I am writing this piece during what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based academics over and above the issue of pensions: to do with casualisation and marketisation in academia, the growth of bloated layers of management and dehumanising treatment of academics, the precarious conditions facing early career researchers (ECRs), widespread bullying, and systemic discrimination against female academics, those from minority groups, and so on. Not least amongst the frustrations are those about various metrics employed to judge ‘performance’ relating to the government Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)), and new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
In this blog post, I will outline a short history of the RAE/REF with relevant links, and collect together recent comments about it and suggestions for alternatives. For most of this (except a few places), I will attempt to outline the arguments of others (including my own expressed online) on either side, rather than try to unpack and critique them – this blog is undoubtedly a ‘survey text’ in the sense often dismissed by REF assessors, though hopefully should serve some useful purpose nonetheless! In an academic spirit, I would welcome all comments, however critical (so long as focused on the issues and not personalised towards any people mentioned), and will happily correct anything found to be erroneous, add extra links, and so on. Anyone wishing to make suggestions in these respects should either post in the comments section below, or e-mail me at the addy given at the top of this page.
One of the most important pieces of sustained writing on the RAE and REF is Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF (London: Sage, 2014), a highly critical book which carefully presents a large amount of information on its history. I draw extensively upon this for this blog, as well as the articles by Bence and Oppenheim, and Jump on the Evolution of the REF, listed below. A range of primary documents can be found online, provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its counterparts in the rest of the UK, on RAE 1992, RAE 1996, RAE 2001, RAE 2008, and REF 2014. These are essential resources for all scholars investigating the subject, though obviously represent the perspectives of those administering the system. Equally important are Lord Nicholas Stern’s 2016 review of the REF, and the 2017 key policy decisions on REF 2021, made following consultation.
There are many other journalistic and scholarly articles on the REF and its predecessors. Amongst the most important of these would be the following:
Michael Shattock, UGC and the Management of British Universities (Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, 1994).
Valerie Bence and Charles Oppenheim, ‘The Evolution of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise: Publications, Performance and Perceptions‘, Journal of Educational Administration and History 37/2 (2005), pp. 137-55.
Donald Gillies, ‘How Should Research be Organised? An Alternative to the UK Research Assessment Exercise’, in Leemon McHenry, Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Thought of Nicholas Maxwell (Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag, 2009), pp. 147-68.
Zoë Corbyn, ‘It’s evolution, not revolution for REF’, THES, 24 September 2009.
John F. Allen, ‘Opinion: Research and how to promote it in a university’, Future Medicinal Chemistry 2/1 (2009).
Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney, ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – how good is the UK’s research?’, Higher Education Policy Institute, 25 March 2010.
Ben R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the ‘impact agenda’: are we creating a Frankenstein monster?’, Research Evaluation 20/3 (1 September 2011), pp. 247-54.
Dorothy Bishop, ‘An Alternative to REF 2014?’, Bishopblog, 26 January 2013.
University and College Union, ‘The Research Excellence Framework (REF): UCU Survey Report’, October 2013.
Paul Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), 17 October 2013.
Peter Scott, ‘Why research assessment is out of control‘, The Guardian, 4 November 2013.
John F. Allen, ‘Research Assessment and REF’ (2014).
Teresa Penfield, Matthew J. Baker, Rosa Scoble, Michael C. Wykes, ‘Assessment, evaluations, and definitions of research impact: A review’, Research Evaluation 23/1 (January 2014), pp. 21-32.
Derek Sayer, ‘Problems with Peer Review for the REF‘, Council for the Defence of British Universities, 21 November 2014.
‘Telling stories’, Nature 518/7538 (11 February 2015).
Paul Jump, ‘Can the research excellence framework run on metrics?’, THES, 18 June 2015.
HEFCE (chaired James Wilsdon), ‘The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management’, 8 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘The metric tide: an agenda for responsible indicators in research’, The Guardian, 9 July 2015.
Paul Jump, ‘Is the REF worth a quarter of a billion pounds?’, THES, 14 July 2015.
J.R. Shackleton and Philip Booth, ‘Abolishing the Research Excellence Framework’, Institute of Economic Affairs, 23 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘In defence of the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 27 July 2015.
Alex Jones and Andrew Kemp, ‘Why is so much research dodgy? Blame the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 17 October 2016.
James C. Conroy and Richard Smith, ‘The Ethics of Research Excellence’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 51/4 (2017), pp. 693-708.
A Short History of the RAE and REF to 2014
There were six rounds of the RAE, in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, with the gaps between each becoming progressively larger. The REF has run just once to date, in 2014, with the next round scheduled for 2021.
The first ‘research selectivity exercise’ in 1986 was administered by the University Grants Committee (UGC), an organisation created after the end of World War One. As noted by Bence and Oppenheim, there was a longer history of the development of Performance Indicators (PIs) in higher education through various metrics, but definitions were unclear, so this exercise was viewed as an attempt to convert other indicators into a clear PI, which it was thought would add efficiency and accountability to university funding through a competitive process, in line with other aspects of the Thatcher government’s policies.
The 1986 exercise involved just the traditional universities, and only influenced a small proportion of funding. It consisted of a four-part questionnaire on research income, expenditure, planning priorities and output. Assessment was divided between roughly 70 subject categories known as Units of Assessment (UoAs). There were wider criticisms of the 1986 exercise, to do with differing standards between subjects, unclear assessment criteria, and lack of transparency of assessors and an appeals mechanism. As such it was much criticised by academics, and reformed for 1989, in which ‘informed peer review’ was introduced for assessment, following wide consultation. This year, a grading system from 1 to 5 was also introduced based upon national and international criteria, 152 UoAs were used, sub-committees were expanded, and details of two publications per member of staff submitted were required, as well as information on research students, external income and plans. It was used to allocate a greater proportion of funding. There were still many criticism, to do with the system favouring large departments, a lack of clear verification of accuracy of submissions, and late planning causing difficulties for institutions preparing their submission strategies.
