fit for purpose” and others “defective”; “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.
Nonetheless, Toby Lowe boldly attempts to make a case for “quality” in “participatory art” – another poorly defined term, as we shall perhaps see…
Lowe begins by stating that “quality” will inevitably be part of the cultural value debate “because we are bound to value the cultural experiences which we feel are good” (Lowe, 2015). It is immediately apparent that he equates “quality” with “good experiences” (ibid.). I wonder, however, if it is possible that “we” (itself a slippery term as we shall see later) and other audience members and participants might also find value in experiences we do not make us feel “good”? Are we really only seeking the “good” in arts and culture? Lowe then suggests “quality in any arts discipline” is often subjective (ibid.). I couldn’t agree more. Yet, once again, “quality” is portrayed as a single entity rather than a host of attributes. Furthermore, need these “qualities” always be subjective?
We then come to a definition of “participatory arts”. Lowe describes it as: “meaning the range of arts practice in which an artist (of any medium) facilitates a creative process with people” (ibid.). This is an exceptionally broad definition and, as a result, deeply problematic – vague. Owen Kelly warned in 1984 about the dangers of a “‘strategy of vagueness’” the left the community arts movement to be increasingly “led by the funding agencies” (Kelly, 1984, p. 23). Lowe, in his open definition, mimics the non-definition arrived at Harold Baldry’s The Report of the Community Arts Working Party, commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1974. The Baldry Report became “the foundation of the Art Council’s policy towards community arts” until at least 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 15) and, arguably, still remains pretty much in place today. It is here worth remembering that “community art” was reinvented in the 1990s as a “seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’” (Matarasso, 2013, p. 1). For François Matarasso, this transition signalled a move “from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds in Britain today” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 1-2). I could not agree more. Furthermore, “participatory arts”, as is clear from Lowe’s ambiguous (non-)classification, can be considered “neutral and descriptive” – little more than “a method applied to all other forms” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 6-7). I wonder, then, how “participatory arts” practice can, when so broadly “defined”, attempt to begin to describe work within the field as “quality” (meaning, as I have already mentioned, “excellent” or “good”)?
According to Lowe, “participatory arts is the artistic discipline that most frequently asks the question: ‘who gets to make art?’” (Lowe, op. cit.). Expanding on this assertion, Lowe explains that participatory arts:
speaks most regularly of the importance of equality in the cultural voice that people have: who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture? And if the people who are asking these questions aren’t also having conversations about what good work looks like, then the practice that is done in their name will soon become stale and uninteresting (ibid.).
I wonder who is speaking here. Who asks the questions: “Who gets to make art?”, “Who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture?” and “What does good work look like?” Who really gets to “speak” for and on behalf of the disciplinary field of participatory arts? Of course, artists ask these questions frequently but, in the context of cultural policy, they are, perhaps, questions posed by policymakers, academics and ‘arts leaders’ – now well-versed in drowning artists’ voices. What about the public and participants? I don’t believe “they” ask these questions very often (if at all). Also, I’m not entirely sure if “the practice that is done in their name” refers to participants, artists, policymakers, academics, arts leaders, or some, or all. Lowe’s ambiguous statement seems to relate to participatory arts practice doing art in the name of someone; perhaps ‘the people’? I contend that participatory arts are often “done to them” (participants, non-arts people) by us - well-meaning artists or instrumentally rational institutions (arts organisations, funders, policymakers, academics, etc.)
Lowe’s contention that “the massive inequality of art-making opportunity” must be addressed by improving access to the arts for “those who have least access to cultural capital” (ibid.) is commonly accepted by many in today’s field of arts and culture; certainly nothing new; virtually uncontested. Yet, positing that “those who have the least… deserve the best” (ibid.) is unusual. Is Lowe here suggesting that everyone deserves to “get to work with the best artists”, using “the best equipment and materials, because their stories matter” (ibid.), or just those most culturally disadvantaged? I support, of course, the need for cultural democracy within arts and culture. The field is still far too unequal – elitist. But should we really be striving for abstract notions such as “the best”? What is “the best”? Who defines it? I wonder if Lowe is unintentionally speaking for them, “the people”, in a rather paternalistic manner, on behalf of (some) of us.
