Culture in a Big Society

Originally posted in June 2010, and interesting now over a year later, post-riots:

I was asked by a colleague to write something quickly to help with an enquiry into this question: What is the role of arts and culture in the new big society? As I haven’t blogged much lately, I thought I’d repurpose it….

Is this question really asking, what role will the arts and culture play in the emerging reality? Or, is it, what role can be claimed for culture in a State where cuts to public subsidy are justified by Big Society rhetoric? The first question is the more interesting and it’s one I’m attempting to deal with on Climate Action in Culture & Heritage , given that, even if the smartest science comes quick to the rescue, all nations will be somewhat straitened and disrupted by many impacts of climate change and ecocide (over the next 10-50 years). If it’s the latter, then I can’t really rouse myself to answer it.

There is no new Big Society just because the Government has waved a magic wand to say so. There’s been emerging talk for 15 years about mixed forms of ownership (although to credit the Cooperative movement they’ve been talking about it for much longer, and yet it’s still not well understood, or very mainstream). The first employer to implement co-ownership and workers’ self-education, in the late 19th century, was George Livesey. He was benefactor of the Camberwell library, later to become the Livesey Museum for Children. This was closed in 2008 because Southwark Council felt the costs of employing creative managers were less worthwhile than the ongoing costs of keeping the building secure against vandals. Actually, they wanted to sell off the building (until we pointed out Livesey’s bequest meant it wasn’t theirs to sell). Many
officials who might have fought with us to save it, saw the positive side of closure – that this could be an experiment to see if community transfer of assets could provide a model for others threatened by local authority cuts. Great!

Except there isn’t a model to demonstrate, as the Council chose not to accept the community’s proposal to run the museum, underwritten by a housing trust, and the building remains locked after 2.5 years. Even if we had been given the chance, we may have struggled alone as, inevitably, anger at its closure may not easily convert into drive and imagination from local supporters.

Southwark Council was at the time a coalition of Tory and Lib-Dem, and so could be said to prefigure the current Government. Their idea of Big Society has been difficult to grasp as it is an odd mix of both New Labour ‘community
agency’ (sprinkled with ‘wethink’ digital fairy dust), and the Victorian Livesey’s style of paternalist liberalism (where self-reliance and local heroism are lauded but in the end cultural freedoms become repressed by the dominance of the wealthy, the clergy and the technocracy).

The problem isn’t so much with the Big Society principles, as they represent good things: agency, resilience and democracy. See, for example, Nick Poole’s post on how the Big Society Bank may help shift the funding of culture away from (often wasteful) grants, to more sustainable investments. I think a new participatory democracy is poised to flourish in the virtual and augmented worlds, and the arts and museums sector have a barely tapped role to play in this. I’m also positive about the ways that young people are developing cultural leadership skills due to the youth voice agenda, making itself felt in the arts very strongly. That said, and to return to Nick’s key points, young people’s agency can be undermined when the funding structures force them to rush decisions on behalf of their peers, and there is a lack of planning expertise to support them. See for example, the petty-storm raging in my neighbourhood as a group of teens has raised £50k for a skatepark but haven’t consulted well on its location, so don’t have full local support to site it in a tiny heritage park directly in front of a view across London.

The problem with Big Society is that the persisting system in Britain cannot allow agency, resilience and democracy to flourish. What agency do we have when our representatives have none where it matters? (For example, when Caroline Lucas MP is ignored by the Speaker when she tries to request an amendment that Parliament consider reviewing the renewal of Trident nuclear submarines, which the Lib Dems had earlier estimated at a cost of £100 billion?) What kind of Big Society, especially if it becomes less regulated by law and more led by corporations or ideological interest groups, can be trusted to do good when the unsustainable exploitation of resources for national, corporate or individual profit is held to be the ultimate good? To overcome the devastating crisis we face because of this orthodoxy, we need Government to support the mobilisation of society to one focused end, that is, a life sustaining planet. So, the only really important
question is, what role could arts and culture play in this mobilisation of society (and what role will they play if this mobilisation doesn’t happen)? Perhaps a role for the arts and culture is that they shouldn’t aim just to be a recipient of decentralised funding and goodwill but to transform the way we make decisions about how to live well, helping us take a long view, and helping us operate on registers that are to do with beauty, complexity, mystery, empathy and invention.

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