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John Holden


When the Berlin Wall came crashing down on 9th November 1989, marked by the significant cultural event (and I am not being ironic) of David Hasselhof singing on the ruins‌


It looked as if a particular brand of free-market liberal capitalism had triumphed. Francis Fukuyama, an American historian said as much in his essay The End of History – and a lot of people believed that humankind had finally found the answers in the Anglo-American economic and political model that puts its faith in the private individual and free markets. Private was better than public, there was no such thing as society, regulation and government were not just unnecessary but bad: well, you know the list.


With nowhere else to go, the only options were either to wallow in nostalgia for a more communal past – as in the film Brassed Off;


or to take your clothes off and join in – as in the The Full Monty. It’s no coincidence that just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a group of young british artists, with the Y, B and A soon to be capitalised, got together to organise a show of their own called Freeze that showed an astonishingly sophisticated awareness of marketing, celebrity and self promotion – the Full Monty on canvas, if you like.


One of those artists, Damien Hirst, went on to make this a piece called For the Love of God. He put it on the market in 2007 with a price tag of £50 million, and looking back even from this short distance it seems to be an iconic work – the pinnacle of uber-free market capitalism, saying to all those Russian oligarchs and Wall street investment bankers, ‘come on, who’s big enough to buy this?’ Yet even though it’s only two years old, For the Love of God is an antique, an object from another age; a symbol of different times and, let’s hope, different values.



Exploring what the new values of this age might be, by looking at four scenarios for the arts and asking what they imply for cultural organisations. These four scenarios are called: Consolation Anger Business as usual and The Earthly Paradise.


Scenario number one is called consolation because it sees the arts as being a kind of balm for the wounds that the recession is inflicting. This view is typified in the words of Yu In-chon the South Korean Minister of Culture. He gave a speech in February this year when he said that "There may seem to be no relation between culture and the economic crisis, but the fundamental way to cope with it comes from culture because it heals people's painful hearts. During these economically difficult times, our lives would be much harsher without culture and art"


And of course he has a point. It’s a well-known fact that in the Great Depression Hollywood thrived by healing painful hearts with a regular diet of dreams and escapism


And people in the film industry are predicting that the same thing will happen again this time around. When the last Bond film, Quantum of Solace was released (and maybe we should pause to think about the prescient significance of that title in this context). When Quantum of Solace was released, Steve Weiner, the boss of the cinema chain Cineworld said “ It’s ideal for forgetting about falling share prices and other real-life gloom. Cinema visits rise in economic downturns.” And he seems to be right. According to the UK Film Council, total cinema box office takings went up from £907 million in 2007, to £950 million in 2008. Last year also saw the highest-grossing film of all time in the UK – Mamma Mia, which is, as I’m sure you know because you probably all went to see it, a classic feel-good movie.


And it’s not just cinemas that are thriving – west end shows are as well. In London, advance ticket sales are at an all-time high, up from £30 million to £50 million. The advance sales for Rowan Atkinson in Oliver are the highest of any show ever. Look at reading as well. If you strip out the distorting effect of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2008 sales of books are slightly higher than the year before, and public library visits have, apparently, significantly increased in the last twelve months. Now, all this might seem like good news, especially as it implies that people are willing to pay for their culture at the box office and in the shops. That should at least help those arts companies who charge for what they provide. But that reaction is, I think, too simplistic. Yes it is good news that people are reading and going to performances and enjoying film, but we should also be aware that art-asconsolation tends to produce a very particular kind of art.


It’s bad features are a tendency towards embracing the familiar; going to see what we know we will enjoy rather than risking money on an experience that may disappoint. And the desire for familiarity extends to the performers as well: even Waiting for Godot can sell out when it stars the sure-fire celebrity performers Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. A friend of mine who runs a concert hall tells me that her ticket sales are stable, but that people are going to see things that are safe: especially if the act on stage is what she calls ‘last chance’ acts – in other words performers who might be making their final tour.