In situating participatory arts as a practice often aligned to (or even, I contest, directed by) social policy, Lowe illustrates how “debate in this area has become infected with the notion that you can judge the quality of the work by the outcomes it produces” (ibid.). The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic. That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment. Of course, there are other ways to define and measure (or experience and know) “quality” or more “the qualities” of a particular work of art – object or process – but that is, perhaps, worthy of another more thorough debate. It is certainly not particularly well-addressed in Lowe’s essay. Instead, he moves quickly to ask “what do we need to do put this right?” (ibid.). The answers, for Lowe, lie in understanding that it’s “critical reflection that makes our practice better” because it’s the “only way we can learn and improve” (ibid.).
Here, we begin to notice the discussion about “quality” morphing into the realm of “best practice” replete with peer reflection tools, “group crits”, open conversations. Nothing wrong with these techniques, but I wonder if Lowe’s approach is not veering here toward the dialogic. Participatory arts is a field fond of dialogic open conversation. Perhaps it is this type of approach that leads Lowe to lament: “Too much of previous discussion about what quality practice looks like in participatory arts has melted away…” (ibid.). His solution is to carefully document the “critical conversations”. But note that “best practice” has shifted again to become “quality practice”. Surely Lowe is talking about good (or best) quality practices here? Do practitioners need this? Well, it depends on whether we want or need more toolkits and better best practice guides. I’m not sure all (or most) artists do and, given the complex relational dynamics between artist and participants and between participants themselves that are so critical to the participatory arts process, whether it will be possible to ‘define’ anything other than a range of necessarily homogenous qualities. What would they then be used for and by whom?
Finally, Lowe summarises key aspects from his own report entitled Critical Conversations: Artists’ reflections on quality in participatory arts practice (Lowe, 2014). Starting with the “theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of participatory practice, which link to relational and dialogical aesthetics”, Lowe goes on to identify authenticity, “rigour”, “good participatory work”, “quality materials and equipment”, “professionalism and rigour”, “rigour, discipline, and professionalism”, amongst an extensive list of characteristics derived from a series of critical conversations with artists. For me, many of these words are reminiscent of management-speak that, whilst undoubtedly important elements of practice, lack any distinction or any form of critical analysis. For Lowe openness is important. He ends his essay by stating:
The more we are each able to be open about the complex judgements we make, and the uncertainties we feel about those judgements, the better all our work will be (ibid.).
I have big problems with “judgements”: a term laden with inferences of power – whether certain or uncertain. Nonetheless, Lowe seems to conclude by suggesting that openness will make participatory arts practice “better” – not “best” nor “excellent” nor “good” – not even “quality”. I conclude that Lowe’s essay actually describes a host of qualities that, whilst often unqualified or misleading qualified, offer insight into the vast array of attributes that affect the process and product of working in participatory arts. It is, however, important to note that what we see in this essay is participatory arts practice in all its anything goes, apolitical finery. There are other, more radical, more issue-based forms of practice in this field – for example, socially engaged art. Whilst socially engaged practice shares many characteristics (dare I say qualities) with participatory practice, the focus is much more sharp; the suspicions of institutions and policies far more acute. For me, this is a distinction I am exploring in my on going PhD research and in my practice. Rest assured, there will be no attempt to define “the quality of socially engaged art”!
 For more information about the Baldry Report, see Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984, pp. 15-20)
 For more about the transition from “community art” to “participatory arts”, see All in this together: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011 (Matarasso, 2013)
 For detailed analysis of the alignment with art and social work, see, for example, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984)
This week has been hectic. Research visits in London with Platform London and Ovalhouse Theatre; a participatory art workshop commission for Berwick Visual Arts; working on a lab session about collective working, the commons and ending status-quos for arts organisations that I’m co-delivering in London in November; talking about The New Rules for Public Art with a Scottish artist’s collective; working to continue to develop our work with dot to dot active arts in Blyth; developing new NHS commissions in Cumbria and Northumberland; and attending the Culture Action Europe Beyond the Obvious conference which took place in NewcastleGateshead over the past few days.
