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How we’ve got it wrong about the arts
Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/how-weve-got-it-wrong-about-the-arts/
Auteur : Ivan Hewett
veryone – including politicians – assumes the arts help to solve social problems. A new report suggests otherwise
Governments come and go but, when it concerns culture, there is one thing that all political parties agree on: that the arts are good for us. In fact, the wider social value of the arts has become such an article of faith over recent decades that it has led to a huge transformation of art’s place in the world. Public art and culture, once secluded in a handful of big-city institutions, now permeate every corner of the country in a way previous generations would have found incredible.
There is now hardly a town in the UK that doesn’t have a swanky museum or arts centre, often built with Lottery funding. Drop in to your local shopping centre and you might find a pop-up string quartet playing. Wander through your local park and you’ll find some resplendently obscure piece of “public art”. Visit your local rail station and you might hear Beethoven trickling through the loudspeakers.
From being a daring idea of a few marginalised “community artists” back in the Seventies, the notion that art has social benefits and should be taken out into the world is a received wisdom – which you question at your peril.
Until now. A provocative report unveiled yesterday by the Arts and Humanities Research Council – one of seven government-funded research councils set up to champion and develop areas such as science, engineering and the humanities within the UK – has taken a long, hard look at the results of this assumption about the ultimate value of the arts. The 200-page report, which took three years to compile and is based on more than 70 articles, workshops and discussion groups, is called Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture, and it is dynamite.
Maggi Hambling's Scallop is a piece of public art on Aldeburgh's beach CREDIT: ALISDAIR MACDONALD / REX FEATURES
It tackles a wide range of subjects, including: urban regeneration projects, such as building new arts centres in poor areas; long-running projects such as the initiative in which major artistic centres are celebrated as a “City of Culture”; as well as the use of arts in promoting health issues, improving children’s performance in the classroom, healing divisions between communities in conflict; and promoting the rehabilitation of prisoners. Each section of the report attempts to assess the success of these initiatives with a fresh and objective eye.
Take the idea of using the arts as a tool for regenerating rundown inner-city areas. This has led to huge and often impressive capital projects. But the results of plonking a swanky new arts centre into a poor area aren’t always entirely beneficial. As the report points out: “The regeneration of places is usually accompanied by gentrification… and the exclusion of communities who live there [as they] are forced out by rising property prices.” In short, the people who were supposed to benefit from inner-city cultural investment can no longer afford to live near the arts centres that were built for them.
Another area in which investment in the arts has been especially popular with policymakers is the classroom. We’re often told that the use of music in schools boosts attainment in mathematics. But is this demonstrably true? The report attempted to find a statistical correlation between schoolchildren’s exposure to the arts and their scores in standard tests, but none could be found.
The Tate Britain Archive Gallery
A third example of the way muddled thinking and sloppy research has skewed our thinking is in the use of the arts to help achieve conciliation in conflict zones and to rehabilitate prisoners. In fact, according to the report, art and music are just as likely to entrench hostilities between communities as they are to ease them, while the statistical evidence suggesting that setting up theatre groups in prisons leads to lower rates of reoffending is weak at best.
Although the report doesn’t pull its punches in exposing how few of the assumptions we make about the wider benefits of the arts are backed up by empirical evidence or the way policymakers have attempted to place a “cash value” on culture, it is far from being negative or cynical.
In fact, its underlying message is a plea for something you might think obvious: to restore the individual’s experience of art to the centre of the debate. That experience has been sidelined, because it can’t be deployed in a government policy.
Policymakers need to know that a policy “delivers”, and for that they need measurable results. This has skewed research towards quantitative methods, but these can’t capture the subtleties of the way we appreciate art. Appreciation is unpredictable. One can never know for sure what impact a work of art will have.
The Turner Contemporary in Margate
That isn’t just true for the person faced with the work of art. It’s also true of the person who made it. Art is a venturing into the unknown, for both receiver and creator. This is why, at its heart, art resists being made into a tool of policy.
As one of the researchers quoted in the report says, the “focus on demonstrable outcomes” demanded by policymakers encourages artists to predict in advance what the effects of their work will be, when applying for funding. But the whole point of the arts is that they are unpredictable. The artist launches off on a project, not knowing quite where it will lead, or whether it will lead anywhere at all.
But once you have admitted that, you are also admitting that the arts really are different from other human activities, at a very fundamental level. And if that is so, the instrumental view of the arts, which judges culture by its usefulness, flies out of the window.
That’s what makes this report, in my opinion, so profoundly subversive. It suggests that the arts can indeed have positive effects, but only if we give them the freedom to be themselves.
Art is like a capricious god, which has to be wooed and cajoled. It bestows its good effects as a gift; try to wrest that gift by force, as successive governments have tried to do, and the god will flee.