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'Give the people a say in arts policy'

Since the financial crisis and subsequent cuts, the cultural sector has been forced to legitimise itself. Scientific research has to demonstrate the social outcome of art and culture. To assist the cultural sector in this, the National Knowledge Institute for Cultural Education and Amateur Art (LKCA) therefore started the so-called 'fact factory', a numerical overview of key data and developments in the sector based on all kinds of scientific research.

Ocker van Munster, director of the LKCA, opened the research conference on Culture Participation and Culture Education (Monday 23 November) with a blazing speech. In his welcome address, he called for a more philosophical and anthropological approach to culture: "a level where underlying values, historical perspective, and politics and ideology can be discussed and philosophised about again." He contrasted this with the rationale of Enlightenment thinking and the current focus on quantitative scientific research. 'Evidence-based' cultural policy relies on generalisations based on limited data, Van Munster said. Research is often done to confirm assumptions rather than test them:

"Current Cultural Policy is disconnected from underlying values in society, from historical experience, from the subjective and sensitive of the human condition. Cultural policy has become a matter of cause and effect and of measuring is knowing. I think we need to work towards a research practice that moves away from the instrumental approach. But above all, we need to be aware that what art does to us is ultimately impossible to measure." Ocker van Munster

According to keynote speaker Eleonora Belfiore of the University of Warwick, cultural policy in Britain is going through a similar crisis. With the welfare state under pressure, there is 'justification anxiety'. Scientific research - the 'cult of the measurable' in Belfiore's words - is therefore used for legitimisation. This leads to conflict: Whereas politicians want value for their investments (value for money), the cultural sector - as before - wants money for cultural value (money for values).

Cultural participation higher among the highly educated

But that is not the only crisis for the cultural sector in Britain. About eight per cent of the British population (the richest) enjoy most of the cultural offerings. In addition, there are few women and people of other ethnicities on the cultural committees that decide cultural policy. "So much cultural life happens under the radar" says Belfiore. She wonders what stories go untold as a result.

The question remains whether politicians' appetite for facts is realistic or desirable, and whether the cultural sector should not speak out against it. This is why social geographer and cultural sociologist Sandra Trienekens deliberately conducts qualitative - rather than quantitative - research at MusicGenerations, to do justice to the multidimensionality of the participating singers. Trienekens points out that while we often see ourselves as complex and the other as simple, the other is also complex. Or as singer and 'cheesed-up Turk' Aysegul Karaca so eloquently puts it, "I not only sing, I also act, but I would like to be cast as a normal person for once instead of as Fatima the cleaning lady."

This recognition of human complexity seems to be lacking in quantitative research. Sociologist Natascha Notten researches the intergenerational transmission of inequality in cultural participation, but bases her research exclusively on the 'high' arts - because their value has already been demonstrated. According to her research, cultural participation is higher among the highly educated. So, as Belfiore also pointed out in her keynote, there is no 'class effect' in the Netherlands, but a 'schooling effect'. In addition, identification with Dutch culture appears to be important for cultural participation. A sign of the growing social divisions in the Netherlands and the emergence of a new class society based on educational differences, as also recently seen in The Correspondent could be read.

"High and low educated are increasingly going to create their own cultural zones. Our thesis is that with established culture, we are increasingly falling into a niche at the top and that we will also lose connection with education and participation if we don't step out of our own domain and start collecting the stories from society instead of bringing the story." Ocker van Munster

Give dissent a stage

The LKCA's research conference raised big questions for me: When we talk about cultural participation, who are we talking about? And about participation in whose culture? As Professor of Social Cohesion and Transnational Issues Ruben Gowricharn (of Surinamese and Hindustani descent) critically observes, the 'high' arts mainly represent European norms and values. These should not be assumed to be universal, as is often done. He further explains that the concept of 'art' itself is European in nature and that for other cultures, 'art' is mostly part of their daily lives.

"There are new contradictions in society that touch on our basic values, which for too long we thought were universal, shared by all, and no longer up for discussion. So they are up for discussion. But we don't really want to deal with them. We are still in a comfort zone of complacency and of it will blow over. Certainly in the cultural sector, I notice that we spend a lot of time among ourselves, discussing things, but mainly trying to reach consensus and confirm each other. And even today, of course, we are mostly friends among ourselves. We don't really allow outsiders." Ocker van Munster

According to Belfiore, it is important to bring the unequal participation in culture to the political attention and make decisions on cultural policy more democratic - with the participation of the people themselves and not just their representatives. It is equally important that the research on cultural participation that is done is just as 'democratic', by researching the cultural experiences of different groups and individuals - including minorities. So that art and culture can once again touch the lives of all Dutch citizens, not just a select group of highly educated people.

Perhaps the example of Italy going to follow: For every euro that goes to security, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi allocates one euro to culture. Half of the extra culture budget to the decaying suburbs of big cities.

"If we are not to lose touch with the rapid changes in society, we will have to do more to step outside the established order and give the dissenting voice a platform." Ocker van Munster

The quotes are from the welcome speech by Ocker van Munster during the LKCA's Culture Education and Culture Participation research conference on Monday 23 November in Utrecht.

Jacqueline de Kuijper

Jacqueline de Kuijper is a dance scientist and co-founder of Change Your Rhythm, a consultancy that aims to increase employee well-being through movement in the workplace. Her interests include the importance of movement for cognitive and mental well-being and the relevance of dance to society.View Author posts

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