‘Arts funding’ and ‘a creative and critical life’

21 05 2010

(This post is published a day late hence it starts ‘today’ rather than ‘yesterday’)

Today the media will be reporting announcements from the Minister for Culture, Olympics, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt, on the new Con-Dem Government’s priorities and funding decisions for DCMS. Their reports will be headlined as ‘arts funding’, the arts sector will be asked to comment and the uninvited responses from the arts sector will circulate. ‘The arts’ is often used as a synecdoche for heritage, tourism, museums, archives, libraries, creative industries & arts (give or take sport).

It seems that ‘the arts’ is used in preference because ‘culture’ is seen as too vague a term. True, ‘culture’ is a floating category. Its meanings can be so relative they can become opposed: It means ‘sort of heritage and broader’ to the arts sector and then ‘sort of arts and creativity’ to the heritage sector. To anyone outside those two poles it means ‘sort of everything that humans do and what ties a people together’. Maybe it would help if we could agree new terms for our sectors and domains of activity, that help us be both more inclusive and also more precise. Maybe these terms could also be set within a framework that helps us rethink and advocate the value of culture?

Bill Ivey has noted the problem that ‘the arts’ is too narrow and ‘culture’ is too broad.  The effect of this seems to him (especially in the US) to put arts or culture projects at the bottom of the funding pile. He has come up with the model of ‘the Expressive life’ as a more inclusive and singular definition of arts and culture which helps with their advocacy. In the UK, this has been published in a DEMOS pamphlet and in the latest RSA magazine. I appreciate what he is aiming to do but not sure that his model hits the mark, for our cultural institutions and attitudes. Instead I propose something which still needs to be properly named, which I call for now ‘a creative and critical life’. I will have to write in more detail about it, but in short it goes beyond the notion of an ‘expressive life’, because it places more emphasis on knowledge (e.g. the assets in our collections or, more broadly, the importance of enquiry). My proposal includes lifting the assumption that ‘heritage’ means things that are conservative and old-fashioned, to a more positive meaning: ‘caring for, using and reinventing what we have’. It also recognises our integration with nature (or rather it includes the notion of ‘biosphere capital’). Ivey has created the Expressive Life model to advocate the arts/culture to compete against funding for the environment or health, whereas I think the future for the arts is to integrate it into work towards biosphere and human wellbeing.

I have heard frequently that Conservatives describe culture as ‘a nice to have’, not essential. If we can demonstrate and enact culture as a vital force for environmental (and therefore human) wellbeing, that’s a bit more than a ‘nice to have’. The argument will then revolve around why Government should give it public subsidy, if there is a market demand for culture. My answer would be that the market can’t enable the kind of shift that is needed to make culture such a powerful force. (Woops, I’ve slipped into using ‘culture’. I mean ‘a creative and critical life’ or something like that. Suggestions welcome.)

The climate crisis and the ‘happy museum’

17 05 2010

Tomorrow I’ll be contributing to a discussion about the Happy Museum, instigated by Tony Butler and co-ordinated by the New Economics Foundation. You will have seen from my last post that I’ve just read Clive Hamilton’s ‘Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change’. So, I’m trying to gear up to talk about happiness when what I’m feeling (beneath my habitual buoyancy) is despair at the picture he paints. I’m despairing precisely because this is not a fiction, cooked up with metaphor and catharsis, but because it is a scenario rigorously underpinned by scientific consensus. The truth is: the most likely future is one in which the planet will reach 4C by 2070, which will have catastrophic impacts for humans and many other species.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than that we face the fact that we have made our planet unliveable by our fetish for things. And what is a museum, fundamentally, other than a monument to our fetish for things? If it is solely that, how can I feel happy working in the museum sector? How can museums themselves be happy in this context? How can museums contribute to wellbeing, not just of people but the biosphere?

If you look at it logically (without being too linear) it is not a simple task. David Cameron said the other day that he wanted to lead the ‘greenest Government ever. It’s a very simple ambition and one I’m absolutely committed to.’ It might be simple in concept (in a nutshell: stop exploiting the earth’s resources now, pursue a no-growth strategy, invest in geo-engineering, lead the world to follow suit at an urgent pace) but it is not simple in practice. That he believes it to be simple belies the fact that environmental problems are understood to be treatable with technocratic measures. He believes, like most politicians, that you can turn down the climate dial by investing in a bit of technology, enabling some making and saving of money in the process. Hamilton said that he’s certain that the future is going to be bad, that even if we take extraordinary radical action globally we must face the fact that things are still going to be bad, but that this mustn’t stop us aiming to take that radical action.

