Building Capabilities: Rethinking the social value of culture

Today will see the third performance of O Tempo (Somos Nós) , “Time (It’s Us), this time at the Gulbenkian Concert Hall in Lisbon, with the fourth and final one tomorrow. Sixteen inmates from the Leiria Youth Prison will perform in Lisbon, along with some of their relatives; sixteen more will take part remotely, using the Co-Creation Stage technology developed by Vicomtech. Last week, the Gulbenkian Foundation also hosted a conference at which SAMP spoke about the reasons and methods behind their work at the prison, alongside other contributions from TRACTION partners and community projects in Portugal. 

One reason for organising the event was to present some of the new thinking that has come out of TRACTION’s research in co-creation, and specifically about the complex issue of its social impact. The conference was watched live online by over 300 people, and the presentations will be on the Gulbenkian website once they have been interpreted and subtitled. In the meantime, here’s the text of the speech I gave to introduce the discussion, summarise my evolving thinking about the value of participatory art. The photographs on this page are by Gil Lemos, from the first performances of O Tempo (Somos Nós), and are included with thanks to SAMP. 

Is culture good for us?

Is culture good for us? A simple question, on the surface, but one that has troubled philosophers and politicians since the age of Plato, if not before. It also concerns those who create and enjoy culture, which is to say, all of us, because culture is one of humanity’s defining characteristics. There is no human being without culture, just as there is no culture without human beings. Culture is the immensely complex system of symbols by which we create, communicate and understand meaning in our lived experience, and thus build community. This is why Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Anyone who is prevented from participating freely in cultural life is excluded not just from the community but from the human family itself. There have always been those who are willing to define other human beings as somehow less than human: African people during the period of slavery, Jewish people under the Nazi regime, Uighur and Rohingya people today. Social exclusion begins with cultural exclusion.

So the first reason culture is good for us is that it enables us to fulfil our human potential. In expressing our values and identity through culture’s language of signs, rituals, images and performances, we protect our place in the human community. We assert our equality in dignity, if not in resources, capabilities or experience. 

That idea would have been understood by the artists and thinkers of the Classical period, whose legacy still defines European culture. For them, and for most people still, culture is a route for self-fulfilment: that is why it shares etymological roots with the word cultivation. This human work of cultivation adds value to nature. 

So, in this understanding, culture has value because it offers empowering access to what Matthew Arnold described as ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’.  Those words, published in 1869, have become famous, perhaps because they express European confidence in the superiority of its own elite culture at the height of imperial colonialism. 

This high idea of culture as a form of spiritual and sentimental education inspired the construction of great museums, galleries and opera houses during the 19th century, when they were seen as a defence of humanism in the age of industrialisation and booming cities. After the Second World War, a softer version of the same idea persuaded democracies to set culture alongside education, health care, housing and employment as the foundations of public well-being in the welfare state. They called it cultural democratisation.

Cultural democratisation and cultural democracy

This mission, which has been the foundation of cultural policy in Western Europe for over 70 years, sees culture as good because it is a route to civilisation. Like Arnold, our cultural institutions conceive their task as being to provide citizens with access to the best of past and contemporary artistic creation in order that they may fulfil their human potential. 

It is a compelling vision. It has attracted artists, politicians and citizens, as well as philanthropists like Calouste Gulbenkian, whose legacy provides the environment in which we meet today. Under the banner of cultural democratisation, this policy has helped create the scale, quality and variety of cultural provision today, which by any measure is far richer than it was in the 1930s. 

Nevertheless this idea is problematic, because it is so hard to reconcile with the principle of democracy, and with the deeper truth that democracy was invented to manage, which is simply that human beings are immensely different and they do not agree with each other. It takes a 19th century elitist like Matthew Arnold to speak so easily of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’, with the implication that what is best is obvious, unchanging and beyond question, and indeed that the world can be known. Culture may indeed be a vital path towards human flourishing, but since we do not agree on what human flourishing is, how can we expect to agree about how culture might help us get there? 

That challenge to cultural policy was made in the 1960s and 1970s in the name of cultural democracy, by those who argued for a recognition of the diverse and multipolar nature of culture against the paternalism of self-interested experts. The debate between cultural democratisation and cultural democracy continues—indeed it has revived in the past 10 years—but that is not the focus of today’s discussions, because neither concept is actually much concerned with explaining why culture might be good for us. Cultural democracy, which risks succumbing to mere relativism, has not yet offered a coherent or compelling alternative to cultural democratisation’s civilising mission, and remains a potential but unfulfilled alternative in cultural policy.

