Saturday, 13 August 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Engaging with the EU

Earlier this year Arts Council England released a set of figures, showing how local authorities invest and engage with the arts across England. This was done using the NI11 Indicator and was monitored over a three year period.

The research notes that the places with the lowest levels of engagement weren't necessarily 'cold spots' for culture, indeed, many of the places with low engagement are places that are rich in heritage. However, the boroughs with low engagement rates were also places that were more likely to have lower levels of educational achievement and social mobility. The research also noted higher levels of engagement in London when compared to the rest of the country, which was partly attributed to the city being "super-served" by culture and the arts at large.

Something that intrigued me enough to research it were how the places with low, or lower than expected levels of arts investment and engagement, voted in the EU Referendum. After reading the wonderful article by Frank Cottrell Boyce in The Guardian, and several other articles arguing for the importance of the arts in post-Brexit Britain, I did a bit of swift Googling, and the results were largely unsurprising.

Highest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Lilac
Highest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - NONE
Lowest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Light Green
Lowest Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Dark Green
Higher than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Orange
Higher than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Yellow
Lower than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Remain - Dark Blue
Lower than Predicted Levels of Arts Engagement & Voted Leave - Light Blue

The local government boroughs with the highest levels of engagement were Kensington and Chelsea, City of London, Richmond Upon Thames, Camden, Wandsworth and Islington, all in London, and Chiltern in Buckinghamshire, Waverley and Mole Valley in Surrey, and Oxford in Oxfordshire.
Of these places, all voted Remain. None voted to Leave the European Union.

Local government boroughs with higher than expected levels of engagement were Lambeth, Lewisham, Hackney and Greenwich in London, Southend in Essex, Wirral in Cheshire, and Liverpool in Merseyside.
Of these, only Southend in Essex voted to Leave.

Boroughs with the lowest levels of engagement were Newham and Barking and Dagenham in London, Slough in Berkshire, Sandwell in West Midlands, Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, Easington in Humberside, Bolsover in Derbyshire, Doncaster in South Yorkshire, St Helens in Merseyside, and Leicester in Leicestershire.
Of these boroughs, Newham in London, and Leicester both voted to Remain. The other eight boroughs voted Leave. 

Finally, boroughs with lower than expected levels of engagement were North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire in Yorkshire, Thurrock in Essex, Telford and Wrekin in Shropshire, Swindon in Wiltshire, and West Berkshire and Bracknell Forest in Berkshire.
Of these, only West Berkshire voted to Remain.

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Is this a legitimate correlation or merely coincidental? Can we genuinely say that there is a relationship between taking part in cultural activities and wanting to remain as part of the European Union (which, not incidentally, is one of the biggest funding sources for arts and culture)?

So many articles argue for the good of engagement with arts and culture; that they help us expand our horizons, see things from other people's points of view, witness events from outside of our own experience, gain empathy with situations we wouldn't engage with otherwise, and so on and so forth.

If, as greater and wiser minds then mine have argued, the arts have this power, then surely this is a huge argument both for greater cultural investment? To invest more and more often. To support the arts and that culture that helps people, especially in the lower engaged areas, to see life from another point of view, a point of view that may seem alien or uninteresting at first but will help grow empathy and understanding instead of mistrust and suspicion.

Culture is, in many places, seen as a 'dirty' word; as something synonymous with privilege and wealth. It is not seen as the singing group in the library, or the little festival in the local park, or watching a band play at a nearby nightclub. But culture includes these things along with the sterile art galleries and overpriced theatre tickets.

The arts, it is argued, help us understand who we are, where we have come from and where we are going to. Without this timeline of understanding, how can people fathom the effect of their actions? Without knowledge of the great events of the past, more easily accessible through theatre or artwork than textbooks and timelines, how can society empathise with the events of the day?