Other important changes affecting higher education took place during this early period of the RAE, including the abolition of tenure by the Thatcher government in 1988, then the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act , which abolished the university/polytechnic distinction, so that the latter institutions could apply for university status, and then be included in the RAE. The Act also established four funding councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to replace the UGC, and made research funding allocated entirely on a selective basis, replacing previous systems of funding based upon student numbers. There had been no formula funding for research in polytechnics, so the new system radically altered the balance, allowing them to compete openly with the more traditional institutions for such funding.
RAE 1992 then brought major new changes, with institutions able to select which ‘research active’ staff to put forward, a longer timescale allowed for research in the arts and humanities, improved auditing processes, and reduced assessment down to 72 UoAs. 192 institutions participated, covering over 43,000 full-time equivalent researchers. Practically all university research funding from this point was determined by the exercise, based upon a quality rating, the number of research-active staff, amount of research income and some consideration of future planned activity. Departments which were given an assessment of 1 or 2 would not receive any funding. The result was that the older universities received 91% of the available funding, new (post-1992) universities 7% and colleges 2%. 67% of departments were ranked 1, 2 or 3. This led to objections that the system was biased in favour of the older and larger universities, which had supplied many of the panelists for certain UoAs. Some results were challenged in court, and a judge noted a need for greater transparency.
Changes for RAE 1996 involved the submission of four publications for selected research-active staff, and stiffer requirements on a cut-off date for outputs being placed in the public domain. Rating 3 was divided into 3a and 3b, and an extra 5* rating introduced, while each panel was required to make clear their criteria for assessment. 60 subject panels, with chairs appointed by the funding councils on the basis of recommendations of previous chairs, and other panel members selected on the basis of nominations from various learned societies or subject associations. These considered 69 UoAs on the basis of peer review. This was also the first RAE which allowed performance submissions for musicians (see below), which was encompassed in the following definition of ‘research’ provided by the funding councils:
‘Research’ for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship*; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials, components and processes, eg for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques.
* Scholarship embraces a spectrum of activities including the development of teaching material; the latter is excluded from the RAE.
One of the major problems encountered had to do with academics moving to other institutions just before the final date, so those institutions could submit their outputs, as well as early concerns about the power invested in managers to declare members of staff ‘research-inactive’ and not submit them. Furthermore, it was found that outcomes were biased towards departments with members on assessment panels. Once again, no funding was granted to departments graded 1 or 2. This time, however, 43% of departments were ranked 4, 5 or 5*, a rise of 10% since 1992.
The changes to RAE 2001 involved panels consulting a number of non-UK-based experts in their field to review work which had already been assigned top grades. Sub-panels were created, but there were also five large ‘Umbrella Groups’ created, in Medical and Biological Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; Social Sciences; Area Studies and Languages; and Humanities and Arts. Some new measures also acknowledged early career researchers, some on career breaks, and other circumstances, and a new category was created for staff who had transferred, who could be submitted by both institutions, though only the later one would receive the resulting research funding. Expanded feedback was provided, and electronic publications permitted, though different UoAs employed different criteria in terms of the significance of place of publication and peer-review. 65% of departments were now ranked 4, 5 or 5*. 55% of staff in 5 and 5* departments were submitted, compared to 23% in 1992 and 31% in 1996.
The Roberts review of 2002 expressed concern about how the whole exercise could be undermined by ‘game-playing’, as institutions were learning to do. Furthermore, there were concerns about the administration costs of the system. A process was set in place, announced by Gordon Brown, to replace the existing RAE (after the 2008 exercise) with a simpler metrics-based system. As detailed at length in Sayer, despite major consultations involving many important parts of the UK academic establishment, an initial report and proposals of this type were quickly changed to a two-track model of metrics and peer review, then the whole plan was almost completely abandoned.
RAE 2008 itself had fewer major changes. Amongst these were a renewed set of assessment criteria, especially as affected applied, practice-based and interdisciplinary research, a two-tiered panel structure, with sub-panels undertaking the detailed assessment and making recommendations to main panels, who made broader decisions and produced a ‘quality profile’ for a department, in place of the older seven-point system. Individual outputs were now given one of five possible rankings:
4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence
2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment
By 2008-9 (before the results of RAE 2008 took effect) about 90% of funding went to just 38 universities, but from 2009 48 institutions shared this amount (after 15. As Adams and Gurney have noted, the weighting of the 2008 exercise meant that the difference between obtaining 2* and 3* was greater than that between 3* and 4*, or between the previously 4 to 5 or 5 to 5* rankings. 54% of 2008 submissions were ranked either 3* or 4*, 87% 2*, 3* or 4*.
The plans for post-2008 exercises were finally published in September 2009 by HEFCE, indicating a new name, the REF, but otherwise the system was much less different to those which preceded it than had been assumed. Now the ranking was to be based upon three components: ”output quality’ at 60%, ‘impact’ at 25%, and ‘environment’ at 15% (later revised to 65%, 20% and 15% respectively). Outputs were to be assessed as before, though for sciences, citation data would informed various panels. ‘Environment’ was assessed on the basis of research income, number of postgraduate research students, and completion rates. But the most significant new measure was ‘impact’, reflecting the desires of the then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson for universities to become more responsive to students, viewed as customers, and industry, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Each department was to submit a general statement on ‘impact’ as a whole, and could submit between 2 and 7 impact ‘case studies’, depending upon the number of research-active staff submitted to the REF. This was a huge shift, and restricted to impact which could be observed during the cycle between exercises, and derived from research produced when the academic in question was already at the submitting institution.
Other changes including a major shift in the number of UoAs and sub-panels to 30, and just four main assessment panels. One single sub-panel would assess outputs, environment and impact. However, the same number of experts were involved as before.
Since REF 2014, the Stern Report has informed significant changes to the system, in part intended to avoid the potential for gaming. Following further consultations, it has been announced that a minimum of one output and a maximum of seven from each member of a department will be submitted. Further measures have been introduced to ensure that most short form text-based submissions must be ‘Open Access’, available freely to all, which generates its own set of issues. Further plans for REF 2028 indicate that this will also apply to long form submissions such as monographs; the situation for creative practice outputs currently appears not to have changed, but this situation may be modified. HEFCE was abolished at the end of March 2018, and replaced in England by the new Office for Students (OfS) and Research England, the actions of which remain to be seen.