This is a very short blog post about my experience at the conference and my hopes for the Beyond the Familiar ‘fringe’ event tomorrow.
The conference was clearly split between the policy-following institutions and the smaller, more radical factions and artists. I met a great many radical thinkers, some socially engaged activists, and even some policymakers who seemed to see the need for big changes to the way arts and culture is funded and who it is for. This was great!
I heard many ‘old-school’ perspectives – a bit of ‘knowledge sharing’ here; a little ‘partnership working’ there’; even the ubiquitous ‘we’re doing this already’ and ‘we’ve always worked like this’. I rolled my eyes like one of Sendak’s Wild Things. Over my years of practicing in this field, I developed a proficiency for this.
All was not lost, however, because, even though ‘the great and the good’ reeled off their ‘holistic cases for public investments’ and chanted ‘cultural regeneration’ mantras, the voice of dissent was clear amongst a significant number of the people there. This was very encouraging.
The session that nailed the distinction between the forces of elitism, instrumentalism, policymaking and institution-building and the guerrilla tactics of those into ‘small’, local, grassroots collective strategic engagement happened earlier today. In short, the UK What Next? movement was pitted against grassroots political and socially engaged activist movements from Europe (Spain and Croatia). This was a battle of tea and biscuits versus take-to-the-streets (and Net) protests; polite discussion versus political activism. The UK’s navel-gazing about ‘how do we get people to understand the arts?’ was exposed for all it’s frailties and limpness. The activists have the answer: ENGAGE outside of institutions; be grassroots; take art to the people; make art as a people.
These are critical debates that are just not often had in the UK. Art as social practice is immensely capable of bringing arts to the people – a force for real paradigm shift. It is anti-elitist, grassroots and political. People not into art get it because they are a part of it. The ‘arts leaders’ and policymakers with their top-down approaches do not seem to understand that grassroots, self-organised, collective action offers other, more truly democratic ways to place art and culture back where it belongs – by and of the people.
I look forward to tomorrow…
I attended a workshop at the University of Warwick on 9th July about Co-producing cultural policy. The day was very, very interesting and frustrating at times. I was guest blogger. I wrote this. It was originally published here: http://coculturalpolicy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/cultural-value-and-economic-and-social.html
A morning of valuing artists, museums as co-producers of ‘social justice’ and cultural value as power, followed with an afternoon workshop about value and impact. The long trip to The University of Warwick was certainly action packed. A day of two halves. A room full of interested and actively probing researchers (and a Director of a National Portfolio Organisation). The day was all about policy: cultural value in the morning; humanities research after lunch. So what happened?
First up was Susan Jones, Director of a-n The Artists Information Company. Susan was, as usual, forthright and focused, delivering the hard facts about the #payingartists campaign; about ‘positive’ mission ‘delivery’; campaigning for fair pay for artists. She pointed out that ‘sometimes artists aren’t even mentioned in cultural policy’ anymore; pay had been reduced significantly in real terms since 1997; and nowadays ‘exhibition budgets exclude the notion of paying artists’. Why? Susan was clear to place responsibility on an increasing ‘shift in focus towards infrastructure’ – in cultural buildings and top-heavy management and administration teams. All great stuff! I firmly believe in this perspective too. But Susan’s emphasis was on exhibitions and galleries ‘because that’s where public funding is going in visual arts’. a-n’s new #payingartists video advertisement reinforced what, for me, seemed a rather narrow way of conceiving artistic practice today. Susan explained, however, that a-n are beginning to ‘look outside galleries – beyond exhibitions’, so, perhaps, there’s some hope of an expanded future scope for this undoubtedly ‘must address’ issue. I have a nagging concern about institutionalising artists’ rights and pay, but that’s for another day…
Director of National Museums Liverpool, David Fleming was incredibly passionate in advocating a more radical approach to museum programming than is often, perhaps, the case. He’s a firm supporter of national infrastructure buildings, ‘so long as the public get something out of it’. His approach is all about people, emotions, inter-generational activities, variety, and, ‘fighting for social justice’ – all with an authentic Liverpool voice (although he was quick to explain he’s from Leeds)! His show reel of ‘social justice’ programming left virtually no stone unturned: gender reconfiguration; queer; children’s cancer; dementia; well-being; Hillsborough; gun crime; slavery – all examples of successful ‘collusion with other bodies’ (NGOs, charities, etc.) because, apparently, ‘activists like working with the establishment’. David was blunt in his dislike of policy directed at numbers in the building, citing London museums as a prime example of government policy and funding decisions based upon ‘how many high spending tourists you can attract’. Nevertheless, his advocacy of the Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives agenda and tick-all-boxes social justice narrative left me feeling a little unsettled. Was this really radicalism or soft reinforcing of a form of, undoubtedly left-of-centre, neoliberal state instrumentalism?
