The Tory Government distrusts the arts and humanities – but what about academics?

The cover story of today’s Sunday Times indicates a plan on the part of the UK government to reduce fees in higher education.

Sunday Times 18-2-18

According to the story:

He [Education Secretary Damian Hinds] revealed that future fees would be determined by “a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy”.

Ministers expect this to lead to dramatic cuts in fees for arts and social science courses, which universities have expanded because they are the cheapest to run and make them the most money.

Under the plans, universities will be told to offer: more two-year degrees; sandwich courses, where students spend time in the workplace; and “commuter courses”, where they live at home to cut costs.

Various television interviews today with Hinds and also with Universities Minister Sam Gyimah have done nothing to dispel such suggestions, though precise details are vague. A statement from the Prime Minister is promised tomorrow, though it is unclear how much has yet been decided, how much will be the outcome of a review.

There are various outcomes I could envisage, few of them likely to be positive for those working in the arts and humanities in British universities. The items on the following list are not mutually exclusive.

  1. A re-introduction of the pre-1992 divide (though ministers will be at pains to stress how different it is), whereby the sector will once again divide into a series of universities in the traditional sense (probably the Russell Group and a handful of others) and others offering more vocational and technical courses (most of those which became universities after 1992 and maybe some others as well). This will be spun as entailing a new level of support for technical education, with the second group of institutions intended to be akin to German Technische Universitäten. The latter institutions will receive little or no support for research, and most lecturers will be on teaching-only contracts. The government money thus saved will be used to finance a cut in some tuition fees.
  2. A push for many degrees, especially in the arts and humanities, to be able to be undertaken in two years, delivered by a mixture of lecturers on teaching-only contracts (whose increased teaching burden would leave little time for any research), casual academic staff without permanent contracts, and postgraduates.
  3. A limitation of practically all government research money to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, with nothing for the arts and the humanities, though the social sciences may keep some.
  4. A variant of 3, in which all or the bulk of arts and humanities research money is only available to those in Russell Group institutions.
  5. The introduction of a direct link between ’employability’ (as measured by the Teaching Excellence Framework) and the level of fees which an institution is allowed to set.
  6. An insistence that the majority of academic jobs be teaching only. Having a research position will then become one of the most sought-after things in HE.

Most of these measures, or some variants thereof, will be designed to enable the government to cut fees without having to pledge any more money for HE. I believe strongly in the abolition of tuition fees and re-installment of maintenance grants for all, but realise at present this is unlikely to be on the cards (even with a Labour government which pledges to abolish fees, but will be hit by the dire economic consequences of a Brexit they are doing little to stop).

The outlook for the arts is bleak, and especially for degrees in performing arts such as music, theatre, dance, or various types of spatial arts, which include a practical element requiring significant resources for appropriate facilities. Already, as a result of the introduction of the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate), there was a five-fold fall in the numbers of pupils taking arts subjects at secondary school in 2015-16, while other evidence points to a special fall in take-up and provision of music. When combined with other likely problems relating both to recruitment and access to research funding following Brexit, this will put various music and other arts departments in a highly precarious position, as some already are.

The arguments for the employment benefits of arts and humanities degrees have been rehearsed often, as for example in response to politicians such as former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan dismissing arts and humanities subjects and urging pupils at school to concentrate on STEM if they want a better career. I do not wish to dwell on these further here, not because I do not believe them to be true, but because I resent the debate always being framed in such narrowly utilitarian terms. Rather, I want to ask why many – including some in academia – have lost such faith in the value of the study of the arts and humanities as an end in itself, and are submitting to terms of reference which will always place them at a disadvantage?

In many continental European universities, there are battles to save rare subjects in the face of declining student numbers, but at least some measures are being taken to prevent these from extinction. It would be nice to imagine that the UK government (or the opposition) were backing similar measures, but evidence of that is in short supply. I wonder in how many other developed countries one would find a vice-chancellor of a major university declaring the irrelevance of the study of sixth-century history, as the late Patrick Johnston, of Queen’s University Belfast, did in 2016. I refuse to accept that the study of early medieval (or ancient) history is somehow automatically less ‘relevant’ than modern history – or that the study of Guillaume de Machaut is less ‘relevant’ than that of Madonna. Any measure of the relevance of history in proportion to the temporal remoteness of the period in question ultimately undermines the case for the study of history at all. There has also been, in the UK, a marked decline in foreign language degrees, no doubt linked to a decline in their study in schools. It is dispiriting and more than a little arrogant when those in Britain no longer feel it important to engage with any of the world’s many other languages.

There have been, and will be for a long time, heated debates about the value to individuals and society as a whole of various types of art, and especially regarding their purported humanising or civilising potential. Overwhelming evidence exists from the fascist era that individuals with a love for and firm schooling in high culture could still commit crimes against humanity. At the very least, this renders automatic assumptions of such culture’s civilising potential impossible to maintain. But one need not subscribe to the views of Matthew Arnold (themselves more complex and nuanced than sometimes credited) in order to believe that a society with only minimal support for and education in the arts and humanities to be one which is deeply impoverished.

So what should be included in teaching and research of these disciplines? I would argue that at the very least, students should be encouraged to explore not only the forms of culture that they would encounter anyhow, but also those of different times and places, not to mention less familiar or commercially successful genres. Such culture can benefit from being examined in its social, historical, geographical, political, ideological contexts, without in any way neglecting its specifics and technical details, which are not merely the by-product of such contexts. The relationships between different cultural forms (between music and theatre, between theatre and performance art, between literature and film, just to give a tiny few obvious examples) are also greatly important, as are the relationships between culture and the intellectual environment of its time/place/social milieu, the societal functions of various cultural forms, the nature and demographics of those who partake of such culture and their responses (i.e. the study of reception), the economic situation of cultural production, the role of changing technology, and much else.

Yet so often I encounter the dismissal of many of these things, including by some academics, in ways which mirror government ideologies, despite being presented in somewhat different language. In the case of my own field, music: government emphasis on STEM subjects is mirrored in increasing emphasis on technological skills in music over other varieties of musical study and musicianship (and in the case of research, favour bestowed upon anything which has a contemporary technological dimension), as if musical study is somehow more acceptable when it has some of the veneer of science. Positions become available for the teaching of commercial music, or functional music for another commercial medium (such as popular film or video games), more frequently than those requiring expertise in a historical field, or in musical cultures outside of the Western world. I was recently informed by one Professor of Theatre that historical study of that discipline has all but disappeared except in Russell Group institutions (though am interested to hear of any evidence to the contrary).

I accept that some of this is pragmatic, borne of desperate attempts to recruit and maintain students who have less and less of a foundation in music and the arts at primary and secondary school than ever. But I am dismayed at how many embrace rather than tolerate this situation. There was a time when the study of popular music (see this debate from two years ago on this blog) could reasonably be argued to inject increased diversity into rather rigid curricula. At best, this can entail the study of many different popular musics from various times and places, critical interrogation of the concept of the ‘popular’, consideration of various social contexts, means of production and distribution, not to mention relationship to other cultural traditions, languages, and so on. But when it means limiting a good deal of musical study to Anglo-American popular music of a restricted period (essentially that music which is already familiar to students), then the net effect for diversity is negative rather than positive. Ethnomusicologists (see another debate on this blog) eager to decry not only relatively traditional approaches to teaching Western art music, but also older approaches to their own disciplines which involved Western scholars spending considerable amounts of time in remote places, absorbing as best as they can the language, cultural practices, and so on, might reflect upon how precarious their own discipline might become if there is less of a place or welcoming environment for those interested in such things. The more musical study becomes simply about the application of a selection of methods derived from sociology or cultural anthropology to fields of musical activity close to home, the less reason there will be for institutions to support music as a separate field of study. The sociology and anthropology of music are vitally important sub-disciplines with multiple intellectual trajectories of their own, but if those engaged with them are housed solely in sociology and anthropology departments, they will then be in direct competition for students, funding and positions with the rest of those fields.

More widely, in many fields of cultural studies, especially the populist varieties which, as I have argued in some recent papers, are rooted in the work of the Birmingham School and especially that of Stuart Hall, commercial utility is equated with relevance, musical engagement is viewed as just another consumer activity, and research can amount either to conducting focus groups, or dressing up familiar informal chat about popular culture with a modicum of jargon. Any deeper critical engagement with popular taste, the latter empirically measured at one particular time and place, is dismissed as elitism. This amounts in many ways to an eschewal of arts education itself, and can lead to rather patronising ways of patting students and ‘the masses’ on the back simply for having the tastes they do, rather than encouraging them to venture beyond their comfort zones.

I do believe, after working in HE for 15 years (in multiple institutions), that most students those who study arts subjects at university do so after having read some literature, heard or played some music, seen and acted in some theatre, looked at or produced some visual art, etc., and care about these and want to know more. They often seek help and guidance to navigate an overwhelming range of available culture, and also learn technical skills so as to be able to engage with this more incisively. Certainly not all will become equally drawn to all the manifold areas of study, methods, or emphases involved, nor could any realistically study all in detail in the limited time available for an undergraduate degree (for which I think we should be looking towards four- rather than two-year degrees, ideally) which is why we offer some degree of elective options. But I do believe it is important, indeed vital, that educators attempt to broaden students’ horizons, encourage them to explore beyond what they already know, and also consider the familiar from unfamiliar angles. Those educators, with years of experience in their own fields, are in a position to facilitate all of this. Not through spoon-feeding, teaching-to-test, or rote learning, but introducing what to students will be a plurality new ideas, new cultural forms, new contexts, and encouraging them to consider these critically.

I also realise this type of humanistic approach may not be attractive or feasible to some potential students, and this situation is unlikely to change without wider changes in primary and secondary education. With this in mind, I would not rule out questions as to  whether the removal of the pre-1992 divide has been wholly beneficial, and whether a need to maintain the pretence that all degree courses are roughly equal just entails a race to the bottom for all. But technical colleges are not universities in the traditional sense, and it benefits nowhere to pretend otherwise, as argued well by Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton:

Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.

Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties.

I would not like to live in a narrow, utilitarian, technocratic society in which there is little wider societal interest in other times and places, in all the questions which the humanities raise, or one in which such interest and knowledge is limited to the upper echelons of society. Nor a society in which art has no meaning other than as a form of commercial entertainment, as some right-wing politicians in the UK have been urging for many years (see the notorious 1990 Westminster speech by then-Tory MP Terry Dicks, and the spirited and witty response by then-Labour MP Tony Banks). And I doubt that this type of society would be attractive to many, especially not those working in arts and humanities fields. But if many of them are not prepared to defend the ideals of the arts and humanities, acting instead as advocates for narrowly conceived notions of social ‘relevance’, defined in terms of being contemporary, technocratic, and generally restricted to the place and milieu of them and/or their students, what are the chances of any meaningful opposition to governments who would happily slash most of these?

Universities, the arts and the humanities, are not just means to ends but valuable in their own right. Cultures and cultural histories are far from unblemished things, to say the least, but it would still be negligent in the extreme to let them fade into oblivion. And allowing students to retreat into the comfort zone of the already-familiar is damaging to global citizenship. In some ways, those who advocate such an approach to education are already doing the Brexiteers’ work for them.




‘Radio-Controlled’, BBC R3 Feature, Sun 11 April 18:45. New Music after 1945 in Germany.

On Sunday 11 April at 18:45, on BBC Radio 3, the Sunday Feature will be a programme called ‘Radio Controlled’, looking at the role of radio stations in supporting and promoting new music in Germany. This is based extensively upon my own research and I am interviewed at length for the feature. My work on radio forms part of a wider research project, drawing extensively upon a large amount of archival data and also many German newspapers from the period, into the origins of German (and indeed European) new music in the period from 1945 to 1951, and its earlier provenance during the Weimar Republic and to some extent through the Third Reich.

Some time ago, I figured out to myself that the infrastructure for new music in Europe had its origins in West Germany, in the sense that in that country, before anywhere else, there was a large and elaborate range of festivals, concert series, radio stations broadcasting new music, dedicated journals, newspapers with a range of sympathetic critics, and educational institutions in which modernist composers had teaching positions. Nowadays similar such infrastructures exist, and have done for some decades, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Spain, Finland and elsewhere, but that in Germany was essentially in place by the early 1950s. Considering how devastated the country was been after the war, with over three-quarters of buildings destroyed in many major cities, this was a remarkable development, which took place very quickly. I was fascinated to explore how and why this could have happened, exactly which types of music were most favoured at the time (not just those that today’s historical filter determines to be important). Other scholars, including historians David Monod, Toby Thacker, Elizabeth Janik and Andreas Linsenmann, had explored wider aspects of post-war German musical life and its reconstruction, but while all had considered new music, none had made this the primary focus of their study.