Galleries too seem to be playing safe: the big show at the National Gallery at the moment is Picasso and it doesn’t come much more reassuring than that. All of that suggests an art that is conservative, nostalgic, and undemanding. The trend is reinforced when the commercial and private sponsorship, that in boom times was quite happy to be associated with innovative new work, also retreats into the safety of old masters or disappears altogether. The response of arts organisations and public funders to this state of affairs should be twofold. On the one hand it is right that art can be consolatory – that has always been one of its roles – so this public need in hard times should be catered for. Especially, I think, when consolation takes the form of solidarity – in other words, when people find solace in the social nature of an arts event. Art that makes people realise that they are not alone, that we are all in this together, and that we must find solutions together must surely be a good thing right now. But the other imperative is to safeguard the things that have become less popular or less feasible– minority interests, new art, and innovation. We are very fortunate in this country to be able to go some way towards doing that. In the U.S. where the arts are privately funded the arts are suffering badly.


Which brings me to scenario number two: anger. Historically, one of the most frequent reactions to recessions is anger. Sometimes it’s directionless and nihilistic, thrashing around at anything that happens to be out there. The best example of that that I can think of in fact didn’t happen in a recession, but it’s so good that I will quote it anyway – it’s Marlon Brando in the film Wild One. He’s the leader of a motorbike gang and someone asks him ‘ what are you rebelling against?’ and Brando sneers and says ‘ what have you got?’ Right now, you, me, all of us who constitute the public have got a lot to be angry about: Fred Goodwin’s pension, Douglas Hogg’s moat, Damien Mc Bride’s emails – not to mention the loss of millions of jobs and the destruction of our pensions and savings. It’s a very very long list. But where is the angry response from the arts? Why is there no interest in how this crisis came into being? Where are the coruscating critiques of the banking industry or parliament? Where, for crying out loud, are the songs?


The recession of the mid 1970s produced the Sex Pistols and the Clash, Unemployment in the early 80s gave us the rage of Red Wedge, Rock against Racism, the Beat and Billy Bragg. Yet here we are in 2009 with the rappers sipping Cristal, and the aptly named Lady Gaga as the pop phenomenon of the moment. I’ve no doubt that at some point the angry artistic response will come – and it will be the job of arts organisations to stage it, to provide venues and sites for people to come together, and to defend that angry art when it upsets the powerful vested interests that it attacks. The third scenario I’ve called ‘business as usual’. There is a powerful strand of opinion that just wants this recession to go away so that we can all return to what is called ‘normal.’ This is very much the mainstream political response, from every major party. The government’s answer to the recession has been to encourage us all to get back to consuming goods – by reducing VAT, and by going so far as to subsidise the sale of new cars. They have also encouraged us to borrow more by reducing interest rates so as to make our consumption more ‘affordable’. The fact that it was debt and consumption that got us into this mess in the first place doesn’t seem to make any difference – there has been no shift in the value system that wants more of everything.


The clearest expression of the belief that we are just experiencing a blip – albeit a sizeable blip – in a continuum comes from Lord Mandleson. In a speech at Chatham House last December he said that “These will be watershed years in the way in which our politics thinks about the capitalism that drives our economies.” and then he added “Nobody seriously suggests – or at least nobody serious suggests – that this essential structure in our economies should change.” His words suggest that we are in a sticky patch, but one that we will come out of much as we went into it. And I have to say, I detect in some parts of the arts world a strong desire to return to the old days. Let’s face it – over the last fifteen years the arts have done very well. New infrastructure from lottery money has meant that all over the country we have new galleries, theatres and music venues. There have been increases in regular funding from central and local government; huge jumps in commercial sponsorship and private individual giving – all brilliant developments.


