By Matthew Flinders
Why does art and culture matter in the twenty-first century? What does it actually deliver in terms of social benefits? An innovative new participatory arts project in South Yorkshire is examining the ‘politics of art’ and the ‘art of politics’ from a number of new angles.
“The general value of arts and culture to society has long been assumed,” a recent report from the Arts Council acknowledges, “while the specifics have just as long been debated.” It is this focus on ‘the specifics’ that is most interesting because in times of relative prosperity there was little pressure from neither public nor private funders to demonstrate the broader social impact or relevance of the arts. In times of austerity, however, the situation is very different. A focus on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) risks eviscerating the funding for the arts and humanities unless these more creative and less tangible intellectual pursuits can demonstrate their clear social value. The vocabulary of ‘social return’, ‘intellectual productive capacity’, ‘economic generation’ may well grate against the traditional values and assumptions of the arts and culture community but it is a shadow that cannot be ignored.
The publication of The Impact of the Social Sciences (Sage, 2014) provides more than a sophisticated analysis of the value of the social sciences across a range of economic, cultural, and civic dimensions. It provides a political treatise and a strategic piece of evidence-based leverage that may play an important role in future debates over the distribution of diminishing public funds. I have no doubt that the impact of the arts and humanities is equally significant. But the problem is that the systematic creation of an evidence base remains embryonic. My personal belief that the arts and humanities are educationally critical is, in many quarters, meaningless without demonstrable evidence to support these beliefs. The methodological and epistemological challenges of delivering that research are clearly significant but as the Arts Council emphasizes ‘it is something that arts and culture organizations will have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’.
As a political scientist I have always been fascinated with the relationship between art and politics. Though heretical to suggest to the arts community, I have often thought that the role of the professional politician and the professional artist (indeed, with the amateur politician and the amateur artist) were more similar than was often acknowledged. Both seek to express values and visions, to inspire hope and disgust, and both wish to present a message. It is only the medium through which that message is presented that differs (and relationships of co-option, patronage, and dependency are common between these professions). But having (crudely) established a relationship between art and politics, could it be that the true value of the arts lies not in how it responds to the needs of the economy but in how it responds to the rise of ‘disaffected democrats’ and the constellation of concerns that come together in the ‘why we hate politics’ narrative?
In a time of increasing social anomie and political disengagement, especially amongst the young and the poor, can participatory arts projects provide a way of reconnecting communities?
François Matarasso’s Use or Ornament (1997) provides one of the most systematic explorations of this question and concluded that “one of the most important outcomes of [the public’s] involvement in the arts was finding their own voice, or perhaps, the courage to use it.” More recently, the New Economics Foundation’s report Diversity and Integration (2013) suggested that young people who participated in arts programmes were more likely to see themselves as “holding the potential to do anything I want to do” and being “able to influence a group of people to get things done.” Other studies tentatively offer similarly positive conclusions but with little analytical depth in terms of identifying between political reconnection, civic reconnection or personal reconnection (in terms of personal understanding, confidence and aspiration). To return to the Arts Council’s recent report – The Wider Benefits of Art and Culture to Society – the existing research base is light on ‘the specifics’.
It is for exactly this reason that the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics has joined forces with ‘Art in the Park’ as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Civic Value’ programme. Young people from all across South Yorkshire will be brought together to participate in an eight week arts project that uses music, film making, dance, writing, painting or whatever medium the young people select to explore social and political issues. Artists are embedded in the research and current and former politicians can be brought into the project to facilitate sessions if that is something the young people request. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews will capture how participating in the project affects political attitudes and understandings – positive, negative, political, civic, or personal – with the aim being able to answer if the arts can breathe life back into politics and reconnect communities. Now that really would be a wider benefit for society.
Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield and also Visiting Distinguished Professor in Governance and Public Policy at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is the author of Defending Politics (2012). He was recently a winner in the ‘This is Democracy’ International Photography Competition – but his wife now claims she took the picture. Malaika Cunningham is the Research Officer for the project discussed in this article.