There have been other historical models applied loosely in this respect: the so-called Stunde null or ‘zero hour’ model, which maintains that in the wake of the devastation of war, Germany had to rebuild itself from scratch. This was equally true of music, necessitating the forging a new language, free of the tainted historical past. Another model, based upon some questionable writings of Frances Stonor Saunders and others, and widely disseminated by Richard Taruskin, maintains that new music was essentially fuelled by the United States and its intelligence agencies, beginning in the occupation era, and the most ‘abstract’ (especially atonal and pointillistic) work was supported in opposition to Soviet ideals of socialist realism, especially following the Zhdanov Decree of 1948. Thus new music was enlisted as a weapon in the cultural Cold War.

Both these models contain grains of truth, but both are also too simplistic. There were a great many continuities of works, styles and personnel in German music before and after 1945. There is also very little evidence of US support for the most radical new music in Germany after the occupation era, though there was certainly a programme in place in the late 1940s to promote US composers, who were mostly contemporary. These were however mostly the likes of Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, Quincy Porter or Walter Piston. In the 1950s John Cage would visit Germany on several occasions, and his influence was pronounced and sustained, but there is little evidence of this being connected to any wider US government policy or Cold War strategy. The latter was mostly focused elsewhere (the German programme of the leading agency, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was relatively small and mostly focused upon Berlin) and they promoted neo-classical music and jazz more actively than the far-out achievements of the post-war avant-garde.

What is a much more significant factor, in my view, is the concept of Nachholbedarf (‘catching up’), which was used widely immediately after 1945. This held basically that Germany had been cut off from all significant international and modernist developments in music for a period of 12 years, and so it was now necessary to ‘catch up’. The assumptions entailed here were at most only partially true, however. Whilst the protagonists of one wing of Nazi aesthetic ideology, epitomised by Alfred Rosenberg and his Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur , were implacably hostile to modernism in all the arts, others thought differently, as did their counterparts in fascist Italy. Composers such as Bartók and Stravinsky were quite widely performed in Nazi Germany at least up until the early years of the war, while the twelve-tone composer and Schoenberg student Winfried Zillig won great success for a range of operas and took a position as music director in occupied Poznań, in Poland (part of the so-called Warthegau, a region of Poland which was the site of some of the most atrocious racial policies against both Jewish people and Poles at the hands of fanatical ideologue Arthur Greiser). Much has been made of the Entartete Musik exhibition in Düsseldorf in 1938, now and also after 1945, but this was not a large-scale event and was in many ways a personal obsession of the organiser Hans Severus Ziegler. It was not attended by many prominent musicians, and did not impress Joseph Goebbels, who wrote about it in his diaries. There was plenty of international music performed throughout the Reich, though generally from friendly nations. Modern Italian music could be heard regularly, as could Spanish music after 1939, while there were tours from Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian musicians, even a reasonable amount of Russian music during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Japanese conductor Hidemaro Konoye travelled repeatedly to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and and his score Etenraku (1930), based on a traditional gagaku melody, was played widely throughout the Third Reich and occupied territories. Cultural exchange associations between fascist nations sprung up during the period, while Peter Raabe, head of the Reichsmusikkammer after Richard Strauss’s resignation, essentially subscribed to what is now thought of as a ‘nationalistic cosmopolitics’, favourable towards multiple cultural nationalisms, in opposition to pan-national cosmopolitanism. Raabe was also sympathetic to a fair amount of modernist music. He conducted Schoenberg, Hindemith, Skryabin and others when Generalmusikdirektor in Aachen from 1918 to 1929, and was impressed when he heard Berg’s Wozzeck.

Nonetheless, the assumptions underlying the concept of Nachholbedarf were rarely questioned after 1945, and this argument was used to justify the creation of a range of specialised institutions for new music, gaining financial support from local and state authorities, and the occupying powers, towards this end. Many contemporary institutions for new music were either founded during this period or have their roots there. Furthermore, the US, France and the Soviet Union all had extensive cultural programmes, in large measure devoted to promoting culture from their own countries for a variety of motives (for the US, in part from an inferiority complex, aware of German perceptions that the US was a highly commercialised society lacking high culture; for the French, in order to supplant Germany as the central nation for European culture; for the Soviet Union, in order to promote the purportedly superior possibilities for culture under communism). The UK had a certain programme, but it was relatively modest, and primarily focused upon the press and media, seen as vital in generating a culture of political pluralism.

Furthermore, as has been shown above all in the comprehensive scholarship of Martin Thrun, there was an extremely extensive infrastructure for new music in place during the Weimar Republic. Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Munich and elsewhere all had extensive cultures of new music – and some of the musical aesthetics entailed a more radical break with the recent past (with widespread opposition to the values of Wagnerism and Imperial Germany prominent especially amongst the Novembergruppe of artists in Berlin) than was the case after 1945. A great many festivals and concert series came and went between 1918 and 1933, some continuing beyond 1933. Radio began in Germany in late 1923, and a few years later stations were commissioning new works of music, and composers exploiting the specific possibilities of the medium.

However, this was a time of huge economic instability, and few of the institutions proved financially stable for this reason. The same situation was naturally true after 1945, especially at the time of currency reform in 1948, in which the introduction of a new currency rendered many people’s savings essentially worthless. However, this is where the role of the radio stations, whose funding was relatively stable due to a licence fee system, is crucial. Many of the most prominent and important festivals and concert series for new music – in Munich, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Donaueschingen, Baden-Baden, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Cologne and Hamburg in particular – were supported by radio stations, which gave them a staying power which was rare in the 1920s.

Furthermore, it is vital to consider some of the individuals involved with these radio stations – figures such as Heinrich Strobel at Südwestfunk in Baden-Baden, who did a huge amount to support and promote contemporary French music, Herbert Eimert at the branch of Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne (later Westdeutscher Rundfunk), who founded the electronic music studio in Cologne and was mentor to the young Karlheinz Stockhausen, Eigel Kruttge, the first music director at the same station and later co-founder of the important new music series Musik der Zeit, Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt at Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor in Berlin, who presented a range of programmes with quasi-Socratic dialogues between himself and other individuals unsympathetic to new music, Heinz Schröter at Radio Frankfurt, later Hessischer Rundfunk, who developed a major new music festival in Bad Nauheim and then Frankfurt, and was also involved in supporting the courses at Darmstadt, or Herbert Hübner, also at Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (later Norddeutscher Rundfunk) but at the central headquarters in Hamburg, who like others created a special late-night series devoted to new music, and from 1951 the series das neue werk, Otto-Erich Schilling at Radio Stuttgart, later Süddeutscher Rundfunk in Stuttgart, or Heinz Pringsheim at Radio Munich, later Bayerischer Rundfunk.  All of these figures had a strong commitment to new music, and almost all were appointed to key positions between 1945 and 1946 (Hübner in 1947). Some had very questionable pasts: Schilling, Kruttge and Hübner had been NSDAP members (possibly also Stuckenschmidt, and also certainly his wife, singer Margot Hinnenberg-Lefèbre, though both may have been entered without their consent), as had other influential figures such as composers Wolfgang Fortner, Ernst Lothar von Knorr and Gerhard Frommel, Robert Ruthenfranz, founder of the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik in 1936, Hugo Herrmann, an interim director of the Donaueschinger Musiktage and musical director of other festivals in Konstanz, Trossingen and Tübingen right after the war, pianist Eduard Erdmann, choral expert Siegfried Goslich, who worked at the radio station in Weimar, in the Soviet Zone, after 1945, and from 1948 played a major role in developing new music at Radio Bremen, or electronic music pioneer Werner Meyer-Eppler. Schilling had written an opera based on the anti-semitic propaganda film Jüd Suß and also a cantata beginning with the text ‘Wir hassen den Juden und lieben, was deutsch ist’ (‘We hate the Jews and love that which is German’). Stuckenschmidt and Eimert’s Nazi-era journalism sometimes parroted Nazi propaganda, as did that of Strobel when writing for the Nazi occupation paper Pariser Zeitung, though in Strobel’s case it should be borne in mind that he was married to a Jewish woman and there is good evidence that he made whatever compromises were necessary to protect her.

But in almost all cases the individuals involved with radio found that the occupying powers found them acceptable and were happy to allow them to take up the positions they did. Kruttge was an exception, and removed from his position at an early stage for a period. Why this was depends on individual cases: in some cases there was simply not the time for the military authorities to investigate the fine details of some people’s journalism and employment of Nazi tropes and rhetoric, and this became less and less of a concern as denazification was scaled down and handed over to German authorities, before being brought to an end entirely. In the case of Strobel, who been an opponent of German romanticism and indeed the expressionism of Schoenberg back in the 1920s, the French authorities had plenty of good reason to believe in his Francophile tendencies, notwithstanding his wartime journalism. As such he could be counted upon to support their own cultural agenda, a prediction which proved wholly accurate.

Without the work of these individuals at radio stations, I do not believe that not only avant-garde German composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen (and arguably less radical composers such as Hans Werner Henze or Giselher Klebe), but also those from elsewhere including Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, and indeed John Cage, all of whom were widely performed in West Germany, would have gained the reputation and profile that they did, at least for a period. And their work paved the way for subsequent generations.

‘New music’ is a concept whose roots are in an essay ‘Neue Musik’ published by critic Paul Bekker in 1919, stimulating a wide range of responses through the 1920s), in the sense of a separate realm of musical activity from more ‘mainstream’ classical music, with financial support from sources other than ticket sales and private sponsorship. It is fundamentally a phenomenon borne out of particular historical circumstances in Germany after crushing defeat in 1918 and 1945. This is not the whole picture, for sure, and one should not neglect other parallel developments elsewhere – for  example the Festival internazionale di musica contemporanea founded in Venice in 1932 (thus in the midst of the Fascist era), which continues to the present day, or other developments in France, Austria, the UK and elsewhere. But the scale of such a thing was greatest in Germany. What then becomes a difficult question for all of those (including myself) committed to and involved with such a scene, is what is the basis for its continuation, and financial support, now that historical conditions have changed, and the legitimising arguments for the associated infrastructure no longer have the same cogency.


UK Politics 3/9/17: voting and parliamentary arithmetic

A lot has been made of the fact that Labour under Corbyn gained many votes in the June 2017 election, enough that some think the party has full victory (in the sense of an overall majority) in its grasp. I wanted to look at some comparative figures, so compiled the following chart of votes (not seats) and percentages in each UK election since 1979:

Year    Conservatives          Labour            Lib Dems        SNP                UKIP

1979    13.7m/43.9%               11.5m/36.9%   4.3m/13.8%     0.5m/1.6%                                                                                                                          (Liberals)

1983    13.0m/42.4%               8.5m/27.6%     7.8m/25.4%     0.3m/1.1%                                                                                                                         (SDP/Lib Alliance)

1987    13.7m/42.2%               10.0m/30.8%   7.3m/22.6%     0.4m/1.3%                                                                                                                         (SDP/Lib Alliance)

1992    14.1m/41.9%               11.6m/34.4%   6.0m/17.8%     0.6m/1.9%

1997    9.6m/30.7%                 13.5m/43.2%   5.2m/16.8%     0.6m/2.0%       0.1m/0.3%

2001    8.4m/31.7%                 10.7m/40.7%   4.8m/18.3%     0.5m/1.8%       0.4m/1.5%

2005    8.8m/32.4%                 9.5m/35.2%     6.0m/22.0%     0.4m/1.5%       0.6m/2.2%

2010    10.7m/36.1%               8.6m/29.0%     6.8m/23.0%     0.5m/1.7%       0.9m/3.1%

2015    11.3m/36.8%               9.3m/30.4%     2.4m/7.9%       1.5m/4.7%       3.8m/12.6%

2017    13.6m/42.3%               12.9m/40.0%   2.3m/7.4%       1.0m/3.0%       0.6m/1.8%

So Labour under Corbyn did well, gaining 3.6m votes, but the Tories under May did even better. Two factors are of primary importance: (a) the collapse of the Lib Dem vote in 2015, following the Tory/Lib Dem coalition (see my earlier blog putting this in context); (b) the collapse of the UKIP vote in 2017, following the EU referendum, after having done exceptionally well in 2015, quadrupling their vote from that in 2010.

