POSTED: January 31, 2018
Arts | Society


Kate Oakley, Mark Ball and Malaika Cunningham

CUSP Working Paper Series | No 9

“Detroit Lives!”, Local community art around the Eastern Market on Detroit’s east side (CC-BY 2.0 :: Russ /


The purpose of this paper is to prepare the ground for a strand of work in CUSP which aims to look at the role of culture in everyday life, and in doing so to understand how it might operate as an element of sustainable prosperity. In this first, of what we hope will be a series of papers on this topic, we consider how current cultural policy treats this issue, its attempts to grapple with the question of inequality in cultural participation and its – to us – unsatisfactory resolution of that question. The end of the paper considers the basis on which we might start to think about new legitimations for cultural policy and a fuller understanding of its potential for living well with less.

1 Introduction

A key research theme in the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) is the role of art and culture in our understanding of the ‘good life’. It is not unusual in debates on sustainability to find art called upon in an instrumental fashion to help deliver policy goals. Art can somehow reach hearts and minds in ways that science and policy cannot, so the argument goes. Our approach in CUSP is somewhat different. It flows from a recognition that art, creativity and cultural activity are not just instrumental means towards sustainability but integral components of prosperity itself. Understanding where and how society does or does not facilitate participation in culture and enable access to creativity becomes a vital task in any exploration of sustainable prosperity.

This task is far from straightforward for a number of reasons. In the first place, the notion of culture is itself a contested one. Furthermore, the grounds of this contestation are (sometimes overtly) political. For some, culture signifies sophistication and privilege. It is synonymous with processes of civilization and assignations of civility. For others, culture is always and everywhere. The creative activities that constitute and frame it have no special distinguishing mark – they are simply the constituents of people’s everyday participation in social life. In either case, questions of inequality in the distribution of access to cultural activities are important. The proper goals of policy and the appropriate targets for public spending in delivering such access are highly politicized questions.

The purpose of this paper is to prepare the ground for a strand of work in CUSP which aims to look at the role of culture in everyday life, through focus groups, depth interviews and participant observation. As part of a rounded picture of local cultural economies in our case study areas – Stoke, Hay on Wye and Islington – we want to understand the meanings that people attach to activities such as singing, writing, drama, crafts and online cultural production, if/how these activities help to locate people within particular communities (either geographic communities or communities of interest) and the role this plays in their lives. We also want to explore the social and political implications that arise in understanding culture as an integral component of prosperity.

It is common to find papers on ‘everyday culture’ that start with Raymond Williams line, “Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start,” (Williams, 1958:4). Williams’ seminal essay, based as it is in personal experience and particularly the experience of a young man from a working-class household going to Cambridge, is often seen as one of the founding texts of cultural studies and thus an essential piece for any study of everyday culture. Williams’ notion of culture was expansive and fluid, taking in jokes, singing and even conversation, as well as the ‘great books’ he encountered in his Black Mountains childhood. It continues to play a part in almost all discussions of ‘everyday culture’ six decades later. But what is often lost – particularly in policy discourse – is the politics of his argument. For Williams, any discussion of culture must explicitly acknowledge the unequal power relations in society, between those who have traditionally seen themselves as the cultured classes and all others. When he asserts, in the same piece, that he was not ‘oppressed by Cambridge,’ because he had, ‘come from a country with twenty centuries of culture written visibly into the earth,’ he was not, in the language of modern politicians, celebrating ‘access’ to what Cambridge had to offer, but demanding equality between his culture and its, just as he demanded equality between people in society at large. It is an insight to which we cannot return often enough.

This paper then attempts to provide something of a state of the art summary of contemporary thinking on ‘everyday culture’. The next section looks – briefly – at how policy has grappled with what constitutes culture, while Sections 3, 4 and 5 looks at different approaches to the question of democratising and broadening that understanding. The final section considers the basis on which we might start to think about new legitimations for cultural policy and the implications this might have for the CUSP project.

