Entering an old debate
So at the moment I am ingratiating myself with the current debates and discussions around arts and climate change. Those in this field or familiar with it will be aware of the RSA Arts and Ecology work that has taken place over the last few years, and we have been considering on how to build on this and to help further the debate.
The other night the Green Alliance held their summer reception at the Royal Opera House their deliberately provocative topic for the evening was ‘What have the arts ever done for the environment?’ And following a fantastic excerpt from the Opera Group’s Seven Angels about a neglected garden to fix the arts in our minds, the debate ensued under the chairing of Alison Tickell from Julie’s Bicycle amongst a largely arty panel of Jude Kelly, Matthew Taylor, Dr David Frame, Ben Todd and Peter Randall-Page. The thing that got me was how the debate reverted to type around the ‘instrumental vs intrinsic’ debate. Artists should not be instrumental it was claimed to much nodding and agreement. The arts as a moral compass? That’s an abhorrent idea. Yet the plot thickened later on with declarations such as ‘I don’t like it that artists shouldn’t be allowed to show works that have a moral view’ and ‘artists should not be afraid to make you think (about) how you live your lives, what is necessary’.
Why can’t both instrumental and intrinsic qualities be valued together or indeed separately in and of themselves at different times? Where is the space for artists to decide? Why is there a homogenous view of artists and what art should be? Audiences are hugely varied, they can cope.
The idea that we should stop cutting down rainforests because of their inherent value is absolutely valid but not cutting them down because they could contain the cure for cancer is important too. Why the need for either, or? Perhaps it is because the inherent value gets lost somewhere within the messaging if it becomes all about the message. But then where do you draw the line between say, an artist, an illustrator, a graphic designer or a creative communications professional. Creativity is so very blurry.
The debate is picked up head on in the John Knell paper ‘Arts funding, Austerity and the Big Society’. It asserts that the case for the arts needs to be re-made and in doing so that instrumentalism needs to be reinvented. Knell argues that ‘the so-called arts for arts sake plea – is a form of instrumentalism and that understanding the deeper value of the arts is better advanced by envisioning a spectrum of instrumental arguments that can be made, rather than a polarity in which one pole always trumps the other’.
This brings us to the ‘value’ word. In the same paper, Bill Ivey talks about a need for a new set of research metrics that link the public’s contact with a vibrant arts scene to overall quality of life – with the long term result that the health of our cultural, healthcare and transport systems are considered of equal value by policy makers. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium is paving the way on this front with its recent intrinsic impact study that investigates a range of reactions an audience member may have to a specific performance or visual experience such as ‘captivation, intellectual stimulation, emotional resilience, spiritual value, aesthetic growth and social bonding’. I’m looking forward to reading this in more detail as the next step for climate change art has to be exploring impact, so we can better articulate value in this context for policy makers and provide ways to better engage the public with this work. Don’t you think?