Rachel Grunwald flinches every times she hears someone – including herself – use terms such as ‘cultural offer’, ‘digital’ or ‘diversity’. Is it time to rethink the language we use?
Over the past year I’ve become aware of how language can advance or hold back our thinking about the philosophy and politics of the cultural sector. So I challenged myself to find new ways of thinking through new ways of saying, and what follows is an account of three thought experiments.
The first is an exercise in substituting a single word for another, the second traces how figures of speech have helped me break new ground, and the third invites readers to help re-imagine some terms that have run their course.
Starting with a monster term
I start with that monster term: ‘diversity’. It defines against the powerful. It has come to refer to that large group of people who are different from those in positions of authority. In that sense it is actually a collective term for people who are perceived to be weak, a perception uniting people who have otherwise no place being yoked together, whether that is people of colour, older people, people with disabilities or sometimes simply people who happen to be women.
When two people have a conversation about diversity they can be talking about completely different things
Diversity is a nebulous word. A vague, expansive and shady word. When two people have a conversation about diversity they can be talking about completely different things. It means everything and it means nothing. Using it suggests a care for everything, but allows you to do nothing.
This matters. If our language doesn’t seek detail, milestones or a sense of what progress looks like, it is hard to move forwards. And despite a passionate belief in the transcendent nature of art shared by most cultural professionals, it’s clear that inequality and homogeneity are bedding down in our sector.
So, how to move forwards? I made a breakthrough when I substituted the term ‘diverse’ for the phrase ‘representative (or ‘reflective’) of the make-up of the UK’, and the idea of a ‘journey towards diversity’ for ‘a move towards a sector which is properly representative of the groups and identities that make up the country’.
This poses questions. Do you aim to reflect your local community, your city, the country as a whole? Should every cultural activity seek to represent or cater for all groups?
But it means that we can set targets around what an ideal workforce looks like, what programming could look like (this is key), and who audiences might be. Instead of “We aim to be a diverse company,” you could say: “We aim to represent the population of the UK as a whole – specifically this means an equal split of men and women, 20% of artists who self-identify as living with disability, 12% of people born abroad, etc.”
This simple substitution in terminology gives us a benchmark to work from and to hold ourselves accountable to, and frees us to analyse the situation, and trends, more clearly.
Next, I began to think more deeply about reflection. It is often repeated that the arts hold a mirror up to life. Now I worry not that it’s a bad mirror but that it does accurately reflect the world around us. The arts, and by extension our cultural sector, don’t reflect exact proportions of different population groups, but they do provide a pretty true reflection of how these groups are distributed across power structures.
The world around us does not have many black people or women in positions of power. It does not have eastern European voices sharing their rich cultural heritage as equals. It does not have well-integrated disabled and non-disabled schools. It is city-focused, London-centric, and it has wealthier, privately educated people of all races in positions of power well out of whack with that group’s share of the population.
The arts are a true reflection of our wider world. That’s the really tough revelation behind the well-publicised, shocking fact that they’re not representative of demographics.
Reflect or represent
So, adding a distinction between ‘reflect’ and ‘represent’, what we need to do is represent the whole population, but reflect back a picture of how we want the wider world’s power structures to look, rather than a mirror image of the status quo. Surely that’s the role of culture – to assess how we live now and pose questions and alternatives.
Now, how to respond? Once again, words have the answer. I noted above that programming is key when thinking about representation, and there are two metaphors that have helped me in this area.
The first is from Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre: “Southbank Centre re-calibrates what platforms are available for people to tell their stories – people who didn’t even know they had a story to tell because they’d never had a platform. And what to do with the people who’d always thought all the platforms were theirs?”
It seemed to me that the authors were speaking the language of STEM with a fake accent, betraying an embedded sense of inadequacy
For me, the assumptions encapsulated in these statements speak volumes. Everybody has a story. Some stories have historically been repeated more often and more publicly than others. A shift towards new stories may be difficult for those accustomed to telling theirs.
The structure of an arts centre is essentially a set of platforms which are made available by choice to one group over another. Those choices can be consciously changed to ensure greater representation of the range of stories in the wider world. Jude Kelly’s language recognises the power in making choices, demonstrates that no choices are neutral, and that no organisation structures itself by accident.
The next metaphor comes from a producer friend, Jeanette Bain-Burnett, and again addresses the idea of things that seem to happen by accident, or instinctively: “The canon is dangerous. It feels like a lovely place to be but it’s actually an echo chamber.”
People who grew up on the canon may feel that they are flexing their muscles when they opt for something in its farther reaches. They may feel they are being daring or brave by following their instinct instead of overthinking things. But the noise that comes back to you in an echo chamber is only the sound of your own voice, and instinct relates to what we were born with or tastes we developed as young children – it cannot take us outside ourselves.
