All 7 entries tagged Cultural Policy Studies

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March 25, 2020

Art in the Time of Corona

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/expertcomment/art_in_the

Art in the Time of Corona

Empty seats © Maria Barrett

Image © Maria Barrett, 2014

Even before the British government finally closed down public spaces last Friday in response to the global pandemic, many theatres and galleries were doing the responsible thing. The previous Monday, the Society of London Theatres had announced that their theatres would temporarily close, and throughout the week, first one independent theatre then another publicised its closure on social media, postponing, curtailing, and cancelling productions that had taken major investment in time and money and had once been somebody’s dream. A poignant post circulated, showing the ‘ghost light’, said to be left lit on stages all over the country, an evocative symbol of the future return of theatre to our nation.

But we were never without access to art and culture. Offerings were announced on social media: the Royal Opera House is streaming opera and ballet for free; The Globe Theatre has opened up its online catalogue of filmed performances; and in the commercial sector, West End production of The Wind in the Willows starring stars Rufus Hound and Gary Wilmot is available to stream at no cost. It is similar in the visual arts and museums, where art (albeit a largely Western canon) has been globalised; you can now take a virtual tour of the Chateau of Versailles, or of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC; look at some Monet, Cézanne, or Gauguin at the Musée d’Orsay; or take in some Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, all while preserving not just a safe social distance or complete isolation, but indeed a reduced carbon footprint.

This augmented cultural offer appeared deceptively quickly; certainly a lot faster than it has taken the Prime Minister to present a cogent public health strategy. The larger cultural institutions, with the funds to invest in and experiment with the digital, already had something up their sleeves. Building closures and increasingly limited public movement due to the global pandemic meant lifting paywalls and increasing marketing of existing digital offers, rather than starting from scratch. The online reach and brand recognition of large institutions and the recognisability of their artworks should appeal not only to existing audiences who need their culture fix but can no longer pop out to the gallery, but also to potentially new audiences of the home-schooled and perhaps the newly bored but culturally curious.

This is important to institutions in the context of indefinite closure, as they can continue their remit of public engagement. It might also be asked: when arts venues close and re-open, do their audiences come back? My observation as an erstwhile board member of theatres which have temporarily closed for refurbishment or rebuilding, is, often not. Knowing this risk, some theatres go on tour for the duration, or decant elsewhere, temporarily setting up shop in another space, as the Almeida famously did in 2000, in order to keep their brand alive and their audiences warm. This clearly can’t be done under the current circumstances, making physical closure a long term risk. Being able to engage your audiences and even extend your reach digitally then is a real advantage.

However, it is apparent that it may be an advantage available only to those large cultural institutions that have been well funded or are wealthy enough to have engaged in digital engagement. Smaller theatres and galleries working on smaller margins have not always been able to invest in the same way, and many of the subsidised have struggled to even survive under ‘austerity’ funding. Such organisations don’t necessarily have a back catalogue of digital repertoire they can launch across social media channels or an institutional knowledge of digital creation, and in any case might lack the resource to do this well whilst simultaneously closing down a building and dealing with contracts, cancellations, contingencies, and insurance. Like the weather, a pandemic hits everyone, but the wealthy are always more ready to survive the storm.

Smaller arts organisations are still engaging digitally, of course. But much of what they are doing is less visible, and more local. Many smaller theatres such as Polka Theatre in London and Unity Theatre in Liverpool are using their social channels as a community resource, sharing announcements and information from local government. On the one hand, this is not their usual cultural fare, and may not be enough to keep audiences engaged. More positively though, it might mean that small venues become more relevant to their communities in this time of crisis, and bonds built now will sustain in the future.

But do these small cultural organisations matter? My colleague Heidi Ashton has talked here about the importance of arts and culture both economically and to the sense of who we are. The small scale contributes greatly to this cultural ecosystem, and engages a significant number of the freelancers who, as Ashton points out, are now struggling without government help. Small scale names may be less recognised nationally or internationally, but they often have higher local visibility and importance. Moreover, the small scale often nurtures the start of cultural product life cycles; In the past small scale theatre has nurtured work that has later been commercially exploited like Blood Brothers, or plays have become feature films like Letter to Brezhnev; and of course the small scale can provide a step on the ladder, nurturing writers, cast members and crews who can learn their craft. Importantly for theatre, and for society, the small scale can take formal risks, it can experiment and innovate, and it can offer a dissenting voice.

