Reconnecting Communities: The Politics of Art and the Art of Politics
What does arts and culture deliver in terms of social benefits? How can these benefits be demonstrated? What role do arts and culture play in re-engaging ‘disaffected democrats’? And can this offer further proof of the social value of arts and culture? An innovative new participatory arts project in South Yorkshire is examining the ‘politics of art’ and the ‘art of politics’ from a number of new angles.
‘The general value of arts and culture to society has long been assumed’ a recent report from the Arts Council acknowledges ‘while the specifics have just as long been debated’. It is this focus on the specifics that forms the rub because in times of relative prosperity there was little pressure from either public or private funders to demonstrate the broader social impact or relevance of the arts. In times of austerity, however, the situation is very different. For example, a focus on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) within education policy risks eviscerating the funding for the arts and humanities (and the social sciences) unless these more creative and less tangible intellectual pursuits can demonstrate their clear social value. The vocabulary of ‘social return’, ‘intellectual productive capacity’, ‘economic generation’ – or what some might prefer to label ‘the tyranny of impact’ – may well grate against the traditional values and assumptions of the arts and culture community but it is a shadow that cannot be ignored.
The publication of The Impact of the Social Sciences (Sage, 2014) provides more than a sophisticated analysis of the value of the social sciences across a range of economic, cultural and civic dimensions. It provides a political treatise and a strategic piece of evidence-based leverage that may play an important role in future debates over the distribution of diminishing public funds. I have no doubt that the impact of the arts and humanities is equally significant. But the problem is that the systematic creation of an evidence base remains embryonic. The belief that the arts and humanities are educationally critical, essentially humanizing and therefore socially essential elements of any modern society is meaningless without demonstrable evidence to support these beliefs, presented in a language policy makers will accept. The methodological and epistemological challenges of delivering that research base are clearly significant. It cannot only be measured in simple economic terms, social benefits rarely can be, but as the Arts Council emphasizes ‘it is something that arts and culture organisations will have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’. The integrity of the arts needn’t be undermined by robust and in depth exploration of its social benefits.
As a political scientist I have always been fascinated with the relationship between art and politics. Though heretical to suggest to the arts community, I have often thought that the role of the professional politician and the professional artist (indeed, with the amateur politician and the amateur artist) were more similar than was often acknowledged. Both seek to express values and visions, to inspire hope and confidence or dread and disgust and both seek – if we are honest – to present a message. It is only the medium through which that message is presented that differs (and relationships of co-option, patronage and dependency are common between these professions). Similarly, the problems faced by the cultural sector and formal political institutions are by no means dissimilar. Both seek to expand and diversify their ‘audiences’. Both have the potential to offer a medium of expression for all, but, fundamentally, only manage to give voice to those who are already well heard. The analogy may go further still in the potential solutions. “Art should not be sequestered in special zones, where special people – the artists – deploy their special skills and experience,” argues Leadbeater (2010), “art should be grounded in the common experience of everyday life.” Could the word ‘art’ in this statement, not be easily changed for politics? Having (crudely) established a connection or relationship between art and politics (or artists and politicians) could it be that one of the true values of the arts lies not in how it responds to the needs of the economy or its importance in our education system but in how it responds to the rise of ‘disaffected democrats’ and the constellation of concerns that come together in the ‘why we hate politics’ narrative?
We demand participation. As artists and as politicians we yearn for meaningful routes to engagement that are relevant to us all, rather than token gestures from those with real decision making power. Vromen (2003) offers us this definition of participation: ‘acts…that are intrinsically concerned with shaping the society that we want to live in.’ Inadvertently, Vromen offers another parallel between politics and art: but this time specifically between political participation and participatory arts. Participatory arts originates in a concern for community development and a wish to promote ‘better living’ for all, or a concern for ‘shaping the society we want to live in.’ Participatory arts can therefore be an instance of political participation. But is there potential for it to be taken further? In a time of increasing social anomie and political disengagement, especially amongst the young and the poor, can participatory arts projects provide a way of reconnecting communities and provide a means for broader political reengagement?
François Matarasso’s Use or Ornament (1997) provides one of the most systematic explorations of the social benefits of participatory arts and concluded that ‘one of the most important outcomes of [the public’s] involvement in the arts was finding their own voice, or perhaps, the courage to use it’. More recently the New Economics Foundation’s report Diversity and Integration (2013) suggested that young people who participated in arts programmes were more likely to see themselves as ‘holding the potential to do anything I want to do’ and being ‘able to influence a group of people to get things done’. The Department for Culture Media and Sport has also offered the CASE report (2010) which proposes that engagement with arts and culture can improve literacy, numeracy and ‘transferable skills’ amongst young people. Other studies tentatively offer similarly positive conclusions but few with real analytical depth in terms of identifying between political reconnection, civic reconnection or personal reconnection (in terms of personal understanding, confidence and aspiration). To return to the Arts Council’s recent report – The Wider Benefits of Art and Culture to Society – the existing research base is light on ‘the specifics’.
It is for exactly this reason that the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics has joined forces with ‘Art in the Park’ as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project. Young people from all across South Yorkshire will be brought together to participate in an eight week arts project that uses creative writing, storytelling and visual art to explore social and political issues. We hope to also involve current or past politicians as equal participants (depending on the views of the young people and artists), who like the young people, will take a role as decision maker and listener in the context of the workshops. Surveys, focus groups and interviews (methodology borrowed from both political science and the cultural sector) will capture how participating in the project affects political attitudes and understandings –positive, negative, political, civic or personal – with the aim of beginning to fill the gaps in the existing evidence base regarding whether the participatory arts may offer an as yet unrealized potential for breathing life back into politics and reconnecting communities. Now that really would be a wider benefit for society.
Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He was recently a winner in the ‘This is Democracy’ International Photography Competition – http://www.ondemocracy.org/news-events/festival-of-democracy/item/349-this-is-democracy-photography-competition – but his wife now claims she took the picture.
Malaika Cunningham is the Research Officer on the project discussed in this blog and is Artistic Director of Sheffield-based theatre company The Bare Project