Labour certainly did manage to benefit from getting more young people to vote, but they also gained from the UKIP losses, which were threatening them in various traditional constituencies. But the Tories gained more, though the first-past-the-post electoral system through up the bizarre result by which May gained 2.3m more votes than Cameron did in 2015, but won 13 less seats than the latter. The Conservative vote has not fallen, far from it (May won more votes than any Tory leader since John Major in 1992, and more than Thatcher in 1983), it is really just a question of how it is distributed.

The widespread tactical voting generally believed to have occurred from 1997 onwards, which helped the Lib Dems more than double their seats in 1997 (from 20 to 46) and go onto peak in 2005 (with 62), must be assumed to have disappeared, unsurprisingly as Labour voters are disinclined to vote for a party which spent five years in coalition with the Tories, even where they are the primary alternative in some constituencies to the latter. But the current voting system still works against Labour, and it should not be forgotten that they only won 262 seats in 2017; to win an overall majority by one seat they need another 65, whereas for a workable majority (not too vulnerable to backbench rebellions over contentious legislation) they need at least 85.

I cannot see this happening, certainly not with Corbyn as leader. The electoral landscape has changed fundamentally since the pattern between 1997 and 2010. The Lib Dems and UKIP have collapsed, the Tories have swung to the right (though could move further right still) while Labour has swung to the left. Brexit has changed a lot; the good result for Labour and Corbyn this year came about in part through triangulation on this issue, managing to convince both Leavers and Remainers that they supported them. I cannot see this holding up further, and without a major and clear shift of policy, I believe Remainers will move away – though many, like me, feel politically homeless at the moment (a reason why a new centre party would be no bad thing).

On Tuesday Parliament will reconvene, and will start to debate the EU Repeal Bill. There has been talk of the government being defeated on this, which I would hope for greatly, but am not too hopeful, again for reason of numbers. There are four Tory MPs identified by John Rentoul as possible rebels –  Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve – and possibly a few more, but nine Labour MPs who supported Leave in the referendum – Ronnie Campbell, John Cryer, Frank Field, Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer – while Caroline Flint indicated this morning that she is not prepared to help obstruct the bill. The Tories and DUP together have 327 MPs, whereas the opposition (not including the seven Sinn Féin MPs who will not take up their seats, nor the Speaker) have just 315. Even if all the four Tories listed above voted against the government, and the DUP abstained, they would still have 313 votes and could comfortably beat the opposition if just the nine Labour MPs vote with them. If things got tighter, May could take the same course of action as John Major did twice when facing defeat, and turn a vote on legislation into a vote of confidence. With no parliamentary majority, it is hard to imagine many Tories (most of who, when in the last parliament, voted for Article 50, including Soubry) voting against the government then.

Labour have proved themselves utterly incapable of proper opposition on Brexit. The Michel Barnier/David Davis press conference on Thursday was quite farcical, and it is clear the talks have hardly progressed, yet there was hardly a squeak from Corbyn and Keir Starmer until Starmer’s ineffectual interview this morning, which only served to muddy the party’s Brexit policy further. Never has there been a time during which proper scrutiny of the government and their approach to negotiations was more important; never has Labour proved so inept at providing this.

Where I have some hope, paradoxically, is in the possibility of a large-scale grassroots Tory revolt following acknowledgement that the government is preparing to pay a large Brexit divorce bill (with some leaks in the press today suggesting a figure of €50 billion). A recent Guardian/ICM poll suggested that two-thirds of voters would find a figure of €10 billion or more unacceptable, and the government has done nothing to try and explain the reason (not even clamping down on Boris Johnson over his ‘Go whistle’ remark). While the legal obligation to pay such a bill has been questioned, Barnier has made it clear that without the government coming clean on their position on this issue, they cannot proceed with trade talks. With time ticking down until Article 50 expires in March 2019, the UK government cannot really afford to keep delaying this, when the chances of even coming up with a workable transition arrangement – which all the other EU nations will accept – are slim in the time available.

So I think we will hear the sum confirmed soon, despite the denials. May will try to wait until after her party conference in Manchester, 1-4 October, but this may be difficult. The Tory membership have already indicated their wish for May to stand down; if she is conceding a major Brexit bill, then the pressure may become unbearable. May appears to be trying to keep Davis and Johnson close, so that they cannot dissociate themselves from what results, and so would go down with her; in that situation, I still do not think it impossible that the membership might make a crazy choice like electing a figure like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Andrea Leadsom, beloved of Conservative Home and the like.

Then, if a new leader was feeling optimistic or simply deluded, they just might call another election. I do think (or hope?) that a lot of decent Tory voters could not vote for a party led by someone so right-wing. But in order for a different government, Labour will have to make a proper case for an alternative in terms of Brexit, and make more overtures to the Lib Dems and others. I cannot imagine the Lib Dems or SNP supporting a Labour government which is going ahead with Brexit. At present I still cannot support Labour because of Brexit, and am sure they are a very long way from being an electorally viable party.



Feasibility of a new UK centre party? And other Brexit-related thoughts

There has been a lot of activity during the last week, mostly on Twitter, but also a few related newspaper articles, emanating from comments by James Chapman, former Daily Mail political editor, who worked for a while for George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then as chief of staff at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) under Secretary of State David Davis. To cut a long story short, Chapman has been arguing that the Tory Party has been taken over by extremists aiming for a hard Brexit, and saying that Brexit will be a calamity for the country and the party, who may never win power again. He has called for the founding of a new pro-European party to be called The Democrats.

Chapman has claimed that several senior former and two serving Cabinet ministers have contacted him to express interest (though it is important to note his caveat ‘They are not saying they are going to quit their parties’), noting that 60% of the Tory parliamentary party backed Remain. And, significantly, he has given a date of 9th September 2017 to be at Parliament Square, saying ‘I promise some very special guests’. No leading politicians have yet openly declared support, though one might glean sympathies from two articles this morning. Former Labour MP and defeated leadership candidate David Miliband wrote in The Observer today about how Brexit will be an ‘unparalleled act of economic self-harm’ and called for a second referendum (or a vote in Parliament) on the choice between remaining in the EU or the alternative after negotiations, echoing a call made by Tony Blair in October 2016. At the same, Tory MP Anna Soubry, something of a hero of anti-Brexiteers since her endearing appearance and frank statements on the election documentary Brexit Means Brexit, wrote in the Mail on Sunday a quite startling piece attacking the ‘Hard Brexiteers’ (though saying she still respects the referendum result), and saying ‘I would be betraying my principles if I did not make it clear that country must always come before party’. Also this morning, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond have jointly declared, presumably in an attempt to override talk of major cabinet divisions, that the UK will definitely leave the EU, single market and customs union when Article 50 expires in March 2019, while also making clear their support for a transition deal from this point, though stressing that this must not be indefinite, or some ‘back door’ to staying in the EU. Fox has been considered one of the most pro-Leave members of the cabinet, Hammond one of the most pro-Remain, or at least ‘Soft Brexiteers’. Interestingly, Soubry tweeted this morning that the statement by Hammond and Fox ‘shows the need to form #Brexit consensus which Hammond is leading’, perhaps a qualified support for the cabinet member to whom she feels closest, though falling short of unequivocal endorsement.

There had been talk of a new party earlier this year: in May it was claimed that various donors were approaching Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change with a view to launching a breakaway movement which could attract some non- or anti-Corbynite Labour MPs, with talk of 100 such MPs resigning the whip and joining the new party. That was of course before the general election on 8th June, resulting in a hung parliament and a better-than-expected result for Corbyn’s Labour. Nonetheless, a report in the Sunday Times from the beginning of July (reproduced here) suggested that if Corbynites went ahead with deselection of centrist Labour MPs (with which some have already been threatened), then that could be a trigger for a number to leave to join a new party. This story was based upon sources said to be close to Blair, and hints were given that David Miliband might be a credible figure for a senior role in such a party.

Since Chapman’s first statements and tweets appeared, there have been a variety of left-of-centre voices considering the implications of a new party. Former SDP member and then Blairite advisor and then Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis (and staunch anti-Brexiteer) claimed a new party would indeed be much like the old SDP, and would achieve little more than to split the left and help the Tories, a view also echoed by Owen Jones, on the other wing of the party.  Corbynite journalist and Brexiteer Paul Mason, responding to those who had looked to the success of Emmanuel Macron in France as a model for a new centrist force, said that a new party would be ‘a liberal Tory party. The party of Notting Hill and Canary Wharf; the party of free market economics, globalised finance and social liberalism’ and would likely split the Tories rather than Labour. One might have imagined this to be an outcome Mason would have welcomed, not least in light of his earlier suggestion to the Progress faction that they ‘do a Macron’, but he suggested this would provide little more than ‘an emotional comfort blanket’ as global neo-liberalism withers.

However, political scientist and historian Tim Bale notes various questions relating to a new party, asking what such a new party would which is not already provided by the Liberal Democrats, whether existing anti-Brexit MPs would be better to pursue cross-party strategies, whether it is possible to ‘break the mould’ of British politics as SDP co-founder Roy Jenkins once claimed, in light of the UK electoral system which is unfavourable to third parties. However, he also argues that even if unable to achieve electoral victory, a new party could have an effect upon the policies of others, giving as previous examples of such a phenomenon the SDP pushing Labour towards a more centrist and pro-European stance such as won Blair a massive victory in 1997, or UKIP pushing the Tories towards a more overt and pervasive Euroscepticism.

Various issues occur to me immediately in terms of a new centre party and what it might achieve. The first relates to whether it could actually bring down the Tory/DUP quasi-coalition (for the purposes of confidence and supply issues in Parliament). The June election produced the following results: Tories 317, Labour 262, SNP 35, Liberal Democrats 12, DUP 10, Sinn Féin 7, Plaid Cymru 4, Greens 1, Independent Unionist 1, Speaker 1. So the Tories with the DUP have 327 seats; the others (without Sinn Féin, who will not take up their seats, or the Speaker) have 316. In a vote of confidence, I believe all the others, with the possible exception of the Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon, would vote against the government. If 6 Tory MPs were to join a new party, or resign the party whip, that could leave the Tories + DUP with 321 votes, the others with 322. If Hermon voted with the government, they would win with 322 to 321; if she abstained, then the Speaker would use his casting vote, and support the government. So the new Democrats would have to capture seven Tory MPs to be sure of being able to bring down the government in a confidence vote, leading to a new general election in which they could fight most seats.

I do not believe this is likely at present. It is possible that Soubry (who in her mid-20s defected from the Conservatives to the SDP) and maybe one or two others (some possible candidates might be Kenneth Clarke, Nicky Morgan or Nicholas Soames, but it would be a huge step for any of these) might be prepared to take the ‘nuclear option’ and leave their party, but to gain a whole seven would require a true sense of a party in crisis.

The situation as regards Tories jumping ship is interesting to compare to that in early 1981, when just one Tory MP, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler, joined the new Social Democratic Party (like Soubry, though it would be 29 years before she would become an MP), following the Limehouse Declaration of 23rd January 1981 . In 1981 the Tories had a clear majority (which would increase significantly in 1983). Their government’s reputation did look shaky, and Thatcher’s net popularity, pre-Falklands, was low as unemployment rose sharp, so that by the end of the year  she was declared the most unpopular Prime Minister since polling began. Furthermore, Labour remained consistently ahead in the polls right from the time of the 1979 election (peaking, as might surprise some, soon after Michael Foot became leader in November 1980), though this all changed after the Falklands War in 1982, when the Tories’ support soared from the mid-20s to the high 40s. This could not however have been predicted in early 1981. The Conservatives looked weak in the polls, though this was not an uncommon mid-term situation. They did not face something of such shattering impact as Brexit, nor rely upon another party in order to have a majority in the House of Commons. Thus I would argue that the situation was less serious then, and the incentives for Tory MPs to leave the party correspondingly fewer.

How about the situation for the other parties in early 1981? The Liberal Party then had 11 MPs, down from 13 prior to 1979; they would also go on to win Croydon North West from the Conservatives in October 1981, and Bermondsey from Labour in February 1983. The party had recently suffered a terrible blow with the trial in 1979 of their former leader Jeremy Thorpe on charges of having organised the murder of his homosexual lover. Even though he was acquitted, his refusal to give evidence and the general aspects of his lifestyle revealed in the trial meant his reputation was destroyed, with wider harm for the party as a whole, during a period when public opinion was considerably more homophobic than today. David Steel had taken over as leader in 1976 and tried to restore the party’s reputation, in which he was relatively successful, taking it into the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-78, but the trial itself caused much strain. So the party was not in a strong situation. However, today we have a situation in which just two years ago, in the 2015 General Elections, the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg suffered the worst percentage loss of seats of any UK centre party since 1918, down a previous 57 to just 8. They won the seat of Richmond Park in a by-election forced by the sitting Tory MP Zac Goldsmith in December 2016, but Goldsmith won this back in June 2017. Otherwise, under leader (now ex-leader) Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats went up to 12 seats, a modest gain but still a very long way from the numbers they had under leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. It is hard to see yet any sign that under Vince Cable – widely remembered as a major figure in the Tory/Lib Dem coalition, and the man who trebled tuition fees – as leader, this situation would change. By contrast, when Steel was leader, it was not since the 1920s that they had experienced huge losses. Also, the Lib-Lab confidence and supply agreement, lasting 18 months, was of a different order to the five-year full Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-15, which has left many on the left with a visceral disdain and distrust for the latter party, which will take time to shake, especially as the current leader was at the centre of that coalition.

