Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

In A Restless Art (the book, not the blog) I argue that participation has become normalised in cultural policy and the art world. I try to show how profound that change has been over the last 50 years, and to explain how it marks the closure of a rift in art that opened in the 18th century. Although it’s a historic and crucial change, it is easily taken for granted. By definition, we tend not to notice what has become normal. But it’s hard to engage with or influence new ideas if you don’t notice the change. You have to step back sometimes and try to see the bigger picture.

Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places (CPP) programme is a case in point. Launched with £37 million in 2013, CPP is based on the belief that ‘everyone has the right to experience and be inspired by art and culture’. The programme operates in 21 areas ‘where involvement in the arts is significantly below the national average’ and its approach to involving people in local art projects, planning and decision-making reflects longstanding community art practice – at least in part. The programme was extended after three years and this summer, Arts Council England announced that it was allocating a further £37 million for a new round of funding between 2018-2022, and reaching out to new areas. In all, it will invest £90 million in CPP over ten years.

The reasons for doing this were set out by Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England and director of Tate for nearly 30 years, at the recent CPP conference. Society needs CPP, he says, for three reasons:

First, because everybody should be able to enjoy the pleasure and the opportunity for personal expression that art and culture offer. […] That’s fair and it’s also necessary for society if we are to do something about our increasingly stagnant social mobility and make better use our use of our talent.

Secondly, many people feel that their voices are not heard; that they have a vote but cannot influence the way that their communities are regarded and resourced. I’m not claiming that participation in a cultural project is the answer to it all. But culture can make a contribution to redressing imbalances of power, when we listen, encourage people to speak, and don’t finish people’s sentences for them. When we recognise that everyone has a voice and give respect.

Thirdly, art and culture can help revitalize our sense of community and place at this time of rapid economic and social change. Culture is what binds humanity together; and it is also what makes us distinct. A sense of a shared and communally owned local culture is important in an age when communal focal points, whether libraries, pubs or places of worship, even shops on the High Street, are disappearing. 

These arguments—which are social and political, not artistic—have been made for fifty years by the community arts movement, and by progressive and radical voices since the  Enlightenment. To me, it is extraordinary to hear them advanced by the head of the country’s principle cultural institution, the citadel that Owen Kelly wanted stormed in 1984. They are at odds with almost any Arts Council speech or policy paper written since the 1950s and anyone who believes in cultural democracy, as I do, should welcome them. Credit where it’s due.

That doesn’t mean that the Arts Council gets everything right, or that Creative People and Places is the answer to all the cultural system’s problems and inequalities. Both are part of much larger ecologies where power is still contested. But unless we notice the change, we cannot influence it. Progressive movements always face choices about when to resist and when to compromise, choices that can become divisive in ways that reaction is adept at exploiting. So now, I just want to appreciate how far we have come and how much has been achieved by so many people, including those working within the art system.

There is much to do to build on this, and especially to achieve greater fairness and justice. There are critical questions to be asked about how CPP is working, so that it does support the change evoked in Serota’s words. There will be arguments about direction, priorities and pace, about values and language, about art: that is cultural democracy. This is no time for complacency, within or beyond the arts. Even so, it’s worth taking amount to recognise how far we’ve come since 1968.

Well, the only chains that we can stand
Are the chains of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Got my hand on the freedom plow
Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
Hold on, (hold on), hold on, (hold on)
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
Hold on, (hold on), hold on, (hold on)

Mavis Staples