Defining terms of arts and culture
I must have been rather annoying lately. I’ve been on a bit of a mission to encourage serious commentators and researchers to employ more precision with terminologies they use to advocate the arts and the cultural sector. I’ve done this through a couple of emails, comments on threads and lots of tweets, asking the Guardian’s Culture Cuts blog, the RSA State of the Arts conference, Arts and Business and a few other cultural advocates to clarify their terms but have had virtually no response. So after a day of intensified nagging on Twitter I thought I had better explain what I mean and why it matters. The context is well known. The UK Government has decided to tackle the deficit much more rapidly than anyone expected, targeting many public services for cuts, with culture absolutely on the front line for the execution squads, especially in local authorities and in education. In the face of this the cultural sector has not united to challenge the cuts, though there are active networks challenging cuts to the arts and to libraries. There are several bodies well placed to advocate for the whole cultural sector, and I certainly feel grateful for the platforms they are offering. The problem is that they generally undermine the case they are making, and do some parts of the cultural sector a particular disservice, by their lazy terminology. I don’t think this is about linguistic style or agreeing the specific words we use for parts of the sector, but about category errors and conflations which affect statistical claims about the value of culture. For example, Arts & Business has just published a report which was tweeted with headlines that 80% of FTSE 100 companies don’t sponsor the arts, but the research included heritage, museums and libraries.
I should set out how I interpret the shape of the sector, though I fully accept that my model is subjective and provisional. I admit that it can be helpful to ellide or conflate categories to suit some situations, for example when applying for funding. However, when advocating value in the public arena, I think we need a good deal more consistency and transparency of terminology.
The shape of the cultural sector is a matrix of two axes. Axis one is a spectrum from:
- the preservation of cultural heritage
- through interpretations and reinventions of existing cultural forms or knowledge to
- the production or performance of the most novel and contemporary art at the other end of the spectrum.
Axis two is a spectrum from:
- public assets maintained by public funding for public good
- through practices with mixed economic practices, generating social/cultural and economic value
- right through to commercial creative industries at the other end.
One cultural organisation might map its activities all over this matrix, but many can place their core remit squarely in one area. You have to draw the line somewhere around the cultural sector, excluding for example natural heritage and sport, while acknowledging that some cultural organisations might include sport or nature in their remit. I include science interpretation in the cultural sector.
The main concerns of the cultural advocacy campaigns are to protect the organisations or practices which are dependent on full public stewardship and to build more commercial capacities through public investment. As far as I understand from forgotten reading, and I would be happy to be corrected, there are more museums, libraries, archives, and sites of archaeological, domestic and industrial heritage in the public sector than there are arts organisations (excluding individual artists from that count). I’m not promoting one part of the cultural sector over any other, as I’ve worked in and am passionate about all of the parts. I mention the size of the MLA/heritage to suggest that it isn’t a small niche area that is easy to overlook.
The research reports, newspaper articles, blogposts and conference speeches by the main cultural advocates tend to do one of three things:
- Use the term ‘arts’ to denote the wider cultural sector, referring to non-arts practice under the arts umbrella
- Use the term ‘cultural sector’ (or ‘culture’) but then also use the term ‘arts’ interchangeably without acknowledging that arts are a subset of culture.
- Use the term ‘arts’ or ‘culture’ but only focus on the arts, where it might serve their case better by referring to other aspects of the cultural sector.
I should point out that there are some exceptions, where care is taken to be precise, inclusive and consistent. These include the Cultural Learning Alliance (currently asking for definitions of cultural learning), and the Collections Trust.
To summarise in cod maths terms:
Arts + culture = culture ( – heritage) = nonsense
Culture = arts + heritage = makes sense
I’d be very grateful for comments and corrections.