2 The ‘culture’ of cultural policy

The definition of culture in most of the ways we currently use the term emerged in the nineteenth century through two contrasting approaches: culture as a set of artistic practices or products, and culture as an anthropological signifying system, marking human society off from nature (Bell & Oakley, 2015). In the first sense, often associated with Victorian thinkers such as Mathew Arnold, culture is an idealised, aesthetic practice to which humans can and should aspire. The second, anthropological sense of the term, which can include ways of eating, dressing or worshipping, is of course much broader and brings the idea of culture much closer to that of ‘everyday life.’

In the main, cultural policy tends to concern itself with the first understanding, focusing on symbolic activities such as music, theatre or painting, rather than with clothing or food, though these lines are continually shifting. Thus, ‘designer fashion’ is one of the UK’s ‘creative industries’ according to DDCMS, and museums such as the Victoria and Albert in London frequently host exhibitions devoted to ‘fashion.’ In this case it is not simply the historic artifacts of costume, but the aesthetic work of designers such as Armani or Balenciaga, that are displayed. Still, cultural policy cannot be said to cover all ‘ways of life’; lines are drawn. Designer fashion maybe, all clothing no.

When the British Arts Council was established in 1946, Keynes described its purpose as:

‘to stimulate, comfort and support any societies or bodies brought together on private or local initiative, which are striving with serious purpose and a reasonable prospect of success to present for public enjoyment the arts of drama, music and painting (Keynes 1982: 368)’

As Williams (1981) pointed out, this left out not only literature, but also film, photography, radio and television, an omission and a separation which dogs us to this day. Having failed to include the then-nascent media industries in its remit, the British state has been busy setting up other agencies for film and screen arts, as well as of course, supporting the BBC, since then. The split between ‘media’ policy and ‘cultural’ policy therefore is relatively longstanding (see Loosely, 1995 for similar debates in France), though, as discussed below (Section 4), policy for the cultural (or creative) industries has often one attempted to bring them together.

What is sometimes called ‘high’ culture – activities such as classical music, opera, ballet and museums – tends to account for the bulk of public cultural spending, with subsidy generally inversely proportional to public consumption. The rationales for these inclusions will have differed over time, but are often based around the idea of culture as a merit good, which markets may well provide, yet which may not be sufficiently well-distributed without public intervention. Appeals to the ‘nation’ and national self-interest are also common themes – the Royal Shakespeare Company is funded in part because Shakespeare is seen as an intrinsic part of the nation’s identity, and both Scotland and Wales have recently set up national theatre companies as part of the devolution settlement. Despite changing times therefore, it is striking how resistant the composition of art forms, indeed of arts institutions, has been to modification. To take one obvious example, the Royal Opera House, the UK’s primary opera company, has accounted for the single largest institutional Arts Council funding every year from 1946 until the present day.

This would perhaps be less of an issue for cultural policymakers if such distinctions were not reflected in participation. But as the Warwick Commission made clear (2015:33),

‘The wealthiest, better educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population forms the most culturally active segment of all: between 2012 and 2015 they accounted (in the most conservative estimate possible) for at least 28% of live attendance to theatre, thus benefiting directly from an estimated £85 per head of Arts Council England funding to theatre. The same 8% of the population also accounted for 44% of attendances to live music, benefiting from £94 per head of Arts Council music funding. For the visual arts, this highly engaged minority accounted for 28% of visits and £37 per head of public funding’

While headline figures seem positive – in a 12 month period almost three quarters of adults in England have visited a heritage site, almost half have visited a museum or gallery and around 77 per cent per cent have attended some sort of arts event (DDCMS, 2017) – once these numbers are broken down to particular cultural forms, the picture is less favourable. Some cultural forms – dance performances of any sort, opera or ballet – attract less than 5 per cent of respondents in most years, crafts exhibition sand street arts are visited by about 10 per cent of us annually, and visual arts exhibitions, including sculpture and photography, attract around 18 per cent.

