Susan Ashmore argues that the arts do have a role in social inclusion
In her recent essay ?Government and the Value of Culture?, Culture Minister Tessa Jowell championed the notion of art for art?s sake, declaring "the arts should not be shy of being intellectual". So where does this leave the use of the arts within criminal justice, and within the social inclusion sector generally?
Organisations that prioritise art for art?s sake are often viewed as visionary, whilst organisations engaging with the arts as a vehicle for change tend to be seen as less ?artistic?, less ?complex?, or, worse, merely ?worthy?. The arts have always been overloaded with jargon: is it intrinsic or instrumental; is it the process that counts or the outcomes we should be focussing on? I would argue that if there is a defined target audience ? be it young people on reparation orders, adult offenders on community punishment orders or inmates in prison ? then there is a place for all: the real question should be about the value the arts can have to an individual or group, rather than the quality of the finished product.
The notion of ?quality? invariably comes from the top down, and puts burdens on organisations to fit into a predefined notion of what is and isn?t worthwhile. This can be both destructive and prohibitive. When selling their work to key government agencies, beleaguered arts organisations have always found that they are subject to a variety of political agendas. The irony is that for many years we have informed social and artistic policy (and will continue to do so) while, at the same time, being given strict boundaries on how we present our craft.
Whichever government is in power, it will always want to be able to provide ?real? statistics to the public to prove that its system of criminal justice works. This represents yet another barrier to many of the organisations that wish to work within the social inclusion sector. In addition, the methods used to evaluate projects can be clumsy and ill thought-out, because of lack of time and resources.
Despite this, a large and growing number of organisations seek to carry out a diversity of arts work within the criminal justice system. These consist of larger companies that have been working within this field for years and find it easy to adapt their artforms to meet the needs of the audience, and organisations that work purely on the basis of art for art?s sake and may not adapt quite so easily to a shift in the parameters set by the administration of the day. Similarly, there are smaller organic arts groups who find that limitations in their remit may prevent them from working in the field. This can lead to divisions within the sector. Organisations large and small are pitted against each other and may become competitive within their fields. It also prevents the free flow of communication within the sector; if an organisation working in one area becomes aware of a gap in service in another, it may be less likely to share its findings with counterparts.
The government needs to acknowledge that, at times, the arts offer a more effective and cheaper alternative to custody, diversionary work and work in the fields of disability and health to name a few. If we can generate real evidence to demonstrate the benefits of the arts as a vehicle for social change then we can begin to challenge the snobbery and elitism that is intrinsic in some areas of the arts.
I believe the strength and value of the arts within the criminal justice sector is growing. This can be seen as a positive progression with more skill sharing and communication. Therefore, I would say to the Minister that the slogan of the government should be Arts for All, and that wider access and participation in the arts should be a prime objective. That way we can avoid fragmentation and embrace the true essence of partnership and healthy collaboration!
Susan Ashmore is the Chief Executive Officer of The Unit for the Arts and Offenders.
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