So, the Liberal Democrats are in a relatively weak position, Somewhat more so than in the early 1980s. This just might be enough to prevent a re-run of the events of the 1980s, in which the SDP and Liberals fought two elections in an alliance, then after the 1987 election the former part split down the middle over the issue of a merger. This merger was supported by Steel and most in the Liberals, and various up-and-coming SDP politicians including Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, and veterans such as Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins. On the other side was SDP leader David Owen, with a group of acolytes including MPs John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes, who maintained his own separate SDP following the merger in 1988. This led to the two parties running rival candidates in by-elections, most notably in that in Richmond (North Yorkshire) in February 1989, in which the votes of the two rival centre parties together exceeded those for the Tory candidate (future leader William Hague), but the division of the centre let the Tories through. Following disaster in the May 1990 Bootle by-election, the Owenite SDP was wound up. The situation was not plain-sailing for the new Liberal Democrats, though: they first had problems with their name, beginning as the ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’, then adopting ‘Democrats’ as a shorter version (so anticipating the new party, and alluding to the American party), before settling on ‘Liberal Democrats’ in October 1989 after heated debates in which leading figures very publicly disagreed. Prior to this, they had suffered a terrible set of results in the 1989 European Elections, gaining only one-third of the votes of the Green Party. But Ashdown was able to hold the new party together and eventually more than double their representation in the 1997 General Election, helped by a new wave of tactical voting (which held up until 2015, as Nick Clegg discovered to his immense cost).

Could we see a similar course of events, with the new Democrats in the place of the old SDP? The moderately greater weakness of the Liberal Democrats today might result in some differences, but I cannot see why these would be that significant. A small number of Tory MPs might join the party, and a few from Labour, at present. The election result, and the power of party members, has consolidated Corbyn’s position, so that those who leave are unlikely to ever find a way back in, at least for a long time. However, if deselections begin, this situation might change.

I also find it hard to imagine that Labour under Corbyn could win an overall majority (from which they were well-short in June) in a future election, especially now that the triangulation witnessed during the election campaign – managing to convince some Northern Leave voters on one hand, and Southern middle-class Remainers on the other, that Labour was on their side – is unravelling. This has been clear ever since Corbyn sacked three shadow ministers for voting for a Queen’s speech amendment calling for the UK to remain in the customs union and single market. But there is no obvious rival for party leader likely to win enough support in the party as a whole. Because of the membership, even if Corbyn does eventually stand down, perhaps following another election loss, his successor may be another similarly-minded candidate. With this in mind, it would probably make sense for the likes of Liz Kendall, Chuka Umunna, Stephen Kinnock or Hilary Benn to leave for a new party, especially if supported by Blair and Miliband, but I cannot see them doing so without a wave of deselection. Just this weekend, Andrew Grice argued that unless Corbyn opposes Brexit, then he will be unable to retain the support of many who who might shift their allegiance to a new party. This may be true of voters, but Labour party tribalism should not be underestimated.

But there are other factors to consider. It is very far from a foregone conclusion that a transitional agreement will be agreed by the other 27 EU nations (all of whom must agree unanimously for it to be possible). And this will not come without a price, quite literally. A week ago, it was reported that the UK was prepared to pay a £36bn bill for exiting the EU, provided the negotiators would talk about trade (contradicting Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s remark a few weeks previously that the EU leaders could ‘go whistle’ if they expected any such ‘divorce bill’ to be paid). However, immediately following the publicisation of this figure, various Tory Eurosceptics responded angrily and claimed that such an action would be impossible to sell to voters, and Downing Street rejected the claim that they were prepared to pay the £36bn. The Eurosceptics may be right, but I do not believe the EU will take trade, transition, or anything else until the UK government agrees a figure (Michel Barnier made this clear in July). We are informed that the government is about to publish a range of key position papers on various Brexit issues, but it is far from clear if the divorce bill will be included.

One other option has been touted by leading anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who has suggested that instead of a transitional agreement, we should be looking for an extension of the timetable for exit, but as one person has pointed out, it is hard to see how this would be possible with EU elections forthcoming in May/June 2019. For the UK to be part of these would be a huge leap that even some ‘soft Brexiteers’ would find difficult to back, at least to their constituents and local parties.

I think the government will realise soon that it has two options: either to agree a figure, at least for negotiations, in advance, or else have to exit the talks without any agreement. This may come as soon as the Tory Conference at the beginning of October, at which we are told today Theresa May will attempt a ‘mea culpa’ about the election result, in an attempt to hold onto her job. But I do not believe this will be any more successful than Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man turning up the volume’ speech in 2003, soon after which he was deposed. May looks a weak and wounded Prime Minister, lacking authority, only remaining in place because of lack of a clear successor. If she commits to a Brexit divorce bill, I believe there will be moves against her following the conference, as have been predicted by others, and many Eurosceptic Tories in the constituency parties will put their weight behind an alternative candidate. It is not inconceivable that they might support Jacob Rees-Mogg, who today is said to be considering his options, a result which would be as ground-changing for the Tories as Corbyn was for Labour. I cannot imagine Soubry, Clarke and various others being able to remain in a party led by him, even less so than when it was led by Duncan Smith.

So, in conclusion: a new party might attract some small number of defectors, but will probably become embroiled in a competition for the centre with the Liberal Democrats; as anticipated by Bale, it may have an emboldening impact upon anti-Brexiteers in the two main parties; if the Tories elect a highly right-wing leader like Rees-Mogg (or Andrea Leadsom), more MPs might be prepared to defect, as would be the case for Labour if they begin deselections, or back hard Brexit. And above all, the decisive moment in the Brexit negotiations is about to come, I believe. Either a bill will be agreed, or negotiations will come to a halt, and a hard Brexit without a transitional agreement will be a foregone conclusion.

I am unsure if there exists such a thing as a ‘soft Brexit’ other than entering into an EEA agreement in the manner of Norway, thus remaining in the single market, but a hard Brexit would be the worst possible outcome, and fatal for the UK. At present I see no evidence that either Labour or the Tories have any strategy to avoid this. It is time for all right-thinking politicians in all parties to accept that this matters more than party loyalties. I can personally no longer support Labour (or my local MP, Corbyn) while he maintains essentially supporting Brexit, and would welcome the new party. A second referendum is desperately needed, with much more information about what a post-Brexit Britain will actually entail made available to the voting public. I await 9th September with great interest.




Responses to Anna Bull (on Stella Duffy and ‘everyday creativity’)


Last week Anna Bull published a response (‘Towards Cultural Democracy’, July 10, 2017) to the range of responses on this blog (‘Response to Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism, communities’, July 6, 2017) to an article in the Guardian by Stella Duffy (‘Excellence in the arts should not be defined by the metropolitan elite’, June 30, 2017). I and several other writers wanted to respond to Bull’s arguments, especially where they refer to specific points each of us have made. The replies are below.


Björn Heile

It’s curious that Bull and others complain about my calling this ‘Stalinist’. What drove me to the Zhdanov/Stalin comparison was the populist anti-elitism, the idea that ‘the people’s art’ is good and ‘the elite’s art’ is bad. The means of achieving that are different; for the Soviet variant, the artist has a particular role in serving the people but remains a specialist. The idea that everybody is equally artistic and that even training is suspect seems more akin to the Cultural Revolution. What it is decidedly not is democratic.


Eva Moreda Rodriguez

I initially thought the main issue with Duffy’s article was its conceptual vagueness. I didn’t doubt for a second – and still don’t – that Duffy has good intentions and formidable energy, and that many people derive lots of enjoyment from taking part in the Fun Palaces initiative. My initial comment on the article was aimed at asking for clarification: what exactly is different about Fun Palaces (and similar initiatives), when most arts organizations in the country are doing outreach in one way or another? I felt this was not clearly articulated in Duffy’s original article, but it is crucial if she and Fun Palaces’ supporters want to present what they do as something innovative that can bring about change.

In her blog post, Anna Bull provides some clarification. Now, I understand that Bull is not talking on behalf of Stella Duffy and of Fun Palaces, so her answer does not exactly address what I was asking, but it is a very welcome contribution nevertheless.

I would like to reiterate that I regard many of the community-led approaches that Bull describes as admirable, and I am sure they are doing inestimable work in terms of giving access to the arts (both in product and process) to people who would not have got involved otherwise.

Still, I am slightly troubled by the either/or divide implied in Bull’s response: outreach initiatives from publicly funded arts organizations (bad) versus community-led initiatives (good). Although as I mentioned before, Bull does not represent Stella Duffy, Fun Palaces or the “everyday creativity” movement, incidentally, this either/or mentality was also present in Duffy’s original article, and it is even more obvious in two of her articles about Fun Palaces I have discovered since:

And yet, it seems to me the reality is more complex than that, and I wonder whether the “everyday creativity” community (broadly understood) acknowledges this systematically. Here’s a couple of examples and situations I can think of:

-*Some* of the individual events described on the Fun Palaces website sound very similar to *some* of the events organized by arts and education institutions (e.g. museums, universities, etc.). Would a random person off the street walking into one of these events without knowing anything about their genesis be able to tell the difference? Would they feel automatically empowered by the former and disempowered by the latter?

-Some arts institutions work very closely with individuals or groups from the community when delivering their outreach programmes, e.g. Scottish Opera with communities in the Highlands and Islands, so clearly some events are difficult to classify as either/or.


Michael Morris

I was one of the contributors to Ian Pace’s collection of responses to Stella Duffy’s article in the Guardian. You mention me by name in your response to Ian here. You say two things about what I said. First, you attribute to me the concern that ‘cultural democracy’ (I’ll come back to this term shortly) will ‘produce an awful lot of bad art, and no good art’. Secondly, you attribute to me (as well as Björn Heile) ‘the assumption that democratising culture leads to abandoning aesthetic judgement’.

I’m afraid both of these attributions are wrong. I was not expressing the concern that ‘cultural democracy’ will produce a lot of bad art and no good art. I was not assuming that ‘democratising culture’ leads to abandoning aesthetic judgement.

Here is the whole of the response of mine which Ian Pace shared:

The argument for democracy in politics is not that it leads to things being done better, but that it’s part of the goal of politics that everyone should be a part of it. Similarly, there’s no reason to think democracy in art will lead to better art; and it’s not obviously a goal of art itself that everyone should be a part of it – even if that’s something we all might want for other (most obviously political) reasons. What this piece presents is a political goal presented as an artistic goal. The problem is that that then begins to look like a rather sinister politics, even, since it drills art, of all things, into conformity with politics.

Perhaps it will help to bring out the point of this if I explain where I’m coming from. I’m a philosopher, so my business is to question fundamental assumptions. This doesn’t inevitably mean casting doubt on those assumptions: it often means asking what their real justification is.

In this spirit, philosophers ask what justifies democracy in political systems. I think there is no plausible justification of democracy in political systems as the most effective method for bringing about some independently defined set of benefits: we don’t actually know how effective it is, and we don’t know that no other system would be more effective. The most plausible justification of democracy in politics is not, therefore, that it’s an effective means of bringing about some independently conceived end, but that everyone’s being part of government is part of the end which any political system must aim at. That was the point of the first sentence in my response.

Now let us ask: what would justify ‘democracy’ in art? (I’ll come back to the very idea in a moment.) Again, and for the same reasons, it’s not plausible that the justification, if there is one, is that it’s the most effective means of bringing about some artistic goal: we don’t know how effective it would be, and we don’t know that no other system would be more effective. But this time we don’t have the other kind of justification to fall back on. While it is plausibly part of the goal of politics to produce a system in which everyone is part of government, it is not plausibly the goal of art itself that everyone should be involved in it. It’s not that this would not be a good thing: we would all love everyone to be involved in art. But it’s not plausibly the business of art itself to produce that result.

