UK cultural policy: using art to divide us

By promoting diversity through culture, UK policymakers have ignored precisely what makes art so valuable: its universality.

‘Cultural policy’ has become an increasingly prominent aspect of politics in recent decades, in Britain and beyond. Having emerged in the postwar period primarily as a means of administering the public funding of arts institutions, it has become an integral part of everything from education policy to economic policy, credited with the ability to create jobs, generate growth and transform lives. At the same time, cultural policy has come to be dominated by a particular political perspective, the politics of diversity.

In The Politics of Culture, Munira Mirza argues that policymakers’ increasing interest in culture, especially viewed through the prism of diversity, reflects a wider change in how society, and even the human condition, are perceived. For Mirza, the overarching concern with diversity is not only corrosive of the idea of universalism in the arts themselves, but both reflects and institutionalises a retreat from the very idea of a universal humanity.

Following Boris Johnson’s re-election as mayor of London earlier this month, Mirza has been reappointed to his team as deputy mayor for education and culture, having played a similar role since 2008. As well as moving in academic and policy circles, she has previously contributed to spiked and was one of the founders (along with myself) of the radical humanist Manifesto Club. Her book is less a prescription for a particular kind of cultural policy than a restatement of a certain attitude to human culture and democratic politics, one based on universalism. As such, it is also a case study in the importance of ideas.

With refreshing robustness, Mirza insists in her introduction that the book should be read from beginning to end, since it builds an argument throughout. Indeed, this is very much in keeping with a central component of the book: a defence of liberal subjectivity, the idea that we are rational individuals capable of grasping the world around us using abstract thought as well as subjective experience. Mirza begins by exploring how different understandings of culture and creativity reflect different conceptions of humanity itself and different ideas about whether there is such a thing as universal humanity.

She goes on to describe the development of cultural policy in the UK and, in particular, its expansion and transformation since the 1980s, with the rise of the politics of diversity. This is followed by two case studies. The first looks at Rich Mix, an arts centre in an ethnically diverse part of London, which embodies many of the trends Mirza describes. The second looks at Mirza’s home town of Oldham in the north of England, where cultural policy became a key element of efforts to deal with inter-ethnic tensions following race riots in 2001. She ends by using an analysis of those case studies to put the case for universalism.

In her first chapter, then, Mirza builds on cultural theorist Raymond Williams’s double meaning of the word culture: both ‘a whole way of life’ and the ‘special processes’ of art and learning. The paradox is that the former meaning, though far broader and looser, refers to a particular way of life, typically national or ethnic, while the latter, though more precise and limited, can at least in theory be universal. Those who value Shakespeare because they imagine his work embodies Englishness or Britishness are interested in culture in the sense of a way of life. Those who see in his plays a universal humanity are more interested in their specific literary qualities than in their ability to summon up the sounds and smells of Elizabethan London.

Mirza quotes Karl Marx’s musings on the strange fact that we can still derive pleasure from ancient Greek epics, despite recognising that they are the product of an historic moment that has passed. She notes the irony that contemporary Marxist critics are typically more interested in decoding the social meanings of texts than in understanding what makes them universal.

Nonetheless, there was, until quite recently, a consensus among critics and scholars that the best works of art could indeed speak to a universal humanity, and this view informed everything from education in the arts to the establishment of art galleries and museums and, to a large extent, institutions like the BBC and the Arts Council in the postwar period. Mirza identifies three definitive aspects of this modern idea of culture: ‘the transcendence of human beings and artistic value, the need for culture to be a form of critique, the authority of experts’.

The erosion of the last of these is well illustrated in an anecdote Mirza relates in her preface. Visiting an arts-education project at a major London gallery some years ago, she watched a group of eight-year-olds making collages. When they had finished, the educationalist praised their work and asked them to compare it with the work on the walls. At this, one child raised his hand and asked why, if their work was so good, it was not on the walls, too. What was so special about the proper artists’ work? Mirza describes a look of terror crossing the educationalist’s face. This was not a question that could be answered in the PC, relativistic terms that prevail in arts education today. And a satisfactory response would need to explore ideas like transcendence and critique as well as asserting authority.

This is an important point to consider when looking at the rise of cultural policy in recent decades. As Mirza puts it, ‘while culture has grown in importance, this is not the same “traditional” culture as from the past, but rather a new politicised kind of culture which is a tool for other purpose’. She notes that one factor behind this change has been pressure to justify public funding for the arts, but insists this is not enough to explain the growing interest in cultural policy: ‘Policymakers have also been driven by political developments – in particular, a new understanding of the individual human subject and an interest in “identity” and “diversity”.’ And for Mirza, the prevailing idea that individuals are defined by characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender and so on, conflicts with a key aspect of the universal notion of culture: the possibility of transcendence.