Without an obvious way to continue to engage its audiences, many small scale venues may struggle to survive. Indeed, we appear to have the first casualty of the Coronavirus shutdown: 30-year-old Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax announced this week it was going into administration. The Arts Council of England (ACE) has reacted to the crisis facing cultural organisations by acting swiftly, communicating in exemplary fashion, and releasing an impressive Emergency Response Package. Even applying to this will be a struggle for smaller organisations without dedicated fundraising and development departments. When distributing funds, ACE needs to note the particular circumstances of smaller organisations, already struggling financially and with fewer staff, and continue to invest in the small scale as well as the big names. ACE needs to keep them afloat in the current crisis and to develop their resilience, including their digital capacity, in the future. If, as seems likely, there is a protracted period of closure for cultural organisations due to the pandemic, it is worrying to wonder how many of our small, local, independent theatres will be able to go back and turn the ghost lights out, and put the flood lights back on again.


July 14, 2016

Exploring Creative Korea: The ICCPR 2016 in Seoul

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The 9th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research was held last week at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. I was there, along with several CCPS colleagues, PhD students and graduates for what was a very stimulating few days. Seoul, the first Asian venue for this conference, was a setting which was timely and appropriate. Korea has been the home, in recent years, to a vibrant re-imagining of state-led initiatives in culture in relation to city regeneration, cultural diplomacy and the cultural economy, culminating in the hugely regionally and globally successful Hallyu wave of music, film and TV. These achievements, now retrospectively re-branded into a strategic vision for Creative Korea, provided the backdrop to the event as researchers and policymakers gathered to learn from, reflect on and contextualise them in the longer history of the project of cultural policy.

Personally the week started on a rather sombre note, having escaped an especially damp UK summer, dampened a bit more by the deepening gloom of the post-Brexit political crisis and arriving in a Seoul that was being brushed by the edge tropical storm to welcome conference go-ers with a thorough drenching. This, and jet-lag, might have accounted for the rather downbeat tone in the opening session on the Changing Role of Cultural Policy in the 21st century – and certainly all the speakers in various ways identified the Brexit vote as reflecting a significant change to the global context in which research in the field could operate. For me it was hard to get away from the sense that if, among the already proliferating interpretations of the meaning of the result, Brexit was a vote against a vision of a tolerant, outward looking UK, then British cultural policy itself, and its attendant research community, had also somehow failed. The catharsis of discussion, though, and the reminder that other places in the world (including the Mexico of Gonzalo Enrique-Soltero’s contribution) faced challenges in the social and cultural landscape which were even more immediate than those in the UK, helped me to re-focus on the on-going contributions that research in this field should still aspire to make. This re-awakening was helped by an opening ceremony in which performances of traditional Korean dance and music were accompanied by some slick video introductions to Seoul and to Korea and by some words of introduction from eminent local dignitaries and the organising committee. I’m often struck by how international conferences are so much better at this kind of thing than we are in Britain and, while the cynic in me might reflect that there’s nothing academics like better than being told how important we are, the warmth and sincerity of these greetings made for a very welcome start to the week’s activities.

The rest of the programme was packed with papers and themes. Amongst many potential highlights I’ll pick out three memories from the sessions I saw. First were from the sessions and papers which were addressing the theme of cultural work. Some years ago an influential paper asked where work was in creative industries policy. On the evidence of these sessions (including about ‘Inequality, Meritocracy and Wellbeing in the Cultural Industries’ and ‘Artistic Survival and Public Policy’), it is still being looked for and found in diverse places as researchers attempt to identify and to explore the realities or delusions of work in the creative sector. I’m writing a new module on this topic, and the papers and discussions I saw here will be of great use in shaping these issues on behalf of our students. Second I was really struck by a paper from Takashi Ishigaki on the use of film-showings as a mechanism for re-building community bonds in Tsumani-struck Japan. The author had worked as a volunteer on the program and displayed images of films screened on the side of buildings in village squares or in community centres, for children and adults, all provided free by local distributors. It offered a nice reminder of the important work that apparently simple forms of cultural participation can do in re-establishing ‘normal life’ in a traumatised region.

