Battle in Print: Whose culture is it anyway?

Sarah Boyes, 29 October 2008

When it came back on air a few months ago, BBC1’s The Culture Show was advertised with the line, ‘we don’t know what it is, but it’s happening next’. The sentiment neatly sums up both a confusion and expectation about contemporary culture: it’s certainly out there and a spectacle to be seen, but who it belongs to and what that means is up for grabs. With the beginning of the Cultural Olympiad in September this year, the next four years will see a nationwide celebration ‘of culture’ with the aim of galvanising a sense of national identity and shared values to present to the world come 2012, but when the point is to celebrate diffuse world-views and bring people together, whose culture is it anyway?

The spectre of the mainstream

As Britain reaches the end of a decade of New Labour multiculturalist policies that have influenced everything from housing allocation to arts funding, some argue that cultural differences have become institutionalised and a sense of shared values and identity undermined. Critics argue that by supporting minority voices, the views and values of the majority of the British public – along with the Isles’ heritage - have got lost. Indeed, the spectre of the mainstream or majority has long haunted the discourse, an implied ‘rest of us’ against which the minorities have been defined. Mostly, this has been loosely associated with the native, predominantly white, Christian or secular, population – those with family histories based in the UK - with people of different ethnicity, religion and heritage being been held apart as minorities. Policies of positive discrimination and promoting diversity have ensured these minorities are prominent in culture life, this top-down reconstruction of the populace on grounds of ethnicity has been represented as creating a more ‘equal’ society. As a result, today it is often sections of the white middle classes who complain about being treated unfairly by the system. Indeed, in 2008, it appears that ‘multiculturalism’ has become the mainstream, and from many parts of society, calls for a new Britishness are becoming louder.

The issue of national identity obsesses the political elite and many other political groups besides, though any clear sense of political vision in their proposed policies is noticeable only in its absence. Indeed, the cultural reconstruction project begun by New Labour in 1997, with its aim to create a diverse and multicultural nation, has served to obscure from an underlying political and cultural consensus at the top, and general political exhaustion throughout society. Whilst thinking and arguing about ‘values’ could serve to kick-start a fuller-blooded political debate about the past, present and future of society, at best, what ‘British values’ are seen to be is vague: a dedication to civility and hard work, good sense of humour and strong spine. Blair’s attempt to repackage British heritage with the Cool Britannia of the nineties, with its kitsch pugs, red pillar post boxes and the Spice Girls, aimed to reforge a link with the best of the past, conjuring up images of the flag-waving (and flag-dress wearing) optimism and sense of purpose and pride that characterised the post Second World War period. Today, the project seems to have failed to permeate any deeper into the national consciousness. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s ‘moral compass’ and puritan work ethic have presented a core dedication to fairness and seriousness underpinning policy, though plans to turn August Bank Holiday into ‘national Britishness day’ sound similarly drab and uninspiring. In fact, any flag-waving sentiment today seems an embarrassment to the elite, with the Pomp and Circumstance of this year’s Proms, for instance, being decried by Culture Minister Margaret Hodge for not expressing ‘common’ or mainstream enough values to which all sections of society can subscribe.

But what this mainstream really is – or ever was – is far from clear. Historically, whilst it’s true most people living in the UK have indeed been white and either Christian or secular, there has far been consensus on values. The view that it’s immigration that changed things makes the mistake of assuming a direct link runs from a person’s race or religion to their way of seeing and navigating the world as mature adults, missing the fact it is a shared sense of ownership over culture and history that brings people together. With rivalry between honest, no nonsense and hard-working Northerners and their more sophisticated, educated and luxury-loving Southern counterparts; with bitter divisions between Catholics and Protestants and tension between the working and upper classes, an historically mainstream British culture that permeated all parts of society is difficult to discern. 

From culture clash to cynical consent

Indeed, today, ‘culture clashes’, or at least the appearance of them, have become commonplace. Debacles over displays of racially or religiously sensitive art, spats over dress-codes, or anger at what literature is available in primary schools are constantly discussed, and identity politics frequently frames the public debate. As much as there is a clear sense of what culture means today, it is dealt with and navigated in increasingly legalistic terms of minority ‘rights’ to do, say or make certain things. Otherwise, as the traditional distinction between private and public spheres has been eroded, ‘culture’ has become more explicitly equated with ‘lifestyle’, explicity encompassing everything from what paintings a person likes to look at to how they have sex. But the underlying problem seems not so much that a contestation of beliefs and values amongst vying groups has led to the lack of a shared sense of culture, but that in the absence of a more full-bodied contestation that might generate a strong sense of commonality, a more generally underconfident approach towards culture, public life and artworks especially has come to dominate the show. Far from the racist, religiously intolerant picture many suggest, most people seem to see expressions of religious difference and heritage as banal features of everyday life.