That was the point of the second sentence, which your first attribution gets quite seriously wrong. I’m not saying anything at all about the likelihood of ‘cultural democracy’ producing bad art, or less good art, or anything: I’m simply talking about what the justification for ‘cultural democracy’ might be, and whether everyone’s being involved is plausibly a goal of art itself, rather than a political goal which we might all share.

My third sentence involved an interpretation of Stella Duffy’s piece. It seemed to me that it was presenting the involvement of everyone as a goal of art itself. Indeed, it seemed to be advocating a political policy – support of certain kinds of artistic project – which had at its core the idea that it is a goal of art itself that everyone should be involved in it. This seemed to me to be sinister, because it involves advocating a politics which favours a certain kind of art.

The objection here is not, as you seem to suggest, that ‘democratising culture’ leads to abandoning aesthetic judgement. On the contrary, the objection is that a certain kind of aesthetic judgement is incorporated into politics. The objection is that the policy is an attack on artistic freedom.

So much for what I meant. I’m disappointed that what I said was misunderstood first time round, but hope it is now clear.

In my response, I did not question the key terms ‘cultural democracy’ and ‘democratising culture’. But I do think these terms are questionable. It is quite unclear that the proposals of this movement involve anything which would ordinarily be called a democratic process. In fact, Stella Duffy’s piece seems to advocate populism, rather than democracy. And populism is entirely compatible with quite undemocratic systems (think of Julius Caesar and Napoleon, as well as some of the more sinister regimes of the 20th Century).

My own view is that the recommendations of the KCL report have nothing to do with democracy at all. (This is perhaps indicated by the fact that the term ‘cultural democracy’ seems to need constant repetition as a short-hand for ‘promoting cultural capabilities for everyone’.) The core idea is what in other terms might be called a ‘bottom-up’, as opposed to ‘top-down’, approach to including people in art.

On this approach in general I have nothing very interesting to say. In common with many others (I can’t speak for them, but I imagine this includes all of those whose responses Ian Pace collected), I would want as many people to be involved in the arts as possible. And like them (I’m sure), I want different genres and different traditions of art to be respected, and excellence valued and promoted wherever it is to be found. I don’t have the empirical expertise to comment on this, but it seems to me quite plausible that this will be achieved by pursuing a bottom-up approach – though this need not involve abandoning a top-down one.

But none of this requires adopting populism about art itself, or attempting to denigrate serious art on the grounds that it is ‘elitist’. This latter thing is what is pernicious and divisive, and this latter thing is what I (like others of those whose responses Ian Pace collected, I’m sure) was objecting to.

I do hope this important debate can be pursued further in ways which keep the different goals and issues separate and clear. Let’s do what we can to involve people, and to respect different genres and traditions and value excellence everywhere. But let’s not do it by attacking particular kinds of art for political reasons.


Ian Pace

Anna Bull writes the following:

Several commentators make comparisons between a shift towards ‘everyday creativity’ and arts policies under fascist regimes. They draw on historical examples from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany relating to the problem of addressing elitism in the arts via democratisation, and include an accusation that this kind of policy shift would be ‘Stalinist’. While I think using historical examples to make a comparison can be helpful, it’s noticeable that these comments leap straight to fascism rather than considering any other, less extreme, examples, such as the Greater London Authority’s leftist cultural policy in the 1980s. This leap is the equivalent of suggesting that any form of economic redistribution leads to communism. By contrast, Stella Duffy gives the example of Fun Palaces, an organisation that has minimal central organisation and takes very different forms in local areas. Some Fun Palaces might draw on ‘elite’ forms of art such as literature while others might make space for more participatory forms. Rather than fascism, this is an example of extreme localism, its opposite.

The debate about Duffy’s article was provoked by one individual’s noting of what they felt were the Stalinist implications of Duffy’s arguments. Several of those involved in the ensuing debate, including myself, are scholars whose work deals in part with the situation of music under fascist, communist (and capitalist) societies. The passage in Duffy’s article which some found disturbing was the following:

Those of us working in culture talk a lot about the arts ecology, but in any ecology some parts must die for new ones to thrive. It might be time to let go of some of our outdated practices. Our commitment to “excellence and quality” as defined by mainstream, metropolitan-based thinking many decades ago, might need to shift to a new version of “excellence and quality”, one defined by a new generation of makers and creators – and this time from every part of society.

If we want cultural democracy, genuine culture for all, elitism must make way for creativity and community-led culture.

Attacks upon elitism and elites, not to mention excellence and quality, do have a long and very undistinguished history, whether in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, or for that matter amongst contemporary right-wing populist politicians. The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has traced the central role of attacks on elites in his books Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), drawing upon a range of other political scholars who have arrived at similar conclusions. The resonances with the language of Andrei Zhdanov in the late years of Stalin’s Russia, but also similar rhetoric from right and left in China and Germany (and elsewhere), were quite obvious to me – I have read sentences like the last one as quotations from many dictators and demagogues. I remember clearly the time of Ken Livingstone’s control of the Greater London Council (about which I have also read a certain amount since it was abolished in 1986): certainly there was a move on his part to distribute cultural funding to a more diverse range of groups than hitherto, which was welcome, but I do not recall anything like such shocking comments. Most of the contributors to the original set of responses would support some redistribution and decentralisation of cultural funding (some, including myself, are explicit about this), but this is quite different to a full-on attack on elites in the name of ‘community’. This is why I do not find Bull’s parallel with an equation of economic redistribution with communism to be valid. If Duffy had written something like ‘If we want a larger demographic to be able to participate in the arts, then we must look at distributing funding more widely than amongst the traditional elites’, then it might have been. I would also add that the opposition she presents between fascism and localism is also highly questionable: many fascist parties and politicians have sought their base in relatively small local communities, and expressed disdain for city life, with all it entails in terms of greater plurality of peoples and cultures. Fascism, at least as theorised by some, entails a degree of low-level organisation, supporters on the ground in local communities, in distinction to the top-down model of other types of dictatorships and autocracies.

Bull goes on to write:

Pace comments that ‘one should be wary of viewing ‘community’ as necessarily a wholly benevolent or benign thing’; communities can create divisions and barriers as well as overcoming them. In this, Pace is correct, but he could have gone on to say that currently, the arts contribute to reinforcement of the ‘echo chamber’ of white middle-class opinion and worldview. By contrast, writers such as Bev Skeggs have shown how different cultures and ways of life exist in the UK that are not reflected or even necessarily acknowledged by those who make policy. Working class cultures can be very different to middle class culture, but the latter is much more visible, and is therefore taken to be the unspoken norm. Cultural policy is, therefore, already reinforcing existing historic divisions of class and race, for example by giving money to those forms of arts that organise themselves in the ways which are recognised by the state. In our report we discuss the example of BAME arts and cultural participation groups, which tend to operate on a local and short-term basis, for example coming together to organise an annual mela then disbanding till the next year. These, as well as ‘community-facing’ South Asian arts practices, as Jasjit Singh describes them, are not visible to funders such as Arts Council England. As a result, they don’t garner funding in the same way as groups that have the resources, knowledge, and interest in organising in ways that are recognised by the state. Cultural policy has to recognise that existing arrangements for how culture is organised prioritise certain groups and certain forms of art over others.

This paragraph uses various ideas and concepts in a very vague and ill-defined manner. What exactly is this ‘white middle-class opinion and worldview’, and how is it ‘reinforced’ by the arts at present? Is this equally true of the work of a new translation of Baudelaire, a cycle of ars subtilior motets, an exhibition of the paintings of Hokusai, a production by Théâtre du Soleil, or the performance art of Valie Export and Marina Abramović? Nor do I know what ‘working class cultures’ are, though I can think of many artists from working-class backgrounds. One example would be the composer Brian Ferneyhough.


None of the above examples would have played much of a role in the white lower middle class milieu in which I grew up.

A statement like ‘Working class cultures can be very different to middle class culture’ is bland and meaningless without some definition of what these cultures entail, in the sense of cultural production, which is what is relevant in this context. I am not really prepared to accept either such ‘cultures’ can be apperceived other than as wholly heterogeneous entities which might have a large degree of overlap. Where I would make a distinction is between some culture designed for a more educated reader/listener/spectator/etc., compared to that for which no such education is required. It is undoubtedly true in much of the world that access to education, and the quality of that education, varies immensely depending upon social class, regionality, and so on. But I see that as an issue of inequality of provision rather than a problem with education per se. The world would be a much lesser place without such ‘educated culture’, and as such the priority should be to make such education as widely available as possible.

Bull also writes:

Pace goes on to suggest that both the market and community-based art (by which I assume he means the everyday creativity we describe in the report) is ‘unlikely’ to produce ‘a critical art, which can deal with uncomfortable and unsettling phenomena, represent non-populist and minority perspectives, and look beyond the existing world (and existing societies) towards what might be, not just what has been.’ He is wrong to say that the market or everyday creativity cannot produce critical art; for example, Anahid Kassabian’s (2016) writing on African American women making their own web series shows these women expressing a critical consciousness (including new ways of using sound in film) through grassroots cultural production. This example shows how critique may be occurring in ways that are not recognised, or even known about, by white middle-class culture.

[Kassabian, A., 2016. “You mean I can make a tv show?”: Web series, assertive music, and African-American women producers, in: Hawkins, S. (Ed.), The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music and Gender. Ashgate]

My exact words were:

I believe it is vital that there can also be a critical art, which can deal with uncomfortable and unsettling phenomena, represent non-populist and minority perspectives, and look beyond the existing world (and existing societies) towards what might be, not just what has been. A space needs to be made for this in ways which are unlikely through the vagaries of the market, or for that matter through some types of community art projects.

Bull equates something’s being ‘unlikely’ to a claim that something ‘cannot’ happen; I made no such claim. But I have seen much less evidence of what I consider to be critical art having been produced under commercial or community-based conditions – at least in the sense that community is presented by Duffy. In some sense, any group of artists working together is a community; whether or not they inhabit a particular local community on a daily basis is immaterial.

But I had a look at Kassabian’s article, which I had not previously read. The passage to which I imagine Bull refers is the following:

With fewer resources to work with, especially in terms of funding, but very strong talent pools from which to draw, many of these artists [African American women] decided to use approaches that are much more assertive and attention-grabbing than mainstream film and television scoring practices. For example, in each of their debut episodes, Unwritten Rules and Black Actress turn to the musical sound of a record scratch, as is heard prevalently in rap tracks to mark an important shift in consciousness. […..]

The specific sound that caught my ear, as it were, in the first episodes of both Unwritten Rules and Black Actress was the record scratch. The scratch is an important, powerful sound – first, it went from being a dreaded sound, the sound of a mistake, to being a significant musical means of expression over the past 30-plus years, and in particular, because of its roots in hip-hop, it has specifically African American roots and associations. Second, despite its musicality, it retains the overlay of error or dread. And, finally, it is a sound that is almost never heard in audiovisual texts, except perhaps as a sound event inside the narrative world; indeed, it is very rare in uses such as these, where the characters do *not* hear the sound that the perceivers/audience do. The scratch is used (in both cases – see below as a unit of aural meaning, placed on a soundtrack as if it is dramatic scoring. without any other music to contextualise it; this is a radical aural moment.

The following is the episode of Unwritten Rules in question.

The rules for television sound have historically been quite realist, which is not to say that the original sounds are used in some semblance of the rules of Dogme 95 films, but rather that they aspire to “seeming” quite like real sounds, without abandoning their ability to draw attention towards or away from particular events or objects through sound choices. Instead, these sounds assert themselves quite vividly in the soundworld of the episodes. It is highly unlikely that anyone watching and listening to either of these episodes will fail to notice the scratches or the tinkle.

I was astonished to read this (not least the suggestion that non-diegetic sound is such a new thing in TV); I remember hearing record scratches used regularly in various media from some time in the 1980s, yet Kassabian is presenting it as some type of innovation. The most prominent and widely-disseminated use of this sound may be in the series Ally McBeal, which ran from 1997 to 2002. The use of sound in this series has received scholarly consideration as well, in Julie Brown’s article ‘Ally McBeal’s Postmodern Soundtrack’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 126 (2001), pp. 275-303. Already at the time of publication Brown noted that ‘This gag is now everywhere on TV’ (p. 286), so it was very fair from being a significant innovation when Unwritten Rules was produced eleven years later. Other scholars have considered the scratch and its various cultural meanings; examples include Jason Middleton and Roger Beebe, ‘The racial politics of hybridity and ‘neo-eclecticism’ in contemporary popular music, Popular Music 21/2 (2000), pp. 159-172, or Kjetil Falkenberg Hansen, Marco Fabiani and Robert Bresin, ‘Analysis of the Acoustics and Playing Strategies of Turntable Scratching’, Acta Acustica united with Acustica 97/2 (March/April 2011), pp. 303-314, one of various writings on scratching with which Hansen has been involved (including a 2010 doctoral dissertation on ‘The acoustics and performance of DJ scratching’). Even the more traditionally-inclined scholar Joseph Auner relates conscious use of the scratch, as used by Portishead, to a wider history of ‘scratchy’ recordings in his ‘Making Old Machines Speak: Images of Technology in Recent Music’, ECHO 2/2 (Fall 2000).

