Friday 20 May 2011

Using art to nudge the public

Culture and Class, by John Holden (Counterpoint 2010) / Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: Remaking the case for the arts, by John Knell and Matthew Taylor (RSA 2011)

‘Creativity broke out in a big way. Everybody, but everybody, was writing. Writing poetry, prose; painting pictures everywhere – on the walls, on hardboard, on canvas. Plays were being performed all over the place. Little theatres started up in old shops or storerooms, even in huts at the bottom of gardens. Plays and more plays, and the more mystical, strange and poetic they were, the more the audiences loved them.’

90-year-old actress Liz Smith, writing in Our Betty: Scenes From My Life about cultural life in London in 1946

‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.’


Two recent proposals for government policy should strike alarm in the heart of anyone who cares about free will, let alone the true value of art. John Holden’s Culture and Class, and Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: Remaking the case for the arts [PDF] by John Knell and Matthew Taylor, are each couched in lofty language about creativity and democracy, but the implications of their arguments are ominous for both.

Holden and Taylor are both influential in British arts strategy. Taylor was director of policy for New Labour’s 1997 election campaign, and later, Blair’s strategy adviser; he now heads the Royal Society of Arts. Holden is an ex-investment banker who was later Head of Culture at Demos and is now a visiting professor at City University. Both are interested in social policy, in the ways government can get people to do what it wants. Both are preoccupied with social stability, and want to strengthen the public’s faltering faith in state institutions. Unfortunately, they want to hijack the arts to do it.

Taylor thinks the arts can ‘have a powerful impact on citizen engagement and pro-social behaviour, behaving in ways that strengthen society’. He wants to nudge the recalcitrant amongst us into behaving properly, or as he loftily puts it: ‘we are less aiming to ‘nudge’ people to do good, than give them the information which might enable them to better steer a course through a modern world using a prehistoric brain’. Holden’s argument is more subtle. ‘In Britain today, part of the population is culturally and creatively disenfranchised,’ he tells us. ‘Status, education, wealth and culture march together, so one way of helping the disadvantaged is to increase their cultural capital.’ The poor apparently need help nowadays to ‘access’ the arts.

’[They] find it difficult to enter the cultural workforce, since they are unable to take unpaid internships and are not connected to the social networks that provide routes into employment… they are invited to subscribe to, rather than shape, the culture that is on offer. But most of all, they are alienated. Arts events and arts institutions are uncomfortable places to be if you don’t know the rules.

Yet Holden is careful to elide any distinction between what was once called ‘high’ art and what he calls ‘homemade culture’. He seems concerned that more managers than manual workers go to museums; yet ‘the era of different classes having easily identifiable and separate cultures is long gone’. ‘Culture is created by millions of individual and collective decisions, rather than flowing from the tastes and preferences of only one part of society,’ he reminds us, so, ‘To provide children with an education only in traditional, received culture does them a disservice. Children need to know about Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but they also need to know about hip-hop and manga comics’.  In which case, just how much of a problem is ‘access’, really?

After all, surely the one thing you need do to ‘enter the cultural workforce’ is to create art – music, words, images – none of which need be expensive, let alone require a university degree. (Perhaps Holden is referring to jobs at the Arts Council or similar – but working as a ‘creative facilitator’, community arts officer or curator is not art: it’s a job.) And as Holden himself admits, ‘Almost the entire population take part in some form of cultural activity, even if that mostly falls outside the commonly adopted criteria for measuring participation in the arts and heritage. Pretty much everyone listens, reads, watches, dances and sings.’ So if everyone makes culture and always has, why do the poor now need special help to ’access’ it? Especially since ‘homemade culture’ as Holden calls it, is arguably more vibrant nowadays than any other. Where do Eminem, Calle 13 and The Streets come from, if not council estates and slums, the very places that produce these people whom Holden calls the ‘disadvantaged’?

It’s significant in this context that Holden wants to hire people to use our ‘social networks’ in order to ‘facilitate social behaviour’. Family and social networks are ‘the most important drivers of demand [for the arts]’, he tells us, and ‘a great deal of cultural participation is driven by a desire for social connection’. In fact, Holden wants to use the arts to create a society just like this one but happier: ‘could the mass realisation of personal creativity offer a new economic model, producing a kind of capitalism that is not simply about increasing GDP and accumulating money, but about the growth of human capacities and the human spirit?’

As for Taylor, he barely even pretends to be interested in art, as art. He just wants to use it as an ‘engine of civic renewal, nurturing social capital and trust by strengthening friendships, helping communities to understand and celebrate their heritage, and… providing a safe way to discuss and solve difficult social problems’. He’d like to send people in to monitor what we do in our spare time:

‘Much of the arts engagement in the UK is not publicly funded but is transacted commercially or voluntarily. If we are concerned with the overall impact of the arts, measurement tools should be extended across this whole ecology, with evidence for artistic instrumentalism garnered, for example, from active citizens whose creativity and cooperation are fuelled by attending great productions unencumbered by subsidy, or by discussing texts bought or borrowed in a book club.

