Last week I went to two art exhibitions. Paul Graham at the Whitechapel and George Shaw at the Baltic.
Looking at Graham's photos of The Great North Road and the Beyond Caring series I was suddenly aware of myself as a part of history. It was that same history that I saw captured in George Shaw's enamel painted pictures of the Coventry council estate he grew up on. Post-war, working class, largely impoverished people and places. Yet imbued by the artists with a quality that moved beyond the documentary to reflect the dignity and integrity of these people and their lives.
It was often about detail. In the carefully folded napkins of the two waitresses in the service station, the back of a neatly tied headscarf in a dole office queue that said everything about my mother. Working class, widowed young, totally aspirational for her children but driven by a need to feed and clothe them that sometimes meant her own dignity was only realised in the care she might take over those small things. It was in the contrast between the box-like anonymity of a '50's council house and the exhuberant blossoming of the pink cherry tree in the garden. Or the early '60s tower blocks that still had woods with winding leaf-covered paths and dark ponds to be explored in them.
A New Zealand friend, looking at Shaw's Stations of the Cross, told me how "thankful" she was she hadn't had to grow up in such a depressing place. I wasn't sure if she was more shocked to learn that I had or that it hadn't been so awful. In considering why that might have been I realised that not only did we have those woods to wander in but we also had great local libraries, art galleries with David Hockneys, Roundhay Park Concerts, the Grand Theatre putting on productions like the National's Royal Hunt of the Sun. When we were teenagers there were classes at the Art School on a Saturday morning and a Civic Theatre where we could stage our own plays. When I went to Newcastle to study English I had poet Tony Harrison as my tutor, encouraging me by writing, "more power to your elbow lass" on the bottom of one of my better essays. We had arts, culture and education. And it was all for free.
Over the last few days I've been working on the Foreword to a booklet on Measuring the Social Impact of the Arts.It's been impossible not to think about those two exhibitions while reviewing the research, of which there's an awful lot about at the moment. It seems, according to these academic researchers (1), that it is totally impossible to make any meaningful claims about the arts making our society a better place to live in. As soon as you try, you find yourself caught up with complicated diatribes about the relative merits of "intrinsic" and instrumental" (whether they're of value in themselves or because of the effect they can have on people). Or get yourself embroiled in convoluted conversations about what you might even mean by the words. Arts and culture that is.
I don't want to dismiss the importance of debate. Whether it's Plato's dismissal of poets as a dangerous influence in society or Minira Mirza's claim that community arts leads to a culture of mediocrity, (2) I have an opinion to offer. But it seems to me, in the current political, economic and social climate, arguing the finer details of cultural policy might not be the best use of our energies. Maybe we could more usefully put them into thinking of ways the arts might engage with how we've ended up with a society where the differentials between the top 1% and the rest are greater than at any other time in history?A society where the most vulnerable are the target of cuts on public services, education, the national health, legal aid. A society where there is an increasing shift to the right and a growing intolerance of immigrants, people on disability allowances and the "undeserving" poor. A society where all the opportunities I had as a working class girl in Leeds are being wiped out and, " a growing part of the population is culturally and creatively disenfranchised." (3)
Most of us working in the arts accept that they are not innately good and that it's hard to measure their value in purely monetary terms. We know it's ridiculous to imagine they can ameliorate society's ills by themselves. But does that mean the only alternative is to go along with Mirza's "culture vultures" (4) and spend even more time (and money) proving that they can never really effect social change.Does it mean we should also resign our role as interrogators of the status quo? Forget we once thought we could be the voice of provocation and dissent? Celebrate the fact that the National Theatre's ability to shrug off the recession and "plan for growth" has made the Business Pages of the Independent, or fall in line with Tracey Emin's vociferous support for Tory cuts and the buying power of the wealthy?
Or - maybe, just maybe, we could trust to our instincts that the arts do have the power to be transformative, to honour the dignity of people's lives, to challenge what is being done to them in the name of economic necessity and to work with them to stand up and fight. And then, perhaps, like Joan Littlewood and Ewan McCall or George Orwell in the '30s, we could just see where that leads us?
Chrissie Tiller runs her own consultancy
1. 'Social Impact of the Arts', Belfiore and Bennett, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
2. Culture Vultures: is UK arts policy damaging the arts? Ed. Mirza. Policy Exchange 2006
3. Culture and Class John Holden Counterpoint 2010
4. 'Culture Vultures: is UK arts policy damaging the arts?' Ed. Mirza., Policy Exchange, 2006