It is not clear whether Kassabian is aware of these writings; certainly none of them appear in her bibliography. A failure to consider an extensive history of such a technique does undermine some of her claims.

For radical use of sound with moving images, I would suggest that the following examples go much much further:


Shirley Clarke, Bridges Go Round (1958)


Pramod Pati, Explorer (1968)


Peter Kubelka, Pause! (1977)



Zhang Peili, 30 x 30 (1988)


Carolee Schneemann, Infinity Kisses – The Movie (2008)


Emeka Ogboh, [dis]connect II (c. 2013)

To return to Bull’s point, certainly there have been some striking examples of radical cultural work produced at the behest of private capital or from some artistic communities. But the possibilities for producing a sustained body of work in this manner, especially where expenses become considerable, are frequently limited when other requirements of finance, not least in terms of labour costs, are involved. It is true that, for example, experimental film has flourished more in the developed world than, say, in the African continent (though there are some striking examples of such work). To therefore portray radical approaches to film making as a primarily ‘white’ conceit is very short-sighted; world cinema would be greatly enhanced if it were possible for a greater number of film makers in African countries to benefit from the types of institutional support, distribution, and so on which are more common elsewhere, allowing the freedom to take approaches to film which may not generate major commercial dividends.

The money has to come from somewhere, and all things told, I do believe that a system involving progressive taxation and redistribution on artistic projects, for all the issues of institutional control involved, provide a more flexible environment for innovation and critical work than are possible by leaving things to private capital. I realise that the latter option is not what Duffy is advocating, but rather than subsidy of this type should be concentrated upon community-based projects which are open to all rather than through more traditional channels branded ‘elitist’. As I have said, I am in agreement with the principle of a wider distribution of resources, including to a greater number of smaller or non-metropolitan projects. But it would never be possible to fund everything, and so some choices have to be made. I am deeply concerned by a situation in which any aesthetic criteria, no matter how difficult these may be to conceive fairly, are jettisoned simply in favour of the demographic of the participants.

In her last paragraph, Bull writes:

Arts Council England has made a progressive move with its ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ which requires the process of creating culture to involve a diverse range of people as well as expecting the audiences and performers to be diverse. 

I am also surprised by the concept that performers do not ‘create’ culture.

Towards cultural democracy?

Anna Bull has written an interesting set of responses to the posts on my previous blog with multiple commentators responding to Stella Duffy on arts, elitism, communities – . I will respond in time to some of the points below, but welcome other responses to this (and welcome the fact that Anna has posted this!)

Dr Anna Bull

Musicologist, pianist and activist Ian Pace has collated a set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy in the Guardian, commenting on a report that I co-authored on ‘everyday creativity’. These responses take a critical view of the central idea of the report, that cultural policy should move further towards supporting everyday creativity, and suggest that there are a variety of dangers with this approach. I have responded below to some of the comments.

Several commentators make comparisons between a shift towards ‘everyday creativity’ and arts policies under fascist regimes. They draw on historical examples from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany relating to the problem of addressing elitism in the arts via democratisation, and include an accusation that this kind of policy shift would be ‘Stalinist’. While I think using historical examples to make a comparison can be helpful, it’s noticeable that these comments leap straight to…

View original post 1,355 more words

Response to Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism, and communities

An article published in The Guardian last week by Stella Duffy (‘Excellence in the arts should not be defined by the metropolitan elite’, June 30, 2017) has generated a considerable amount of response on social media from musicians and academics I know. Rather than keep this debate within that social media bubble, I wanted to make public some responses to the thorny issues involved, so am printing these below. Personally, I can see how Duffy’s aims are well-intended and sincere, but the suggestions would create more problems than they solve (see my response below).

I am happy to print other responses, so long as they focus on the issues and do not entail any personal attacks – if people have some considered thoughts, please do post them below or e-mail me at ian at ianpace dot com , and I will have a look and may add them to these.

[ADDENDUM: Anna Bull has written a response to some of the posts below, which can be found here. Further responses to this blog post can be found here.]


Jim Aitchison, composer

It is disturbing that both the left (I assume here in this article) and the right seem to be marching together towards delegitimising aspects of education, specialisation, depth, command of material detail, dexterity, high levels of understanding and attainment and more challenging cultural substance. It seems to me naive to suppose that “genuine culture for all….and community-led culture” will see the demise of gates, shibboleths, exclusions, hierarchies, cronyism. It will simply be replaced by a different forms of ‘elitism’ (a new ‘elite’ of the rigorously and equally de-skilled and/or right-skilled, cleansed of supposed past forms of privilege, untainted by previous apparently bankrupt expert knowledge). I’m surprised to see what comes across as a very much left-leaning sensibility re-articulating sentiments that came out of the mouths of various well known right wing voices.

The kind of cultural practice I think she is referring to is already well in the ascendant – anyone who has to fill in an Arts Council GFA form will be aware of the necessity of the right kind of wider community engagement and that this has been a part of the application process for many years, and the rise of ‘collectivist’ community style work in visual art is definitely already present, ref Assemble winning the Turner Prize, and the activities of Open School East. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these kinds of community artistic practices and approaches which can be valuable and fascinating. However, they are also open to being as flawed as any other approach to making art, and it becomes a serious problem if their ideologies ever become mobilised as part of a process of cleansing out other approaches deemed unsound and wrong by some unaccountable panel of unchallenged ‘new elite’ arbiters spread out in the ether…. Hopefully the latter are as much a misleading generalisation as so-called ‘metropolitan-based thinking’.


Bill Bamberger, unaffiliated writer and translator.

This question, this conflation, is a major element in what makes the article’s arguments blurry and (in the long run, I think) subject to being abused for anti-intellectual and economic ends. “Culture” might best be considered anything that wouldn’t exist without people–be it material, intellectual, et al. “Creativity,” as she is using it, seems to mean simply making something, anything. lf so, in that sense, everyone can of course tap into their “creativity.” This is why so many who want to “work in the arts” (that is, get paid for doing so) are constantly having to drum up ideas that involve “outreach,” usually going into a school or a community and having a group “create” while they direct in some way. “The arts” then become both a commodity, and a profession like any other. Something else that’s conflated: “artist” with “someone who works in the arts.” They are not the same, in my mind. The underlying resentment beneath much of what is asserted/included in the article is, for many, economic more than aesthetic– 1) “Why should so and so get money for making music/paintings/etc. when I don’t?” & 2) The all-too familiar “Why does the government give some of my money to music/paintings/ etc. that nobody I know likes?” Such underpinnings do not “create inclusion” as much as they give everyone more justification to feel noble when they belittle or dismiss another’s efforts and achievements, and encourage the pushing aside of work that’s out of the ordinary. Obviously these are just a few facets of this big question, but, again, I think that yes, clearer terms would help immensely.


Geoffrey Chew, Professor Emeritus of Music, Royal Holloway, University of London

The Stalinist diktat of 1950 in Czechoslovakia: “Composers go with the people”, delegitimizing various types of compositional activity and announcing that they were henceforth invalid, including some activities that had been undertaken before the war by leftists anxious to bring culture to the workers. Peer review was now required (another of the pamphlets in the same series put it succinctly by saying that “Party criticism is a co-creator of culture”).

The pamphlet in question was a speech by Miroslav Barvík at the first plenary meeting of the Union of Czechoslovak Composers.There is an article online about it by Tom Svatos  though I think it is not very plausible that Barvík was primarily responsible for its contents – I guess he was jumping to orders.


Franklin Cox, Associate Professor of Theory, Cello, and Composition, Wright State University

I find the report painfully timely: “In the context of the deep and widespread political division expressed through the 2016 EU referendum campaign and vote, it is increasingly clear that new approaches to many of the UK’s political processes require urgent and radical attention. This includes how cultural policy operates – and who and what cultural policy is for.

I find this passage painfully obvious: the Brexit issue is going to be used as a wedge to push this person’s ideology. How is her ideology going to end the controversy over Brexit? Isn’t the issue controversial because people have radically different views on it? How will amateur art-making change that? How will it prevent Nigel Farage from lying to the public?

Culture shows us who we are; it reflects who we are now and supports us to become who we might be. …. then the culture we are sharing and consuming is not that of our whole society. It therefore not only fails to represent us, it risks contributing to the divisions we are now experiencing.

So according to this author, Shakespeare isn’t really culture, because it doesn’t reflect who we are “now” or support us in becoming “who we might be” (what a nonsense phrase!). This is a pretty obvious consequence of the thin notion of culture as “whatever people do”. So eating at McDonald’s is culture, too, as is shopping for designer handbags. I guess all we need now is to hold up a big mirror to reality and call it “culture”.

Why does this mirror need support? Culture is already going on all around us, and it doesn’t need any subsidies.

But this novelist – isn’t that an elite activity that doesn’t reflect culture as a whole? – wants funding for activities that she supports. Those evil old elite artists whose artwork evidently had something to do with Nigel Farage have to get out. Once we’re rid of them, there won’t be any more division in the arts community.

And let’s make sure to put up a big fence, too, so that can’t sneak back in.


Björn Heile, Professor of Music, Glasgow University

Those of us working in culture talk a lot about the arts ecology, but in any ecology some parts must die for new ones to thrive. It might be time to let go of some of our outdated practices. Our commitment to “excellence and quality” as defined by mainstream, metropolitan-based thinking many decades ago, might need to shift to a new version of “excellence and quality”, one defined by a new generation of makers and creators – and this time from every part of society.

It’s hard to say what Duffy has in mind (the whole article never mentions what kinds of art and culture she does and doesn’t approve of), but doesn’t that sound a tad Stalinist? The various dichotomies between ‘elites’ and ‘people/communities/everyone’; metropolitan/old and makers and creators etc. are really troubling.

Because the pool we’re drawing from is wider, we’ll get better art and better artists – and because science is culture too, better science and better scientists. 

We all want more people to engage with the arts, actively and passively, and this would have all sorts of positive consequences, but it isn’t quite so simple, and the reason for that isn’t that metropolitan-based thinking or elitism deliberately prevent this from happening.

The question is how quality is defined. There is silence on this here, but I guess what is implied in the text is: ‘that which involves or pleases the greatest number of people.’


Stuart MacRae, composer

Regarding the use of the terms ‘culture’, ‘creativity’ and ‘the arts’: surely there are clear distinctions? I think it’s partly the treatment of such terms as synonymous that leads to an either/or mentality in discussions about the arts and particularly their funding.


Michael Morris, Professor of Philosophy, University of Sussex

The argument for democracy in politics is not that it leads to things being done better, but that it’s part of the goal of politics that everyone should be a part of it. Similarly, there’s no reason to think democracy in art will lead to better art; and it’s not obviously a goal of art itself that everyone should be a part of it – even if that’s something we all might want for other (most obviously political) reasons. What this piece presents is a political goal presented as an artistic goal. The problem is that that then begins to look like a rather sinister politics, even, since it drills art, of all things, into conformity with politics.


Eva Moreda Rodriguez, Lecturer in Music, University of Glasgow

The work we are talking about – grassroots, created by professionals and non-professionals together, often in communities rather than on main stages and in recognised venues – largely takes place outside the funded mainstream. Allowing everyone to join in, not simply as audiences and consumers, but as active participants, as creators, will result in a far greater array of work to engage with.

How is this non-mainstream, I wonder? Every orchestra, opera, museum, writers’ centre etc. etc. in the country has a thousand outreach programmes where children and adults can “do” things for themselves.


Ian Pace, pianist and musicologist

Our commitment to “excellence and quality” as defined by mainstream, metropolitan-based thinking many decades ago, might need to shift to a new version of “excellence and quality”, one defined by a new generation of makers and creators – and this time from every part of society.

If Duffy was saying that arts funding and decision making are too centralised, and more of this needs to be devolved to the regions, I could absolutely agree. But it doesn’t sound like this is what is at stake? 

