The arts don’t need more lobbying, but a radical new vision

Culture: not just contemporary dance in London. Jonathan Brady/PA

Pinning down definitions of the words “culture” and “arts” has always been notoriously difficult. But over the past 60 years, fast and profound social, economic, technological and cultural changes have blunted these terms even further, and significantly broadened the range of what is perceived as “legitimate culture” and labelled as “arts”.

In the age of the internet and digital TV on demand, we are all able to create culture as we consume it. John Carey’s declaration in What Good Are the Arts? that “a work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person”, hardly feels as incendiary as it once might have.

A question of authority

There is little doubt that challenging traditional forms of authority has resulted in the broadening of our cultural horizons. This has inevitably also meant that our understanding of culture has developed, becoming ever more complex and more democratic.

And yet, when it comes to allocating the fast diminishing public resources to some forms of arts and culture and not others, judgements of quality and value are unavoidable. Those who make all these important funding decisions will inevitably exercise some form of cultural authority: every pound spent on one arts organisation or project is a pound denied to another. Yet, this cultural authority and the values that it embodies are hardly ever questioned or scrutinised.

Arts funding is a great testing ground for answers to some fascinating questions: what is the value of the arts? And what arts are of value? Who has the authority and power to decide what the answers to these questions might be?

Arts funding in Britain started in an informal way with CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, during World War II. Its function was formalised after the war with the establishment of the then Arts Council of Great Britain, since devolved into different councils for each of the United Kingdom’s nations.

So, state support for arts and culture was part of the broader process of post-war reconstruction, which saw the establishment of the welfare system. But unlike the areas of concern of state welfare provision – health, education, housing and social security – the provision of access to opportunities to appreciate and enjoy the arts has never gained the kind of wide popular (and indeed political) support that, say, the NHS enjoys. It is hard to imagine an arts subsidy equivalent of the spectacular paean that Danny Boyle put together for the national health system in the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.

It is hardly surprising then, that the arts and cultural sector should suffer from justification anxiety. This becomes especially intense in times of austerity and cuts in welfare provision.

The NHS has its own cultural value. shimelle, CC BY

Who benefits from arts funding?

One longstanding justification strategy has centred around the importance of widening access to the kind of art forms that, without state support, would either (allegedly) not survive in the market, or become too expensive, and therefore only accessible to the privileged few.

We know from data collated by the Department of Culture Media and Sport that general levels of cultural engagement are rising, with more people taking part as audiences or participants in a wider range of cultural activities, whether publicly funded or provided by the commercial cultural industries.

But arts participation and attendance are still clearly socially stratified, especially where the more heavily subsidised cultural forms are concerned. Having a degree and being in a professional occupation are still pretty accurate predictors of more frequent engagement in those arts forms that account for a greater proportion of arts subsidy (theatre, opera, ballet).

DCMS Taking Part 2011-12 Annual Report

Interestingly, the data emerging from the Taking Part survey tallies with the findings from another large-scale research project on Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion. The project included a large-scale survey in the form of a questionnaire that gathered information on the respondents’ cultural activities, tastes and preferences and considered them in relation to their class status, educational qualifications, ethnicity, gender, occupations, and so forth.

Writing in 2005, Tony Bennett, one of the research leads on the project concluded that:

Well-educated middle-class professionals and managers are the most likely to be heavily involved in those parts of the cultural sector that are dependent on public funding whereas less well educated unskilled and semi-skilled workers are more exclusively involved in the commercial cultural sector.

Add to this picture the persistent imbalance in funding, which is severely skewed towards London and urban areas more generally. Whose arts engagement does the funding system really support?

DCMS Taking Part 2011-12 Annual Report

Austerity bites

While British cultural organisations are world-renowned for both the quality of their work and their ability to find new ways to generate revenue, there is little doubt that recent cuts in funding at both central and local government level are having a real impact, and causing real damage to the national cultural ecosystem. For instance, Fin Kennedy, via his campaign In Battalions, has documented how arts funding cuts have reduced the ability of English theatre to support new theatre writing.

In times of austerity, then, how should “the case for culture” be made?

One strategy has been to focus on the economic value that arts and culture can generate. Much has been made of the data, recently released by Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), according to which the creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy. With a growth rate of almost 10% in 2012, the creative industries are said to have outperformed all other sectors of UK industry.

The DCMS’ definition of what constitutes the creative industries is quite broad, including, for instance, computer software, advertising, architecture and design. But this hasn’t stopped the more traditional arts organisations from using these arguments as ammunition for their justification strategies. For instance, director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne quite imaginatively referred to the DCMS data and suggested it demonstrates that “museums and galleries are one of the engine rooms of the cultural industries”, since they “offer crucial source material for artists, designers and innovators of all kinds”. And yet, the precise connection between the arts and the creative industries remains largely uncharted.

The reality is that no increase in funding is a realistic prospect in the coming years. Arguably, then, the conversation around cultural policy might more productively focus on asking how current modes of cultural funding, production and consumption can create cultural value for the public, and how new policies and strategies can help this.

Culture change

Now is the time for a sector whose essence lies in creativity, invention and a questioning spirit to put those skills to use to develop a new cultural vision for the new era of financial instability that we are presently living. What are urgently needed are measures – beyond funding – that can be put in place to ensure that cultural value is generated for the largest possible number of people, across class, gender, ethnicities, and secured for future generations.

Value for money? John Walton/PA

The current focus on lobbying and advocacy is not likely to deliver the arts to a place of safety and riches, so now is the time for a fresh, less defensive approach to the justification problem. New thinking is needed. Connections between strategies for the arts and other areas of policy need to be made, such as education, skills training and a coherent industrial policy for the creative industries.

Debates around justifications for state support of the arts have tended to remain, so far, rather insular and a matter for cultural professionals. Now is the time to link these arguments to broader societal aspirations, such as equality of opportunities and fairness, and to get the wider public on board. This will mean the arts sector will have to listen and open itself to uncomfortable scrutiny and criticism.

Arguably, what is needed in these challenging times is a genuine attempt to figure out what role the arts can play in the quest for the good and just society. This is a quest that has a long and illustrious tradition that goes back to Classical Greece, and to Plato’s attempts to articulate the role of poetry and the arts in the education of the young, and the flourishing of the ideal polity.

We need to recreate powerful and contemporary visions of the role that the arts play, now and in the education of the future generations. This is no easy task, and it is one that calls for a partnership of intent across society. Artists, arts administrators, cultural policy makers, politicians, intellectuals and, most crucially, the general public need to participate in a national conversation on the value, role and effects of culture. A new vision for culture is needed, one that both preserves traditions, encourages innovation and facilitates equal access to creative experiences.

This is a foundation essay for The Conversation’s new UK Arts + Culture section. If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, please use our pitch facility.