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I fear that arts funding is going to take a hit in the years to come, and that means that the situation will only be exacerbated as fewer and fewer people have access to culture, and still fewer people will want to engage. It's a vicious cycle and we risk it becoming a spiral.

I don't know what's to be done about it, except to continue arguing for investment in the arts, in culture, in outreach and in engagement. In those little things, like letting kids play with paints at playtime, that foster a love of art; or singing during school assembly to help nurture an aspiring performer. 

It's little things that affect the big things. As we have seen with the arts and with the referendum.

Everyone's A Politician

This is another blog I've been sitting on for a while, hoping to get my thoughts straight. I don't think I have, but when do I ever?!

In the past couple of months, I've heard lots of complaints about the amount of political talk on social media, and saw so many statuses post-referendum which hoped that people would "stop being amateur politicians".

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Nowadays, there is a sense that "everyone's a politician." But everyone should be a politician. Politics doesn't just belong in the echoing chambers of Westminster, shuttered away behind imposing architecture and incomprehensible jargon; politics belongs in the pub, on the street, over the coffee-maker at work - because these are things that politics *affects* so it should be discussed and debated by the people that political decisions affect. That is; everyone.

I've written many times about my admiration for ancient philosophers, and their views on politics. There was a school of thought amongst them that believed that political service should be compulsory - a little like national service or jury duty, and the city state of Venice selected their rulers by ballot. I feel that, if this were the case in modern politics, then everyone would, by necessity, be much more politically aware and engaged, just in case their name was ever called to serve in Parliament.

In the past, I felt that politics was something dry and dusty. I'm ashamed to say that, after voting once when I was eighteen, I didn't vote again until the referendum. This is a shocking dereliction of a democratic right that women didn't have until relatively recently, and a right that so many across the world still don't have. I think I neglected it because I didn't feel as though I had a voice, that my vote wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things, and that all of the political parties were pretty much of a muchness - a little like choosing between PG Tips and Yorkshire Tea; they're close enough to be indistinguishable, and although some people have very strong views one way or another, you're still just going to end up with a cup of tea.

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I also viewed those who actively joined political parties with a bit of mistrust and suspicion - in the same way that I looked at people who genuinely enjoy long-distance running, or making their own compost; fine, but not for me. However, as I recently wrote, I have joined a political party, and have become more involved in local and national causes.

Maybe this is my age talking, or maybe it's to do with the realisation that I, and many others have had, that we can, and do, affect politics every day. Politicians, you see, are very much like normal people in a lot of ways. Many of them even are normal people, however, they are not omniscient; as with anyone, they can only speak from their own experience and, unfortunately, many of their experiences are not consistent with the majority of those that they claim to represent. So, when they make a decision which seems out of touch with the rest of the country, it's probably because they don't realise they their lives have been so far removed from what many people experience.

So, instead of complaining about it after the fact, surely we should be encouraging conversation and debate? After all, how can politicians be expected to change things if we don't talk about what needs changing?

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Respectful debate should be encouraged and nurtured; recognising that others have points of view that you may not agree with. This is fine and dandy - I don't like Tabasco sauce but I don't prevent my other half from adding it to pretty much every meal he eats. Conversation can often become impassioned, and that's fine too - being passionate about things is important, but dismissing or stonewalling opinion just because it doesn't chime with the way you see things is infantile and disrespectful. I adore playing Devil's Advocate with myself, forcing myself to see things from other points of view. I'd like to think it makes more a more empathic person.

However, on the flip side of this, I've also written before about how I wish for a sea-change in politics itself; one which looks down on the disgusting displays of pantomime derision that takes place on a weekly basis in the Commons. Our politicians are the ones who lead the country, so how can they possibly expect reasoned and reasonable debate if they can't live up to that themselves? Our politicians need to stop behaving like a drunken audience at a late-night comedy dive bar, and then, perhaps, our politics will stop resembling the above.