Arts Council England’s Senior Policy and Research Manager, Andrew Mowlah, always had an unenviable task. The mood was set. He rehearsed many of the Arts Council’s new ‘tablets of stone’: the need to ‘reflect instrumental and intrinsic values’; fitting ‘the aesthetic… into cultural policy’; ‘making the best possible case for investment in arts and culture’; ‘metrics’; the ‘economic benefits of the UK culture industry’; ‘the wider benefits of the arts’ (beyond economics and tourism, perhaps?); etc., etc. He was steadfast in his defence of the need to ‘evidence’ culture to persuade government to continue to fund arts and culture, concluding that we shouldn’t ‘discount the value of data and evidence’. Many in the audience wondered whether anyone in government really valued the evidence anyway, no matter what its form. For me, any mention of ‘culture industry’ makes me go all Adorno…
Eleonora Belfiore was last in the morning session. Critical antithesis of Arts Council England’s cultural policy, she breezed through a cutting overview of current cultural value policy. Her assertion that the many who see cultural value as a way of determining ‘real value’ are being ‘over simplistic’ was an antidote to the positivist reductionism abounding in much of social sciences and cultural policy right now. Cultural value, like all things, is socially constructed, political, transient, and never neutral – power is always orchestrating. Ele’s example of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding… clearly demonstrated how economics and ‘fun’ programming has very dark undertones: it humiliates an already oppressed ethnic group, redoubling stereotypes whilst making a great deal of money for the media. It is, as Ele explained, the role of academia and research (and, perhaps, the arts and others) to ‘probe the underbelly of cultural value policy’.
I’m over my word count already, so let’s just summarise an excellent afternoon’s research workshop as follows: ‘Impact is not evil’ but ‘how do you engage someone like James Dyson?’ Solid ‘REF Gold’!
This is the fifth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? Previous posts are below. This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there. It will be refined. Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon. Please feel free to comment and criticise…
The academic discourse surrounding how and, indeed, if the arts might influence social change and the ‘intrinsic’ versus ‘instrumental’ questions (outlined in previous posts), cross into policy discussions about culture and value that perhaps shift the focus even further from the practice of socially engaged art and, for that matter, the arts in general. This section begins by returning to Matarasso’s later work as an illustration of how present policy discussions centre on the concept of ‘cultural value’ rather than ‘social impact’ or ‘social change’.
In 2012, Matarasso wrote On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’ in response to the burgeoning ‘cultural value debate’. He is critical, in his essay, about ‘value’ being perceived as ‘good’ even though ‘human beings do not agree on what is good’ and, if there is no definition of good, potential value cannot be measured (Matarasso, 2012). This ‘slipperiness’ about cultural value, for Matarasso, creates opportunities for tacit positions to go uncontested. Differing in emphasis from his position in Use or Ornament?, Matarasso extols arts and culture as ‘necessarily experiential’, existing ‘only in the intertwined experience of creator (artist, performer, author, maker) and re-creator (audiences, readers, viewers and listeners)’ (Matarasso, 2012). He believes that the ambiguity of the arts means it cannot be considered to have any ‘universal character, method, purpose, meaning or even existence’ and therefore ‘no universal value (good), unless one associates it with a universal deity’; cultural value cannot therefore ‘be measured against a universal scale’ nor can the effects of culture ‘be tested or replicated, except in certain limited terms’ (Matarasso, 2012). In this essay, Matarasso is stating a direct opposition to a policy position he was once demonised for supporting, if not creating: no longer the champion of instrumentalism; now a firm believer in art’s intrinsic nature.