The RAE and REF have caused huge amounts of resentment and anger amongst academics, and produced sweeping changes to the nature of academic work as a whole. Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, architect of the first RAE (interviewed in Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’) argued against many of the subsequent developments, and with every reform to the system, institutions would put greater pressure on individuals, especially those in junior positions, leading to some of the awful cases of chronic stress, mental illness and bullying which have been detailed recently on social media.. Many report that REF submissions constitute the only research valued by their institutions. A Head of Department (HoD) or other REF supervisor who achieved a high REF scoring could expect to win favour and further promotion from their management; in practice, this often meant cajoling and bullying of already-overworked staff with threats and intimidation about whether they would maintain their job, and and little favour of support shown to those who might not produce the right number of 3* or 4* outputs. Those dealing with mental health issues, trying to balance impossible teaching and administrative workloads (all fuelled by the Mandelsonian idea of the student-as-consumer) and research demands with major care commitments for children or the elderly, were often driven to breakdowns or to quit academia; some cases of this are documented below. Academics ceased, in the eyes of many managements, to be human beings towards whom they had a duty of care as their employers, but merely as potential cash cows, to be dispensed with if there was any pause in this function.
Gaming of the system continued in many forms from RAE 1992 onwards. Many institutions would award 0.2 FTE or short-term contracts in the run-up to the RAE/REF, so that institutions could profit from particular individuals’ outputs (not least ECRs who might have a monograph and were desperate for any employment record on their CVs). All of this could mean that rankings were unrepresentative of the research carried on by the majority of a department’s full-time, permanent staff. Research projects taking more than 6-7 years were greatly disadvantaged, or at least those embarked on them would still have to produce four other world-leading outputs in during a RAE/REF cycle, in many institutions, sometimes in order to retain a position at all. Callous HoDs or other REF managers could dismiss some work which had occupied academics for years (whilst maintaining hefty teaching and administration workloads) as merely 2*, on the grounds of its being ‘journalistic’ (often it was relatively readable), a ‘survey text’ (if it drew upon a wide range of existing scholarly literature), or the like, often with crushing impacts on the academics concerned.
The period of the RAE’s history saw other sweeping changes to Higher Education in the UK. Between 1963 and 1970, numbers of young people attending university had doubled following the Robbins Report, but then remained essentially static until the late 1980s, when over a decade numbers rose from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997 (see Ann-Marie Bathmaker, ‘The Expansion of Higher Education: Consideration of Control, Funding and Quality’, in Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton, Education Studies: Essential Issues (London: Sage, 2003), pp. 169-89). Since then numbers participating have continually risen, to a peak of 49% in 2011. This was an unrepresentative year, the last before the introduction of trebled tuition fees, which were a disincentive for students to take a gap year, followed by a concomitant dip of 6% (to 43%) in 2012, then a further rise to 49% in 2015, exceeding the pre-2011 peak of 46%, thus confounding (at least to date) those who predicted that increased fees would lead to decreased participation.
Sayer points out that there are few equivalents for the REF elsewhere in the world and none in North American or Europe. Furthermore, few have sought to emulate this system. Some of those cited below argue that most of the known alternatives (including those which preceded the introduction of the RAE) may be worse, others (including myself) cannot accept that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. I would further maintain that the human cost of the REF should not only be unacceptable, but illegal, and that only a zero tolerance policy, with criminal charges if necessary (even for the most senior members of management) could stop this. Dignity at work is as important in this context as any other, and little of that is currently on display in UK academia.
Creative Practice and Non-Text-Based Outputs
An issue of especial relevance to those engaged in performing-arts-based academic disciplines such as music, theatre, or dance (and in many cases also creative or other forms of writing, the visual arts, and so on) is that of outputs submitted to the REF in the form of creative practice. By this I mean specifically outputs in the form of practice (i.e. practice-as-research), as opposed to those simply documenting or critically analysing one’s own or others’ practice. I have previously blogged extensively on this subject, following the publication of a widely read article by John Croft (‘Composition is not Research’, TEMPO 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11) and replies from me (‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, TEMPO 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70 ) and from Camden Reeves (‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’, Tempo70/275 (January 2016), pp. 50-59), and a subsequent public debate on the subject. Amongst the issues raised, some of them familiar from wider debates on practice-as-research which are referenced in my own article, were whether creative practice on its own can stand as research without requiring additional written documentation (not least the now-familiar 300-word statements which can be regarded as deemed essential by the REF, as I argue in response to a claim made by Miguel Mera in that debate), whether creative work which most resembles ‘science’ is regarded as more ‘research-like’, an implicit claim unpacked by Reeves (as one colleague put it to me, ‘if it has wires going into it, it’s more like research’), with all this implies in terms of (gendered) views of STEM versus the humanities, or whether certain types of output are privileged for being more ‘text-like’ than others (scores versus recordings, for example) and thus some practitioners are at an advantage compared to others (here I give some figures on the relative proportions of composers and performers in different types of music departments). Attitudes to the latter vary hugely between institutions: at least one Russell Group department was happy to award a chair to a performer whose research output consists almost exclusively of performances and recordings, mostly as part of groups, while at others, especially those without strong representation of the performing arts amongst managements, such outputs are hardly valued at all and are unlikely to be submitted to the REF, nor win promotion for those who produce them.
Another issue is that of parity between creative practice outputs and other types. Many creative practitioners will never have had to submit their work to anything like peer review in the manner known for articles and monographs, and questions arise as to, for example, what number or type of compositions or recordings, visual art works or dance performances should be viewed as equivalent to the production of a monograph, when assessing promotion and the like? Music departments in which half or more of the faculty is made up of practitioners (usually composers) may have limited experience of peer review, or for that matter of wider academic debates and discourses, and some might argue that they are able to get ahead in their professions with considerably less time and effort than their equivalents who produce more traditional outputs. This is, I believe, a very real problem, which then maps onto questions of the significantly different requirements for producing different types of creative practice outputs, and needs serious consideration if there is to be any semblance of fairness within such academic departments.
