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Culture is ethics not just aesthetics

Arts and culture supplement the deficits of politics and economics, should be relevant, participatory not consumerist, and generate empathy

We need to address the future through a new lens, that of citizenship, if arts and culture are to play their necessary role in improving the quality of life for all. In looking forward we have, firstly, to understand that we are not just dealing with a recession and its aftershocks. There is a resetting of expectations. There has been a dismantling of a consensus based on principles, that: poverty should be attacked and not just managed; full employment is a legitimate goal of Government; access to health care should be free at point of use; access to third level education is a right; and the arts should be resourced and provided for at arm’s length from government.

The retreat from these principles is because they are rooted in a vision that demands a role for the State and civil society in modifying capitalism. It is this role, for the State in particular, which is now under attack. These principles were understood as the means of creating a ‘whole’ society. But it is clear now that neither our model of party politics, nor the model of globalised economics, can be relied upon to create a ‘whole’ society. In fact, the opposite is true.

My working definition of culture is “what we make and do to add value to the quality of our lives”. It involves the arts but also education and health and well-being. If our party-political and economic models are not fit for purpose, then arts and culture must consciously pick up this challenge. This is an ethical and not merely aesthetic issue.

mcgonagleCulture has a necessary role to play in the creation and validation of another narrative. This requires the arts, education, and health and well-being to be understood as forms of emancipation, for individuals and for communities. This other narrative, articulated and developed around a re-purposed culture and re-prioritised education, must then be transferred to the political space. Political discourse must be engaged because change has to be effective in driving policy.

The argument in which the arts sector regularly gets trapped, and therefore ignored, is the argument about funding the forms of delivery. This is easily sidestepped as an argument for and about ‘us’, the producers and providers. What should be happening is an argument for purpose, out of which new necessary forms of delivery and practice for the arts will inevitably emerge. This would take us to questions of what for and who for?

What for? I would argue that the role of art in the history of human society has always been to create empathy. Empathy is about seeing the self in others. Without empathy, there is no society. Who for? I would argue that it is for ‘them’, not ‘us’, for the citizens or people, whoever and wherever they are. This proposition represents as much a challenge for the arts and cultural sector as for the State.

This change starts with a shift in thinking and understanding. This must take us from a model based on exchange value to a model based on use value. It must take us from a model of value based on the idea of the solo genius producer and the signature model, to the participatory model. This is needed if we are to bridge to a civil culture, a culture belonging to citizens and centred on and driven by citizenship.

Citizenship means full participation in the economy, in society as well as in culture. This ambition amounts to a civil society, an ecology, based on the interdependence and interaction of economic, social and cultural capital. This is a civil society set to act as a counterbalance to the narrowing consumerist model that serves as the basis of social relations.

Momentum towards this understanding is already underway in the most dynamic areas of arts practice. Artists or practitioners and providers are seeking to reconnect to lived experience. This search is based on reciprocal communication, negotiation, shared agency, and situated practice. It is not just about individualised rhetorical self-expression and production. This model of artist or practitioner as negotiator, as much as producer, has much to offer the economic and social domains of knowledge.

The core idea is the shift to participation from consumption as the basis of our social relations. Without a re-purposed participatory culture, we cannot have a full participatory democracy and we will not have a civil society either. The stakes could not be higher.

Declan McGonagle is former director of the National College of Art and Design. This article is drawn from a presentation to Claiming Our Future’s Broken Politics event.