Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, gave one of the ten-minute ‘lightning talks’ at the Being Human Lab on the first day of the Being Human festival (12–22 November). He was challenged to discuss ‘What new issues must humanity face in the near future, and how can the humanities help?’
I spoke, from the perspective of the Cultural Value Project I have directed for the AHRC, about the importance of the arts in facing up to that future, and why only the humanities could help us understand the full power of the contribution they make.
But I am also a historian. Being a historian brings its own humanities approach to the question, including a little humility in the face of presentism. Each generation believes its technological achievements to be unprecedented and the challenges that it is facing to be unique, but each generation is mostly wrong. Whether we’re talking about the newness of communication technologies or challenges such as demographic change, migration of people, human rights, fear of the other – all of them issues of today and tomorrow – we must situate our thinking in terms of the changes and challenges of the past.
These continuities are why the arts are so powerful, because much of how humans respond to all kinds of art comes from what it is to be human: art’s ability to engage with our feelings and uncertainties, our passions and fears and its ability to challenge us and make us think. Powerful reasons why arts and culture won’t go away even if governments don’t fund them.
Engaging with arts and culture ‘makes people more reflective’
But the need for government funding for some of the arts has led the cultural sector to talk about the benefits of arts for the economy, urban regeneration, health and ageing, everything it sometimes seems but what the arts uniquely can do. The problem is captured in Grayson Perry’s 2007 pot, ‘This pot will reduce crime by 29 per cent’, his protest at the obsession with setting objectives distant from the art itself, and at ignoring the real difference that arts and culture can make.
Yes, the arts have powerful effects on health and ageing, on how we live and thrive in towns, on whether our economy is successful and much else that we’ve tackled in the Cultural Value Project. But we’ve prioritised the ways engagement with arts and culture makes people more reflective. Reflective about themselves and their lives, reflective about how they see others especially others not like them, and the role of empathy in this. We have also asked how arts and culture helps develop engaged citizens, people for whom community, civil society and social justice matter.
My lightning talk offered six quick examples of the kinds of activities and understanding in these areas.
First, many organisations provide ways for prisoners to practice art of different kinds. Arts practice involves imagining other people, other selves, other options. Desistance theory that shapes discussion about re-offending argues that the key to stopping offending is the ability to imagine a different future with choices. Art practice of all kinds in prisons changes people, even if it cannot alone overcome the conditions that cause reoffending. Here is art making people reflective and imagining other futures.
Second, art practice supports people in care institutions. For example, TimeSlips uses photographs and word prompts to help people with dementia to engage in storytelling. A study of ten nursing homes which used it, with ten similar ones that didn’t, was about the residents, but it found that care staff who took part in the storytelling were themselves changed, devaluing residents less and treating them as people. Why? Because through arts they had collaborated with the residents and saw them differently. Here is art, reflectiveness and empathy.
Avoiding easy answers can create more involved citizens
Third, the arts are increasingly used in medical education to enable discussions of difficult issues, better approached obliquely. A drama module for medical students in Dundee took as its text Pinter’s The Caretaker because the play was seen to illustrate themes central to end-of-life care: silence, power, care, uncertainty and communication. The evaluation found the play had enabled open discussion of clinical and care issues, with students more imaginative and reflective than had they addressed them head on.
Fourth, public art can provoke people to think about their communities. Ilfracombe saw two major public art activities in 2012. Verity, Damien Hirst’s huge bronze statue was erected overlooking the harbour, while Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland – a piece of land revealed by a retreating glacier in the High Arctic, pulled into international waters and proclaimed a new nation – visited for discussions of its evolving constitution. Lynne Froggett’s research for the Cultural Value Project showed how each provoked discussion on the future of the town, the role of citizens, what success would be for Ilfracombe, and how they were viewed differently by older and younger people.
Fifth, art is often used to help reconciliation after civil conflict. Kabosh Theatre takes challenging drama about the Troubles into Belfast communities not to bring communities together but by performing within sectarian community settings plays about murder, sectarian loyalties and family relations, to generate painful discussions that could only take place in the safety of one’s own community.
Finally, how to get people to think about climate change as something they can influence? Attempts to do this through arts practice were discussed at a workshop organised by the Cultural Value Project (with Julie’s Bicycle). We learned that art to teach about climate change was ineffective – people knew the facts but needed to feel they could make a difference. What worked was more open-ended – the arts are most potent when they support debate, a more plural and dynamic public sphere, not when they provide answers.
Here are six glimpses of how arts engagement links to the way we confront our future. By connecting with issues indirectly, with a sense of distance, people allow themselves to be more open. The ambiguity and uncertainty of art allows space for reflection, and by avoiding easy answers it can create more involved citizens
The arts are central to handling our future. We need people to be reflective, open to the other, believing they can act in society, and arts of all kinds are fundamental to that. We know that not because someone is calculating whether the reduction in crime from Grayson Perry’s pot has reached 29%, but because humanities disciplines are finding out what is going on as we engage with the arts, and are doing so in a humanities way.
The Being Human Lab took place at Senate House on 12 November 2015.
Professor Geoffrey Crossick is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, School of Advanced Study, University of London and led the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Monographs and Open Access Project.