Culturally Creative or Creatively Cultural? What the hell are we talking about?!

I’m sorry, you say I’m doing what?

For artists, arts policy makers, politicians, strategists, consultants, entrepreneurs, CEOs and, well, mostly artists “the world is in a terrible state of chassis”, as Sean O’Casey wrote. (“Chassis” meaning “chaos’ for those of us not familiar with his work). Time was you could talk about Arts and Culture (nearly always with capital letters) and everybody – including you – knew what you meant. It’s why the Irish Arts Act lists what can be considered as art with great confidence and only included cinema in its second iteration. It made life easy for the funding agencies that were brought into existence to protect and develop The Arts (because we all knew what art was) and allowed us to quietly divide the society between the cultured (those who appreciated The Arts) and the uncultured (those who did not).  Alas, all has changed, a terrible beauty has been born, as Yeats would say.

We now have to contend with arts, culture (no capital letters), heritage, co-creation, prosumers (yes its a word), creative, industry, imagination, creative industries, culture and cultural industries, Culture 3.0, and of course the ongoing manichean struggle between intrinsic and instrumental value.  It ain’t easy.

So, with the Irish Government’s  first ever cultural policy – Culture2025 – in the pipeline I thought I’d try to tease out some of the key terms that are going to get thrown around in the forthcoming debate. It’s important that we all agree on the meaning of the words we use in this debate and how they relate to each other or we’re in danger of leaving the table with very different expectations. Agreeing on the meaning of what we’re saying is the first step toward strategic alignment – that magical state where everybody works together toward the same goal.

First things first – can we all agree on what we’re talking about?

Suck it up folks. In policy terms the dominant definition of culture is that agreed on at Unesco:  ” the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, that encompasses, not only art and literature, but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (UNESCO, 2001).

“Creativity”  is the next really important piece on the board. Everybody (politicians, CEOs, educationalists) is talking about this and they are all looking for ways to capitalise on it. (Forgive me for saying, but a lot of the policy writing I’ve come across on creativity brings to mind Woody Allen’s youthful ambition to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race – and then see if I can get it mass produced in plastic”).

When it comes to defining creativity as its deployed in the debate let’s go to the current guru (of whom I’m a big fan), sir Ken Robinson. Creativity, he says,  is the process of having original ideas that have value. I quite like that definition but we get into difficult water when we try to pin down the meaning of “value”.  Robinson is fully aware of this difficulty, but he enjoys making mischief.

The Creative Industries concept is very difficult to pin down. At its inception, in Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia in the 90’s, it was a list, stretching from Advertising, to Performance through software and onto antique collecting, deemed to be driving the rebirth of Britain’s economy. It’s not quite so clear any more, but despite the shifting contents the overall concept is said to have enormous social and economic power.

Art is – actually – very very hard to define in this debate. What we can say is that art is both a practice and a result. This dual nature can create a lot of problems and confusion in the current climate.

Does any of this make sense?

Surprisingly all of this hangs together very nicely.  Essentially Creativity informs Practice (Be that Art or Science or Accountancy) which produces artifacts and institutions behaviours and environments, which constitute the culture, and some of this cultural product ads to the stock of heritage.   This culture in turn shapes the Creativity and so on round and round.  At its simplest it could look like this.

What I like about this model is that it flows. (You can also see why its so hard to have a really original idea: creativity is shaped by the culture which is shaped by the practice which is shaped by the creativity which is shaped by the culture….mmm). The Unesco definition of culture talks about static thingsknowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, capabilities habits” and not about a process because over time we can forget that what we do is the result of our actions and choices; that culture is created (and recreated) daily. The important intellectual thing to grab onto to here is that culture is not a thing; it is the ever changing result of a process. Culture is not fixed but it can become dysfunctional and it can atrophy.

Some people say that Culture is a policy tool, but I think its more fruitful to think of it as a policy outcome. Cultural Policy is about finding ways to change the culture.

The question should never be what do we want to achieve with Culture but what kind of culture do we want to produce.

Art exists in two parts of this model: in Practice and in Culture. The art in practice is what living artists mostly struggle to make now. The Art in Culture is – mostly – stuff by artists who mostly struggled to make it in the past.

And this is useful how?

If you have the appalling task of creating policy we assume that you want to change the culture. Remember Culture is not a tool it is an outcome. I’m not saying you want to change all of it, but by taking action you want to change part of it, maybe keep other parts etc. The question now is surgical. Where do you apply pressure, where do you add and where do you subtract. For the purposes of analysis you can unravel the model and it looks like this

Where do you take action. Remember, the purpose is to change the culture. You could start tinkering with the institutions and the events and the environment that currently constitute the culture. It is possible that this will have little effect because the stuff being produced (and the way it is produced) is not being produced to serve these new forms. Its akin to giving people new uniforms and expecting their behaviour to change. It does have some impact but is it “value for money”.

What happens if we operate on the mid section – the belly of the beast. A lot of action tends to be focused here, redefining agencies, creating new college courses, devising new funding tools and obligations and this can have some long term benefit but by and large people find their way through these changes and carry on doing what they always did because fundamentally their creative impulse hasn’t changed, and nor have the demands of the culture.

I think a lot can be achieved at this level, particularly looking at legislation and networks, auditing agencies and eliminating duplication, laying the groundwork for innovation in practice. All this needs to be in place.

The real, lasting, long term impact comes from the creativity. And that means education access and opportunity. That’s the real pressure point – but you have to ensure that the agencies, the institutions and the legislation surrounding the belly are ready and willing to accept the creativity that’s coming up.

If we look at it this way then we can approach policy with the following questions:

  • What kind of culture do we have?
  • What kind of culture do we want to achieve?
  • Where in the above process do we take action?
  • What action can we take at the chosen point?
  • How will the action contribute to the development of the desired culture?

In all this we must remember that CULTURE WILL NOT FIX ANYTHING, CREATE JOBS, DRIVE REGENERATION, OR CREATE “INTERCULTURALITY”. All of these phenomena are the result of social structure including class and inequality. Culture is an expression of how we choose to acknowledge, define, think about, address and solve those structural issues.

So where’s the Artist in all this?

In terms of Cultural Policy in today’s world, given the Unesco definition, arts and artists are a subset of Culture. The really interesting thing is that according to that definition everything is a subset of culture – health, education, urban planning, welfare – you name it and it falls under the culture remit. This is what  Declan McGonagle was so passionate about at the launch of Culture2025. The normal “cultural” obstacles are there: political interests, bureaucratic obduracy, turf wars, disbelief etc. But this wide ranging understanding of culture is a huge opportunity for artists.

Now the warning. The Culture2025 discussion document is not a cultural policy discussion document. It cherry picks the Unesco definition and focuses on Arts and Heritage mostly. It constrains all debate within the existing relevant legislation, and reaffirms the value of all the existing agencies. If there is to be any meaningful discussion then all these must be on the table for discussion; further it sets the questions and so frames the debate,  and finally it starts from the position of resources and resource allocation . In reality Culture2025 is not a cultural policy initiative – it is an arts and heritage initiative designed to spread responsibility for that sector across multiple departments. I think its heart is in the right place but it needs to step up and be what it says it is.  In not doing that it is, potentially very damaging to both the arts and heritage sectors and the wider culture.

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