So, to summarise; I'm glad that people are thinking and talking more politically. It's a good change, and will force our politicians to recognise that the majority are not uneducated sheep, or morons who just want to watch braindead television; that, irrespective of background, we need to be engaged with and actively listened to, rather than being accepting of the lip-service service we have had thus far.

We have opinions, and we're no longer afraid to voice them!

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Bacc Creativity

It was with some trepidation that I watched the announcement of Karen Bradley as Secretary of State for Culture and Media: her background is in tax and financial consultancy, and I wondered whether she would look at the arts simply in economic terms (culture is worth around £84billion to the UK economy each year).

She came into the role at a time of unprecedented political turmoil, and something that unfortunately slipped under the radar was the EBacc protest outside the Houses of Parliament on the 4th July, and Parliament's subsequent debate on the inclusion of the proposed exclusion of arts and creative subjects from the new curriculum.

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The EBacc debate is rumbling on, and greater voices and minds than mine are continuing to argue for the importance of access to the arts and creative subjects. 

Karen Bradley is overseeing the launch of a new creative initiative announced in March; the Cultural Citizens, intended to provide access for children to the arts and cultural institutions. This, in many respects, is wonderful;
By providing access to the arts outside of schools and education automatically makes it something that is fun, something to be enjoyed rather than studied, and I believe that arts schemes aimed at children mean that they develop a love of the arts and culture which will stay with them throughout their lives.
The Cultural Citizens programme is initially being piloted in areas that, while rich in heritage, have traditionally lower levels of engagement with the arts, including Blackpool and Barking, and in areas that are diverse: the Warwick Report found that audiences for cultural activities are highly unrepresentative of communities as a whole. Hopefully this will go some way to redressing this imbalance.

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However, I still have a few misgivings. Mainly that if the arts are removed from the curriculum and become something that is seen as a hobby, does it make careers in the arts seem less lucrative, or less possible? There has already been a massive drop in the uptake of arts subjects at GCSE level and beyond. I fear that we could be heading for an arts drought as less and less students pursue cultural careers.

I would argue that the arts are to be enjoyed and studied. In tandem. The new requirements for those studying Drama, that they don't actually have to go and see a live performance, baffle me. I understand that it is supposed to make the subject more accessible and less expensive, but surely there are ways around this? Subsidised theatre trips, or building links with local theatres or theatre groups, inviting touring groups to perform at the school. Just a couple of ideas thrown off the top of my head there.

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The arts and culture can't simply be measured in monetary terms. Why else would there be hundreds of art, drama and music therapy institutions? The act of being involved with creativity improves well-being, which has a knock on effect to local health budgets. Cities and towns with high levels of arts engagement have lower levels of crime and anti-social behaviour. Children engaged with culture have higher self-esteem and have traditionally performed better in other, non-arts subjects.

I get that they're seen as soft-subjects, and when I was taking my GCSE's, students who performed less well academically were encouraged to take Drama as a subject. But at least they had that option. Under the new proposals, they won't even have that. And will the Cultural Citizens programme be compulsory or optional? Otherwise we risk preaching to the converted as so much of the arts is already wont to do.

It's a good idea, and I hope it works, but then I also hope that access to the arts in schools is preserved and promoted. The arts in this country are to be celebrated and protected; it's something we do so well! We need to ensure we're actively advancing the arts, and not make cultural engagement something that's optional or hard to find.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Cultural Capital

I read an article this morning, claiming that, in the wake of the events of June, Britain's soft power has been dramatically reduced across the world.

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Britain's cultural capital is immense. It's something that a lot of people don't often seem to realise, thinking of "culture" as maybe things like opera and art galleries, things that don't necessarily have widespread appeal. But culture also includes things like our popstars, TV shows and movie industries; the latter of which, we are already being warned, may suffer in the years to come. 

There are lobbying groups set up to campaign for increased funding for the arts and culture, and there are groups set up to oppose this (which personally baffles me, but each to their own), but one thing that can't be denied is that this tiny country has disproportionately influenced world culture. Our exports travel across the world, and our homegrown cultural institutions (art galleries, festivals, concert halls, theatres, etc) attract millions of visitors each year.