So, how can museums help push forward that radical action? The time has come for museums to:

-          stop focusing (quite so fetishistically) on their things and start focusing on complexity and contextual education

-          to shift focus somewhat away from the past to start looking more to the future

-          to stop being so slow as a working culture and to start behaving with urgency.

But what does this mean? Responding to the key causes/solutions in Hamilton’s books, here’s the start of a list of ways that museums can, and must, contribute to tackling this crisis.

Politics above all

Hamilton shares research that says the more people understand the climate crisis the less likely they are to take individual action to green their lifestyles (though many of course may be relatively careful). They understand that the solution will not be individuals (or small organisations) making small changes. The only solutions effective enough will be international political and large-scale industrial action. Museums can and should contribute with dialogue and narrative that helps us see a bigger picture, to see how big changes have come about due to decisions made by those with material and political power.

No growth
Hamilton shows how essential it is we resist the entrenched notion that the priority in politics and the purpose of work is economic growth. Museums have been complicit in this ethos because of their role in showcasing objects of wealth, the spoils of war and exploration, and regional or national growth fuelled by technology and exploitation. Currently, museums are attempting to maintain a sense of pride while admitting alternative narratives, for example, about diverse or demotic cultures.  However, they must take several steps beyond this to critique our growth-led values. However difficult this might be, museums can be an ideal resource for this because they contain the evidence of the damage caused by growth strategies.

Work less
Hamilton analyses economics to show that saving money only defers consumption and probably increases it. We actually need to earn less, so therefore we need to work less. Many people may feel that their lives would be empty without work but perhaps museums offer us a way to see different ways to live and be productive, by showing us how different cultures have lived in the past, by inspiring creativity, or offering opportunities to do voluntary work or informal learning.

Alternative to advertising
Advertising, especially to children, has played a huge role in the increase of consumption. In 1983 companies spent $100 million on advertising to children, but by 2007 they were spending $17 billion or more. He says ‘their capacity to moderate their desires has been systematically dismantled from birth’. So, it’s even more important now that that cultural & heritage organisations engage children with non-materialistic programmes. Also, it’s important for museums to rival advertising, which might mean they have to act like marketers, by using digital social media and games much more. Museums offer a safe, secular space to help resist corporate dominance.

Global emissions
Another issue is that of consumption measured at a global level. We should not rest on our laurels of reducing emissions within the UK when a) we outsource much of our production and b) global emissions are what matter overall. Developing nations such as China, India and Russia are some of the primary emitters. Although there has been a great stress on museums developing a sense of local or regional identity (in many ways a very good policy), we shouldn’t lose sight of the potential of museums to connect us to other countries. We can enhance this by stepping up dialogue, sharing heritage knowledge and an exchange of professional practices with India, China, Russia and other countries most likely to raise global emissions. (Flow Associates is developing museum & gallery learning programmes in India and Russia, in part, for these reasons.)

Ethical sponsorship

Hamilton says ‘the most immediate reason we now face climate disruption lies in the political power of the fossil fuel lobby’. We have seen how BP & others lobbied to resist regulations that would have prevented the Deepwater Horizon spill. Museums and galleries should be scrupulous about resisting sponsorship from companies such as BP and Shell. They should pursue this as a positive strategy because as oil spills from deep water and Arctic drilling get ever blacker and dirtier, and more people see how marine pollution is a major cause of global warming, their continuing reliance on such sponsors will significantly damage reputations. Only this weekend, activists carried out an oily protest at Tate Modern, calling for Tate to wean itself from BP.

Emotion to cognition to action

Humans have evolved to respond to immediate visceral fear, but the threats of climate change require us to rely on cognitive processing. Museums have developed powerful interpretive strategies so that there are closer links between our emotional response and our grasp of big ideas. There is a danger of the museum experience being so emotive and engaging that it becomes hallucinogenic, distancing us from reality, like the way films can make disasters seem cool. Museums should plan their learning experiences so that visceral emotion leads to cognition, and then crucially, leads to action, on a personal and collective level. We (in the UK) need to develop a new framework for planning and evaluating learning and social outcomes, one which takes account of the future we face.

There are many more points I could add here, also drawing these into the Framework for Climate Action. That’s my homework for the next few weeks as I’ll be finishing and expanding on the list for a book chapter I’m writing on Greening Museums.