Finally the closing plenary, featuring an address on 'Cultural Strategies of Urban Regeneration in the Instagram Age' from Sharon Zukin, author of the influential Loft Living, with a discussion from an associated panel, was genuinely memorable. This was not least a result of its location in the spectacular setting of Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, itself perhaps exemplifying the kind of ‘McGuggenisation’ that the panel and others introduced and critiqued. Alongside the celebration of the potential of the nomination of cities as ‘creative’ Professor Zukin also reminded us of the ambiguities and tensions in this process. For all the celebration of such initiatives, they might also be complicit in the re-shaping of the city as a façade for the aesthetic delight of the elites of global finance, or for extracting value from tourists rather than the cultural enrichment of its citizenships – a point made forcefully by a local discussant, Professor Dong-Yeun Lee of the Korea National University of Arts. It was a telling discussion that highlighted the inherent tensions between visions of culture (and the city) for policymakers as, on the one hand a thing to be produced and consumed and, on the other, a space to be lived in and shared.

It was especially nice to experience all this with colleagues from the UK cultural policy research community, as well as several of our PhD students – some of whom were presenting and responding to papers themselves, and some of whom, as Seoul natives, were able to act as valuable restaurant guides too. That, and the return of the sun by the end of the week, made for an inspiring and energising conference. My sincere congratulations and thanks to the organisers for their hard work in putting it together.


September 16, 2015

Please like this page

Today’s news that Facebook has begun the process of developing a ‘dislike’ button resonates with some of the issues I reflect on in my new book on Understanding Cultural Taste. The book is an exploration of the relations between taste and social and cultural life and it includes a chapter on Digitalizing Taste, in which I speculate on the particular significance of taste to online cultures, including those of social networks such as Facebook.Facebook

‘Liking’ and ‘disliking’ has become something of a taken-for-granted dimension of social networks, for both users and the networks themselves. They are central to the very creation of a profile – in which identifying and sharing the music, films, books or TV that we like, as much as our occupation, our education, or our relationship status, is tacitly understood as a kind of performance of the type of person we are or, perhaps, the type of person we would like to appear to be. The display of such tastes – and indeed the possibility of judgment of the tastes of others amongst our ‘friends’- becomes part of the pleasure of contemporary cultural consumption as we identify and connect with common communities of interest, or distance ourselves from others. There are also the pleasures of gaining likes for photos we’ve taken, or for links to interesting stories or videos which we’ve ‘shared’, or for more general bon mots, to get instantly reassuring and re-inforcing feedback from our networks that we are appropriately cool, witty, radical or affected by and engaged in current events. Equally there are the significant feelings of disquiet and insecurity when expected likes do not materialise. Such anxieties perhaps reflect the success of social networks in constructing themselves as microcosms of social life more generally.

What might be more uniquely contemporary is that, for the networks themselves, our ‘likes’ are not just descriptions of our characteristics and interests but are crucial to their business models. The spread of the ‘like button’ across the web (there’s one in the corner of this page. Please click it!) indicates the extent to which liking has become part of its very infrastructure. The lists of things we like and the clicks on pages and posts with which we interact through liking are not just positive feedback or commentary – they are also data which feed into the complex construction of individual and collective users as products to be sold on to advertisers. They also feed into the algorithmic construction of news feeds and searches, in which data about the kinds of things we have ‘liked’ in the past is used to probabilistically predict the kinds of things we might be interested in in the future.

It is this latter aspect – crucial to what Gerlitz and Helmond describe as ‘the like economy’ – which has been at the heart of the controversy over whether Facebook should have a dislike button at all. Facebook’s historical reluctance to include such a button, they argue, reveals the crudity of ‘liking’ as a tool to express the range of sentiments (agreement, enthusiasm, even sarcasm) which users might wish to share in social networks. It also reflects the construction of such networks as spaces where the default setting, as it were, is to ‘like, enjoy or recommend as opposed to discuss or critique’ (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013: 1358). Dislikes are as important to the performance of taste in relation to identity, we might speculate, but harder to monetize.

It is interesting to hear the parameters which Mark Zuckerberg has placed around the proposed dislike button this morning – that the aim is to allow for the expression of empathy or solidarity even when ‘every moment isn’t good’. These seem laudable enough ambitions – but raise interesting questions about the ways in which data that will inevitably be gathered about dislikes can and should be put to use. What does Facebook get out of the effort to develop this innovation? As interesting for me is the extent to which this move fits with the ambition of organisations like Facebook to shape and alter social norms in the digital or machine age. As I suggest in my book, Facebook doesn’t really know what we like. Liking is a complex process involving, amongst other things, sensory, aesthetic and moral forms of judgment that emerge from a range of life experiences. Facebook knows what we click on. Its ambition might be to encourage or train its users such that the latter more frequently equates with the former but – thankfully in my view- it has a long way to go to achieve that.