If we want cultural democracy, genuine culture for all, elitism must make way for creativity and community-led culture. We need to offer everyone not only access to the products of creativity, but access to the means and processes of creativity – only then will we have an inclusive culture for, by and with all.

This is uncomfortably close to the view associated with advocates of Hausmusik, the Jugendbewegung, and so on – and their disdain for educated or professionalised cultural activity. In that context it was linked to a virulent anti-semitism, with education and professionalisation in the arts associated with Jewish people. There is no sign of any such racial ideology here, but one should be wary of viewing ‘community’ as necessarily a wholly benevolent or benign thing. Communities are frequently defined as much by who they exclude as who they include; appeals to ‘community’ and rejection of ‘experts’ are the bread-and-butter of populist politics. The debate about competing forces of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft never gained the same traction in the English-speaking world, to my knowledge, as it did amongst Germans ever since Ferdinand Tönnies framed the dichotomy in his 1887 book (even though it was taken up by US sociologist Talcott Parsons). For obvious reasons, this debate became more urgent in Germany in the twentieth century, but I believe it is relevant more widely.

I certainly believe art has, and should have, a social dimension, but this is by no means necessarily synonymous with its simply attempting to satisfy and second-guess the supposed desires of particular ‘communities’. On the contrary, I believe it is vital that there can also be a critical art, which can deal with uncomfortable and unsettling phenomena, represent non-populist and minority perspectives, and look beyond the existing world (and existing societies) towards what might be, not just what has been. A space needs to be made for this in ways which are unlikely through the vagaries of the market, or for that matter through some types of community art projects.

The principle of facilitating art, especially the type of art I describe above, through money garnered through taxation and redistributed through public spending – via arts organisations administered by those with a regular day-to-day engagement with artistic activity, with politicians keeping some distance, is a good one, I believe, certainly better than relying on wholly undemocratic sources of private capital. Imposing narrow communitarian ends upon it is very limiting; art is not just a means for producing social harmony. The question of who gets to do the administering is a difficult one, and certainly it can lead to entrenched power, favoritism, and the like. Some mechanisms for periodic democratic review of funding decisions is necessary, and that does entail some oversight by politicians, who are at least subject to a democratic vote. But I believe this can be managed so as to be as fair and equitable as any rival systems.

Already there are many stipulations on arts funding, to do with access, outreach, education projects, demonstrating community benefit, and the like. I worry very much that decisions are being made on anything but the nature of the art being produced. Duffy’s proposals are very vague – for example, who selects which ‘makers and creators’ get to be the new aesthetic arbitrators? – if well-meaning. But I fear they would make this situation even worse. Placing populist stipulations upon artistic activity, as a condition of its being funded or otherwise supported, has a poor history associated with despotic regimes, mostly in order to marginalise and silence minority voices.


Camden Reeves, composer, Professor of Music, University of Manchester

‘I think people should create whatever they want to create. I think people should listen to, or go to, whatever they want to listen to or go to. I think people should read whatever they want to read. We don’t have to like what they all do. But I don’t really want any of us to tell artists what to do. That’s the fun of it: freedom.

Anyway, the only way to influence art is through art. If she wants to change culture, she needs to do that through her work. From what I know of Duffy’s work, she has every reason to have faith that it can do that.


Frances Wilson, who blogs as The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Today it seems to me that “excellence”, “achievement” and “inclusivity” are equated with commercial returns. It’s no longer “art for art’s sake” but whether the art (which has become “the product” is commercially viable. Will it create revenue, bums on seats, income. As I see it, this is the primary reason why arts subjects are being sidelined in education – they are not sufficiently “commercial” and do not bring obvious “returns”. Creativity is regarded as a dilettante activity because it does not necessarily produce visible, concrete commercial returns.

To be perfectly frank I want to stop having to read articles like this written by people who exist in a precious Uber middle class intellectually elite bubble and who exert their own view of what constitutes “culture” on the rest of us. In my romantic cultural utopia art galleries, theatres and concert halls are welcoming and open to all, not places that are guarded by the “educated” or intellectually elite (and I know plenty of people who’d like to keep them like that = exclusive). Many “ordinary people” do not engage with “culture” because they feel people like the author of the article do not think they are sufficiently “qualified” to engage with that culture.


Marc Yeats, composer

Choice. Everyone needs to have the widest possible choice when making decisions about what art and culture they enjoy and appreciate. Choice enables people’s participation in, and creation of art to develop across a lifetime.

For many, cultural choices are increasingly defined by what they are given. More precisely, what they are exposed to from an early age and throughout their lives through advertising, the media, fashion, block-buster films and various forms of music, for example. All too often, these experiences are guided by commercial considerations. In the case of music (and many other cultural outputs), there is a strong financial value backing the saturation of these perceived iconic forms of culture – it is all around us and product-placed in exactly the same way as a washing powder, new car or ‘can’t live without’ gadget. We are brainwashed into believing these products make our lives better, enhance our kudos or sexiness and most of all, represent our ‘relevance’ in modern society to the degree that the products ‘speak’ of whom we are and what we aspire to be. This is easiest to see where music is placed with products to enhance their value and where ultimately, the music having become recognisable through repeated exposure in advertising (or appropriation from elsewhere because of its recognisable qualities) can call to mind the product even when the product is no longer present – the music has taken on the marketed values that the product was deemed to possess. So it is with various strains of culture we are exposed to. It is easy to believe that in experiencing these cultural products and deciding which ones we need, we are exercising some kind of choice. It is true we are exercising a choice, but it is extremely limited and often belies a corporate ideology that is driven by profit. By its very nature of ‘flooding’ the market, this ‘profit motive’ drives out everything else. We end up having no choice at all, or rather, only the choices those who manipulate the cultural markets allow us to take through their forms of familiarisation.

It is easy for those who consume such culture to place a strong value on it, to invest in it, and of course, the marketing that envelops such cultural outputs easily becomes a self fulfilling prophecy inasmuch as the more people invest, the more they believe the product to be of a good quality, as we all get pulled into the market value system. And these cultures amass huge numbers of devotees, too, bringing further strength to the argument that it must be a good product because so many have invested in it. We end up with the scenario that we know what we like and we like what we know. When this reasoning becomes the new ideology to rationalise and give quality to a product, or in the case of this article, arts and culture, we are in a very dangerous position, not least because all objectivity is lost, replaced solely by the weight of financial investment, numbers and populism.

I’m not for one moment saying that all popular culture is not of quality, as that is blatantly untrue; but to assume, as in this article, that a new definition of quality needs to be established purely around many people having had a good time with an art experience, sets my alarm bells start ringing. And they ring even louder when this new definition of quality is accompanied by the rhetoric around ‘elitist art’ and ‘metropolitan based thinking’ which (exclusively) supports this ‘other’ non-popular art, being taken out of the picture completely, their perceived power base and value system destroyed and their work shown for the hollow, self indulgent sham it obviously is.

At the back of all this there is something fascist emerging – a compulsion to dictate, justified through mass appeal, what good art is, and how appallingly irrelevant elite art (whatever that is), has become, that it should be reappraised, downcast and even (as a sub text) seen as something filthy that represents everything that’s wrong with society’s pernicious divisions. It most certainly shouldn’t be supported with public money, as it doesn’t represent the people! Let’s put elite artists in the bin along with ‘experts’, but hang on to our beloved elite athletes, as they are loved by millions.

Change ‘elite’ for ‘minority’, and you can see where I’m heading.

Access, learning and participation in the arts are, I believe, an essential, life-enriching entitlement for everyone that should be accessible across a lifetime. Such opportunities are not just about fun (although it is a great starting point), but also about stimulating further interest, inquisitiveness, understanding, reaching out, challenging, gaining a context of your own culture set among others, development and aspiration. Most of all, participation and access, not least arts education in schools, is about exposing students to an informed and supported wide-ranging variety of cultural outputs that following explanation and discussion, ultimately equip individuals with the discernment and tools to make up their own minds about what holds value for them. Being able to contrast and compare empowers people to make the very choices I’m so keen on; choices that fewer children and adults are able to exercise with each passing year.

Yes, let’s absolutely acknowledge the areas of exclusion that exist across the arts and do everything we can to make them inclusive. However, you cannot achieve true inclusion or true choice through a pro-active agenda to exclude minority (non-populist) arts.

All people are capable of being creative, but not all creativity will lead to great art unless all criteria, discernment and objectivity is lost and ALL creativity equals great art. This article appears to suggest that a ‘democratic’, popular realignment of values will ultimately lead to everything becoming great because everyone enjoys it and says it is such.

Consequently, nothing will have any value at all.


Here are some further responses since the blog was originally posted:

Rose Dodd, composer

Stella Duffy writes a considered article on the current cultural landscape in the UK, as she sees it, from her area of activity. From my perspective ‘creativity and community-led culture’ has already made great inroads into places where elitism used to preside like an archaic old great uncle presiding like a boring, overbearing and outmoded oaf at the dinner table. Things have moved on. The UK is increasingly diverse and represented increasingly well in all areas of community arts practice to more specialist, niche artistic endeavour, including music. It is perhaps utopian to dream of a world where ‘all ages’ are engaged in further developing our cultural landscape. With inflationary pressures many are scraping just enough money to put bread on the proverbial table, while the few busy themselves in creative endeavour. Stella Duffy’s article outlines just one view of utopia; utopia being sought should surely be applauded by us all, in this dismal political climate. The Guardian could commission a series following on from this, expressing many views drawn from our contemporary cultural landscape, opening a proper conversation on the arts, shining as a hopeful beacon into the future. I for one, would advocate an overhaul of GCSE Music curricula, as these lessons are where music is first encountered in any formal sense to so many children. If the Music curriculum at this level were more relevant at this tantalising moment in a child’s life, there would be greater potential impact. There is so much to talk about in this vast sea of cultural exchange, (as is evidenced by the brilliant and strong opinions as initial replies/comments), Stella Duffy’s article is a solid beginning.


Max Erwin, PhD student, music, University of Leeds

If this article is dangerous, it’s not because it portends a sort of beer hall putsch of people who do pitch class set theory or whatever; it’s because it clothes itself in this particularly rarified language of condescension (although I believe this accusation has now been flung at the objections to it as well). Rephrased, the real threat of this article is not to the arts, but to the effectiveness of left-wing causes. There’s a sort of neoliberal hangover that media like The Guardian (and, in America, The New Yorker, the NYT, etc etc) have never really recovered from, this thinking that culture is at once popular, direct, monolithic, necessary, and emancipatory, that Stephen Fry and J. K. Rowling are important voices and thinkfluencers. Under this mode of thought, culture is not something that is participated in but rather hoisted upon the people, Adorno-and-Horkheimer-style. This is the thinking that allows liberals to chide Corbyn for quoting Shelley, as if a quip from Wonder Woman would somehow connect better: the idea that there’s one mass culture, that zeitgeist is a zero-sum game.

Frankly, I’m concerned that both the article and the responses to it are perhaps a bit wide of the mark. Brexit and Trump didn’t show that culture is elitist, they showed that there is no culture in the singular. Beyoncé’s support of Clinton was no less effective than Ferneyhough’s. The desire for “more people to engage with the arts” is itself the problem. It’s a blinkered transactional view: you read some Dickens, you gain x amount of empathy points; you binge Doctor Who, you’re plugged into the cultural mainframe. If arts and/or culture are truly worthwhile (and, you know, jury’s still out I guess), surely that worth is not best served by practitioners doing the sort of “outreach” done by knockoff-Rolex salesmen. If engagement is desired, it is served not through outreach, but economic reforms that restore the free time to the workweek of lower and middle class workers – artists and academics among them – that current deregulation and austerity has obliterated. Art and culture will always be there, the issue is creating a society where the enjoyment of life and all that comes with it is maintained to a degree that enables people to, as Camden put it, “listen to, or go to, whatever they want to listen to or go to.


Frances M. Lynch, singer and composer

It makes my heart sink to think of this – far from being a fashion, quality and skill are the backbone, the essence of arts going back through the mists of time – without it we face a future of mediocrity not of new and innovative ideas – as someone who rarely performs or writes these days for the so called elite I can see that everyone just knows and feels that quality when they experience it – regardless of background or education – without necessarily knowing why they know it (not always aligned with liking it…..)


