Culture is a right, not a solution

‘This week, faith leaders, unions and others called for 2020 to be the “decade of reconciliation and reconnection”. Creating cultural opportunities in our towns and villages – those exact towns and villages that feel betrayed and abandoned by politicians – would be a powerful and dynamic way to make that happen.’

Tracy Brabin MP, Huffington Post, 3 January 2020

A change in arts policy?

Arts Council England will shortly publish its new strategy for culture over the next decade. If the ideas set out in last summer’s consultation document are fulfilled, this will be an important change of direction. How far the vision becomes reality remains to be seen, and it is not only up to the Arts Council or even the cultural sector. The response of politicians will be critical, which is why Tracy Brabin’s call to Give abandoned towns culture and art to power ‘decade of reconciliation’ resonates. ACE is setting a sound course in stormy seas but it will not make much progress unless others, many others, join it with common purpose and commitment. 

Elder Tree Creative Writing Workshop, Leicester 2019

So it is encouraging now to hear calls for cultural investment in the reconstruction of Britain’s damaged and neglected communities, encouraging – but worrying too, because the argument being made is often superficial and wrong-headed. It underestimates the depth of the problems and is misguided about culture and its social function. To understand why, it’s better to deal with those issues separately. 

Political problems need political solutions

Since 2016, some politicians and commentators have begun to acknowledge the dire circumstances in which millions of our fellow-citizens live. Something must be done, they say. Theresa May said as much when she entered Downing Street in 2016. Three years later, her successor makes similar promises. I can’t see these handbrake U-turns without asking where these people have been for the past decades, as policies they advocated destroyed large parts of industrial society and the post-war welfare state that supported it. Towns and cities did not become ‘left behind’ – to use the political euphemism – by accident. They were discarded as unwanted and powerless. I welcome the apparent change of policy and hope that it will lead to real, sustained improvements in the quality of people’s lives. We are one of the wealthiest nations on earth: we have the resources to ensure a decent life for everyone. 

Art and culture are a part of that life, but they are not a solution to underspending and policy neglect. To pretend that more festivals, art workshops and dance classes can remedy the effects of national and international policy choices is naïve or cynical – like funding mission schools in places you’ve colonised. If government enacts policies that bring people decent jobs, homes and services, then art and culture have a vital part to play. If it does not, artists will be literally fiddling as Rome burns. (I’m aware the Prime Minister appreciates a classical reference.)

Blast Festival, Multistory (West Bromwich) July 2019

Culture is complex and elusive

Art and culture are immensely powerful resources. I’ve been making the case for the social value of participatory art for decades and I’m very happy that more people in power now seem to be persuaded by it. Unfortunately, once they are persuaded of culture’s value, many policy-makers then fall into the trap of thinking they can, and should, control it. They try to harness culture to whatever policy cart they want to drag forward: social inclusion, tourism, regeneration, criminal justice, the creative economy and now reconciliation. There are more problems with this thinking than there is space to address here, so I’ll focus on the critical issues. 

First, culture is powerful – and it can hurt as easily as heal. In her article Tracy Brabin mentions the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as an example of culture as ‘a tool to bring reconciliation and forgiveness’. The Orchestra is a brave and admirable symbol of human generosity, but who can expect musicians to solve a conflict that politicians have failed to end? More to the point, culture is also a source and marker of division: murals in Northern Ireland were not often painted to promote reconciliation. Culture is powerful and many artists have put their lives at risk in using it to support conflict resolution and recovery. But no one, least of all politicians, should go into this territory without an understanding of its many dangers.

The Portland Inn Project, Stoke on Trent

Secondly, culture should not be controlled. As I wrote years ago, ‘it is unethical to seek to produce change without the informed consent of those involved‘ (Defining Values, 1996). The difficulties faced by many people and communities today are made worse when those in power decide what the problems are and how they are best fixed. This is not new, which is why Sherry Armstein’s analysis of citizen participation remains as vital today as when she wrote it 50 years ago. What people need are the means to identify their own priorities and the resources (financial and other) to work towards their own solutions. At the heart of this is empowerment, the process that underpins community development practice and has been repeatedly shown to bring lasting improvements in people’s lives. 

Thirdly, culture cannot be controlled, except perhaps in totalitarian states, and even then control is only ever partial. Whether as audiences, participants or creators, people’s engagement with art is individual and personal. What they make of it, what they take from it, is equally personal. People do use art to change their lives and their communities, and they often ask for and benefit from outside help in doing that. But it is beyond the power of any artist, and still less any politician, to determine how other people respond to, interpret and act on an artistic experience. Art is what we make of it.

Filming ‘A Dead Good Life’ with the Lawnmowers in Gateshead, 2019

Where now?

None of this should be taken as critical of Tracy Brabin’s article, nor of others I’ve read making similar arguments in recent weeks. I respect her for speaking up on behalf of her community, and their right to participate in the cultural life of the nation, enshrined, as I never tire of saying, in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Politicians have many concerns and we cannot expect them to be experts in our particular field. It’s the responsibility of those of us who work in the arts to help them understand how their policies, actions and words can make a difference – hence this post. And we’ve been doing that for years. There was good community art work in Ms Brabin’s constituency a generation ago: Batley was a case study in Use of Ornament? If the town needs community art now, it is not because that work failed but because the community’s needs are much greater than can be met through culture, valuable as it is. 

Tracy Brabin is right in linking art and culture with reconciliation but it should be understood as a space for meeting, sharing perspectives, testing ideas, developing shared values. Culture is the parliament of dreams – we need it as a space for democratic dialogue and negotiation, and never more than when the formal structures of democratic life are tainted and failing. So yes, absolutely, we must invest in all the places and people that this country has neglected for so long, and not just money but ideas, creativity and care. And yes, absolutely, arts and culture must be a cornerstone of that investment. But let’s also learn from our mistakes.

Let’s not believe we know what’s good for others better than they do themselves. Let’s not talk of inclusion and partnership and make all the decisions in committee rooms or in London. Let’s be brave, and give communities control of their own cultural funds. I’ve been arguing that for 20 years, because I saw how it empowered some of the poorest communities of South Eastern Europe.  

It really is time for a change. If not now, when? 

The X-Church team in Gainsborough (2017)

The images illustrating this blog post show a tiny fraction of the excellent community art projects I’ve seen making a difference in towns across the country over decades. How many will benefit from change in policy over the coming years remains to be seen.


  1. Very well made points. It’s also worth pointing out that the funding of community arts is also ultimately the responsibility of the political sphere. The gradual erosion of community arts budgets (however they are actually framed) in local authorities in particular has had a negative effect over 25 years and especially in the last 10 years. For me, a lot of the success of the Creative People and Places programme for example, is actually to do with the availability of funding to support activity. Ironically, many of the schemes are doing exactly what has been removed from localities over that time. It’s also amazing in my experience of working with some of them, just how much can be done with so little.

    Of course resources do not solve everything, but money and dedicated time and people help to make these things happen. Let’s hope we will see some positive investment in this area over time.

    1. Thanks Jonathan – I agrée with all you say. Community art has never been expensive and that’s one reason it can operate more flexibly and creatively. One problem with arts policy is that it finds it so hard to distribute small amounts of money, but that’s so effective. If politicians can’t trust communities with cultural funds, what will they trust them with?

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