This does not mean that cultural activities are not popular: 94 per cent of UK homes have a digital TV and although viewing may be shifting slightly to tablets and smart phones, the amount of television watched continues to increase (Freedman, 2015; Ofcom, 2017). But participation in cultural activities outside the home remains a core activity for only small minority of people, with a large penumbra of very occasional attendees and around a quarter of the population taking no part at all (Taylor, 2016).

In policy terms one might ask: why does this matter? People have different pastimes. They may seek to differentiate themselves according to particular cultural tastes and associate themselves with others who share their passions. So what? As with all areas of public policy however, legitimacy is vital, and while research suggests that even those who are not frequent arts attendees are generally willing to see public money spent on culture, it remains a relatively easy target for government spending cuts. More importantly, if public policy assumes that culture is important then it has to be concerned about grave inequalities in access.

There are a variety of policy and other responses to this and the paper will spend some time discussing them. But before that, it is worth pausing to reflect that the ‘problem’ of cultural (non) participation is in part a policy-constructed one (Stevenson, 2013). Having defined certain symbolic activities as ‘culture’ – dance, opera, photography and so on – and having decided that participation in these activities conveys benefits (Crossick & Kaszynska, 2016) then the relative unpopularity of these activities poses a problem. The nature of these claimed benefits varies over time but what is constant is the argument that if people are not ‘accessing’ (certain) cultural offerings, they will individually, and we will collectively, suffer in some way. This idea was explicit under the Labour government of 1997-2010, notably as the view that culture could lessen the effects of social exclusion, such as lower levels of educational attainment or long-term exclusions from the labour market (Smith, 1998; Hesmondhalgh et al, 2015).

Under the current Government and in a climate of increasing and understandable concern about inequality in general, the fact that participation in publicly subsidised culture of various forms is hugely unequally distributed, spatially (Gordon et al, 2013), by social class, age and by ethnic group has resulted in a flurry of activity around ‘every day culture’ in the UK. This can also be seen in part as a response to growing concerns about the exclusion of arts education from the school curriculum and the brutal squeeze on local authority arts budgets – which have traditionally helped not only community arts activities but also extra-curricula arts participation.

One radical response to this (as discussed below) is to switch the focus of policy entirely, away from formal cultural activity, to support what people do ‘everyday’ in their leisure time (Miles & Gibson, 2016). This is discussed further in Section 5. Another is to retain a notion of cultural activities as distinct, and even to make a series of judgements about which ones should be funded, but to broaden that notion considerably beyond the high arts. This approach has been part of cultural policy in many Western states since the Second World War, but it has moments and characteristics, which are worth looking at in a little more detail.

Before we do that, it is worth noting that public participation is not of course the only measure by which we judge the legitimacy of cultural spending. The paper is not an argument against the public funding of opera or ballet, or indeed an argument for spending on other arts forms. This argument features heavily in some of the literature we discuss, but it is not our purpose here. Rather our concern is to determine whether there is a notion of cultural participation which is relevant to a wider concept of prosperity. The policy debates on questions of cultural participation are relevant however if we are to understand cultural participation against the backdrop of huge social inequality.

3 Getting out there – community arts

Francois Matarasso has written recently (2011) of the depoliticisation of community arts in Britain, a charge which could be levied against other aspects of our cultural life. As he makes clear, the terms ‘community art’ which came into use in the early 1970s referred not simply to artistic practices that happened ‘in communities,’ or even with non-professionals in particular locales, but to the nature of that practice itself,

‘a complex, unstable and contested practice, developed by young artists and theatre makers seeking to reinvigorate an art world they saw as bourgeois at best and repressive at worst.‘(2011:215)

Although it has roots in older versions of, particularly working class, cultural emancipation projects such as the Workers Educational Association (WEA), the Community Arts movement really dates from the early 1970s. It was also a time of economic and political turmoil in the UK – when radical artists formed theatre companies such as 7:84, Red Ladder and Welfare State, whose aims were very clearly to reconstruct society in a socialist direction. As Matarasso notes there were links between these movements and wider ideas of ‘community development’ then becoming popular in the Global South as part of a decolonisation strategy. The shared idea here was that communities should be an active part of the processes that affected them, and thus community artists in the UK often worked alongside tenants associations, women’s group and ethnic minority activists.