Sasha Valeri Millwood, musician & musicologist; doctoral researcher, University of Glasgow

Arnold Schoenberg, in his essay ‘New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea’, argues “if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.”. This chiasmus is an apposite corrective to those who claim that art could be an universal means of communication and engagement — even language cannot achieve that! There are as many interpretations of a work as there are interpreters; therefore, to speak, as Duffy does, of “culture by and for all”, is naïve at best and doctrinaire at worst (others have already commented eloquently on the political repression with which such paradigms have been associated). No society consists of a single, immutable “culture” (nor has any such society ever existed, notwithstanding the claims of some xenophobes), and a society which did consist thereof would not be a desirable outcome. Duffy’s rhetoric of “ecology”, and her argument that “some parts must die for new ones to thrive”, alludes to the natural environment. If one were to take that allusion further, one would observe that a thriving “ecology” in nature, rather than being a monoculture, consists of a variety of species (and indeed sub-species) which are, to various degrees, interdependent. Correspondingly, then, it would be the height of vanity and folly to require (whether through force or through funding pressures) all artistic endeavour to be conducted according to a fixed set of precepts and values, no matter how well intentioned.

Therefore, I find Duffy’s call for re-evaluating the criteria for “excellence and quality” to be suspect. Her conception appears (although does not claim explicitly) to be grounded in measuring the quantity of people directly engaged in the making of a work of art. Yet, it is possible for such direct engagement to be superficial; equally, it is possible for less direct forms of engagement to be profound, locupletative experiences. Leaving aside the issues of evaluating the quality of direct or indirect engagement, the fact remains that the impact of artistic endeavour is unamenable to quantitative measurements, and no amount of so-called “smart” technology, tracking, and surveillance will alter this fundamentally. Consequently, any attempt to implement a criterion such as, to quote Heile’s interpretation of Duffy’s article, “that which involves or pleases the greatest number of people” would end up becoming “that which can be measured by some objective, albeit potentially crude and unrepresentative, means as appearing to involve or appearing to please the greatest number of people in a demographic that matters, ostensibly at least, to policy-makers”. In reality, this latter criterion is already far too influential.

Whilst I dissent from Duffy’s conception of artistic excellence in terms of popular appeal, I am not against her suggestion that “We need to offer everyone not only access to the products of creativity, but access to the means and processes of creativity”. However, to suggest that only so-called “community-led culture” can achieve this would be myopic. One has to distinguish between socio-economic “elitism” and artistic rigour, the latter of which depends on elite training (which, inevitably and necessarily, is an expensive and time-consuming process). As Morris observes, Duffy has conflated political and artistic goals. So-called “accessibility” is often touted as a solution, yet what is really needed from creators and audiences alike is patience, a virtue which is all too scarce in a modern consumerist society which has moulded people to demand instant gratification and, as Yeats so eloquently explains, disenfranchised them from making meaningful choices. To create meaningful art (whether in an amateur or professional capacity) in most mediums or traditions depends on the protracted cultivation and development of intellectual and vocational faculties; similarly, connoisseurship of a given artistic tradition (or subset thereof) depends on a long-term education in the precepts, works, and contexts thereof. Thus, art can never be wholly “accessible”, for, to engage therewith (at any level, and from any perspective) requires some effort (however minimal or unconscious). That effort can be facilitated by others — for example, through research, teaching, and the mitigation of arbitrary impediments (determining which impediments are arbitrary may be a subjective matter in some cases) — but cannot be shirked. Ultimately, artistic endeavour is a process of striving, and one which rarely yields complete satisfaction. As the pianist Cyril Smith suggests in his autobiography, “even with eight hours’ practise [sic] a day, few pianists are able to achieve more than ten consecutive seconds of absolutely perfect playing a year


Michael Morse, musicologist

1. If we are not engaging everyone in the creation of culture .. then the culture we are sharing and consuming is not that of our whole society

Two mistaken assumptions for the price of one here. Who says that culture, never mind “the”culture, singular, should be for “our whole society” in the first place? It is ridiculous on its face to believe that adolescent dance music shouldn’t be different than Catholic church music and night club jazz and 19thc. Concert music. We are a diverse population, and diverse society; attempting to create a single culture for all of it all the time denies that truth at best, and forcibly and unjustly suppresses it at worst. Second, the division of labour between professional artists and audience members has been vital to culture of all kinds for centuries now. That professionalism has been seen to interfere with the cultivation of amateur, “do it yourself cultures,” and is usually just anti-intellectual snobbish masquerading as populism when it does. But the advent of computer tools has made this problem virtually disappear. If someone is really dissatisfied with the music of Mozart or Thelonious Monk, or feels their own genius somehow oppressed by the accomplishments of Titian or Paul Klee, there are dozens and hundreds of programs that offer a short circuit to self-expression, and offer a quick way around the years of dedication and hard work that go into great art; if that’s what we want. Again, even if it is, there is a perfectly adequate solution in place, and one that does not call for any state support whatsoever. Thus:

2. “a move away from culture by and for an elite, however well meaning, to culture by and for all” is dishonest and wrong. The contrast of “elite”and “by and for all” is a specious contrast that rests on deliberately misformulated opinion. Especially thanks to the internet, where the literature, art, architecture, music, film, and television of the entire world is available to us all, the notion that culture could be confined to an elite is preposterous. By now, “culture”is for anyone who cares to explore its possibilities in their own lives. Cultural gatekeeper is not a job with any security or fringe benefits!

3. “The work we are talking about – grassroots, created by professionals and non-professionals together, often in communities rather than on main stages and in recognised venues – largely takes place outside the funded mainstream. Allowing everyone to join in, not simply as audiences and consumers, but as active participants, as creators, will result in a far greater array of work to engage with.”
The obvious rejoinder to the first statement is to restore and expand arts education funding. The time for universal creative activity and expression is in childhood. Countless studies now show that artistic activity among the young sharpens their minds and enhances their performance even in the skills that matter, to this society, so much more than mere art, the playground of life. Science and math scores are raised when student learn art and music. The statement’s mandate could be further enhanced by expanding adult art education, too. The second statement is purely speculative. It does not tell us what “a far greater array” entails or looks like, or in particular what is missing from the presently available range of options. Would we all be better off with artworks from our neighbours than from professional artists? Even if we agree for the sake of argument that we might, there would have to be some kind of evidence for the claim. Unsurprisingly, this document offers none–because there is none.

4. “We desperately need to bring everyone into the cultural ecology, not for audience development (though that’s a happy by-product) but as artist development.” As above; the desperation here is pure fiction, based on misguided populist ideology, not on anyone’s artistic experience.

5. “If we want cultural democracy, genuine culture for all, elitism must make way for creativity and community-led culture. We need to offer everyone not only access to the products of creativity, but access to the means and processes of creativity – only then will we have an inclusive culture for, by and with all.” A final resounding statement of the author’s ill-informed prejudices, and one that at last reveals the problem, still unadmitted. Elitism” means the cultural products of the past, handed down to us from eras in which the artistic division of labour was indeed sharp. Even though most of Mozart’s patrons could have played his simpler pieces, and even his harder ones with a bit of practice, and even though Frederick the Great was a better than decent composer for his beloved flute, the classes of professional artist, of patrons, and of audiences were distinct. We no longer feel that way about ourselves and each other, nor do we live that way. To love the music of Haydn is not to embrace the feudal absolutism of his era, nor its gender roles or racism, either. Neither is it an admission that our own creativity is deficient. Haydn and Picasso and Sonia Delaunay and John Coltrane are not threats to our personal autonomy, they are role models and consolations. To demand they be replaced by my shiftless brother-in-law (or yours) is mean-spirited and callous, not democratic. Matthew Arnold believed that the mission of culture was to become a beacon for all, that all of us must have access to and education for the richest possibilities of the human palette. Expanding that palette does not mean a new exclusivity based on destroying our history.


Nigel Simeone, writer, musicologist, author, teacher

The author of this article ends by saying: “We need to offer everyone not only access to the products of creativity, but access to the means and processes of creativity – only then will we have an inclusive culture for, by and with all.” In terms of music, at least, I’d like to know what she thinks the “access to the means” is if it isn’t the acquisition of the relevant and necessary skills to perform/create music. And this has absolutely nothing to do with the “metropolitan-based thinking” or “elitism” who have become a handy scapegoat for more or less anybody encouraging the pursuit of excellence wherever and whenever and however it is possible. As someone who taught in secondary state schools for 10 years, then in universities for 15 years, and now – very happily – in an inner-city state school in Leicester, my current teaching has nothing whatsoever to do with any metropolitan elite and everything to do with trying to blow young people’s minds with the wonders of music – and to give them as many ways as possible of participating in that. What does that mean on a practical level? Exposure to all sorts of music they don’t already know themselves. And we use everything from plainsong to Gamelan (we are very lucky to have a Gamelan on long-term loan to my school), from Dufay to Miles Davis, from Elgar to Earth, Wind and Fire, from Janacek to the Jackson 5. With a composing task for students in, especially, Years 7-9, the idea is to aim for a creative response that aspires to some kind of artistry, discrimination, even subtlety. And if you have expectations of that, and the students know this, then it is perfectly possible to have entire classes who can produce interesting, surprising and sometimes beautiful work. I’m talking here about mixed ability groups of 11-13 year-olds as well as A-level students. Any teacher is going to want to share some of the things they love themselves – that’s not elitist: quite the reverse as the aim is to inspire and excite as many young people as possible about something about which the teacher is passionate. And they respond brilliantly to something out of the ordinary. Last week we had a visit from a young opera singer at the RAM and three classes of 11-12 year-old went berserk with enthusiasm in response to arias by Handel, Mozart, Verdi and (especially) Puccini. Exposing them to this kind of thing has a lasting impact on a significant number of our students – as does participating in performances of a wide range of music. How do we make that accessible? Well, where necessary, by teaching enough basic notation for students to be able to perform what they want to perform. That can be done quickly, it can be done for all, and it gives them wonderful opportunities to explore music of all sorts. I hope Stella Duffy understands that this sort of thing is going on, on a daily basis, and that it enables young people from mostly working-class families and a wonderfully diverse ethnic background (at the last count we had 64 first languages in our student population – not a Tower of Babel, but something to celebrate.


Below is a follow-up comment by Eva Moreda Rodriguez relating to an earlier article on the Fun Palace (Stella Duffy, ‘Fun Palaces 2015: realising the excellence of local communities, The Guardian, February 19, 2015)

My response above was based on the Guardian article from 30th June. My main issue with it was that it lacked detail and clarity around such loaded concepts as “community”, “creativity” and “culture”, among others, and by contributing to Ian’s original post and the ensuing Twitter conversation I was hoping to get more clarification around such concepts. However, having done some online research on Fun Palaces (which I don’t have any doubt is a fantastic initiative from which thousands of people derive enjoyment and reward), I came across the following article, which I find more problematic rather than it simply being conceptually unclear. Some of my issues with this article echo some of the opinions of my colleagues above, so I won’t repeat them again. I’d just like to add the following two things:

The expert simply reinforces the idea that the artist is other. The local person, on the other hand – perhaps not well-known or known at all, but expertly and compellingly enthusiastic – is a role-model who says: “I am from here, I am like you and that means you can do this too.” The local enthusiast, rather than the flown-in expert, underlines the possibility that we can all be creative.

The paragraph above strongly implies that “the expert” and “the local person” exist in opposition. I fail to understand why we cannot have both. Having grown up in a relatively small town with few opportunities to access high culture, I felt enormously inspired when a professional performer, novelist or scholar visited the town and played a concert or gave a talk. They showed to me what sorts of things were possible in the realms of music/writing/scholarship beyond what I had access to through, say, local amateur music groups or the local weekly magazine. Of course the latter two were tremendously valuable as well in terms of encouraging me and others to engage in creative pursuits on a day-to-day basis.

We believe that there’s a serious problem with the concept of excellence as it is currently used in arts subsidy. The excellence of artistic quality can only ever be a subjective value.

There is no acknowledgement here that measurements of “the excellence of artistic quality” can go beyond “I like this, you like that”. This certainly tends to be the case in contexts such as funding decisions or academic training. In my own teaching of music history, discussions often start with an open dialogue along the lines of “I like this, you like that”, but this is normally an invitation to dig deeper: why do I like this? When I say that I like or dislike something, which criteria matter to me? And if someone disagrees with me – can I ascertain and understand which criteria matter to them, and maybe try to look at the work again from their point of view? If I learn more about the genesis of this piece of music, does this change my opinion of it? The aim is not just academic discussion for the sake of it, but hopefully to encourage students to engage with music and art they might not have considered before, and to have a genuinely open mind towards others who might have different opinions. If we want all sectors of society to engage in art, culture and creativity, we should not just should empower them to “do”, but also to “think”. To do the former but not the latter is, to me, reminiscent of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism.