The social justice case for diversity

The cultural sector has been crushed by the health protection measures imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not alone in this, but its reliance on large gatherings, sales revenue and freelance workers have made it especially vulnerable. Its crisis is compounded by the British government’s failure, as yet, to recognise this or take appropriate action. One foreseeable consequence is that those with more security (including me) will survive this storm better than others. Equally foreseeable is that a sector that has struggled and mostly failed to reflect the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of contemporary Britain will become even less representative. Alarm is rightly being raised about this, but the voices are mostly those of freelance workers, community organisations and their networks. The silence on this subject from much of the art world is depressing. For 40 years I heard promises and good intentions from these institutions: as I’ve written before, being against inclusion doesn’t fit with the cultural sector’s self-image, but sharing power, or even leaving the stage to others, is usually too high a price to pay for reconciling words and actions. So things continue largely as they have done, and people feel they’re doing what they can.

Reading pleas to protect the small advances made in the name of cultural diversity I wonder whether our mistake hasn’t been to frame the argument in those abstract terms. After all, cultural diversity, like biodiversity, is simply a fact of life. It’s a reality, not a political or moral idea. But social justice is. Community art frames its practice in terms of social justice and human rights (at least the part of it that I care about does). That is the pole star by which it navigates. It doesn’t always get it right but it knows its destination and why it’s worth getting to. There is a creative case for diversity, of course: all cultures are enriched by their capacity to include the widest range of voices, ideas, expressions and creativity. But there is also a social justice case for diversity, a human rights case for diversity. It might even be a necessary precursor to the creative case. The glass ceilings, stifled careers and unequal opportunities are not a matter of regret or disappointment. They are the failure of public authorities to live up to their legal obligations and need to be addressed as such. Ensuring that everyone has the capabilities and opportunities to participate in cultural life in whatever role they wish is a matter of social justice. Anything less is decor and greasepaint.

Image by Bill Ming for Bread and Salt, (2013)