Equally important, the arts have become cool and popular. So wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all just forget about this downturn in corporate sponsorship, batten down the hatches until the funding bodies can get back to increasing grants instead of cutting them, and return to the days when trusts and foundations weren’t agonizing about the value of their endowments? But it’s not going to happen. Whatever the future holds in store, one thing is for sure, it will not be a repetition of the past. If we think that life was ‘normal’ in the last decade and that it will somehow magically reappear, we are in for some very nasty shocks. So the scenario of ‘business as usual’ isn’t going to work. Instead of ‘business as usual’ we need: ‘ get real.’ And getting real in hard times involves, I think, creating financial defences by generating income, reducing costs, building support and making friends and allies. So here’s my list for this scenario: First - more than ever before you need to understand and respect audiences and the public. Their support is crucial, whether we’re talking about the box office, or in terms of political backing. So strive to know what people want, what you can give them, how you can nurture them and surprise them and put something good into their lives. Learn from them. Talk to them. Value them. You never know – the arts might just be able to find a new source of funds from millions of small donations…


like Barak Obama did, instead of relying on a few large corporate or individual donors. Second, prepare for cuts. Figuring out how to do more with less is a good discipline in easy times – in hard times it becomes essential to survival. When politicians demand efficiency increases don’t just groan, think about the dozens of ways in which they can be achieved – whether that’s by sharing back-office functions, dematerializing tickets or whatever. Third, get much smarter at marketing. It still astonishes me how difficult it is to find out what’s going on in the arts. I’m forever finding out about things randomly – on a poster in a library or through a mailing that I happen to open rather than throw away. Either that, or someone tells me about something that I would have liked to have gone to a week after it’s closed. Surely in this age of search engines, the arts companies in any given town or region can get together to provide a live list of events and happenings that is flexible enough to be searched in many different ways? Please, just do it. Fourth, create as many opportunities as possible for free events or experiences. Use livestreaming to enlarge your audiences. This lowers the risk for people, brings them in, and gives you an opportunity to expand your community.


Fifth, at the level of nations and regions, the arts need to get into mainstream broadcast media much more. Mainstream media have significant problems of their own, that were happening well in advance of this recession, and one of their responses has been to cut arts programming. We can’t let that happen, because most people have contact with the arts through those channels. So we’ve got to come up with innovative ways of getting the arts on TV. And finally: use networks. Use your audiences to tell their friends about you; and help them to bring along a parent or a child. Build communities of interest and support. Use the internet, word of mouth, the physical spaces that you control; use other friendly organizations and get out into the streets to create and grow those networks. The more allies you have, the stronger you will be. But remember that when people join networks they invest time and energy, and so they need to be rewarded. Of course, that list demands a lot of work, but recessions are times for rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in, not for hoping that the past will come back. And the way we get stuck in, and the choices that we make, determine our possible futures.


Which brings me onto the final scenario, which I’ve called The Earthly Paradise. It’s a reference to a very long poem by William Morris, a poem that sketches out what a good future would look like. It’s a utopian future that brings together two themes: one is a clean and healthy environment, and the other a kind of democratic creativity, where everyone has innately rewarding work, where the arts and crafts flourish as a natural part of everyday existence. Now, I don’t want to suggest that we can suddenly create Utopia, but I do believe that periods of disruption offer the opportunity to make things better. Yes, recessions can make us feel helpless and battered about by forces that are bigger than we are; but nevertheless we do have choices. We can still take decisions, we can act. And we can not only imagine good futures, we can start to move towards them. I must say, I feel very optimistic when looking forwards, because I think there are deep forces at work that are moving in the right direction – the question is how we recognise and work with these forces.


One of those deep forces, which is enormously important for the arts and culture, is the way that people’s wants and needs are changing. In the west our desire for material goods may not be satiated, but it is true to say we are spending more and more on experiences instead of on stuff. As we have seen, in this recession nobody seems to need a new car, but we are still into travel, entertainment, cooking, festivals, keeping fit and unfortunately getting drunk.


And that change in values is reflected in a trend in politics towards taking happiness and wellbeing more seriously, and not just believing that an increase in GDP is a good thing in itself. Overall we have been getting consistently richer since 1945, but somewhere in the mid-1970s our levels of satisfaction plateaued and in some countries started to fall. Pointing this out used to be considered eccentric, but now it’s mainstream thinking, and the recession will accelerate the idea that wellbeing matters. As the American writer Bill Ivey puts it : “ the current economic downturn has launched a re-examination of values and an inchoate longing for a new path to happiness and a high quality of life.” Then he continues with this really interesting sentence, he says “Today any discussion of art, creativity, heritage, media and the Internet is inevitably merged into a broader conversation about democracy, values and public purposes.” The reason he can say that is because of the third, and most exciting development from the point of view of the arts, which is that we are in the midst of a change in how we view culture and its place in our lives. This is a change that shifts the arts from being a narrow concern for a few people, into something of major importance to everyone. A shift that takes the arts from being a peripheral matter for national and local politics to placing them right at the heart of re-making our society. A shift that, if you like, means that the arts aren’t about leisure, they are about life. That’s a big claim, so I had better try to explain what I mean.


Back in the twentieth century we used to thinking of ‘culture’ as having two main meanings. On the one hand it meant ‘the arts’ – and the arts were an established canon of artforms (opera, ballet, poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, music and drama). These arts each contained their own hierarchies, and they were enjoyed by only a small part of society, a part of society that was also generally speaking well educated and rich. This social group defined its own social standing not just through money and education, but through the very act of appreciating the arts. Because of that, social status and enjoying the arts became synonymous, which meant that the arts were inherently, by definition, elitist.


But culture also had a different meaning than the arts, an anthropological meaning that extended to include everything that we did to express and understand ourselves, from cooking to football to dancing to watching television. The very term used to describe these activities – popular culture – fenced off the arts as unpopular culture. So these two meanings of culture were essentially oppositional. Culture in the sense of the arts, and popular culture were mutually exclusive: one was high, the other low, one was refined, the other debased. As an individual, you could aspire to high culture, but by definition, high culture could never be adopted by the masses – if it was adopted by everyone it would be impossible for it still to be high culture. This old model of culture was,then, an either/or model, where the arts could easily be isolated and attacked. But today we have to understand a new reality, and it is one that demands a shift in the political response, together with changes in the way that cultural funders and cultural organizations go about their business.


Publicly funded culture

Commercial culture

Home-made culture

What does culture look like now? Well, these days, for practical purposes, there are three, deeply inter-related, spheres of culture: publicly funded culture, commercial culture and home-made culture. They are not separate or oppositional, they are completely intertwined, but they are different from each other in important ways. In publicly funded culture, culture is not defined through theory but by practice: what gets funded becomes culture. Who makes these decisions about what to fund, and hence to define this type of culture, is therefore a matter of considerable public interest. For example, official responses to the cultural production of different community, social, ethnic and faith groups carries deep significance in terms of validating or accepting different cultures within the definition of what governments see as culture.


Commercial culture is equally pragmatically defined: if someone thinks there is a chance that a song or a show will sell, it gets produced; but the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of commercial culture. Success or failure is market driven, but access to the market — the elusive ‘big bucks record deal’ of Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita, the stage debut, or the first novel — is controlled by a commercial man-darin class just as powerful as the bureaucrats of publicly funded culture. So in publicly funded culture and commer-cial culture there are gatekeepers who define the meaning of culture through their decisions.


Finally there is home-made culture, which extends from the historic objects and activities of folk art, through to the post-modern indie garage band


…and the YouTube upload. Here, the definition of what counts as culture is much broader; it is defined by an informal self-selecting peer group, and the barriers to entry are much lower. Knit-ting a sweater, inventing a new recipe, or writing a song and posting it on MySpace might involve a lot of skill, but they can be done without much dif-ficulty — the decision about the quality of what is produced then lies in the hands of those who see, hear or taste the finished article. The internet has of course made this sphere of culture one of explosive growth, because people can not only now produce their own stuff – and the technology to do that, from cameras to musical instruments has been getting cheaper and easier to use since the 1960s - but because they can communicate.


Publicly funded culture

Commercial culture

Home-made culture

These three spheres of culture are intensively networked together, and in all three cases individuals take on posi-tions as producers and consumers, authors and readers, performers and audiences. Each of us is able to move through different roles with increasing fluidity, creating and updating our identities as we go.


On top of that, with all three spheres on a equal footing, the debate about quality changes, from being one where the arts are naturally superior to popular culture, to one where quality is debated in niches, wherever it is found – is that a good TV programme?


was that a fine performance of Othello?


how do these jazz players rate? And so on.


But what are the implications of all this? In my view they are profound. In this new model the arts are integrated into a wider cultural ecology so they become reconnected to everyday life. When the fine arts are seamlessly joined up with radio, cinema, the quality of local buildings, design, media ownership, piano lessons and festival–going, they are in an arena that has broad popular support, and broad popular interest – because we all read things, watch things and listen to things, all of the time. And because of that, the whole system through which culture is created, disseminated, stored, preserved and owned becomes a matter of interest to policy across a wide range of areas. Things like the way that intellectual property is commercially controlled, the censorship exercised by websites, the archives of record companies – all these affect the democratic rights of people in relation to their culture. Placed in this broader context, the arts are no longer isolated in the smallest government Ministry with the smallest budget, or in the recreation department at the end of a Local Authority corridor. Instead they take their rightful place as an important consideration in education, economic and competition policy, even in foreign relations. This should give arts organizations greater confidence. It means they are faced with a much richer set of options and possibilities and can build a fundamentally different and deeper relationship with their public. Charlie Leadbeater has recently pointed out that people want three things in their cultural lives: they want to enjoy, talk or do. In other words they want to sit and watch in a fairly passive way; and they want to socialize and get together with other people; and they want to be creative. There is no greater moral worth in one or the other: it’s just as valid to sit and listen, as it is to play. But I don’t think he would have written that list of enjoy; talk; do, twenty years ago - the ‘do’ part would have been confined to tiny numbers of people, but that’s no longer the case. Even the socialize part was much less in evidence – audiences were essentially passive. But right now a transformation is going on, both in what people want, and the in the capacity of arts organizations to help people to watch, listen to and create what they want. More important still, this model recognises culture as important to the vitality of democracy because it is through cultural choices that we show our values and commitments, and through which we produce our communal life. Placing funded, commercial and home-made culture together changes them from being in their individual components respectively marginal, entertaining and amateur, into a combined potent force of democratic expression


And if we put people’s needs and wants at the heart of the arts the whole thing changes. No longer do we have arts companies ‘delivering’ producer determined culture ‘to’ an audience. Instead we look at working with individuals and communities to fulfill their cultural needs and aspirations. There is a different kind of public out there, one that the Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff describes being made up of‘ new individuals who seek true voice, direct participation, unmedi-ated influence and identity-based community because they are comfortable using their own experience as the basis for making judgments’. That, ultimately, is why I am very optimistic about the future: because there are these deep changes going on in the way that people want to live. The arts and culture have become central to an increasingly compelling vision of the good life and the good society. There are huge numbers of people, who over decades have become better educated, more prosperous and more in control of their own lives, who now want the things that the arts can provide: emotional engagement, solidarity, and fulfillment through growth and creativity. That in turn gives every arts organization the potential to grow and to prosper.


Let me finish by showing you two pictures. They were painted in about 1339 on the walls of the Palzzo Pubblico in Siena by Lorenzetti and they show allegories of good and bad government. Bad government is typified by crumbling buildings, people fighting each other, and scarcity: smoke and famine.


By contrast good government looks exactly like how William Morris describes the Earthly Paradise: a place where singing and dancing are a natural expression of joy and happiness.


It’s a beautiful vision, and as true today as it was 700 years ago – so let’s do all we can to make it a reality for everyone. Thank you.


GGA Conference 09 - John Holden  
GGA Conference 09 - John Holden  

Presentation made by John Holden, Visiting Professor: City University and Associate: Demos.