If the canon has an inside wall that bounces noise back, it follows that it has an outside too. How much of life is outside compared to inside? What and who is on the outside? Whoever they are, they are rarely heard inside the canon. It’s too noisy with the ricocheting voices of the people already in there.
Historically, the people inside have chosen which stories to put on the platforms; the people they invite on to the platforms will not change without the conscious recalibration described above. You don’t get out of the echo chamber by accident. To see who’s outside, the people inside the chamber will have to make a conscious, hard effort to break through the soundproofed walls. Unconscious choices in programming can only recreate the past.
Each individual will find different metaphors that speak to them; these two figures of speech helped me understand the necessity of conscious recalibration, and the magnitude of the effort required to break through historically soundproofed barriers.
Conversely, words can hold us back. I recently read the 2015 Report by the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value. It was brilliant in many ways, but I continually butted up against terms such as superconductor, galvanise, synergies, interlocking sectors and creative–cultural continuum.
It seemed to me that the authors were speaking the language of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with a fake accent, betraying an embedded sense of inadequacy.
In a report about cultural value they undervalued what we have to offer by making our case on somebody else’s terms. This was doubly frustrating because a genius for passionate, inventive and emotional communication is very much at the heart of our sector.
Producing, offering and consuming culture
Further problematic phrases I’ve encountered include ‘cultural offer’, ‘production of culture’ and ‘consumer of culture’. Do we really produce, offer and consume culture?
To produce implies an act of deliberate creation. There’s a specificity and limitation to it: you produce something. And in many instances this is what we do, but in others culture is a process: open-ended, assembling itself, tidal.
I offer new foods to a child. If my toddler were fussy, the books tell me, I should just keep on offering the same dish until eventually (maybe the thirtieth time), the child will accept it. I might make an offer on a property. I might receive an offer of a job. I offer a gift. There’s no parity between the two parties in those examples, and little suggestion of an equal feedback loop.
When I consume something I use it up; when we encounter the word ‘consumer’ it usually means somebody who eats food and turns it into waste, or buys goods produced to enrich distant others.
These phrases do not capture what I, and colleagues in the sector, hope to achieve. Isn’t culture the web of reflections, objects, stories, recipes, sounds, histories, artworks, hopes and relationships that transcend cycles of production, offer and consumption? Even if we can’t articulate this clearly or concisely, surely using the terms above anchors our discourse in an unhelpful, in fact perverse, context.
I don’t believe that words ever completely capture what people are trying to say to each other
Some words are plain old inadequate. Take ‘digital’. It seems strange that we have only one word to describe a fast-growing and multi-faceted field. Here, a paucity of vocabulary is holding us back, acting as a bottleneck to keep out many people who don’t realise that this one little word serves as a front door to an expansive world.
Other words, once very helpful, have been overused to the point of uselessness. I’m thinking specifically of ‘creativity’. The Creative Society. Creative Skillset. Creative and Cultural Skills. Creative and Cultural Industries. Creative People and Places. Creative Scotland. Get Creative! I’m creative! We’re all creative! When you next hear the word, ask what the person using it (even if that’s you) really means. Do we need to say it?
If we wish others to believe in the power of what we can do, we need first to demonstrate that we believe it. This means speaking a language that is uniquely ours – one that allows a passionate, personal voice to shine through, that eschews jargon from other fields, that has a democratic commitment to clarity, and that knows where and how to use poetic or richly descriptive techniques to transport readers and audiences to a new world.
At this point, especially with reference to ‘cultural offer’, I must admit I’m stuck in my thinking. I flinch each time I use or hear these words, but I haven’t yet thought of better ones. In that sense this article is a call to arms. The process of re-imagining our language may be imperfect, it may be open-ended, but that doesn’t excuse us from trying.
What might be better
You might find my own language inadequate for this task; I certainly do. You may not follow me down the avenues my words have opened. But if you too flinch next time you use or hear one of these words, spend a little time asking what might be better. Perhaps together we can deepen our understanding of what our words roughly equate to and hence what we can do to achieve our shared goals.
I don’t believe that words ever completely capture what people are trying to say to each other. Verbal language is inadequate as a form of communication; that’s never more apparent than at a time of loss, when well-meaning people endlessly say the wrong thing. But trying to communicate through words is the human project. It’s our life’s work and it’s what much of art has dealt with throughout recorded history.
If we want to break new ground in thinking we have to acknowledge when our words are inadequate, say “thank you very much for getting us this far” and seek out other words we can use to make the next, flawed step.
Rachel Grunwald was a Clore Fellow 2014/15.
The Clore Leadership Programme is a not-for-profit initiative, aimed at developing and strengthening leadership potential across the cultural and creative sectors, particularly in the UK. It awards its flagship Clore fellowships on an annual basis to exceptional individuals drawn from across the UK and beyond, and runs a choice of programmes tailored to the leadership needs of arts and culture professionals at different stages of their career.
This article is adapted from a provocation paper produced under the aegis of the Clore Leadership Programme.