May 06, 2014

Solid Air: Jeremy Deller curates at The Mead

Hucknall miner's welfareI thought it was worth dusting the blog off to write about the new exhibition in the Mead Gallery at Warwick Arts Centre, All That is Solid Melts Into Air. The show connects with a number of the issues I’m engaged with in my research on taste and the politics of cultural participation, as well as touching on some of the broader concerns we think and teach about in the Centre. It is a touring selection of pieces from the Hayward Gallery in London, curated by Jeremy Deller. One of the more intelligent and provocative British artists of his generation, Deller manages to be both of ‘the Art World’ (he won the Turner Prize in 2004) and also at a distance from it, in that his work seems more likely to reflect on ‘big P’ political struggles than that of some of his contemporaries. The items curated here evoke these struggles in depicting the often surprising collisions between the grand ambitions of the industrial revolution and the ways in which that revolution was and continues to be experienced, lived with and even resisted.

The title, as students of Marx will know, is lifted from a famous passage in The Communist Manifesto which extemporises on the creative, transformatory powers of the bourgeoisie to shatter existing orders and usher in new ones. The tensions and ambiguities – or contradictions we should probably say – in this process are evoked in the exhibit through some telling juxtapositions between the past and the near-present. The grand-masterly painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852) for example, reveals the anxieties of romantic intellectuals of the 19th century about the human consequences of the rise of industrial capitalism. Exhibited close by is a two-faced grandfather clock, one face measuring time and the other productivity, which also reminds us of the structures and techniques which underpinned this rise. Time-keeping mechanisms of various kinds, as the historian EP Thompson famously described, emerge as fundamental tools in the industrialists’ armoury, ideal for transforming people into their measurable and commodified labour power. Rather than being condemned to the past, though, this process is perhaps completed by the technologically managed workers depicted in Ben Robert‘s photos of Amazon’s vast warehouses. We can also see up-close the wrist-held device that monitors the rate at which the tasks in this kind of workplace are performed. With a nod to an earlier work, Deller plays with the imagery of a trades-union parade banner decorated with the words ‘You can have day off today’, sent by text to a zero-hours contract worker. Such juxtapositions raise powerful questions about the real labour that underpins our weightless economy – and the extent to which our apparent freedom to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, is worth the cost of the other hard won freedoms – of collective bargaining, security and dignity at work- which can be compromised to provide it.

The show is far from a lament, though. There is also a playful, celebratory air to it, not least in its exploration of the role of various forms of popular culture in British industrial history. The exhibition charts the journey from the ‘solid’ world of the industrial revolution to the ‘air’ of the cultural economy in relation to music. It does so in part by exploring the iconography of heavy metal as a music that emerges from the manufacturing heartlands of the UK and indeed - as visitors to the foyer of the Ramphal building will know -from our very environs in the West Midlands. An album cover from Birmingham’s own Judas Priest echoes a kitsch, exaggerated version of the imagery of Gomorrah. The photo of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, minus one of the fingertips he lost in an industrial accident, reminds us that workers were and are always more than the sum of the labour power of their bodies. The short historical distance from ‘solid’ to ‘air’ is also depicted in the family trees of musical icons, displaying the professions of the ancestors of Slade’s Noddy Holder, Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays and Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music. That the latter has gone from generation upon generation of blacksmiths, domestic servants and miners located in a distinct and narrow geographical region of the North East to the very archetype of the suave cosmopolitan elite perhaps makes him the embodiment of the journey Deller is charting here.