The kind of work produced, which ranged from street murals to outdoor festivals and print workshops also embraced the more ‘commercial’ side of popular culture in terms of popular music, fanzines and early ‘new’ media, though it is fair to say that the term community arts is generally associated more with the former type of activity, more with mural painting than with popular music. Matarasso however, sees community arts at that time as part of a wider cultural moment of the 1970s and 80s, which could include punk and certainly included groups like Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League. This blending of popular culture and leftist politics, which drew of course on the counter culture of the 1960s, was characteristic of the late 70s and 1980s when many young people drew their political education from pop music and magazines like the New Musical Express (NME), as much as they did from political parties or politics lessons. It has never of course entirely gone away. As we write, rap artist Eminem’s attack on Donald Trump is making headlines, and cultural voices are still often sought by progressive (and other) political campaigns, but the centrality of culture, particularly popular culture to politics (and vice versa) has weakened in the intervening decades.

Community Arts is now often called ‘participatory’ arts or sometimes socially-engaged practice. Matarasso argues that it now focuses less on community expressed as place (and hence on everyone who lives in a place) and more on particular groups – the unemployed, people suffering from depression, refugees and so on. As such it has a more instrumental – even ameliorative – aim. This sort of social instrumentalism was prominent, particularly under the New Labour government (Hesmondhalgh, et al, 2015), which saw something of a boon in arts practice linked to social goals from crime reduction to wellbeing (Belfiore, 2012). The evidence for these benefits is variable at best, as the AHRC’s major report on ‘Cultural Value’ (Crossick & Kaszynska, 2016) made clear, with stronger evidence for individual benefits than for those at ‘community’ or group level. But more importantly, the politics of much of this practice is rather different from that of the 1980s. It is the difference between being helped to cope better with the society we have, versus changing that society.

There are of course, exceptions to this. Turner prize winning artist Jeremy Deller does most of his work with different communities, though he is rarely described as a ‘community arts’ practitioner, while the 2015 Turner Prize went to Assemble, a London-based design collective who were awarded it for work on the re-design of four streets in the Granby area of Liverpool. Both would probably say their aim is to change society profoundly and to produce art that has a critical dimension in the process. But whether we accept Matarasso’s argument that community arts had been depoliticised entirely or not – it seems fair to argue that much of the socially engaged or participatory arts of the last 20 years has stressed personal rather than social change (Kelly, 1984; Matarasso, 2011).

While the community arts movement and theatre companies like 7:84 represent one way of democratising and extending cultural activity, the majority of people, then as now, consumed culture at home via TV and the radio. And they primarily consumed commercially-produced culture. Attendance at radical theatre or even outdoor festivals remained a minority activity. Perhaps the most comprehensive attempt to ever recognise this fact in cultural policy – and to actively respond and try to shape it -was under the short-lived reign of the Labour Great London Council (GLC) in the 1980s (Oakley, 2013), as we discuss in the next section.

