It was the end of September, and Rita and I were spending a few days in Bologna. It was the first part of a week split between there and the remarkable and very moving mosaics in Ravenna. As we approached Piazza Maggiore we heard a band playing. Not a traditional brass band as we had first thought, but wind as well as brass and it was playing contemporary music. Indiviudal members started peeling off into the square and playing their abrupt, short parts quite separate from the band. We were being drawn into an intriguing performance. The players eventually all came together again and, accompanied by the brass playing a low, dirge-like refrain, they moved across the square and up the steps into the vast St Petronius church. With a crowd from the square we irresistibly followed, and discovered that hundreds of people were already in the church where an enormous choir was in place at one end and had probably been performing while we had been listening to the musicians in the square. The band took up a distant position at the other end of the nave. Maybe it had been there in the church before leaving for Piazza Maggiore where we’d stumbled across it? And the choir sang (shouting, screaming, hands waving in the air) and the band played (fierce and loud),but separately rather than together, alternating in a frenzied and captivating dialogue. And then they finally came together in a long and increasingly loud crescendo. The sound by the end was overwhelming. The Day of Judgment? We staggered out of St Petronius, overwhelmed by an entirely unexpected experience. It turned out that this had been a John Cage piece. And I didn’t think that I liked John Cage, Rita even less so. But the drama, the sound, the whole performance, including the way in which our attention was caught outside so that we simply couldn’t but follow the band into the church, all made for an extraordinary emotional experience.
Not all art is like that, but much if it does have an emotional and personal impact of a very powerful kind. The experience kept returning to one or the other of us, and we’d talk about it for the rest of the day. As I had just started as part-time Director of the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project I found myself reflecting on how that work had affected me. Was this why I was so pleased to have been appointed to lead the Project? No, it would be naïve to make such a connection. But it was certainly one of the reasons why it mattered so much to me. I’ve been thinking about why I wanted to do this so much, because it is going to be a challenging time for all of us working on it, not least myself and Patrycja Kaszynska, who is the Project Researcher. It will be challenging because the last fifteen years have seen various attempts to demonstrate why the arts and culture matter, few of them satisfying to those working in that area. Not least because none of those attempts seemed to explain why what happened to me in Bologna was so powerful, nor why Bach or Keith Jarrett or the Felice Brothers could in their different ways so engage me. And that was just to speak of music, amongst the different art forms. The fact that previous attempts to explain cultural value had not satisfied people in the arts, or satisfied people like myself who cared about the arts, was even more troubling because they seem to have rarely carried authority with policy makers either. We’re going to do something more, as we explain in the Introduction to the Cultural Value Project which you’ll find on this website, though that will only really happen with active engagement by people across the university and cultural sectors and beyond.
So, why was I so pleased to take this on? There were a number of overlapping reasons. I’m not from the cultural disciplines, but a social historian. As a historian I know that it is the arrogance of the present – of any present – to believe that its challenges and ideas are somehow special, even unique. And if we’re going to understand why the arts and culture matter then we need to accept that that question has been asked by every generation for many centuries, indeed longer, and they have each come up with their own answers. As a historian I can insist on the importance of locating our ideas within that longer process of questioning. And that attracts me. A historical workshop will be high on our agenda to help us get a handle on these ideas. So, as someone not himself from an arts discipline, I thought that there was a distinct perspective that I could help bring to the project.
The most important reason for my interest in taking on this project, however, probably lies in my career over the last ten years or so. As chief executive of the then AHRB between 2002 and 2005 I helped its transition to being a full research council. People across the arts in higher education taught me much about the academic disciplines in the creative and performing arts, and about the multitude of connections between research across arts and humanities disciplines and the extraordinary success of the cultural sector in this country. Then, in my five years as Warden of Goldsmiths, I headed one of the most exciting creative university institutions in this country (actually, I thought at the time that it was the most exciting, but I have to be more open-minded now….), one that was engaged across all its disciplines, and not just the arts, in both contributing to and interrogating the importance of arts and culture to society. I then became vice-chancellor of the University of London and worked with other fine institutions that engaged closely with the cultural sector, as well as with the University’s rather special Centre for Creative Collaboration. My membership of the Boards of The Courtauld and the National Maritime Museum, and the Advisory Council of the British Library, reinforced this interest because each speaks to its different (though overlapping) audiences. I was very pleased when the National Maritime Museum successfully acquired Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle and installed it outside the main entrance. Pleased because I’d played a role in making the case for acquiring it, and pleased because through that striking work, full of all the ambiguities that characterised so much evocative art, it signalled that the museum was about a great deal more than people who lived in the locality around it might think.
For these and other reasons the challenge of explaining why the arts and culture matter in Britain today, finding better ways of making the argument and finding evidence to persuade others of it, matters to me. We need to move the way we talk about these issues onto a different level. We’re not doing it from scratch – some impressive work has been going on, and indeed we might even learn from some of the debates in the more distant past. But it would be good to help move all of this forward. And once I’d been appointed I couldn’t help but find cultural value everywhere, as I had in Bologna. Two other moments in recent months stand out for me as ones where events made me think about some, just some, of the value of culture. The first has to be the Olympics Opening Ceremony, an extraordinary result of the quality and energy of the arts in Britain today. That ceremony did something that I’d like us to explore in the project: it provoked reflection and discussion about a significant issue (in this case, what it meant today to be British) in a way that was more sensitive and more nuanced than it would have been had it been confronted head on. The debate in the week that followed, not just in the press but in everyday conversations, was striking. Another event that stands out was seeing Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution at the National Theatre, which looked as though it was going to be a simple moral tale but then developed into a much more complex exploration of the ambiguous relations between the artist and the state. Each, very different in its origins and purpose, invited the audience to reflect on important issues.
Not all cultural activity will do that. But, alongside all the other more conventional benefits that flow from arts and culture, the difference they make to the way people experience and live their lives will be the most challenging for the Cultural Value Project to capture. Yet it is something we have to try to do because, as we say in the Introduction, it is the essential aspect of cultural engagement from which all the other benefits follow. Just as I was about to finish this blog, I went to the opening of the new Ansel Adams exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It is a revelatory exhibition, breathtaking photographs of landscape and water taken throughout the life of one of the greatest of 20th-century photographers. And it is beautifully and informatively presented. At the end, visitors (such a poor word to describe the way people often experience exhibitions) can engage with what they’ve seen in two public ways. The first is to look at the photos put on Flickr by people who have thought about photographing water. Now the exhibition is open it is hoped that people will post photos inspired in some way by what they’ve seen. The second is the cards on which you’re invited to add a comment on what the exhibition moved you to think or do, cards that are then pinned up to be read. Let’s see how both develop, but they are ways of trying to capture what this particular exhibition did for those who saw it. I wrote on my card, captivated by Adams’s late photographs, that the exhibition inspired me to believe that as one got older one sees the world more simply and more clearly. If you see the exhibition (and you should if you can) you’ll decide whether you. We’ll need to tap into sources such as these if we’re going to grasp at least some of the less accessible consequences that art and culture has for people.
We want this project to engage people widely, academics and policy makers, cultural organisations and arts practitioners, and those who participate in some way in the huge range of cultural activity that is such an exciting aspect of contemporary Britain. We’ll be engaging people through the variety of activities mentioned in the Introduction to the project, and we’d welcome suggestions of more. This blog will be one of those. It will contain reflections and ideas, from those within the Project and those beyond it.