Evidence, politicians and the value of debate

A meeting of cultural researchers was held in Lefkosia (Nicosia) this week, under the auspices of the Cyprus Presidency of the European Union. Participants from across the continent expressed a common concern about cutbacks on cultural spending, as governments struggle with recession and debt. In country after country, budgets for culture are being reduced and there is growing anxiety about the lasting damage that may be caused.

There was a broad, if unsurprising, consensus that more and better data about culture was needed, a case made as long ago as 1963 by the late Augustin Girard, doyen of cultural researchers. Much has been achieved since then and some argued that the challenge was no longer a shortage of data but their interpretation and use.

I was struck, not for the first time, by the belief of many cultural professionals that, if only the right research could be produced, everyone – especially politicians – would finally appreciate culture’s value. Things don’t work like that. Evidence-based policy is a rhetorical trope, which masks what politicians – and not only politicians – actually want, namely policy-based evidence. We choose newspapers (or nowadays websites) because they tell us what we already think. Indeed, art and culture serves much more to reinforce than to challenge our values and beliefs, including the belief that art is critical.

Few of us enjoy changing our minds (except in certain psychologically satisfying conditions), and when we do it is rarely on the basis of academic research. Experience and argument are better teachers for most people. Academics, who feel at home in the kind of intellectual work they do, are mistaken when they think that others respond to it as they do.

But if the wish to convert people to belief in culture is unrealistic, it is also wrong, insofar as it aims to close down debate, questions and alternatives. Artists and cultural professionals should welcome debate about the value of their work because in conducting it they engage people in a cultural process. Art especially, which prides itself on its critical role, should never fear being critiqued. The end of debate is highly dangerous: it leads to rigidity, narrow-mindedness and groupthink. Debate hones ideas and keeps us honest.

My writing does not try to change the reader’s mind, but to offer alternative, perhaps unexpected, ways of looking at something. It might be the start of further thinking and conversations. In the case of a book like Where we Dream my hope is that readers will get a sense that amateur theatre may not be quite what they thought it was: what follows is up to them.

There are no answers about culture’s meaning and place in our lives, but artists, researchers and policymakers can all contribute to a better quality of thought and discussion about it. That would be an achievement – and one that would probably do more to protect cultural investment than any amount of persuasion.

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PS My own contribution to the Cyprus meeting, which questioned some of the thinking that underlies contractual approaches to cultural governance, can be downloaded here.

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