Thinking about the purpose of conversation

On Thursday evening and Friday morning I spent several hours talking about participatory art with two diverse groups in Berlin. The first were mostly friends from MitOst, a valuable civil society and culture organisation I’ve worked with before; the second were arts managers (the term covers a huge range of roles and practice) from all over the world who’d gathered to share knowledge for a winter school. The sessions were very rewarding and could have gone on much longer, had we not been exhausted. Three hours of concentration will do that to you.

Today, I’m travelling to Oslo to speak at the Nordic Dialogues conference on 2-3 December. My talk is called “Artistic quality and cultural democracy: the importance of creative conversation in a diverse world”. Conversation has been the centre of my whole working life: I could even say it’s been my primary medium. It’s also a fundamental ethical and political value: it’s why I do what I do. Cultural democracy is just a slogan without it. But it’s only recently that I’ve been learning how much better I could have been at it if I had talked less, thought more and listened better. When you have strong beliefs it’s too easy to see dialogue as an exercise in persuasion (and that’s not as far from manipulation as it seems). We talk about ‘winning an argument’. The British political and legal systems are defined as adversarial and the present election shows how unproductive that can be.

I don’t have an answer, or at least not a simple one, but I am interested in how the quality of our conversations can be the outcome we work towards. I’ve said for years that the point of arts evaluation is to improve the quality of the conversations we can have about art, but I’m not sure I had really followed that idea through to its fulfilment. Tomorrow I will argue that it’s impossible to be right about art. Today I’m thinking about how to make that claim in a way that opens rather than closes further conversation.

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