When I started this site, at the beginning of last year, I called it the Parliament of Dreams because I’ve used that metaphor to suggest how I see the unique place of art in democratic society, It was an idea that I had been thinking about since the late 1990s but I hadn’t found an opportunity to explain it fully until I was invited to speak at a conference in Tasmania in 2010. Here is the text of that lecture.
Does art matter? That is a fiercely contested question these days, given an additional twist as the rich western democracies cut back public spending after the 2008 banking crisis and the consequent recession. Just three short words, but two of them are as slippery as language comes. How people respond to the question depends almost entirely on how they interpret the words ‘art’ and ‘matter’. One problem is that words that seem straightforward in everyday use become less so the more they are discussed.
Art is not a difficult concept when parents are asked whether it should be part of their child’s school curriculum: people have a clear idea of what that means and there is usually a high level of support for art in education. But once discussion turns to actual examples, consensus about meaning rapidly falls away. Is art what artists produce? If so, who is an artist? Are they born or made? What is the difference between a good artist and a mediocre one? What comparative value can be placed on different work? And, does it matter?
The question is so tricky because it envelops two complex, intertwined and unresolved questions people have asked themselves since they have been people: what is a good life (what matters) and what is the purpose of creativity (why do people make art)? This is not the place to rehearse 3,000 years of philosophical debate. Were I even capable of it, it would not be necessary to my purpose, which is only to propose a pragmatic answer to that question: not definitive but good enough. In other words, I want to show why art matters, in principle, so that it is possible to move on to more practical and urgent questions about what might follow for cultural policy in a democratic society.
To continue reading, download the full essay: