Just what are the arts good for?

Wednesday 6 October, 6.30pm until 8.00pm, Culturgest, Rua Arco do Cego, Piso 1, 1000-300 Lisbon, Portugal

Venue: Culturgest, Rua Arco do Cego, Piso 1, 1000-300 Lisbon, Portugal

Tickets: Free, tickets available at the venue on the day from 6.00pm

Contemporary discussions of the value of the arts seem far removed from the dusty aesthetics of German philosophy or the patrician connoisseurship of art historians who once claimed to know what they were good for: what was great art and what was not. Yet today, with a cradle of civilisation like Greece even considering putting islands up for sale to pay sovereign debt, the pressure is on artists and institutions to justify their worth. In fact, the arts have for some time made a claim for the important contribution they make to the economy as part of the cultural and creative industries. The recent European Commission Green Paper argues we live in a ‘new digital economy’ where ‘immaterial value increasingly determines material value’. The traditional arts, as well as the film industry, video games, new media, TV and radio, are all said to have value as cultural products and expressions. Claims are made that the arts can play a role in urban regeneration, bringing areas blighted by the death of old industries back to life. Some value the arts for their ability to engage young people with society - turning them away from crime or drugs - and making them better citizens. At the level of international relations, cultural diplomacy provides a reason for valuing and exporting cultural achievements, and may even foster a sense of national pride, of shared belonging.

Some reject such instrumentalism, arguing that art is simply what artists do or what audiences enjoy - that the arts are entirely subjective and all judgements relative. Others raise concerns about what happens to those art forms not so easily defined in terms of supposedly positive impacts. WH Auden famously said, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. Should poetry receive no government support or funding? Or, if we are to value the arts because they bring in money from tourism, should the director of Lisbon´s Popular Festivals (Festival Popular) take over running the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga? Who then can be trusted to support art that offends or upsets us? For every engaged citizen created by reading great literature, there may well be an alienated outsider or depressed youth.

While some continue to rally around the slogan, art for art’s sake, can this actually mean anything without a language that allows us to talk seriously about the arts? Is it enough for the arts to unsettle and disturb the ways in which we see the world, as well as, for that matter, to confirm them? Or must they rebrand themselves as somehow more directly ‘useful’ in order to justify funding and attention? Do we need the arts as a crucial part of what it is to be civilised or are they just a luxury to be enjoyed when we can afford to do so? Are the arts any good at all?

The discussion will be introduced by Robert Clowes, chairman, Brighton Salon.


Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Augusto Mateus
professor, ISEG; former Minister of the Economy; report author, The Cultural and Creative Sector in Portugal

Jorge Silva Melo
artistic director, Artistas Unidos; founder, Teatro da Cornucópia

Miguel Wandschneider
curator, contemporary art, Culturgest

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Dr Robert Clowes chair, Mind & Cognition Group, Nova Institute of Philosophy, Lisbon University; chair, Lisbon Salon
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