Sayer also notes how many works in the humanities gain impact over an extended period of time, giving works of Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault and Benedict Anderson as examples, and also notes how many can remain intensely relevant and widely cited long after publication, in distinction to a science-based model of cumulative and rapidly-advancing knowledge, whereby a certain passage of time leads to some outputs being viewed as outdated.
Over the last few days, various academics have been commenting on the REF, mostly on Twitter. I attempt to collect the most important of these here.
One of the first important threads came from geographer Julia Cupples (@juliecupples79). In this thread, she called the fundamental status of REF classifications ‘ludicrous’, argued how problematic it would be to direct research exclusively for REF and elite British academics, called the demands of ‘originality’ for a single publication ‘masculinist and colonial’, argued that female authors and those from ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage, not least because of less likelihood of citation. The ranking of junior colleagues by senior ones was labelled ‘one of the most toxic mechanisms in place in the neoliberal academy’, making a mockery of most other means of achieving equality, and so that the REF works against attempts to ‘dismantle discrimination, build collegiality, prevent academic bullying, and decolonize our campuses’. This thread was widely tweeted and praised, inducing others to share similar stories, with Cupples responding that the REF is ‘a means to discipline, humiliate and produce anxiety’. Not all agreed, with Germanist Michael Gratzke (@prof_gratzke) arguing that the peer review element for arts and humanities was a good thing, and that as the scheme would not disappear, one needed to deal with it reasonably. More respondents were sympathetic, however. Urban Studies Professor Hendrik Wagenaar (@spiritofwilson) cited the REF as a cause of ‘the demeaning command-and-control management style that has infected UK universities, and the creation of the soulless apparatchiks that rise up through the ranks to take every ounce of pleasure out of research and writing’, and how it prevents ‘a climate of psychological safety, trust, mutual respect, and togetherness; a place where it is safe to take risks’. Molly Dragiewicz (@MollyDragiewicz) asked whether metrification fetishises ‘engagement’, though a different view was taken by Spanish musicologist and novelist Eva Moreda Rodriguez (@TheDrRodriguez), in response to some queries of my own to Cupples. Cupples had said that it would be ‘deeply problematic if we started writing for REF and a panel of elite British academics rather than for our research communities’, to which I asked about the definition of a ‘research community’ and why they should be exempt from external scrutiny and issues of parity with other (sub-)disciplines, also pointing out that both the Chicago School of Economics or some groups of racial theorists would have fitted this category. Cupples maintained that such communities were not groups of academics, but Moreda asked in return how ‘we avoid academic work being judged on the basis of whether it reinforces& confirms the basic tenets & prejudices of said research community?’, as well as whether such community engagement was already covered through impact assessment?
Around the same time, drama lecturer Kate Beswick (@ElfinKate) blogged on ‘REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way’. Whilst accepting the need for assessment of academic research, she noted how layers of bureaucracy were created to game the system, the growth of internal practice REFs, the pressure to produce outputs simply to satisfy the REF rather than for any other value, and the new pressures which will follow implementation of open access policies. This, argued Beswick, would force scholars to find ‘REF compliant’ publishers, which would compromise academic objectivity, rigour, reach and international credibility. However, she did not suggest any alternative system.
However, the first major thread in defence of the REF came from historian David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress). Andress argued that the RAE/REF enabled quality research funding to go to post-1992 institutions, that every alternative had worse biases, and that the distributive mechanism was so wide that it could almost be called ‘a relic of socialism’, concluding with the confident claim that ‘If you get rid of it, you will definitely get something worse’. This was sure to produce many responses. Clinical psychologist Richard Bentall (@RichardBentall), who was a panelist in 2008 and 2014, argued that the process was ‘conducted with absolute fairness and integrity’, but the problem was with the interpretation of it by universities (a point which many others would also evoke in other threads). Bentall noted how his own former institution gave an edict telling no researcher to publish 2* papers, which constitute 80% of world science, so that the REF ‘has become an end in itself’. I myself responded that many places have concluded that research is of no value unless beneficial to the REF, also raising the question (about which I am most definitely in two minds) as to whether we need to accept that some institutions need to be focused on teaching rather than research, rather than all scrambling over a sum of government money which is unlikely to increase. Some subsequent interactions have however made me rethink this. I also noted how some assessors have little knowledge of anything beyond their own narrow and underdeveloped fields, but which nonetheless are felt necessary to be represented on panels, noted (as would many others) how a similar process is not used in many other countries, and was sceptical about any ‘better than any conceivable alternative’ argument. Andress responded that he was not saying that, but that better alternatives which can be conceived cannot be easily put into effect, and also that, in light of the expansion of the sector, ‘RAE/REF is on the positive side of the ledger’, and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. In a series of tweets, I also expressed some questions about whether all aspects of the expansion had been positive, without corresponding increases in the level of secondary education, which can have a net levelling effect when the Oxbridge/Russell Group model is applied to institutions with very different types of student bodies, from this arguing that REF was a part of a process which pretended there were not major differences between institutions, and causes huge pressures for academics at institutions where the teaching demands are higher for students with less inclination towards independent study. These are highly contentious arguments, I realise, which I want to throw out for consideration rather than defend to the last.
Moreda also responded to Andress, taking a medium view. In a thread, she acknowledged the potential of the REF for management to use to bully academics and the inordinate use of resources, but noted that it had enabled her to gain an academic position in the UK, which would otherwise have been very difficult without an Oxbridge pedigree, having a foreign accent, with little teaching experience at that point, and so on. However, she did also temper this by noting that the ability to produce REFable publications relied upon her being ‘able-bodied and without caring duties’, and that a continued discourse was required in order to consider how to accommodate others.