Facing the bad but preventing the worst

14 05 2010

I went to a talk this week at the RSA called ‘Facing climate change’ by Clive Hamilton who has written an essential book called Requiem for a Species. I’m not writing in this post about the cultural and heritage sectors, except to say that his position is vital for us to consider, and so I’m just summarising his speech. The book addresses cultural shifts, the need to reimagine all our political and lifestyle decisions. It’s not yet another essay to prove anthropogenic climate change but is about why we can’t move forward, why the responses to science are either hostile or inadequate.
He described the vicious cyberbullying of climate scientists, how death threats, break-ins and hackings of senior scientists have escalated. Science (which has also been championed as a tool of progress) has now been characterised as left wing ideology and climate denialism has been funded by right wing thinktanks. Now that the BNP has adopted climate denialism it’s now inextricably linked with right wing ideology (though he also notes that the left wing has also been dismissive of environmentalism.)

He described how the 4th IPCC report (2007) seriously underestimated climate change impacts and now how the evidence of increasingly rapid warming has been buried in avalanche of reports around Climategate. (One statistic out of many he showed: Warming of 3 to 4 C is now associated with 360 to 420 ppmv of CO2 rather than 500 to 600, as previously thought, Schneider and Schneider, Nature Geoscience, Dec 2009). The sustained and media driven assault on science led to public surveys of more disbelief in climate change than before Copenhagen.

He tells us that it is virtually impossible to avoid dramatic change to the climate this century. It is already happening. (We knew this before but it hurts to hear it again and so convincingly.) He talks about some of the research that explains the modelling. For example, the Tyndall Centre has explored a range of two figs defining the curve upon which our future depends, of when emissions peak and how quickly they decline. How likely are we to peak at 2020 and decline by 6 to 7 % every year afterwards? The Stern review looked at some historical precedents to work out the answer. When and where gas and nuclear were introduced you would expect a big rate of emissions decline but it was minimal. The best incidence was when the Soviet Union’s  economy collapsed.

So, the likely scenario is 4C by 2070, which is hotter than the planet has been for 15 million years. To avoid this level we must have reductions of 9% annually. But this has been seen as impossible because it’s equivalent to global war mobilisation on the scale we saw in the 2nd world war. I feel incredulous that this is seen to be impossible: we did it before to resist a dictator, we can’t consider it now to resist the loss of a planet most species can live in? The reason why we don’t mobilise is that the majority response is denial, including casual denial and disengagement. Others might attempt to ‘do something’ but with maladaptive strategies, for example with minor diversions, greenwashing, blame shifting, reducing the problem in scale or distance, or by creating benign fictions. Adaptive strategies are the only helpful approach (and even so, without global radical political action they won’t avert some catastrophe) as the only healthy way we can deal with the situation is to express and manage our emotions, to solve problems and to readjust our values. He cited something called post-traumatic growth theory: if you see your mortality you’re more likely to seek material comfort but if you’ve had major trauma you’re more likely to be more empathetic, less greedy. So, we need to experience despair in order to develop generosity. You must ‘move forward in the dark’ with small steps even if you can’t see your victories.

Someone asked him: Should we be allowing people to despair? His belief is that if you don’t despair you’re not listening to the scientists. Being optimistic might have been a defensible position a decade ago.  He said: ‘I’m optimistic that it’s going to be bad, but also that we can do lots of things to mean it’s not as bad as it can be.’ USA is especially allured by optimism but this isn’t so far leading to radical breakthroughs in reducing emissions.

Another question: What would you do if you were a politician? He said that we have to completely reimagine how we deal with it. He noted that climate was not mentioned in our election because 3 parties don’t differ in their policies very much. Many scientists thought that the IPCC and Stern reports would blow away the denialists but climate science is too much of a fundamental challenge to the enlightenment conceit.

Another question: There’s all this emphasis on climate change but why not tackle biodiversity decline, as it’s a far more serious issue. Hamilton’s response suggested that biodiversity is entirely wrapped up with it, it’s not a separate issue. Ecocide in the oceans and forests is causing climate change and in turn climate change destroys biodiversity.

In my next post, reflecting on my presentation on climate change and photography at the National Photography Symposium, I’ll draw on my thoughts in response to this talk. At the moment I’m just having feeling despair and thinking again and again about the future for our children. But hopefully, I’ll have converted this into problem solving in a few days.


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