‘Arts funding’ and ‘a creative and critical life’

Originally posted May 2010:

Today the media will be reporting announcements from the Minister for Culture, Olympics, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt, on the new Con-Dem Government’s priorities and funding decisions for DCMS. Their reports will be headlined as ‘arts funding’, the arts sector will be asked to comment and the uninvited responses from the arts sector will circulate. ‘The arts’ is often used as a synecdoche for heritage, tourism, museums, archives, libraries, creative industries & arts (give or take sport).

It seems that ‘the arts’ is used in preference because ‘culture’ is seen as too vague a term. True, ‘culture’ is a floating category. Its meanings can be so relative they can become opposed: It means ‘sort of heritage and broader’ to the arts sector and then ‘sort of arts and creativity’ to the heritage sector. To anyone outside those two poles it means ‘sort of everything that humans do and what ties a people together’. Maybe it would help if we could agree new terms for our sectors and domains of activity, that help us be both more inclusive and also more precise. Maybe these terms could also be set within a framework that helps us rethink and advocate the value of culture?

Bill Ivey has noted the problem that ‘the arts’ is too narrow and ‘culture’ is too broad.  The effect of this seems to him (especially in the US) to put arts or culture projects at the bottom of the funding pile. He has come up with the model of ‘the Expressive life’ as a more inclusive and singular definition of arts and culture which helps with their advocacy. In the UK, this has been published in a DEMOS pamphlet and in the latest RSA magazine. I appreciate what he is aiming to do but not sure that his model hits the mark, for our cultural institutions and attitudes. Instead I propose something which still needs to be properly named, which I call for now ‘a creative and critical life’. I will have to write in more detail about it, but in short it goes beyond the notion of an ‘expressive life’, because it places more emphasis on knowledge (e.g. the assets in our collections or, more broadly, the importance of enquiry). My proposal includes lifting the assumption that ‘heritage’ means things that are conservative and old-fashioned, to a more positive meaning: ‘caring for, using and reinventing what we have’. It also recognises our integration with nature (or rather it includes the notion of ‘biosphere capital’). Ivey has created the Expressive Life model to advocate the arts/culture to compete against funding for the environment or health, whereas I think the future for the arts is to integrate it into work towards biosphere and human wellbeing.

I have heard frequently that Conservatives describe culture as ‘a nice to have’, not essential. If we can demonstrate and enact culture as a vital force for environmental (and therefore human) wellbeing, that’s a bit more than a ‘nice to have’. The argument will then revolve around why Government should give it public subsidy, if there is a market demand for culture. My answer would be that the market can’t enable the kind of shift that is needed to make culture such a powerful force. (Woops, I’ve slipped into using ‘culture’. I mean ‘a creative and critical life’ or something like that. Suggestions welcome.)


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