Nonetheless, this has been an explicit and deliberate feature of cultural policy for decades. Mirza summarises the influential cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s idea of the role of the museum: ‘to challenge the implied universalism of the museum display and to develop an explicit subjectivism that shows how unreliable, temporary and relative interpretations of cultural objects can be’. Or in his own words, the museum should ‘destabilise its own stabilities’. Note that the point is not simply to challenge the one-sidedness of traditional museum displays – for example, to show how the British Museum was a product of empire and embodied certain imperial attitudes – but to deny the very possibility of universalism. This is the thinking behind cultural diversity in arts policy and ethnic-led cultural practice.

This is not to say that nobody believes in universalism any more. Arguably, it is implicit in the very idea of the arts as they are conceived today, and certainly the idea of artistic excellence depends on some kind of objective standard, however rarely or obscurely articulated.

In her chapter on the Rich Mix arts centre in East London, Mirza shows how this particular initiative embodied the philosophical tensions she discussed in her opening chapter: ‘the discourse of Rich Mix tried to maintain both the particularistic view of culture as something embedded in the “ordinariness” of society and as “authentic”, with a universalistic approach, whereby culture is something that transcends a locality, and can be judged by standards outside any particular community’.

The result was a great deal of confusion, including competition between different ethnic groups vying for attention and influence, and ultimately long delays in getting anything done, with questionable benefits for the community. Mirza quotes an exchange at a Bengali women’s group, one woman asking, ‘What is Rich Mix?’, to be told by a friend, ‘It’s that big fat building up the road that no one ever goes to’. 

There have been critics of cultural policy’s focus on ethnicity rather than aesthetics. Mirza cites Pakistani-born artist Rasheed Araeen’s criticism of the tendency to treat artists from ethnic minorities as ‘producers of anthropological culture that is a “way of life” rather than art’. She also notes that the celebrated British sculptor Anish Kapoor has largely resisted the label of ethnic-minority artist, perhaps because he is closely identified with the 1980s New British Sculpture movement, which is understood in aesthetic rather than any other terms. Today, young British artists of Asian extraction find it easier to gain institutional acceptance as Asian artists (or, as the jargon has it, Black and Minority Ethnic artists) rather than as pioneers of new artistic movements.

The diminution of the aesthetic dimension of the arts has been exacerbated by trends in arts education, and in particular the idea of ‘democratising’ the arts, based on an understanding of universalism very different from the one promoted by Mirza. From the 1960s and 70s, arts educationalists promoted the idea that not only was everybody capable of responding to art, but that everybody was an artist. Art education moved away from a focus on craft and skill towards a more ‘attitudinal’ understanding of the creative process: expressing one’s unique subjectivity – or later, ethnic identity – was more important than conforming to traditional aesthetic standards.

But the process described by Mirza is not only a result of developments within the arts and arts education. The rise of cultural policy in the 1980s and 1990s reflected a growing political interest in culture. Mirza notes that while the cultural and creative industries certainly expanded in the UK in that period, the political enthusiasm for them was out of proportion to their true economic significance. The real motivation for the turn to cultural policy was political rather than economic.

In cities like Glasgow and Liverpool, culture was seen as a way of responding to industrial decline, not only by creating jobs in galleries and arts centres (and in retail and other services), but by helping individuals to adjust psychologically. The arts were thought to be good for the self-esteem of people living in run-down areas. Growing up in Glasgow at the time, I well remember how events like the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988 and City of Culture in 1990 were promoted as part of a psychological as much as economic process of regeneration. And as Mirza notes, even the subsequent backlash against private sector-led cultural regeneration typically took the form of ‘community-based’ cultural initiatives rather than a questioning of the focus on culture per se. As Mirza puts it: ‘Culture was both the cause of the problem and its solution.’

In Oldham, industrial decline was made worse by ethnic tensions, and Mirza’s case study is a valuable investigation of how misguided cultural-policy interventions based on diversity tended to exacerbate rather than ameliorate people’s sense of difference and antagonism. Nonetheless, she sees some cause for optimism in Oldham’s new Waterhead Academy, created from the merger of two failing schools, one with a predominantly white intake, the other predominantly Asian. While the hope is that the school will help the two communities to integrate, crucially the focus and priority is on raising academic attainment. Young people are brought together not to agonise over their diversity, but to focus on learning.

This is much more in keeping with the traditional, ‘liberal’ notion of the individual subject rightly favoured by Mirza. This subject is capable of abstracting him or herself from particular circumstances to think and act as a ‘universal citizen’, sharing interests and aspirations with others whose circumstances are very different. Mirza’s book shows that how we think and talk about the arts reveals much more about the kind of society we are, and makes the case that universalism is not only essential to a proper understanding of culture, but also to citizenship.

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars and an associate fellow of the Institute of Ideas.

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