Monday, 3 November 2008

Are shared standards compulsory?

‘Essays on integration and participation’ is perhaps not the snappiest title Demos have ever come up with for one of their publications. But this new collection does what it says on the tin in a fascinating and challenging way.

There are a couple of essays that refer specifically to the role arts and culture can play. One is by a former colleague at Arts Council, Gus Casely-Hayford. His piece calls into question the urge to control that has entered the debates around both integration and participation, largely driven by government. As he puts it:

‘Britain, led by our government, is developing a taste for trying to control and build super-cultural narratives; we are starting to talk about excellence, cultural standards, The Arts, Britishness as though it was possible to curate or control value or content in national culture. That might have been conceivable in the 1950s, but the relationship between culture and nationhood has changed. The British cultural sector of the twenty-first century will have to work with communities, with its population to earn their participation.

Individuals may choose to participate in debate at their own level of negotiation; permission to engage, or rules of engagement can no longer be meaningfully mediated by the state or a narrow channel of organisations. There is a larger and more complex framework of engagement that no single agency can control. We cannot curate or legislate participation, as nations once did.’

That such a taste for control exists is apparent in Minister Liam Byrne’s essay on the need for ‘shared standards’ for citizens, which has, like most government pronouncements on this subject, an edge of menace for me. If those ‘shared standards’ include locking people up for 42 days without charge and letting refused asylum seekers who can’t go home beg or starve, count me out. Which is easy for me to say, because I don’t actually have to prove my allegiance to them as I had the good fortune to be born in Lancashire.

Anyway, this obviously has implications for people who make art and culture, and for policy makers, especially given the debates on both identity and participation I’ve talked about so regularly. The most interesting thing about the BBC’s Brand/Ross controversy may ultimately be a debate about ‘shared standards’ and the difficulty of agreeing and abiding by them without over or under-policing them. How we ‘integrate’ the many (mainly) young people who don’t see the bullying but laugh at the boundary crossing and defend ‘creativity’– in a way which strikes me as not that different from the supporters of happy-slapping – with people who don’t want any reference to s*x on the radio, with the many people somewhere in the middle is a parallel question to those raised by these essays.

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