The ‘cultural value debate’ has continued developing apace since Matarasso wrote the aforementioned essay. There are new initiatives appearing in the UK almost every other month at present. A brief overview of the stated aims and objectives of the key current initiatives around cultural value is therefore essential to understand how socially engaged art relates to this debate and its broader future policy implications.
The AHRC Cultural Value Project is clear in adopting a structural approach to ‘experience’, stating that it:
‘seeks to establish a framework that will advance the way in which we talk about the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate that value. The first part of the framework will be an examination of the cultural experience itself and its impact on individuals and its benefit to society. The Project will take as its starting point the different forms of cultural experience, such as, for instance, the aesthetic and cognitive dimensions of our cultural encounters… In giving priority to the cultural experience itself, the Cultural Value Project will take the lead in developing a rigorous approach to what many see as the most important aspect of art and culture’ (AHRC, 2013).
The #culturalvalue Initiative, created by Belfiore, celebrates the new opportunities in this field and wishes to broaden the debate beyond economics. It states that:
‘the very existence of a set of cultural policies is predicated on the notion of cultural value, and the belief in the social importance of its preservation and nurturing… Yet, although how to articulate value is a central concern for cultural organisations in receipt of public funding… the sector finds it difficult to have a serious and honest discussion on the issue. As a result… the public debate on the value of the arts and culture has been intellectually colonised by the discipline of economics, at the expense of the humanities and social sciences’ (Belfiore, 2013).
The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value is led by many senior figures from across arts and culture as well as economics, public policy, sociology, etc. It has identified four trends to investigate and report upon in coming years: Investing; Valuing; Education; and International Trends. The overarching mission is to:
‘explore the “DNA” of the cultural landscape in England from both sector and public perspectives and imagine how it might be better connected and understood using the metaphor of an ecosystem… What kinds of investment do we need to ensure the future of culture and how can we work to ensure that all forms of culture are inclusive and accessible for all?’ (UoW, 2013)
Economics is central to most discussions about cultural value. UNESCO recently reported that the culture sector creates two types of impact: non-economic and economic; the key motive for renewed state intervention in the sector is apparent in UNESCO’s claim that:
‘[t]he growing interest in cultural industries and their rapid acceptance as a fairly general model for addressing development problems at the economic and political level, have contributed that cultural industries become a key component in the formulation of economic policy and strategic development planning.’ (UNESCO b, 2012, p. 7)
Alongside UNESCO’s research into measuring the economic benefits of arts and culture sits Measuring cultural participation (2012). It aims to develop ‘a conceptual foundation and a common understanding of culture that will assist the measurement of a wide range of cultural expressions – irrespective of any particular economic and/or social mode of production’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 8); it points to the ‘scientific measurement scale, the psychological general wellbeing index’ as a long-existing tool for measuring positive impacts of arts participation, irrespective of ‘artistic competence’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). But surely these are big claims to make, especially as the PGWBI is a generic psychological tool for measuring perceived wellbeing that does not measure any specific responses to either cultural activity or participation. Indeed, UNESCO go on to conclude that any attempt at even local standardisation will be difficult ‘[g]iven that most active participation tends to happen in a dispersed and uncoordinated way through small, often predominantly social, organizations that are neither recognised nor funded by governments as sustainable “institutions”’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). Is this international recognition that participation is independent and, if so, a territory to be colonised by new forms of instrumentalism? Certainly, the report’s authors identify ‘a disjuncture between three coexisting but fundamentally different sets of values – intrinsic, instrumental and institutional’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 10) and are perplexed by linguistic problems not just between different international interpretations of ‘participation’ but also between its active and passive forms of meaning (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 19).