I asked REF defenders whether REF panellists ever read more than a few pages of a monograph, because of the time available, or listened carefully to audible outputs (rather than reading the 300-word statements which can act as spin)? Moreda responded by framing the issues as whether the REF or equivalent can ever be free of corruption, and whether such a system needs to exist at all. She was ambivalent about both questions, but also disliked the implied view of some REF-opponents that ‘research shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny or accountability’. Whilst agreeing on this latter point, I argued that REF does not really account for parity between disciplines and sub-disciplines, some with vast differences of time and effort (especially where archival or fieldwork are involved) required for producing an equivalent output. I proposed that no output should receive 3* or 4* where authors ignore relevant literature in other languages, and that the standards of some journals should be scrutinised more. Moreda essentially agreed with the need for wider factors to be taken into account, whilst (in somewhat rantish tone!) I continued that examiners needed a wide range of expertise across multiple sub-disciplines, and asked how in historical work like hers and mine (I work on music in Nazi and post-war Germany, she works on music in Franco’s Spain and amongst Spanish exiles) how many would know if we were making up or distorting the content of the sources? Knowing of a time when there was a leading REF assessor who could not read music, I asked how they could judge many music-related outputs, and both Moreda and I agreed there could be merit in using non-UK examiners, while I also suggested that a department should be removed from the REF when one of their own faculty members is on a panel, because of the potential for corruption.
Theatre and Performance/Early Modern scholar Andy Kesson (@andykesson) posted a harrowing thread relating to his early career experiences at the 2014 REF, for which his outputs were a monograph and an edited collection. In the lead-up, he was informed that these were ‘”slim pickings” for an ECR submission’, and pushed to get them out early and develop other publications. This came at a time when Kesson’s father died and he was forced to witness his mother in the late stages of a long-term fatal illness. Whilst deeply upset by these experiences, Kesson tried to explain that he would struggle to fulfil these additional publication demands, and was told this work was non-negotiable. After the death of his mother, her own father also became extremely ill, and Kesson was forced to do his work sitting next to his hospital bed. When offered a new job, his previous institution threatened legal action over his ‘slim’ REF submission, leading to a dispute lasting two years. Many were upset to read about the callousness of Kesson’s former institution. Social identity scholar Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro) responded that ‘academics are the most resilient people on earth, who are willing to endure so much yet still believe in their absolute singular importance – only to be told “no, you are wrong” in every aspect of their professional lives’. However, one dissenting voice here and elsewhere was that of Exeter Dean and English Professor Andrew McRae (@McRaeAndrew), who cited Wilsdon’s defence of the REF mentioned earlier, and argued that no QR money would ever be given without state oversight, asking whether a better model than the REF existed? Engineering Professor Tanvir Hussain (@tanvir_h) argued that the problem was with Kesson’s institution’s interpretation of REF rules rather than the rules themselves, a theme which others have taken up, on how the ambiguities of the REF are used as a weapon for favouritism, bullying and the like.
Geographer Tom Slater (@tomslater42), having read many of the worst stories about people’s experiences with the REF, called out those who serve on panels, making the following claims:
A) you are not being collegial
B) you are appallingly arrogant if you think you can offer an evaluation of the work of an entire sub-discipline *that has already been through peer review*
C) you are not doing it because somebody has to
D) you are not showing “leadership”
E) you are contributing to a gargantuan exercise in bringing UK academia into international disrepute
F) you are making academia an even more crappy for women, minorities, critical thinkers, and great teachers
G) if you all stood down, HEFCE would have massive problem
Various people agreed, including in the context of internal pre-REF assessments. Another geographer, Emma Fraser (@Statiscape) suggested simply giving any REF submission a 4*, a suggestion Slater and sociologist Mel Bartley (@melb4886) endorsed, and was made elsewhere by novelist and creative writing lecturer Jenn Ashworth (@jennashworth). Linguistics scholar Liz Morrish (@lizmorrish) was another to focus on the behaviour of individual institutions, maintaining that ‘the
#REF was NEVER intended to be an individual ranking of research. It was intended to give a national picture and be granular only as far as UoA. What you are being asked to do is just HR horning in on another occasion for punishment’. Slater himself also added that ubiquitous terms such as ‘REFable’ or ‘REF returnable’ should be abandoned.
Paul Noordhof (@paulnoordhof) asked in this context ‘Suppose there were no REF, or equivalent, linked to research performance. What would stop the University sector achieving efficiency savings by allowing staff numbers to reduce over time and doubling teaching loads? Especially for some subjects’, but Slater responded that collective action from academics (as opposed to the more common action supporting and promoting the REF) would stop this. Slater also responded directly to McRae’s earlier post, including the statement ‘Careful what you wish for’, by arguing that ‘most would wish for a well funded sector where we don’t have to justify our existence via an imposed, reductive, compromised, artificial assessment system that destroys morale. Careful what you lie down for’.
Italian social scientist Giulia Piccolino (@Juliet_p83), responding to my retweeting of Slater’s original thread, called herself ‘the last defender of the REF’, which she felt to be ‘a bad system but the least bad system I can imagine’, a similar position to that of Andress. In response, I suggested that a better system might involve the submission of no more than two outputs from any department, allowing much more time to be spent on peer review. Piccolino noted that in other countries where she had worked, appointments depended simply on one’s PhD supervisor (a point she also made in response to Cupples), that scholars stop researching after receiving a permanent job (but still try and control junior figures) (something I have observed in some UK institutions), and so argued that while the REF could could be improved and humanised, it seemed a break on arbitrary power as encountered elsewhere. Piccolino’s returned elsewhere to her theme of how the transparency and accountability of the REF were an improvement on more corruptible systems, with which many UK academics were unfamiliar.
