Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What chance of an expressive life?

Samuel Jones’s introduction to the new Demos book Expressive Lives has the somewhat clunky title ‘enfranchising cultural democracy’. We shouldn’t let that (or the even more heinous use of ‘platform’ as a verb later) distract us too much from a stimulating and important publication. The core arguments can be gleaned from Jones’ introduction and from the essay by the creator of the term ‘expressive life’, Bill Ivey, Barack Obama’s arts advisor.

Ivey argues, pretty persuasively, that the term ‘culture’ is now of limited use in public policy. It is too vague, too debatable, too much of a portmanteau word. Instead he proposes the term ‘expressive life’, which he argues combines ‘heritage’ in the sense of continuity and community and ‘voice’ in the sense autonomy and innovation. As he puts it: ‘Heritage reminds us that we belong; ‘voice’ offers the promise of what we can become.’ This obviously means that cultural policy needs to encompass not just the public sector supported arts, museums and galleries, but the whole panoply of cultural choices people make, and the ‘tools’ they use to make them, including digital and commercial. It suggests a focus on participants as well as producers. Ivey also suggests that ‘a vibrant expressive life, offering a yin-yang balance of ‘heritage’ and ‘voice’, affords government leaders an arena of action in which quality of life can be affordably advanced through smart public policy’. This new emphasis would stimulate changes right across government policy – into planning, housing, transport as well as economic policy for instance.

It’s a strong, fresh set of thinking, and opens up a number of areas for me – some not explored by the other essayists, too many of whom don’t really add much more than endorsement and balance. (David Lammy and Ed Vaisey get to agree technology is central to the future.) The term ‘heritage’ sit less well with me than ‘community’, but I’m not a folklorist like Ivey, and I do think the reminder that innovation is the yin to tradition’s yang is a helpful one. I also like the various resonances of ‘voice’.

I think the notion of ‘enfranchising’ expressive lives throughout the population leads to a necessary reconsideration of what you might (avoiding the word power) call cultural authority. Some of the ‘national’ institutions have made considerable progress in recent years in sharing their assets and skills across the country, with really positive reactions from both partners and public. But how do we respond to those strands of arts activity that don’t want a share but to actually undermine those notions of national expert endorsement? How does cultural policy relate to a media that is finding it difficult to even stand still in reflecting the expressive life of the whole country, and of all the population, even where it wants to? Is a redistribution of some of the ‘power’ necessary to genuinely enfranchise cultural democracy and if so how can that be done? (Let me be clear: I’m not talking about funding.)

This leads me to areas where I find Jones’ arguments a little problematic, as this paradigm shift towards expressive life is yoked to firstly an emphasis on what her terms ‘our innate sense of the individual’ and then to a critique of ‘provision’, especially through venues. The emphasis on individualism, for me, tips over from the personalisation of culture into the privatisation of society – a blurry line never too far away from the surface in broader New Labour thinking, of course. Ironically, I feel he underplays the role shared culture – made up of individual choices – plays in creating the ‘heritage’ part of Ivey’s equation.

The other troublesome area is linking the broadly sensible idea that we need to move ‘from a model of provision to one of enabling’ to an increasingly tired claim that venues are ‘simply doling out either more visual arts, more music or more drama’. (An argument often boiled down to ‘fund people and creativity, not buildings’, most recently by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian in a horribly clumsy article.)

This omits what I would suggest is the missing or maybe implicit third part of ‘expressive life’: which I might call opportunity, or space, or place – ie the opportunity to make cultural choices, to learn the skills required to make or take part in expressive life, the chance to see and hear and otherwise experience art. Whilst temporary spaces are increasingly used, these often need places or spaces more permanent than festival sites. The capital developments in the North East in the last 15 years were not driven by monumentalism, but by an analysis of the needs of artists and audiences, that said the lack of the right venues inhibited choice and participation. They were designed as (to use Samuel Jones’ words) ‘spaces in which we can make cultural choices’. That’s what so great about them. The fact is that large parts of the population would not be properly able to make such choices if there were not some element of provision – and I don’t mean simply by the publicly funded sector – as well as enabling, and that not everything can be done well within a ‘pop up’ infrastructure. Too simplistic a move from provision to enabling will leave some with nowhere to go. (Obvious parallels here for me in the so-called ‘choice’ in schooling, health, welfare insurance, etc.) A canny hybrid of traditional cultural policy and planning and community policy could make a huge impact in, say, housing growth areas.

So, to end this rather long post, I would suggest a third dimension to expressive life, and suggest, entirely for argument’s sake, an equation using multiplication rather than addition on the basis that zero in any of the terms leads to the sum being zero:

Heritage (community, knowledge, grounding)
x Voice (individuality, talent, innovation)
x Space (facilities, opportunity, confidence)
= Expressive Life.

(Not sure ‘Space’ is the best word, but it will do for now.)

The policy challenge therefore becomes how to get the most from those three dimensions.


Geoffrey Crayon said...

I think the notion of ‘enfranchising’ expressive lives throughout the population leads to a necessary reconsideration of what you might (avoiding the word power) call cultural authority.

I'd query whether saying 'avoiding the word power' was an adequate way of dealing with the cluster of ideas around power that 'enfranchising' cannot but suggest.

I think it's the wrong word, a tendentious demos word - rather than an overextended term as 'culture' is in Ives' spring cleaning of the vocabulary.

Broadly agree with your post though.

Mark Robinson said...

Thanks. You're probably right about that parenthesis. I rewrote that paragraph, and could have expanded, but the whole thing was getting longer and longer, and I was running out of time, and maybe ended up entangling the two subtly different concepts of power and authority but not quite opening that particular can of worms.

But at least I know that can of worms is in the cupboard, which is more, it seems, than many people... (Ok, enough with that metaphor, Mark!)

Mark Robinson said...

I meant 'by not opening'. Not sure what Freudian error put but.