4 The GLC and the cultural industries

In the post-War period, the story of cultural policy therefore has been one of steady movement from a narrow focus on the high arts to one which encompasses a broader range of cultural practices. It has done so in part under the influence of fields like cultural studies, which emphasise the importance of popular culture as a source of meaning to most of us (Hoggart, 1957; Hebdige, 1979), and Raymond Williams’ arguments about the need for policy to expand and change popular culture. As Hesmondhalgh (2012: 167) puts it, ‘the aim was not to celebrate commercial production, but simply to recognise its centrality in modern culture’. In France for example, concerns about the ‘Americanisation’ of national culture had a long history and led to a series of measures under the Mitterrand government of the 1980s, including a quota system for the showing of French films, both at the cinema and on television (Looseley, 1995). Beyond what was sometimes criticised as simply cultural nationalism, French policy was beginning to recognise ‘that the relationship between culture and the economy was dialectical and therefore potentially positive’ (Looseley 1995: 80) and that this could act as a spur to French film production as well as mitigate the dominance of Hollywood.

In Britain, these ideas witnessed perhaps their clearest expression in London during the period 1983-86, in what is generally referred to as the ‘cultural industries’ strategy of the Greater London Council (GLC). This went beyond merely seeking to extend the remit of existing cultural policy to forms of popular culture, but argued that the mechanisms by which such policies might be enacted also needed to change. What became the (GLC) cultural industries polices arose out of a mixture of arts and economic policy, in the context of a broader political strategy which was trying to reconstruct the Left of British politics by a broader appeal to ethnic minorities, women and the young. This took cultural political form in the embrace and support of commercial popular culture. Ethnic minority, or black arts as it was called at the time, was, for the first time, the subject of particular public interventions in cinema, theatre and festivals, while training schemes aimed at improving the representation of ethnic minority workers within the cultural sectors were established and funded (Bianchini, 1987).

But it also has clear economic aims, as part of a radical rethinking of what the economy might lookike. The GLC’s Industry and Employment Committee under the influence of figures like Robin Murray and Nick Garnham, developed approaches to the cultural industries which sought to break down distinctions between subsidised and commercial culture. As most people’s cultural consumption was hugely shaped by market forces, cultural policy needed to take account of this, they argued, and could thus include public investments in commercial enterprises such as recording studios, publishing houses and magazines, and even commercial sports organisations (Garnham 1990). Initiatives ranged from setting up community recording studios (Firehouse Ltd), black publishing houses (Bladestock Publications) and radical book distribution co-ops (Turnaround) to, most famously perhaps, a large programme of festivals. The importance of the South Bank in London’s cultural life today is largely a legacy of these days, which saw the magnificent brutalism of its cultural institutions opened up to a programme of festivals and events, free music and dance and a variety of political rallies with a strong cultural component (Bianchini, 1987).

Any analysis of the market for cultural products, Garnham argued, suggested that cultural policy should focus on distribution, including subsidising audience and market research for small cultural businesses, in an attempt to help foster self-sufficiency and offer a genuine alternative to the current commercial gatekeepers. The concept of representation was central to this strategy as it remains central to debates about inequality in cultural production today (Malik, 2002; Tyler, 2008). This was not about broadening ‘access’ to the established cultural canon, but about rethinking how and what culture expressed the lives of working class people, women and ethnic minorities and – finding them largely excluded from the canon – funding contemporary cultural forms like photography, video, pop music and community radio which had traditionally been neglected by the state.

The GLC was abolished in 1986 by the then-Conservative national government before many of its cultural policies ever saw the light of day, however they remain highly influential. The belief in the economic importance of the cultural sectors, particularly but not only the media, had taken root and was to shift the terrain of cultural policy towards a more prominent relationship with the notion of economic competiveness and growth. The politics of this, sometimes called creative industries or creative economy, is entirely different however, replacing a concern to reconstruct the market along socialist lines, with a largely neoliberal focus on the economic growth of the (now-dubbed) ‘creative’ industries and on their effects on the wider economy in terms of innovation.

5 Understanding Everyday Participation

Both the GLC’s cultural industries strategy and the community arts movement in different ways retained a belief in the power of culture – that is of symbolic activity – to change lives. Cultural hierarchies may need to be examined and the classed nature of cultural judgements needed to be questioned, but that there is something called ‘culture’ which stands apart from other activities in some way was a shared belief. No-one at that time used the language of ‘cultural value’ which has become more popular in UK policy circles (largely driven by the need for a language to articulate any values beyond the economic) and they may (as we do) have found it problematic, but that culture has some value on its own was not in doubt.