Finally the iconic Dennis Hutchinson photograph of the South Waleian professional wrestler ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street represents a defiant two-painted-finger-nail salute to the romanticization of working class life. He is depicted returning, in spectacular costume and make-up, to the mining village he ‘escaped’ and, as a glance through the autobiography displayed nearby reveals, the father he despised. There are no comfortable, nostalgic resolutions here, but a hopeful reading might at least recognise the power of performance and creativity to subvert, reconfigure or melt the solid strictures of gender or class. It is timely, in the year of the passing of two giants of the Cultural Studies tradition, Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, to be reminded that popular culture has been, throughout history, a keen indicator of and resource for revealing the tensions in the political formations of its day (whether through the bawdy folk songs or broadside ballads of the 19th century, or TV wrestling, or commercial pop music). The exhibition has certainly raised questions for me about where those tensions might be visible in contemporary cultural life. It is on until the 21st June and it is well worth skiving an hour off work to see it.

You can follow my research via academia.edu, or see my[author page on Warwick’s WRAPrepository.

You can see a webcast of Jeremy Deller talking about the exhibition on an earlier stop of the tour in Nottingham here.



September 20, 2012

The work of participation

Last Thursday I attended an event in Nottingham– The Unselfish Artist – organised by the East Midlands Participatory Arts Forum, EMPAF. The event was an opportunity for organisations within the participatory arts sector to showcase their work – under the rubric of the World Event Young Artists (WEYA) festival which was happening across the city last week.

The day included workshops, poetry readings, discussions and exhibits from various organisations across the region. I attended an interesting session about the artist as activist, which encompassed a range of perspectives on different types of politics. It was led by Gaylan Nazhad, who recounted his experiences as a documentary film-maker in a territorially contested village in Kurdistan, and by Kevin Ryan of Charnwood Arts, Leicestershire, who described his work as a kind of creative conduit for the residents of a relatively deprived area of Loughborough as they negotiated and struggled with local council and developers in re-shaping their community.

These kinds of projects – and the different kinds of politics they represent – feed into a developing research interest of mine in the meaning of ‘participation’ in participatory art – and particularly in the place of the artist in that process. ‘Particpatory arts’, as I understand it, emerges from the ‘community arts’ movements of the late 60s and 70s exemplified by organisations such as the Welfare State International artist collective for whom art was connected to political intervention. These artists drew on radical theatre, folk-art, carnival and spectacle to generate work with communities that was underpinned by belief in the potential for creative expression to empower and inspire progressive change. Filtered through the cultural policy agenda of the late nineties and noughties, the ‘community’ side of this vision has been translated into art that contributes to various socially valuable goals (improving health and well-being, easing social exclusion, even helping fight crime and anti-social behaviour). This period allowed for a significant expansion of the sector as both local and national government co-opted arts organisations as an alternative means of tackling - and being seen to tackle - such problems cost-effectively. This expansion of ‘the sector’ might, then, also have been accompanied by some taming of the romantic, emancipatory politics which forged it.

The story about the social contribution of the arts has been well discussed and critiqued by colleagues in the Centre here. One thing less considered in that story is the role of the artist – and perhaps especially the participatory artist and organisations who work at the coal-face of these social agendas. If my account of the historical development of participatory arts is accurate, how have the participatory artists who have lived through that history made sense of their own work in relation to it? To what extent have their artistic careers been negotiations with the various imaginaries of the policy-makers, local and national, who control the budgets from which they draw? And how are those artists entering this field now prepared for it? Do artists still have a politics of participation?

Participatory art can be easily stereotyped as a rather unglamorous extension of social work or an add-on to a pressured education or welfare system (think dance classes in care homes or art/craft workshops with children excluded form school - and notwithstanding how significant such activities can be for their participants). It can also, in the light of the policy ‘backlash’ against the notion a social mission for the arts generated by, for example, the McMaster report, be seen as lacking in aesthetic ambitions for ‘excellence’. The work of organisations such as Artichoke or the participatory events that contributed to WEYA, though, also suggest that participatory art can be inclusive, beautiful and challenging. At the very least, given that the meaning of participation is not obvious even to the Minister in charge of this particular portfolio, the time for a reflection on the artistic work of participation seems ripe.

Of course there might be other stories about the historical developments of work in this sector too. I’d be keen to hear from artists and organisations who would be interested in shaping these ideas into a research project. You can leave a comment below or e-mail me at d.wright.3@warwick.ac.uk .

And you can follow my research on academia.edu here.


