Cultural capital: arts policy and education

What went wrong with New Labour’s cultural policy? Robert Hewison’s book ‘Cultural Capital’ – reviewed here – provides some of the answers.

In a key speech a couple of months ago, Ed Miliband promised to ‘put policy for arts and culture and creativity at the heart of the next Labour government’s mission’. In particular, he talked about the decline in arts education under the Coalition government, and guaranteed ‘every young person, from whatever background, access to the arts and culture: a universal entitlement to a creative education for every child’.

Tony Blair - Millennium Dome

This might sound like good news – even if the outcome of the election is currently too close to call. Yet arts educators should probably be careful about what they wish for. Robert Hewison’s new book Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain (Verso, 2014) raises some salutary questions about the role of government in this respect.

Hewison tells a racy story of the fate of ‘Creative Britain’, from Cool Britannia and the Millennium Dome through to the London Olympics and the cutbacks of the Coalition. It’s a tale of political expediency, rhetorical hype, and managerial ineptitude. The enthusiasts who populated the endless task forces and working parties were fatally confused about their aims, yet they were also caught up in the wider culture of ‘new public management’, with its obsessive target-setting and surveillance.

The imperatives of this grand project, and the bureaucratic performance indicators on which it relied, were ones that many of us struggled to negotiate at the time. Yet while Hewison masterfully exposes the bullshit, I fear he does not do enough justice to what were genuinely democratic aspirations.

Like many others, I was extremely sceptical about New Labour’s view of culture as a kind of political fairy dust, and I wrote about it at the time, specifically in relation to young people. Yet, thinking back to some of the initiatives in which I was involved, there was a tension between different forces within government that provided some space for intervention.

For example, the notion of ‘creativity’ in education was often ill-defined – as we argued in the review we produced for Creative Partnerships, New Labour’s flagship arts education project – but it offered a focus for criticisms of the so-called ‘standards agenda’, and support for some genuine alternatives. Media literacy can certainly be analysed as an example of neoliberal policy-making, but it also provided opportunities to promote more critical forms of media education – at least before it ran into the ground, for reasons that our account identifies. Projects like Culture Online briefly stimulated discussion about the educational functions of museums and galleries, and about the role of technology in increasing access, even if they too proved fairly fruitless (as Wendy Earle has shown).

Ultimately, Hewison doesn’t resolve the fundamental problem he raises. Most people do not attend – much less participate in – cultural activities; and those who do so most voraciously are mainly the usual suspects, who are already privileged in terms of class and education. Despite the rhetoric, the most damning thing one can conclude about New Labour’s cultural policy is that it almost entirely failed to broaden access. Even a very straightforward policy such as the abolition of entrance charges for museums and galleries seems to have had ambivalent results: there has been an overall rise in admissions, but it seems that this has largely been among tourists – the number of UK residents who visit top London galleries has fallen significantly.

Yet if government is to play a role in culture, then surely it should have broadly democratic aims. It should not simply give more to those who already have. It should be about ‘the many not the few’, as Chris Smith, New Labour’s first Minister of Culture, put it. To call this ‘instrumentalism’ (as Hewison does) is reductive. Participation in the arts will always have social purposes and social consequences; to suggest otherwise is to fall back on some metaphysical notion of art-for-art’s-sake.

Like many commentators, Hewison is caught in a binary. On the one hand, we have instrumentalism – the political use of the arts and culture as a means to achieve other objectives that are apparently quite extraneous. Yet on the other, we have a belief in what he calls ‘truth and beauty and the power of the sublime’ – a notion of art as possessing some kind of transcendent moral or spiritual force.

Hewison’s conclusion is somewhat evasive on these points. The notion of ‘public value’ strikes me as rather vague; and looking to what he calls ‘home-made culture’ as evidence of some kind of creative renaissance seems fairly utopian. Education appears rather late on his agenda as ‘the most important route to enjoyment of the arts and heritage’. Of course, I would agree – but that is only the beginning of the story. There is clearly a danger that education will reinforce existing patterns of cultural exclusion and inequality – and some would argue that this is precisely what it is designed to do. So what kind of education do we need here? And for whom?

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  1. Pingback: Whatever happened to media literacy? | David Buckingham

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