Below the radar

Wrangle 1There’s a lot of interest at the moment in the value of culture and cultural value (not the same thing), both in academic and policy terms, and I’ve touched on it before. Research programmes, initiatives like the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places and political speeches can all enrich the debate about how we understand culture, its purpose, value and meaning.

For example, in reporting on a recent symposium in the US, Geoffrey Crossick, Director of the Cultural Value Project, observes that: ‘the standard surveys of participation – of which the DCMS/Arts Council England’s Taking Part is just one example – have become a necessary part of the evidence base for those seeking to make the case for public funding of the arts’, going on to ask some important questions about the conceptual and practical difficulties of assessing levels of arts participation.

But what is the relationship between a level of participation in the arts and a case for public funding? Would a high level of participation justify that funding? Surely not in itself, since people participate enthusiastically in all sorts of things that do not receive (or request) taxpayer subsidy. Perhaps a low level of participation would be a better justification, since it would be possible to argue that this was a bad thing – but on what basis? – which might be remedied by subsidising more art and better access to it. But if the level rose or fell, what would be the appropriate policy response?

I hope that questions such as these, which demand the attention of philosophers as much as statisticians, will get more attention in the present lively discussion of cultural value.

Their practical and concrete nature was brought home to me a few days ago, when I met a team of bell ringers at Wrangle, in Lincolnshire, for a project about the church’s place in artistic and community life. These men are practitioners and custodians of change ringing, an ancient, uniquely English musical tradition that makes equally high demands on the ringer’s stamina, concentration and intellect. Bell ringing is  unlikely to figure in most surveys about participation in art, though clearly not for reasons of cultural value: the drawing of boundaries is always revealing.