For some critics however, the designation of some activities as cultural and others as not, is part of the problem. The Understanding Everyday Participation (UEP) project for example asks on its website: ‘Can we speak of supposedly mundane activities like shopping, taking the dog for a walk, or meeting up with friends as having cultural worth?’ The project reflects a revival of interest in the study of everyday life and the significance of apparently mundane activities such as shopping, walking and going to the gym. The designation of such activities as ‘cultural’ is clearly mobilised against the ‘official’ framework of cultural participation and value in the UK.

For Miles and Gibson (2016), the use of such a framework is always accompanied by the deficit model of participation, one which reflected middle-class norms and understandings of what counts as ‘legitimate’ culture. They criticise cultural policy for failing to properly understand situated notions of value and meaning, and argue policies that prioritise ‘access’ to culture in the name of reducing social exclusion are themselves part of a process of discrimination, marking out and marginalising those people and places that do not associate themselves with established culture as being in need of (remedial) attention.

What offers greater promise, they argue, is investment in what is sometimes called ‘vernacular’ culture or the everyday cultural experiences that people seek out, from charity shops (Edwards & Gibson, 2017) and public parks(Gilmore, 2017) to libraries (Delrieu & Gibson, 2017). What is of interest to the CUSP project is the strong focus on space, place and participation (Miles & Ebrey, 2017) and the detailed case studies in locales from Dartmoor to the Outer Hebrides, but the UEP project is seeking to broaden the cultural frame sometimes seems to stretch it beyond any notion of the value of symbolic culture.

Banks in particular in his recent work on what he calls ‘creative justice’ (2017) is concerned that approaches like UEP, which build on Bourdieu (1984) see culture primarily as a reflection of social distinctions, without its own objective principles. Banks does not argue that there is some sort of ‘pure’ cultural object that can be considered outside of its social origins, but simply that cultural objects are not reducible to social origins and therefore questions of quality and of aesthetics cannot be banished from policy (or scholarly) considerations. Culture therefore – and the plurality of possible consequences that might arise from personal or social engagement – are part of culture’s value, part of what makes it a public good and part of what makes it worthy of support by society. Others go further, for Russell Keat (2000), cultural goods act as ‘meta goods,’ or goods that help us to understand others sorts of good and make judgments about them. Culture is in that sense foundational, Keat argues, in giving us notions such as what is ‘good’ and what is ‘valuable’ and hence helps us make better judgements about other things (including but not limited to, other market goods).

6 Seeking a new legitimation for cultural policy

Pratt has written recently, ‘Culture is now a complex co-dependency of activities that go beyond traditional boundaries: of culture, or the for-profit, and of paid work,’ (2017: 128). In seeking to explain why the cultural industries have been one of the few sectors of the global economy that have weathered the post 2008 downturn, he argues that the dynamism of the field in part springs from its breadth – encompassing a range of activities from non-profit community arts to commercial media behemoths. This is the field we speak of when we speak of culture and rather than see it as a series of different fields – high arts, commercial cultural industries, non profits ‘arts’ – in is in fact an interlinked system. This may in part account for its resilience, but, as Pratt acknowledges, it also creates problems when, for example, a sector with such a strong tradition of unpaid work (from volunteering to speculative labour) meets industrialisation and labour exploitation takes place, as it does in the form of unpaid internships, spec work and other form of ‘free’ labour (Ross, 2003; Kennedy, 2013)

This notion of culture is not of course coterminous with the field of cultural policy. As described above, cultural policy since WW2 has – at varying times – sought to move beyond the high arts to cover other areas of cultural activity. If we look the contemporary UK, for example, we now have in effect two cultural polices in operation.

One is the ‘arts’ policy that supports funding for national and local organisations. This concerns itself with questions of ‘excellence’ but also – and under some pressure, as we have seen – with questions of equity, both in geographical distribution and in terms of participation. At the local authority level the years of austerity have almost hollowed out cultural funding, with councils as large as Newcastle having to cut their cultural budget to almost zero (Pratt, 2017). Central Government funding for the arts has been held together, largely by slashing staffing at organisations such as the Arts Council in order to minimise cuts to funded organisations.

The other form of cultural policy is what we call ‘creative economy’ policy. Here money seems to be less of an issue (the AHRC has just announced a research budget of £39m for the area) and the creative industries, as one of the five government priority sectors is a beneficiary of industrial strategy funding (Bazalgette, 2017). The aims of this policy are economic growth, jobs and innovation and questions of aesthetics, identity or self-expression are largely absent from government thinking, though they continue to surface elsewhere. From #oscarssowhite and Lenny Henry’s campaigns about (lack of) diversity in UK media, to the Murdoch takeover of Sky TV, the commercial cultural industries pose the same questions of identity, meaning and expression as do the subsidised arts, but they are abandoned to the rather more limited goals of economic policy.

From the CUSP point of view, neither of these policy types is satisfactory. As we stated at the beginning of the paper, it is not our purpose here to discuss what arts spending (cultural policy type 1) should focus on. We believe there remains a role for public arts funding and would like to see cuts reversed, but the focus of such funding is limited and it does not encompass the wide notion of culture that we believe is important. It separates ‘the arts’ from mediated culture – films, TV and so on. Its attachment to classed and racialised hierarchies of culture is difficult to escape and in its construction of the ‘non participant,’ it perpetrates a deficit model of the citizen that is harmful.

The creative industry and creative economy policies we now have (type 2) – in the UK and many other countries – are simply a part of neoliberal, growth focused economic policies. The creative industries are championed in terms of their contribution to GDP growth and to employment (notwithstanding evidence about the unsustainability of many of these employment models), and in terms of their links to other sectors such as advertising – which are premised on a high growth, consumerist economic model.

If neither of these policy models works, certainly in terms of sustainable prosperity, how can we rethink the relationship between culture and society?

The AHRC’s Cultural Value project (Crossick & Kaszynska, 2016) was a two year research project, which commissioned a variety of studies, literature reviews and empirical work to cut through what the authors saw as an impasse in policy around,

‘the intrinsic v the instrumental, the elite v the popular, the amateur v the professional, private v public spaces of consumption, qualitative v quantitative evidence, and the publicly-funded v the commercially-oriented.” (2016:6)

Articulating a new rationale for cultural policy was at the heart of the report and for this reason it spends a lot of time seeking ‘evidence’ for various claims that have been advanced over the years. It largely supports claims that have been made for the ability of arts and cultural engagement to produce reflective individuals and engaged citizens, including the ability of the arts to fuel a ‘broader political imagination,’ (of relevance for A3). The report also notes some evidence of benefits in terms of health outcomes and some in terms of education. The report however questions accounts of a positive correlation between arts engagement and subjective wellbeing and queries many of the economic claims made for the arts and culture including impact studies, urban regeneration and so on.

By explicitly recognising a wide range of cultural activities and the extent to which they constitute a system, and by its intelligent reading of evidence, the AHRC report does move us on from some current impasses. Its ultimate focus is on the experience of the individual, which it argues has been undervalued in a cultural policy. The idea that as Dewey described it (1934), art conveys meanings through experience, is hardly a new one, but as Crossick & Kaszynska argue, it is one that policymakers have perhaps lost sight of, and one that can help us to move away from problematic hierarchies – the value of Bowie doesn’t have to be set against the value of Beethoven from the point of the individual experience. The overall message is to support a pluralistic vision of culture – which people encounter in a variety of settings from home to the street to the art gallery and in a variety of way and forms.

