Where angels might fear to tread

The Wounded Angel - Hugo_Simberg
‘The Wounded Angel’ (1903) – Hugo Simberg

Diversity has become an increasingly frequent subject in arts management during my working life. It is a focus of conferences, programming, policy and, naturally, of debate in the media and across café tables. The terms of discourse have varied over the years, as has the relative importance given to its articulations. Race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, class and many other, often ill defined, concepts have been brought under cultural diversity’s capacious and euphemistic cloak.

The discourse itself tends to be freighted with sub-texts, anxieties and unspoken assumptions, partly because culture’s leadership still reflects a relatively narrow segment of European populations. But also because no one wants to be seen as standing on the wrong side of whatever line currently divides us—and that’s very difficult when the lines are being constantly redrawn.

It is hard to find ground to stand on in a rapidly changing world characterised by insecure and contested value systems in constant transmission mode. Instant communication can so easily mean instant misunderstanding,

Universal values

It is possible to say nothing at all about this. Some who practice or advocate the classical forms of European art argue that its eternal values make these passing issues irrelevant. Personally, I don’t see how the forms through which artistic genius has expressed itself at particular times, and in response to specific social, political or economic forces, can be considered universal. The universal values that matter to me relate to human dignity, liberty, autonomy and justice—the preconditions of human flourishing and therefore also of artistic achievement.

The value of debate

So I accept the obligation to enter these troubled waters, both in my past practice in community arts and in writing and research. I’ve done so cautiously, even reluctantly, falling over sometimes or being knocked down: nothing special there. My most recent exploration of diversity is in a project called Bread and Salt, in which I’ve been meeting some extraordinary artists who were born outside Europe and who now live and work in the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Belgium. It is quite possibly ground on which angels would fear to tread. More information about Bread & Salt can be found here; the book will be published in June. I’ve also been invited to speak about culture and diversity at conferences and meetings of artists, most recently in Budapest. A talk that I gave in June 2012, at a conference in Herning (Denmark) has just been published in the conference report. The text of that essay can be found here.

Tricky as it is to think and speak about these matters, I have always believed that open and lively debate, especially about those questions that most trouble and divide us, is vital to democracy. It is also the sign of a rich and growing culture.