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The European Capital of Culture programme, and the newer UK City of Culture, have proven that engagement with the arts can improve a local community in ways that can't always be measured in direct monetary terms; access to the countries world-leading arts and cultural programmes can improve mental and physical health, lead to increased engagement with the community and therefore help with cohesion, pride, self-esteem and outlook. 

Think about a festival, or a concert, or a gig that you've been to, and think about that euphoria you felt at the time; or remember a play, musical, film or piece of art that you saw that made you forget where you were and just sink into the moment; a song that takes you back to a time and place; that time your kids had their face painted at a local kids party in the park and ran around pretending to be tigers; the moment you found yourself caught up in a flashmob; the joy of watching your children singing in a school show... What would life be like without these experiences?

In these turbulent times, we need the arts more than ever. Arts and Culture help us see outside of ourselves, to experience things that we wouldn't otherwise. The arts help us see what it is to be human, in all of our vibrant, diverse beauty. We simply can't afford to lose any more of what makes us ourselves and what makes us strong; unique in the world.

Soft power has more power than we realise. And we will only realise it when we have none.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Platonic Politics

While I was studying for my degree, I became fascinated by the study of ethics. I based my artefact on Plato's Republic, and have been re-reading it recently. I love Plato - I don't always agree with him (in fact, I used his arguments on art against themselves in my artefact.)

In Book Eight of the Republic, the characters of Socrates and Glaucon discuss Four Forms of Government. Now, Plato was quite critical of democracy; his teacher was the real-life Socrates, who was executed by the state for allegedly corrupting the youth of the state against the ruling elite. Plato, in turn, taught Aristotle, who classified democracy as a defective form of government (although he accepted that Polity was Utopian and that democracy was the form of government best suited to reality.)

Aristotle's Six Species of Government

Plato wrote that "When a democracy is thirsting for freedom has evil cup-bearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then... she calls them to account, and says that they are cursed oligarchs."

He believed that democracy carried within it the seeds of its own destruction - that as there is more and more liberty, citizens "...chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length... they cease to care even for the laws." In Plato's depiction, he states that in the extremes of democracy, even animals would be afforded more rights than a man in another state (we have Animal Rights, yet in many countries in the world, they barely even have Human Rights). However, into this excess of freedom comes tyranny, because as we have more freedoms, anything less seems like slavery, leaving the way open for a tyrant to step into the vacuum. He wrote that, in a democracy, because everyone is considered equal, emotional views can have equal standing with those based on reason and logic.

This is what is happening now. Democracy is being destroyed in the name of upholding democracy.

Ann Sang Suu Kyi once said that "Democracy is when the people control the government." 

Plato's thoughts are resonant throughout political history.
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I honestly feel as though this is what we're seeing in politics and society today; we live at a time of unprecedented freedom and liberty, yet, everywhere we look, walls are (literally and metaphorically) being built. Nationalism is on the rise as a backlash to freedom of movement and shared experience. Plato warned us of this thousands of years ago, yet, according to Aristotle, it is something that we are doomed to repeat ad nauseum:

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It's a scary thought that we are headed into the tyrannical segment of this cycle, but I am watching it happen. Maybe it needs to happen? In order to, I don't know, re-set the clock or something? Maybe the way democracy is working now isn't actually working and it needs some sort of defibrillation to get it going again? I feel as though we're seeing the breakdown of our political structures and the disintegration of our societies. Maybe this will be for the best in the (very) long run, but it's going to suck while it's happening.

All I can say is that we need to start learning from the past, learning from our mistakes; we can't dismiss experts with the glib assertion that an opposite opinion is just as valid, even when it flies in the face of all evidence. I think things are going to get worse before they get better, and I sincerely hope that I am proved wrong...