Echoes of this emphasis on experience feature in Hesmondhalgh’s work, notably his book, ‘Why Music Matters’ (2013). His short answer, and the book’s opening sentence, is that it has the potential to enrich people’s lives and enrich society. The longer answer makes use of the capabilities framework, which has been taken up by a variety of recent writers on culture (Keat, 2000; Hesmondhalgh, 2013; Banks, 2017). Building on the work of Sen (1999) but more particularly of Martha Nussbaum (2000, 2011), Hesmondhalgh and others are interested in the potential of the arts to help us flourish. By flourish we do not mean to be happy. Kate has written elsewhere about the problems of happiness as a goal for cultural policy (Oakley, 2011), but as Andrew Sayer notes (2003), the idea of flourishing is a more active one – concerned with being or doing rather than with happiness which may be simply be a transitory sate of mind.

As Hesmondhalgh acknowledges, Nussbaum’s account of the importance of music (2011) tends towards a certain type of music – in her case, Mahler – but he argues that such benefits can be gained from popular music too. This means taking popular music as seriously as classical music, which he goes on to demonstrate through a consideration of Candi Staton’s 1976 hit Young Hearts run Free.’(pp 22-25), which he analyses both musically and lyrically as an account of the struggle between freedom and obligation at a period of (relative) advances for feminism. In terms of connecting with people’s emotional inner lives, helping them to ‘narrate’ them as Nussbaum suggests, he argues that this particular disco song can make the same claims as Nussbaum’s somewhat more classical examples. As Hesmondhalgh notes, to say that music (or any other art form) has the potential to contribute to human flourishing is not to say that all art has to do this all the time – distraction, pleasure, amusement or something to do exercise to – are also legitimate uses for music. What is important is the potential of culture to offer these goods.

Attempts to operationalise the ideas that flow from capabilities thinking are surprisingly difficult to develop, however, despite the fact that they were designed in part with policy in mind. One recent attempt, Scott et al. (2017), uses the capabilities approach to investigate cultural activities in rural areas. Taking what they call a ‘social justice’ approach to wellbeing, they considered empirical data from a series of in-depth interviews and focus groups – data collected about particular rural cultural projects – against Nussbaum’s list of ten human capabilities. They were not seeking empirical ‘evidence’ of these effects, but reading the interview data in the light of these capabilities (2017:7). The researchers admit that such mapping has limitations, particularly as Nussbaum’s capabilities largely relate to individuals, whereas what they were interested in (as we are) is the idea of social relationships, community and place. As they note, Nussbaum’s list does not give space for ideas such as belonging or place (indeed mobility is instead seen as a capability). Nonetheless, they found that Nussbaum’s ideas of the importance of social institutions, feelings of attachment to nature and to social relationships, were indeed part of the experience of cultural engagement. As was pleasure – ‘being able to have a laugh’ – which, as they note, was the end point for participants, not a part of something else, such as mental health.

It is perhaps too simple to say that societies that are concerned about human flourishing should be concerned about participation in culture as it helps us to flourish, but that, it seems to us, is a starting point for the rethinking of cultural policy. There are however, significant issues which remain to be thought through. One of course is the political economy of culture with all its inequalities and concentrations of power – which cultural industries strategies took as their starting point – but which are less directly addressed by capabilities approaches. Another is to acknowledge tensions and contradictions more clearly. Cultural production for example, is far from ‘green.’ The growth of digital technology that it promotes, is highly dependent on energy use and the association with lifestyle goods, via fashion, craft, design and advertising links it in many ways to conspicuous (over)consumption.

The Creativity in Everyday Life strand of the CUSP work therefore will not seek to minimise these contradictions. We are not seeking to undertake cultural advocacy, but simply to explore the ways in which cultural activities are linked to ways of flourishing and enjoying the good life.


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