The Capabilities Approach

That is the question that I, with my colleagues in the Traction consortium, have been grappling with over the past two and half years. The answer we propose is to adapt the Capabilities Approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to the practice of participatory art. Both Sen and Nussbaum use the term ‘approach’ to recognise that human capabilities are evolving and contingent, and there is not (yet) a consensus as to what they should comprise in all polities and cultures.  Still definitions are necessary, and Nussbaum defines capabilities as:

[T]he answers to the question, “What is this person able to do and to be?” 

Nussbaum, p. 20

There are many ways in which access to culture might enhance what someone is able to do and to be, for instance by enabling to develop new skills, gain social capital, extend their knowledge, self-awareness and confidence, among others. These have been conceptualised by Deidre Williams and in my own past work, and those theories remain relevant to the co-created opera trials developed through Traction.

However, the Capabilities Approach provides a stronger theoretical basis for analysis because, as Nussbaum explains, it recognises the social context within which we must act:

[Capabilities] are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.

Nussbaum, p. 20

For Nussbaum, personal capabilities (such as the skills, knowledge or confidence that people may gain through access to culture) are necessary but not sufficient to our flourishing. Unless we live in a socio-political environment that offers the freedoms and opportunities to develop and use those capabilities, we cannot achieve our potential. Women only gained the right to take degrees at Oxford University in 1920; until then (and arguably for many years afterwards) women were structurally excluded from academic and professional life, whatever their personal capabilities.

The Capabilities Approach and social exclusion

Here, the concept of social exclusion, which is central to TRACTION, is critical to understanding the dual dimension of the capabilities approach. Social exclusion may be understood as:

[A] social process within a whole society rather than a way of categorising individuals and groups within that society.

Madanipour et al. p. 11

Many of the people who have participated in the TRACTION opera trials experience social exclusion in varying degrees and ways. Social processes such as poverty, discrimination, geographic distance or disability can contribute to people’s exclusion and therefore their inability to capitalise on their personal capabilities. In looking at the social impact of the Traction projects—in effect in asking whether culture is good for the people involved—we must take account of both aspects and ask not only if and how a person has gained more capability, and but also if and how their socio-political environment has become more inclusive and therefore more empowering for them.

Unfortunately, this is much too large an issue for TRACTION to consider directly for at least two reasons. First, the opera co-creation trials cannot (and do not aim) to solve wider problems that contribute to the social exclusion experienced by many participants. It is simply beyond the power of a cultural project to change a person’s legal status, health condition or geographic isolation. These factors will be noted in the evaluation but there is no expectation that change will be observed in them as a result of participating in community opera. 

Where change can be expected, and identified if it occurs, is in the social structures with which the participants engage directly and closely: the cultural institutions, social services, and public bodies involved in the trial. Thus, it is appropriate to consider how the three cultural organisations leading the trials may have become more open to involving people at risk of social inclusion in their work. In the case of the Leiria prison opera project, which will be presented later today, we need to consider whether it contributes to a greater readiness to use the arts in offender rehabilitation within the Portuguese criminal justice system. 

So Traction needs to answer two connected but distinct questions:

1   Has participation in opera co-creation extended a person’s capability to do and to be what they choose?

2   How far do the social entities within which participants aim to exercise their capabilities enable them to do and to be what they choose?

Is culture good for us? Certainly, if it empowers us by strengthening our capabilities, since that is necessary to fulfilling our human potential. But the positive value of culture cannot compensate for failures or injustices of the political, social, and economic environment that prevent individuals or groups from exercising their capabilities. In the end, the Capabilities approach returns us to an understanding of culture as central to human flourishing, but demonstrates too the structural obstacles that stand in the way. 


  • Arnold, M., 1993, Culture and Anarchy and other writings, ed. S. Collini, Cambridge University Press
  • Madanipour, A., Cars, G. & Allen, J., 1998 Social Exclusion in European Cities: Processes, Experiences and Responses, London: Routledge
  • Matarasso, F. 1997, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, Stroud
  • Nussbaum, M., 2011, Creating Capabilities, Harvard University Press
  • Sen, A., Inequality Re-examined, Oxford University Press.
  • Williams, D., 1995, Creating Social Capital, Community Arts Network of South Australia, Adelaide