The debates with McRae continued, after his response to Cupples, in which he called the REF ‘an easy target’ and suggested that its demise would leave academics reliant on grants (a view endorsed wholeheartedly by Piccolino), claimed that many would prefer to replace peer-review with metrics, and that impact produced some important activity. Legal academic Catherine Jenkins (@CathyJenkins101) asked if things were so bad before the introduction of the RAE in 1986, to which McRae responded that he did not work in the UK then, but saw the problems of an Australian system in which publications in ‘a low-achievement environment’ in which many had not published for years, did not help a younger academic get a job. Modern Languages scholar Claire Launchbury (@launchburycla) argued that the modern Australian system (despite, not because of, its own ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ (ERA) system for research evaluation) was practically unrecognisable in these terms. In response to a query from Marketing lecturer Alexander Gunz (@AlexanderGunz) relating to the lack of a REF equivalent in North America, McRae responded that that system was radically different, lacking much central funding, but where ‘state institutions are vulnerable to the whims of their respective govts, so in that respect greater visibility/measurability of performance might help’. Cupples herself responded to McRae that ‘The vast majority of universities in the world have no REF (and neither did British universities not so long ago) and yet research gets done and good work gets published’. Historical sociologist Eric R. Lybeck (@EricRoyalLybeck), a specialist in universities, echoed the view of Swinnerton-Dyer in hearkening back to the ‘light touch’ of the first RAE, which ‘would be an improvement’, and also argued against open access, saying this ‘distorts and changes academic practices’.
Film lecturer Becca Harrison (@BeccaEHarrison) posted her first REF thread, detailing her disillusion with UK academia as a result of the system, noting that she was told when interviewing for her first post-PhD job that her research ‘had to be world leading’ (4*) in order to get an entry-level job, and feeling that even this might amount to nothing because ‘there are 100 ECRs with 4* work who need my job’. This led her to support calls to boycott preparations for the REF as part of continuing industrial action. Another thread detailed common objections to the REF, then in a third thread, Harrison detailed her experiences with depression and anxiety attacks during her PhD, leading to hair loss and stress-induced finger blisters making it impossible to type, as well as early experiences with a poorly-paid teaching fellowship together with a non-HE job to pay bills, working 18 hour days in order to produce a monograph and endlessly apply for jobs. In her first full-time job, Harrison encountered bullying, misogyny from students, a massive workload and obsessiveness about production of 4* outputs. This did not lead to a permanent contract, but a new job offer came with huge requirements just for grade 6/7. She rightly said ‘please, people implementing REF, people on hiring committees, please know that this is what you’re doing to us – and that when we’ve done all this and the system calls us ‘junior’ and treats us like we don’t know what we’re doing we will get annoyed’.
Some further questions were raised by several on the new rules on open access, for example from Politics scholar Sherrill Stroschein (@sstroschein2), who argued that this would ‘just make book writers produce best work outside of REF’. But this important debate was somewhat separate from the wider question of the value of the REF, and what system might best replace it, which I decided to raise more directly in a new thread. There were a range of responses: musicologist Mark Berry (@boulezian) argued for a move away from a model based upon the natural sciences, and claimed that ‘Huge, collaborative grants encourage institutional corruption: “full economic costing”‘, while Moreda alluded to an article from 2017 about the possibility of a ‘basic research income’ model, whereby everyone had a certain amount allocated each year for research, so long as they could prove a reasonable plan for spending it (David Matthews, ‘Is “universal basic income” a better option than research grants?’, THES, 10 October 2017, though engineer David Birch responded that this would ultimately lead to another system similar to the REF). She saw how this would be insufficient for most STEM research and some in the humanities, but this could then be supplemented by competitive funding, as is already the case. Berry made a similar point to Moreda, also noting how much money would be saved on administration, whilst Cupples also agreed, as did sociologist Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste). Sums of up to around £10K per year were suggested; Burton also added that larger competitive grants should be assigned on a rotating basis, so that those who have had one should be prevented from holding another for some years, to create openings for post-graduate researchers (PGRs) and ECRs. I responded that this might exacerbate a problem already prevalent, whereby time-heavy species of research (involving archives, languages, old manuscripts, etc.) would be deterred because of the time and costs involved; Burton agreed that ‘slow scholarship’ is penalised, especially ethnographic work (this type of point was also made by archaeologist Rachel Pope (@preshitorian), comparing time-intensive archaeological work with ‘opinion pieces’ judged as of similar merit), while Moreda suggested that some ‘sliding scale’ might be applied depending on whether research involves archives and the like, though acknowledged this could result in ‘perverse incentives’.
I also noted that one consequence of Burton’s model would be a decline in the number of research-only academics, but that it would be no bad thing for all to have to do some UG core teaching (with which Cupples agreed). Burton’s response was ambivalent, as some are simply ‘not cut out for teaching in a classroom’, though I suggested similar problems can afflict those required to disseminate research through conferences and papers, to which Burton suggested we also need to value and codify teaching-only tracks for some. Moreda was unsure about the proposal to restrict consecutive grants, especially for collaborative projects, though also suggested that such a model might free up more money for competitive grants. Noting earlier allegations of careerism, etc., Berry argued that one should not second-guess motivations, but there should be space for those who are not careerists, and that it would be helpful for funds to assist with language or analytical skills or other important things.
I asked who might have figures for (i) no. of FTE positions in UK academia at present (to which question I have since found the figure of 138,405 on full-time academic contracts, and 68,465 on part-time academic ones, in 2016-17); (ii) current government spending on research distributed via REF (the figure for 2015-16 was £1.6 billion), and (iii) the administrative costs of REF (for which a HEFCE report gives a figure of £246 million for REF 2014). This latter figure is estimated to represent roughly 2.4% of a total £10.2 billion expenditure on research by UK funding bodies until REF 2021, and is almost four times that spent on RAE 2008. Nonetheless, its removal would not make a significant difference to available research funds. If one considers the ‘basic research income’ model (in the crudest possible form) relative to these figures, an annual expenditure of £1.6 billion would provide £10K per year for 160,000 full-time academics, which would be a very large percentage. if the part-time academics are assumed to average 0.5 contracts.
