Why write about people’s life in the arts?

Where we Dream is now with the designer. Before it went, I asked a few friends who work in the arts and academia to read the text. Although drafts had been discussed with members of WBOS – that’s implicit in co-production – I wanted to see how someone with a professional interest but no previous knowledge might respond to the book.

Happily, the feedback has been good, but one person asked some questions that made me aware of how normative are the arts world’s current ways of thinking, and by extension of writing, about itself. In particular, she asked who had ‘commissioned the research and for what purpose?’. It is a perfectly reasonable question, given the research I’ve published over the years. At the same time, it implies that research, bought by an external body for purposes of its own, is the normal reason for writing about cultural life.
‘The power of science is to transform the world in ways that not even scientists can predict. The power of the humanities – of the one and only culture – is to interpret the world in ways that anybody can appreciate.’
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, 2007, p.117

As evaluation has become important for the public arts sector, and publication has diminished in difficulty and cost, there has been an explosion of reports about the arts. Public bodies, charitable foundations and arts organisations publish most of it themselves. Because it is not peer-reviewed (a concept whose value does not preclude questions about its legitimacy) academia defines it as ‘grey literature’, which makes it sound like it is written by ringwraiths.

All that presents problems of its own but my immediate concern is that arts professionals may now believe that the research model is the only valid way to think or write about arts practice.

Scientism filtered through academic practice and government policy is now such an established way of thinking about the arts and society that it has become the norm. It may even come to be the only validated way of  reflecting on arts practice. Dealing with a utilitarian public culture dominated by scientific rationalism arts professionals no longer trust their own ways of knowing. Worse, they may not even notice – or question – the distortions that result from looking at their work continually through a single lens.

Scientific research is a cornerstone of modernity that has brought incalculable benefits to humanity. It can even be very useful in understanding the arts. But it is not the only, and very possibly not even the best, way of understanding how people create, experience and share the arts. The journey that began with Where we Dream and continues with other ‘Regular Marvels’ explores some of the others which, if they aren’t new, are certainly neglected.

Oh, and I’m thinking of putting a sticker on the front of Where we Dream, saying: ‘Proceed with caution: this is not an evaluation’.

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