July 24, 2012

#ICCPR2012 – A first timer’s view

Graffitied doorway, Barcelona

It was fabulous to be in Barcelona for the 7th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research (ICCPR) at the beginning of July. Of course I love conferences, and of course I love Cultural Policy, and I would just have to get on with the fact it was in Barcelona. We suffer for our research. This time in Barcelona it struck me profoundly just how much the city uses culture as part of its identity. Every surface is tattooed with identities political, commercial, regional and personal, from graffiti to logos, design to decoration. Every piece of street furniture is designed, every metal shutter is graffitited. This visual culture is official and unofficial, planned and unplanned, commercial and expressive, corporate and civic, strategic and ad hoc. It is identity through culture wearing its distinctiveness on its sleeve.

It is this broad, eclectic view of culture, and thus of cultural policy, for which the ICCPR – and indeed the discipline of cultural policy - provides a wide umbrella. This reflects the contested field of cultural policy. Cultural policy researchers and academics have taken into their purview not only the purposive actions of nations and states (and for that matter the supranational, and what might be called the ‘infranational’, i.e. the regional and parochial), but also the implicit, such as those policies not aimed at culture but which affect it, like town planning, and those actions which affect culture that come from what Althusser called the ‘private domain’, i.e. non-governmental agents such as the family, the church, education and so on. This wide ranging and eclectic field means that cultural policy academics come from a catholic range of disciplines. The conference reflected this, presenting research on a broad range of aspects of cultural policy and cultural politics.

The first session I attended was themed ‘digital culture’, and I was intrigued to find out about the Icelandic experience of extending democracy through social media. (Disappointingly, it turns out, there was not very much take up of Social Media by Icelanders as a way to engage in the democratic process. I have more followers - and tweet more - than Iceland. However, I would say that this was not so much a criticism of digital democracy per se but of a poor use of social media, and perhaps a cynical one at that.) The interesting thing for social policy discourse though was that this was in the same session as digitising museum and library collections, which is a very different subject. Pau Alsina (@paualsina) of the Open University of Catalonia tweeted that there was a ‘confusion between digitalization of culture and digital culture at #ICCPR2012’ and worried about a feeling of ‘techno utopia’. He had, I think correctly, picked up on an uneasiness about technology and what it means for, and more importantly where it fits into, cultural policy discourse. There is certainly plenty of space for future cultural policy researchers to tease out the strands of technology and separate subject from object, to define and to acknowledge the distinctions between and implications of phrases like ‘new technology’, ‘digitisation’, ‘social media’ etc.

As well as the emergence of the new, one of the things I really love about academic conferences is that received opinions and beliefs are challenged if not shattered. One of the shibboleths under reconsideration was that of French protectionism of films: JP Singh asked, “Why is France so welcoming of tourists but so protective of films? Why is cultural imperialism only discussed in terms of films?”, suggesting this was more of an economic than a cultural imperative. And Anna Upchurch disrupted my received understanding of the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain with evidence from the Arts Enquiry at Dartington Hall. Of course it was also good to have some things confirmed – Upchurch talking about the difficulties of getting theatre people together to meet in the 1940s, and even more so the reluctance of the then theatre managers’ association to release their statistics (compare that with the Society of London Theatres who only release theirs in anonymised form) showed that not much has changed.

In a sold out session (we had to change rooms to accommodate everyone), Ele Belfiore went further, suggesting a paradigm change. She reminded us that we did not have to accept the current terms of the debate, and declared her mission of ‘dethroning economics’, wishing to open the ‘cultural value’ agenda to humanists as well as those doing cost benefit analysis. Belfiore’s argument, built partly on Lakoff’s theory that frameworks shape the debate, is that we have given too much ground by arguing for cultural investment in economic terms, using the economic importance arguments of Myerscough, playing to the cost benefit preoccupations of the Treasury and so on. According to Belfiore, the argument ‘This is the only language this government understands’ is a counsel of despair which has set limits on the discourse by accepting an economic frame which reduces arts to numbers. This was very well received within the room, a delegate from Greece declaring, ‘The emphasis on just economic values has led my country nowhere!’, and I imagine this view would be just as popular with many arts practitioners. To find out more and to join Belfiore in her paradigm revolution, follow @CulturalValue1 and the hashtag #culturalvalue on Twitter.