Measuring cultural participation makes clear that UNESCO are not interested in artistic quality nor ‘[o]pposed concepts and cultural hierarchies (active/passive, high/low, professional/amateur)’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 20). The report is also clear that participation can only be understood ‘in a meaningful, wider context’ by investigating ‘a range of issues which can be understood only by using qualitative methods’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 49). The report concludes that no single ‘standard’ model will be able to describe ‘[t]he inter-relationships between cultural participation, participation as a whole, social inclusion and civil society’; attempts to measure participation in cultural activities must therefore use local ‘lenses and tools’ based upon ‘[s]cientific findings’ presented ‘in the best and widest possible way to encourage effective policies’ (UNESCO a, 2012, pp. 73-74).
A crisis of the legitimacy of cultural value was identified back in 2006 by Holden. He argued this could only be addressed by creating a democratic consensus through better and broader arguments about the value of culture that politicians could understand and support (Holden, 2006, p. 9). He explained that cultural value has three forms - ‘intrinsic value, instrumental value and institutional value’ – and is ‘created and “consumed”’ in ‘a triangular relationship between cultural professionals, politicians, policy-makers and the public’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). The solution lay, for Holden, in creating ‘a different alignment between culture, politics and the public’ that nurtures ‘greater legitimacy directly with citizens’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). But it would appear that, since then, cultural policy and cultural value have, in fact, moved further away from people outside a very narrow sphere of the arts, into a highly professionalised world of ‘cultural leaders’ and ‘public policy-makers’.
O’Brien’s 2010 report to the DCMS, Measuring the value of culture, warned that ‘the cultural sector will need to use the tools and concepts of economics to fully state their benefits in the prevailing language of policy appraisal and evaluation’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 4). His report argues for increased state instrumentalism as well as an adoption of economic measures delivered ‘using the language of public policy and cultural value’ because only can ‘funding decisions… be made that are acceptable to both central government and the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 5). Whilst acknowledging the value of narratives as useful in articulating cultural value, O’Brien warns they ‘fail to represent the benefits of culture in a manner that is commensurable with other calls on the public purse’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 9). His stringent solution: find a way of fitting ‘the unique aspects of culture, outside of the social and economic impacts, into the economic language of the welfare economic paradigm suggested by the guidance in Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the Green Book’ (O'Brien, 2010, pp. 16-17). He concludes by requesting that the DCMS ‘rectify this issue by producing detailed guidance on measuring cultural value with stated preference techniques, making it clear that this will be the standard approach to valuation for central government’s consideration of policy for the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 48). The voice of public policy abounds.
Public arts policy-maker and funder, Arts Council England (ACE), were surprisingly late in joining the ‘cultural policy debate’, publishing The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, in April 2014. Their report has been much maligned since publication because of its drive to increase instrumentalism and its poorly conducted research. ACE make their position clear from the start, describing the intrinsic value of arts and culture as being ‘in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers’, whilst stating that ‘[q]uantifying the [instrumental] benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence [their] contribution… is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4). They reinforce their drive towards measuring instrumental values by stating:
'When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world… But while we do not cherish arts and culture because of the impact on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy, they do confer these benefits and need to show how important this is… on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors, and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors… to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource… [and] to see where the impact of our work is felt, and where we don’t yet reach’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4).
The remainder of the report, which should perhaps be titled The Value of State Support for the Arts, gives very little in terms of ‘evidence’ of instrumental measures. Beginning with five ways in which arts and culture might lead be economically beneficial - ‘attracting visitors; creating jobs and developing skills; attracting and retaining businesses revitalising places; and developing talent’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7) – the examples descend into exceptionally tenuous realms. The published examples directly relating to participation in the arts and social change include statements such as:
'Those who had attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60 percent more likely to report good health compared to those who had not, and theatre goers were 25 percent more likely to report good health’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7).
