June 02, 2010

What am I going to say?

The rest of this week I am in Dortmund at Shortcut Europe 2010, a convention predicated on:

“The EU is reacting to social tendencies of disruption in society from which culture is not excluded, as social and cultural exclusion often go hand in hand. Can cultural policy, cultural work and cultural education develop strategy against social exclusion?”

“Is the theoretically formulated demand of “culture for all” still present in the minds of the stakeholders and what does the actual praxis look like? Are there new approaches and methods of engaging cultural work in the European socio-cultural field? Where are exemplary projects being accomplished, that are worth being repeated elsewhere? Should cultural work include more local activities and approaches? How can socially disadvantaged youth be addressed more directly?”

Specifically, I will be initially talking about the conditions of cultural funding in the U.K. and my experiences with it – apparently there is a lot of interest in this. While there is a general acceptance of the social impact of the arts on the continent, there is a healthy concern about a loss of autonomy and freedom for artists in a system that demands concrete results which are not artistic ie all the social, educational, environmental and economic agendas that are loaded onto art projects in the UK. My criticism of the damage this centralised cultural policy has caused is perhaps why I have been invited to participate.

The convention will obviously feature loads of examples of good practice from around Europe and we will be visiting various projects in the Ruhr. There are a number of sessions that concentrate on issues related to disability, children and other disadvantaged groups but there are a number of theoretical questions underpinning that raise interesting questions, as much because some of them at least assume an analysis that is generally accepted but which I think is subtly distorted.

For instance: (3 June) ‘Cultural policies and social exclusion – what can cultural work accomplish?’ And on 5 June ‘Society and cultural participation – what can art accomplish?’ As above, the question of the status of the demand ‘culture for all’ is interesting. In the UK, the Arts Council’s new policy is called ‘Great Art for All’. The problems come from this idea being driven from public institutions which by attaching the funding to this agenda focus on the all rather than the art (great often not being a consideration). Because they are paying for it, the accomplishment of cultural work is rarely acceptable if the accomplishment is just culture. This is because in the UK at least culture is not fundamentally valued; so culture has to be justified through its accomplishment of other things – reduced youth crime, increased educational achievement, etc,. I forget the number of times I have sat in an arts officers meeting and someone has declared that all we need is a piece of research that demonstrates how the arts deliver the agendas of other socio-political priorities and politicians/stakeholders will take the arts seriously, and therefore fund them properly or at least not savagely cut them. Not only is this a mistake from the outset defining its importance as secondary to itself, I argue that these pieces of research already exist, that there are endless case-studies of how good practice has changed people’s lives, the convention will no doubt have lots; but fundamentally the politicians/stakeholders are not interested even when the evidence is there. There are two reasons for this in the UK: both intelligence and culture are suspicious values, politicians and strategic policy planners have a fundamental unease in these areas – which means the arts as icing on the cake, as societal luxury trinket are a much more comfortable notion (and so dispensable when more important economic forces apply); and second, and this answers the session on 4 June ‘Cultural work as empowerment: How can art and cultural work strengthen the actionability of individuals?’ artistic participation by definition makes things new, it creates new ideas, it creates the potential for liberation and resistance even. The constricted central agendas of government policy are not about encouraging actionability; they are about control. What is now called community arts started as part of the radicalized action of the 60s and 70s; it was about politically empowering communities. Over the years its language and practice has been appropriated while its political potential has been erased; fundamentally in Britain socio-culture (as the convention calls it) has become a decorative artform.

The main session at which I will speak is entitled: Where does that leave the arts?

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