Of course I saw so much more (highlights include Clive Gray examining the structure of cultural policy itself, Ben Walmsley effortlessly presenting on organisational change, Monica Sassatelli and Franco Bianchini on festivals, Egil Bjørnsen on the social impact of culture), and, as is the nature of conferences, missed even more (apologies to Annette Naudin, Dave O’Brien and David Wright – bang goes the PhD!). I also had some really stimulating conversations around cultural policy and politics outside of the seminar room. Overall I had a very inspiring time, and am left reflecting on cultural policy as a project that is not settled, still under review and, like Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s greatest gift to Barcelona, a work in progress that may never be completed, and that may even be its strength.


March 20, 2012

Cultural (Policy) Studies, the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies and me

Recently we've been talking in the Centre, for various reasons, about what we're called and why. What follows is an attempt to articulate what the name ‘Centre of Cultural Policy Studies’ means to me and how the label might function as an indicator of what we do. Some of these reflections are about the ‘disciplinary’ and some are personal. The latter probably shapes the former. My own academic background, at under-graduate and Masters levels, was connected with Cultural Studies and I maintain an attachment to this label. Part of this attachment to Cultural Studies is an emotional one wrought from the realisation that people in universities could take the things I liked to do whilst growing up (television, pop-music, sport, films etc.) as seriously as the things I was supposed to do (reading, studying, working etc.). Encountering these things in the 1990s also meant that my version of Cultural Studies retained at least some of the critical and empirical emphases of its Birmingham School origins.

These emphases are important in light of the various cul-de-sacs that Cultural Studies has subsequently turned down, which might make it less immediately appealing as a label. Jason Toynbee nicely articulates these in a blog post in which he refers to Cultural Studies a ‘critical accomplice’ to neo-liberalism. Both share, he argues, a concern with the present (the everyday, the new), a libertarian rejection of the state (as either moral authority/arbiter or regulator), a celebratory focus on the individual (as potentially autonomous subject, as rational consumer) and both celebrate diversity. The discourses might be different – radically so – but the words, the labels, are the same, allowing Cultural Studies to be easily incorporated into the cool-hunting, style conscious, open-necked version of contemporary capitalism. This is the kind of capitalism which our students will find themselves working in, of course, and one valuable thread that might be retained from the Cultural Studies tapestry is the notion that the ‘consumer’ is neither just a problem to be solved by marketers or entrepreneurs nor the only thing that contemporary subjects – or people- are.

Involvement in a research project with policy implications and policy partners (the Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion Project) led me to the debates about Cultural Policy Studies as an extension of a useful Cultural Studies, as they were articulated by thinkers such as Tony Bennett and Angela McRobbie, amongst others. These debates retain an explanatory power and not just in a narrowly conceptualised ‘cultural policy’ concerned with the ‘arts’ but within the broader fields of the media, media policy and the media industries. The controversies that emerge around them, about the proper role of the intellectual as ‘technician’ or as ‘critic’ remain a good bell-weather for one’s position in the field. Two things stick out for me, which inform a general relationship to Cultural Policy Studies as a label in both teaching and research.

Firstly, the people who worked as policy advisors on the CCSE project were not speaking a different language to us. Arguably they were working where conclusions about the things we were concerned with could be acted upon. They may have had different sets of priorities but in no way could they be conceptualised as not critical – if that is to mean anything other than ‘contrary’. Engaging in conversation with them or their equivalents has the potential for direct engagement with actual political change, rather than the more diffuse forms of political change associated with the valorisation of creative or resistant consumers, the inculcation of critical sensibilities in students or through the winning of theoretical arguments. All these things are important but for ‘proper’ politics it is desirable to have conversations about the ideas we develop with decision makers. It is better to try to have such conversations and be ignored, than not to have them and marginalise ourselves. A Centre for Cultural Policy Studies seems a good stepping off point for these kinds of dialogue.

Secondly, the knockout blow in the debate about the role of the cultural intellectual was the rather simple assertion that universities and university teachers are and always have been part of state apparatuses. There is a critical complicity at work here too. Whether we like it or not academics in this field and in this Centre are, through our teaching and research, part of the process by which culture, in its broad and narrow definitions, becomes known and understood as art, as everyday life, as product and as strategy of government. A marginal part, perhaps but a significant one given the possibilities for critical reflection afforded by the academy and given that the students we teach today get to work in – and hopefully transform - the cultural and media organisations of tomorrow and the day after. In this light, Cultural Policy Studies seems to me to be as good a label as any for the combinations of the conceptual, practical and critical approaches to culture and the media that I try and take – and it is probably still better than the alternatives.


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