'People value being in the audience to the arts at about £2,000 per person per year and participating at £1,500 per person. The value of participating in sports is about £1,500 per year.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7)
'High-school students who engage in the arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer… and 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults… Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment… There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)
'Schools that integrate arts across the curriculum in the US have shown consistently higher reading and mathematics scores compared with similar schools that do not… Participation in structured arts activities increases cognitive abilities… Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree…’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)
So, apparently, going to ‘a cultural place or event’ makes you healthier; it is more valuable to watch a cultural event than participate creatively or take part in sport; art at ‘high-school’ makes young people really ‘good’ all-round citizens; integrated art teaching improves literacy and numeracy; structured art arts improves (structured) thinking; and, amazingly, by participating in school arts, poor students are much more likely to gain a degree (presumably in any subject). Is this a (re)turn to state instrumentalism in the mode of Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? It would certainly appear so with ACE themselves concluding that:
'We know that arts and culture play an important role in promoting social and economic goals through local regeneration, attracting tourists, the development of talent and innovation, improving health and wellbeing, and delivering essential services. These benefits are “instrumental” because art and culture can be a means to achieve ends beyond the immediate intrinsic experience and value of the art itself’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 11).
The report does, however, warn that there is little evidence to support claims that ‘preventative interventions which use arts and culture to reduce the need for other public services’ do not, in fact, ‘demonstrate the associated reduction in public spending’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 23).
This review also briefly considers the role of art in regenerating public spaces as part of public policy. The Art of Regeneration (1996), written several authors including the ubiquitous Matarasso, identified the increasing role of the arts in urban regeneration which, whilst initially mainly focused upon expensive, large-scale capital works, was becoming increasing interested in ’participatory arts programmes which are low-cost, flexible and responsive to local needs’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). This was a clear policy change – ‘a shift in emphasis in regeneration strategies towards seeing local people as the principal asset through which renewal can be achieved’ with arts activities becoming ‘effective routes to a wide range of social policy objectives’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). Here, perhaps, lies the seeds of Use or Ornament? This participatory approach to regeneration led to a movement, particularly strong in the US, and now growing in the UK, known as ‘creative placemaking’, which the NEA defines as:
‘In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired’ (Nicodemus, 2012).
Bedoya is more cautious about the motives behind creative placemaking. His essay, Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging (2012), reminds practitioners to ensure they apply an authenticity and ‘ethos of belonging’ when working in this area to ensure residents ‘achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility’ (Bedoya, 2012). Bedoya warns against a ‘build it and they will come’ culture based upon speculative economics as ‘suffocating, unethical, and [supportive of] a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place”’ (Bedoya, 2012). He is at pains that creative placemaking must not become ‘a development strategy but… a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities and sites of imaginations’ (Bedoya, 2012). Clearly then, creative placemaking, with its routes in policies aligned with regeneration and participation, may well always be a form of ‘instrumentalism-lite’ at best; a means of gentrification and state interventionism at worst.
Belfiore’s 2012 essay, “Defensive instrumentalism”, offers a thoughtful evaluation of the question of instrumentalism as cultural policy. She argues for a more nuanced, ‘philosophical approach to the notions of “impact”, “instrumentalism”, and the underlying assumption that the arts can be used as a tool to effect real transformation on individuals’ sense of self, place, belonging, morality, etc., and ultimately on communities and society’; describing UK cultural policy as being, for more than a century, dominated by increasingly normative forms of institutionalisation now ‘embedded within powerful cultural and educational organisations, national curricula and public sensibility’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 104). The result, contends Belfiore, is the present UK arts funding system in which ‘the recipients of the largest grants, which account for a very substantial portion of the available funding, have changed little since Keynes, and:
‘the exquisitely ideological question of making the (political) case for the arts has been translated in the rather more technical (and therefore apparently neutral) issue of arts impact assessment, with the focus firmly on the methodological problems of evaluation rather than on thorny questions of cultural value, and the political problem of how to address the as of yet unresolved issue of widening access and participation to the publicly supported arts’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 107).
Linking the current cultural policy situation with that under New Labour, Belfiore unveils a ‘new guise of economic instrumentalism’ – a form of ‘“defensive instrumentalism” that leaves no room for a positive and constructive vision’ (Belfiore, 2012, pp. 108-109). Perhaps, then, debates about cultural value and instrumentalism reflect the complete 'commodification of public policy’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 110). Yet none of these debates and policies ever mention socially engaged arts practice; participation is mentioned fleetingly and often incoherently.