In this, the focus on minority identities has been seen especially in the arts, though here too the situation takes some unpicking. In a way, literature, music, plays dance and paintings have often been concerned with the human condition, reflecting, challenging and constructing notions of personhood, heritage and identity. An interest in Malayan music, Indian dance or Mongolian literature can come from a genuine desire to learn about and appreciate new artistic forms and ideas; and an impulse towards creating artworks that reflect or embody distinctive ideas. But there has been another trend too: modern art has become postmodern, and once the playfulness wears off begins to look deeply cynical. Established artists from Andy Warhol to Tracey Emin are greeted with a perverse attraction, attracting as much criticism for their consumerist undertones as admiration for their ironic comments on the state of modern society. A focus on authentic ‘other cultures’ in response can look like a pragmatic alternative given the lack of authority seen in cultural institutions across the board. 

In response, when it comes to thinking about culture and artworks, torn between a multiculturalist melange and celebration of cynicism, the problem seems not to be that we don’t know who artworks or culture belong to; more that we want nothing to do with the whole lot of them. Whilst the aim could be to understand different ways of seeing the world in a way that begins to have resonance for all, by setting cultural differences in stone, culture itself becomes neutered, banal or boring. Culture becomes an industry or simply something to passively consume, and such a dark attitude is reflected in the work of many leading cultural critics, who seem unable to find a way out. Others look to the past to find firm critical standards and the grounds to make firm value-judgements about the worth of artworks

Bigging up art can dumb down culture

The publication of the McMaster report – Suppporting Excellence in the Arts - From Measurement to Judgement – at the beginning of this year reflects such a move from the elite. The report argues for the creation of an ‘excellent culture’, or the best artworks available to all, with visits to public museums, art galleries and other arts institutions made available for everyone. But despite its laudable intentions, the report says little about what constitutes ‘excellence’ in the arts, instead assuming that the nation’s galleries and theatres are already full of the best stuff. In fact, especially given the lack of authority seen in cultural institutions across the board, many would argue this is far from the case. Indeed, baldly bigging up ‘art’ in this way threatens to dumb down culture.

What a piece of art – a public statue, painting in an art gallery or piece of site-specific theatre – means, depends on the role it plays for the people around it, on what it represents to them and how they respond to it, whether it makes sense to them. Individual judgements about artworks are made part and parcel inside of such a framework, and lean in part on what people know about the history of the genre and how they think more generally about art. Making an excellent culture must mean more than simply stipulating that artworks be excellent, and go further in supporting the mechanisations that allow artists and critics to develop, alongside educating children and publics about the history and meanings of artworks. Critical judgements about excellence that could begin to have universal application across cultures, aren’t fixed outside of a shared framework of understanding them, or in short, a shared culture.

The democratisation of diversity

Though at the same time as making artworks available to all sectors of society with a core dedication to diversity, demands for the arts to be ‘relevant’ to every individual have become explicit:

‘Artists, practitioners, organisations and funders must have diversity at the core of their work.  Out of the society in which we live today the greatest culture could grow, but this will only happen if the cultural sector is truly relevant to 21st century Britain and its audiences.’ - Sir Brian McMaster’s groundbreaking review, Supporting Excellence in the Arts - From Measurement to Judgement (January 2008)

But ‘diversity’ here has been repackaged over the last decade. Rather than framing things in terms of the shared heritage of groups or communities, now the idea is defined in terms of differentiation between individuals, couched in terms of age, race, sexuality, disability, and socio-economic background. Diversity is being democratised: not just reserved for ethnic minorities, but something available to everybody. Though, the salient ways of differentiating ourselves from one another and asserting ourselves as individuals come as given, and in terms of those things most difficult to change: nobody can be a different age (though lying is always an option), few feel they ‘choose’ their sexuality not least any disability, and socio-economic backgrounds are fixed by dint of birth. Who wants to make art on the basis of being a white, middle class 33-year old or on the grounds of being a 70-year old black working class lesbian with a speech impediment? On the face of it, the report seems to advocate embracing predefined and narrow social categories to define ourselves as individuals before being able to take an ownership over culture that is ‘relevant’ to us on that basis. More generously though, the underlying idea that culture comes from and is shared between individuals, and can be contributed to and owned regardless of age, race, disability or anything else, might constitute a progressive development when it comes to thinking about the arts.

Rather than worrying about how to make artworks relevant to audiences in order to protract a shared ownership of culture or create a new Britishness, it might be worth thinking more deeply about ‘excellence’ when in comes to the arts, and start by building up a critical culture around them that can begin to take artworks seriously on their own terms.


Sarah Boyes is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor of Culture Wars, the online review.


Supporting excellence in the arts - from measurement to judgement - Sir Brian McMaster, DCMS, January 2008

Cultural Olympiad - values and vision - Official homepage for London Olympics, 2012

Multiculturalism drives young Muslims to shun British values - mailonline, 29 January 2007

Roll back the state and mend society too  - Norman Blackwell, The Times, 8 September 2008

‘Get Involved in the Cultural Olympiad!!’ - Sarah Boyes, Culture Wars, 10 October 2008

What now for the M-word? - Munira Mirza, sp!ked, 10 May 2007

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