Of course it would be nice if more people were being more creative. Taylor and Holden are both keen on people ‘participating’ in art rather than merely ‘spectating’. But surely if Holden really wanted to make it easier for the poor to ‘access’ culture, he’d try to remove the disadvantage, ie poverty? And if Taylor is most concerned about solving difficult social problems, why pick on the arts? The powers that be have always tried to use the arts for their own agendas, and imagined that their view of the world is the only right one. But a generation ago, such people also had more confidence in themselves, and hence in the degree to which they could civilise the masses.

Artists were once as much a part of society as plumbers and hairdressers; but throughout the last century art was shunted out of our everyday lives and turned into this special thing that only ‘artists’ do. Nowadays the establishment has realised that decoupling art from its organic position in society and labelling it as something that only an educated elite can understand, is old-fashioned. But that old orthodoxy has been replaced instead with the notion that what the poor need is art.

On the surface this seems more positive. But there’s a big difference between a society of free individuals with the luxury of time to dream, and one where most people lead lives of quiet desperation, but are given ‘art’ instead of the resources to better their material existence. Today, Voltaire’s Enlightenment optimism has deteriorated into a deep pessimism about humanity and its place in the world.  In Britain, art is no longer seen by the elite as a way of dragging the lower orders up by their bootlaces, but as a sort of Valium to stop us getting any worse.

So in Culture and Class Holden argues for redirecting funding from maintaining the nation’s treasures in galleries and museums towards ‘attempting to produce culturally confident individuals with creative capabilities’. Under this plan, the Arts Council would presumably employ a small army of arts facilitators / coordinators / curators / mentors / artists-who’ve-lost-their-grants to interfere in the creative lives of people, their families and their ‘social networks’, in the cause of social harmony.

There’s nothing wrong with the state funding art education for children; school trips to the opera or theatre would be a fine thing. But Holden and Taylor are talking about the state getting proactively involved in the private, creative activity of adults. They’re blind to the fact that adults – poor and rich – should, by definition, be left alone to decide for themselves whether to use their free time to go to museums, or to paint a masterpiece in their bedrooms, or just to watch the football.

Holden is right to say ‘we’re in a “culture war”’. But the danger to the arts today is not from the barbarians at the gates, but within the arts establishment itself. What have been the consequences of this sort of instrumentalist arts policy over the last 10 years, since government began to take such a keen interest in the ‘creative industries’, and started funding arts projects specifically to build community cohesion?

Today the arts industry is stuffed with frustrated artists working as educators, facilitators and such like. (I’ve lost count of the number of such people at social and cultural events who’ve told me they never get time to do their art.) A generation of art students has graduated with the inbuilt expectation that they can’t survive as artists without state help. We are, if anything, more distrustful of each other than we were ten years ago. It’s now quite common for sensitive, intelligent people to confide that they don’t really like other people and think that most are thick.

Holden reminds us, ‘Questions about culture are questions about power and freedom. Culture and class are intimately bound together, and both are highly politicised’. Well, in recent years freedoms in Britain have taken a beating. We’re scrutinised daily by more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the Western world. It’s increasingly common for people to be sacked or arrested for making a backward remark. Over the past decade the authorities have dreamt up 4300 new offences, including restrictions on artists visiting from abroad, as well as bans on live music and smoking in clubs and pubs – many of which have been forced to close, as a result.

Under these circumstances, what’s likely to happen when a state machine whose prime motivation is, naturally, the maintenance of social stability, gets invited to intervene in the creative lives of the general public?

As Denis Dutton points out in The Art Instinct:

‘Art’s encounters with morality and politics are made difficult by the fact that moral and social systems require rules to be observed and obeyed. Moral or legal systems essentially ask that people be good, and prefer (or require) narratives to that end. Art’s most essential requirement is not that the characters it fictively portrays be good but that they be interesting… That is why even the earliest examples of literature – the Iliad and the Odyssey, for instance – take their audience far beyond moral instruction. In so doing, they effectively undermine morality, which is one reason why Plato in The Republic wanted Homer banned from his ideal state.’

Taylor thinks official interest and intervention in our private affairs, from personal happiness to the arts, is merely a ‘symptom’ of ordinary people taking an interest in such things. After all, the state’s intervention is all for our own good. But is it not equally likely that the authorities increasingly take an interest in what we say to each other, how we bring up our children, what we eat and drink – and now, potentially, how we spend our time creatively (or not) – because they know they lack legitimacy, they’re worried about the loss of social glue, and they view us with ignorant contempt? In which case it seems just as likely that we might adjust to the constant undermining (for our own protection of course) of our autonomy as adults, by becoming more insecure, more dependent on approval from outside –  and as a result, less creative.

For many ordinary folk today, beset by worries about losing their jobs and homes, their personal project – whether that be amateur dramatics, shooting films, singing in a local choir, or writing poems in their bedroom – is the last bastion of creative action, the one area of life where they’re free to play. The consequences of Holden’s proposal for more state involvement in ‘homemade’ art, and Taylor’s for arts organisations to ‘exploit their full potential in encouraging active citizenship’ are too depressing to imagine.

Holden and Taylor naturally accept the current social system as fixed, and believe their view of the world is the only possible one. Their backgrounds lead them to assume they understand how society works better than most. What they fail to grasp is that the more the state interferes with our personal lives and what goes on in our heads, the worse it is for art and individual freedom.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

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