An arts and humanities scholar who goes by the name of ‘The Underground Academic’ (@Itisallacademic) (hereafter TUA) felt the basic income model would prevent a need to apply for unnecessary large grants, and also expressed personal dislike for collaborative projects, a view which runs contrary to orthodox wisdom, but was backed by Moreda and Berry. I agreed and also questioned the ‘fetishisation of interdisciplinary work’ as well. TUA responded with a pointer to Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), which is a sustained scholar critique of interdisciplinarity, so often assumed to be an unquestionable virtue. Burton also asked that employers and funders value book-based research more, and expressed frustration that her own work on social theory is deemed ‘easy’, to which I added an allusion to a common situation by which reading-intensive work, often involving carefully critical investigation of hundreds of books, can be dismissed as entailing a ‘survey text’.
There were a range of other more diverse responses. Cupples also argued that the New Zealand system, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), whilst imperfect, was ‘a thousand times better than the REF’; Cupples and Eric Pawson authored ‘Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university‘, New Zealand Geographer 68/1 (April 2012), pp. 14-23. Amongst the key differences Cupples outlined were individual submissions, crafting of one’s own narrative, own choice of most suitable panel, own choice of nominated outputs, information on how one did oneself (not available to others), and greater support from departments.
Piccolino returned to her earlier questions about the potential for corruption in non-REF-based academic cultures, and asked ‘which system guarantees that people are hired for being committed, dedicated researchers vs being friends, friends of friends, products of elite institutions etc?’. Following Cupples mention of the PBRF, Piccolino also mentioned the Italian abilitazione nazionale, providing criteria for associate and full professors, but she suggested it was of little effect compared to patronage and the need for compliant researchers. This system was, according to Piccolino, closer to the REF than the German Habilitation. She also drew attention to a scathing article on corruption in Italian academia (Filippomaria Pontani, ‘Come funziona il reclutamento nelle università’, Il post, 11 October 2016).
Social scientist Gurminder K. Bhambra (@GKBhambra) pointed out the intensification of each iteration of the REF, with the current post-Stern version more individualised and pernicious than before. Medievalist James T. Palmer (@j_t_palmer) argued that REF is not the primary means of distributing research funding, because the majority is distributed through competition, though the REF may determine university funding in general (a profound observation whose implications need wider exploration).
Medieval and early modern historian Jo Edge (@DrJoEdge) asked why in a REF context why peer-reviewed book chapters are seen as inferior to journal articles, to which Andress replied that (a) some believe book peer-review is less rigorous, as chapters are pre-selected and reviewed collectively; (b) the chapters will have less impact since less easy to find through the usual search engines (a point which Burton said she had also heard); (c) old-style elitist prejudice.
A sardonic exchange proceeded between three musicians or musicologists : composer Christopher Fox (@fantasticdrfox, himself a REF 2014 panelist), Berry, and me. Fox felt that ‘the current UK research model is counterproductive in the arts’ and that ‘Competition is a useless principle around which to organise our work’. I asked what it would mean to rank the work of leading late-twentieth-century composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and Robin Holloway, or the playing of pianists Aloys Kontarsky and David Tudor, or clarinettists Harry Sparnaay and Armand Angster, as 3* or 4*, especially if non-musicians were involved in the process? Fox also referenced US composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, and as how one can fix criteria which account for the disparities in their aesthetic intentions, while Berry pointed out that Anton von Webern (almost all of whose works are short in duration) would ‘never have been able to “sustain his invention over a longer time-span”‘, alluding to a common criteria for composition. Conversely, I asked if Erik Satie’s Vexations (which consists of two lines of music repeated 840 times), or the music of La Monte Young (much of it very extended in duration) should ‘have been regarded as streets ahead of most others, if submitted to REF?’, in response to which musicologist (French music expert) Caroline Potter (@carolinefrmus), author of several books on Satie, alluded to an upcoming ‘REF-related satire’ which ‘seems like the only sane way to deal with the business’. I asked about whether all of this contributed to a ‘a renewed, and far from necessarily positive, concept of the “university composer” (or “university performer”)’ (terms which have often been viewed negatively, especially in the United States), when academia is one of the few sources of income. Fox felt that this culture encouraged ‘the production of compositions that only have significance within academia’. I also raised the question of whether academics looked down on books which could be read by a wider audience, which Berry argued stemmed from envy on the part of those with poor writing skills.
Independently, cultural historian Catherine Oakley (@cat_oakley) echoed the views of Kesson and Harrison, as regards the impact of REF upon ECRs, who need ‘monograph + peer-reviewed articles’ to get a permanent job, yet start out after their PhDs in ‘precarious teaching posts with little or no paid research time’.
Elsewhere, industrial relations expert Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) advocated boycott of preparations for the REF and TEF. In a series of responses, some asked how this could be done, especially when individuals are asked to submit their own outputs for internal evaluation. Further questions ensued as to whether this might lead to some of the worst (non-striking) academics undertaking the assessment.
Sayer himself (@coastsofbohemia) also contributed to these Twitter exchanges. In a first thread, he alluded to a passage from his book: ‘In a dim and distant past that is not entirely imaginary (and still survives for the shrinking minority of faculty members in N America) research was something that academics undertook as a regular part of their job, like teaching … Universities … expected their staff to publish … and academics expected universities to give them sufficient time to pursue their research … There was no *specific* funding for time for research but … the salary was meant to support and remunerate a staff member’s research as well as his or her teaching … [whereas today] Because the only govt support for universities’ “research infrastructure … and pathbreaking research …” comes through QR funding and QR funding is tied to RAE/REF rankings, any research that scores below a 3* necessarily appears as unfunded. The accomplishment of the RAE/REF … is to have made research *accountable* in the literal sense of turning it into a possible object of monetary calculation. This makes the REF a disciplinary technology in Foucault’s sense … which works above all through the self-policing that is produced by the knowledge that one’s activities are the subject of constant oversight. Both inputs (including, crucially, academics’ time) and outputs (as evaluated by REF panels and monetized by the QR funding formula) can now be *costed.* The corollary is that activities that do not generate revenues, whether in the form of research grants or QR income, may not count in the university’s eyes as research at all.’ In response to a question from me about his feelings on the argument that RAE/REF had helped post-1992 institutions, Sayer argued that there were other alternatives to no funding or REF-based funding, alluding to some of the suggestions in his article on peer review listed earlier. In a further thread, he summarised these arguments: the relative merits of peer review vs. metrics was ‘not the issue’. Sayer asserted that ‘Peer review measures conformity to disciplinary expectations and bibliometrics measure how much a given output has registered on other academics’ horizons’, and that neither of these are a reliable basis for 65% of REF ranking. Instead, he suggested that more weight should be allocated to research environment and resources, research income, conference participation, journal or series editing, professional associations, numbers of research students, public seminars and lectures, all of which are measurable.
