The Arts: Doing vs Viewing -- Reflections on the DCMS Culture White Paper

On March 23rd, following more than five decades of silence on national arts policy, the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published the second ever White Paper on culture and the arts: 'Our Culture'. As is entirely appropriate, particular emphasis is laid on the importance of the arts in education. There is mention of the 'opportunities' presented by culture and how it may 'inspire' young people, of the 'clear relationship between culture and educational attainment', and a recognition that 'experiencing and understanding culture is integral to education'. It is hard to argue against such sweeping platitudes, of course. But equally hard to get particularly excited about them.

While the paper contains many positives and the formal recognition of the ways in which our lives are enriched by the arts is to be applauded, it is also important to tease out certain specifics and conflated ideas that fall between the cracks of such generalizations. One of these is an acknowledgement of the very different experiences of participation in cultural activities, including art classes, dance workshops and theatre groups, and the appreciation of the arts as manifest in attendance at art exhibitions, concerts, theatre productions and the like.

Many young people struggle with creating art once they advance beyond the stage when gluing an assortment of differently-coloured tissue paper shapes to cardboard constitutes 'collage' and it becomes evident that some of their peers can render recognizable entities in pencil and paint. Similarly, some students leave behind them the glories of the nativity play and the starring role of 'third dahlia from the left' in Thumbelina to emerge into the realization that they are unable to be anything convincing on the stage beside a beetroot-faced, quivering bundle of stage-fright. A recent phenomenon apparently gaining critical mass, certainly in the UK, is the 'tone deaf' choir, peopled by otherwise well-adjusted adults who have refused to sing a note unless in the shower of an empty house where any immediate neighbours are hard of hearing since some malevolent music teacher informed their seven-year-old selves that they were unable to hold a tune.

An emphasis on encouraging active participation takes on particular significance as children develop inhibitions, a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses, and an acute awareness of how these compare with those of their peers. There is, then, a risk that those young people for whom participation in cultural activities is something of a trial will arrive at the conclusion that they lack an 'artistic sensibility' and the arts are, therefore, for other people. And who, having achieved such a deduction, is likely to visit an art gallery, attend a theatre production or listen to a concert?

'Everyone' asserts the authors of the White Paper, 'should have the chance to experience culture, participate in it, create it, and see their lives transformed by it'. A laudable aim. However, the concomitant danger of failing to comprehend the differences between participation and appreciation is that overemphasis on the former might undermine the development of the latter.

One reason for considering these as distinct experiences can be found in the research underpinning the DCMS White Paper itself, in which the authors found statistically significant differences in the effects on health, education, economic productivity and civic participation (volunteering and charitable giving) for those who attend arts events as against those taking part in cultural activities. This would suggest the validity of treating as different the two modes of experiencing the arts.

Besides the research, it stands firmly to reason that it is perfectly possible to show a keen appreciation of something for which we have no direct experience as a participant. This is evident in the crowds of cheering children (and grown-ups), crammed into London's Science Museum or glued to televisions in their classrooms, who watched Tim Peake leave the Earth in December 2015 for his sojourn on the International Space Station. Not one of them knows what it feels like to orbit the planet but they were no less in awe for this.

We do not need to have mastered the perfect pirouette to marvel at the agility, grace and expressiveness of Sylvie Guillem; there is no requirement to have hacked at a lump of Carrara marble to be struck speechless at the juxtaposition of serene beauty and mischievous movement of Michelangelo's Taddei Tondo; it is not absolutely essential to have achieved virtuosity on the violin to have one's socks knocked off by a live performance of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

National arts policy should, like the arts themselves, inspire us. In order to achieve anything of substance, it should recognize, as a starting point, the myriad ways our lives are enriched by culture. It is through a truthful recognition of the fact that young people, across all backgrounds, bring individual responses to the arts that meaningful policy decisions can be made that justify public funding.

Let us, then, applaud wholeheartedly the promotion of culture for everyone. Let's provide the opportunities for all to wield a paintbrush, pick up a trumpet, try on those dance shoes, and delve into the box of theatrical props. But let's not forget the need to encourage young people across the thresholds of galleries, museums, concert halls and theatres, and to have these magnificent places resound with a mighty 'you are all welcome here'.