Literature and aesthetics scholar Josh Robinson (@JshRbnsn) joined the discussions towards the end of this flurry of activity. Coming into one thread, he noted that internal mock-REF assessments meant ‘that the judgements of powerful colleagues with respect to the relative merits of their own & others scholarship can never be held to account’, since individual scores are not returned to departments, also arguing that this would be exacerbated in REF 2021. In response to McRae, Robinson added his name to those advocating a basic research income, which McRea said would technically be possible, but in practice ‘would redistribute tens of millions per year from RG to post-92 unis. Try that on your VC!’. Robinson’s response was to quote McRae’s tweet and say ‘the manager at a Russell Group insitution shows what he’s actually afraid of.’ But in response to a further statement in which Robinson thought that what his VC ‘would be afraid of would be a generally good thing’, McRae suggested that this might simply lead VCs to make redundancies. Robinson pointed out that an allocation by FTE researcher would provide an incentive to hire more people with time for research. Robinson has indicated that he might be able to make available a recent paper he gave on the REF, which I would gladly post on here.
But Morrish, responding that McRae’s claim that the REF is ‘the price we pay, as a mechanism of accountability’, retorted that ‘the price we pay’ is ‘a) Evidence of mounting stress, sickness and disenchantment among academics REF-audit related; b) Ridiculous and career-limiting expectations of ECRs’.
A few other relevant writings have appeared recently. Socio-Technical Innovation Professor Mark Reed (@profmarkreed) and social scientist Jenn Chubb (@JennChubb) blogged on 22 March calling on academics to ‘Interrogate your reasons for engaging in impact, and whatever they are, let them be YOUR reasons’, referencing a paper published the previous week, ‘The politics of research impact: academic perceptions of the implications for research funding, motivation and quality’, British Politics (2018), pp. 1-17. Key problems identified included choosing research questions in the belief they would generate impact, increased conflicts of interest with beneficiaries who co-fund or support research, the necessity of broadening focus, leading to ‘shallow research’, and more widely the phenomenon of ‘motivational crowding’, by which extrinsic motivations intimidate researchers from other forms, and a sense that impact constitutes further marketisation of HE. Chubb and Richard Watermeyer published an article around this time on ‘Evaluating ‘impact’, in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF): liminality, looseness and new modalities of scholarly distinction’, Studies in Higher Education (2018), though I have not yet had chance to read this. Historian Tim Hitchcock (@TimHitchcock) also detailed his experiences of the RAE/REF from the late 1980s onwards, first at North London Polytechnic. Hitchcock argues that:
I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the ‘old’ universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the ‘new’ universities, was a part of the same strategy. It worked. Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s – or at least became more focussed on research and publication.
Hitchcock goes on to detail his experiences following a move to the University of Hertfordshire after RAE 1996. He notes how hierarchies of position (between Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) became more important than ever, and recruitment was increasingly guided by potential RAE submissions. However, Hitchcock became more disillusioned when he took a position at the University of Sussex after REF 2014, and saw how the system felt ‘more a threat than a promise’ in such places, in which REF strategy was centrally planned. He notes how ‘The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system’, the system was increasingly rigged in favour of ‘old’ universities, and made life increasingly difficult for ECRs, who had to navigate ever-bigger hurdles in order simply to secure a permanent position. Hitchcock concludes that:
Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege – the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the ‘neo-liberal’ university that is the problem; but the ‘neo-liberal’ university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.
He does not write off the potential of the REF to change this, and appears to see the particular ways it is administered and used (and viewed by some in ‘old’ universities) as the problem.
There is more to say about the Thatcherite roots of the RAE, her disdain for the ‘old’ universities, especially after her alma mater, Oxford University, refused in 1985 to award her an honorary doctorate, and what the 1992 act meant in terms of a new vocational emphasis for higher education in general, to which I may return in a subsequent blog post.
It is very clear that the majority of Academic Twitter are deeply critical or bitterly resentful of the RAE/REF, and most believe reform to be necessary. Editorial director of the THES, Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) offered up a poll asking whether people thought the REF and RAE had been positive or negative; the results were 22% and 78% respectively (and further comments, mostly making similar points to the above, followed). The arguments pro and contra, as have emerged over the weekend can be summarised as follows:
Pro: provides some transparent external scrutiny and accountability; enables funding for post-1992 institutions; enables some to find work who would find it impossible in other systems dominated by patronage; is a better model than any other which has been discovered; employs peer-review rather than metrics.
Contra: invests too much power in managers; creates bullying and intimidatory atmosphere at work through REF preparation mechanisms; makes job market even more forbidding for ECRs; highly bureaucratic; very costly; dominates all research; time-consuming; discriminatory; sexist; colonialist; makes few allowances for those with mental health, care, family, or other external commitments; uncollegiate; employs assessors working outside their area of expertise; uses too many UK academics as assessors; marginalises 2* work and book chapters; fetishises collaborative or interdisciplinary work; falsely erases distinctions between institutions; relies on subjective views of assessors; artificially bolsters certain types of creative practice; is not employed in almost any other developed country; employs mechanisms more appropriate that STEM subjects than arts, humanities and social sciences; has increased pressure on academics with every iteration; causes huge stress and sickness amongst academics.
Stern has not been enough, and there is no reason to believe that those making the final decisions have much interest in the welfare of lecturers, or for that matter the creation of the best type of research culture. Major reform, or perhaps a wholly new system, are needed, and both government and the OfS and Research England should listen to the views expressed above. And new employment laws are urgently needed to stop the destruction of academics’ lives which is happening, regularly as a result of the REF.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.