Cultural diversity: different strokes

Does cultural diversity policy benefit the arts?

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

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When the Arts Council was established after the Second World War, its main focus was on art like opera at Covent Garden, ballet at Sadler’s Wells, and theatre at the Old Vic. The aim was ‘to raise and to spread’ – to raise the standard of the high arts, and to take these to the nation.

The new face of British arts policy will show itself next weekend, between 2 May and 5 May in Manchester – when decibel, the Arts Council’s cultural diversity initiative, hosts four days of ‘the best of British culturally diverse performing arts’ (1).

A common view is that British arts have long been dominated by a white, middle-class elite – excluding artists and putting off audiences from other cultural or class backgrounds. The Runnymede Trust, a think-tank on ethnicity, gave a harsh judgement in its report The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain: ‘At present, there is scant recognition of Britain’s cultural and religious diversity in funding policies for the arts in England, Scotland and Wales…and there are insufficient representations, through the performing and visual arts, of the increasingly hybrid society that Britain now is.’ (2)

The days when arts organisations could be seen promoting ‘traditional’ arts to ‘traditional’ audiences are over. Phrases like ‘reflecting diversity’, ‘breaking down barriers’, ‘building new audiences’ and ‘exploring ethnicity’ trip off the tongues of arts funders and practitioners. Arts organisations are now seeking to fund and showcase diverse artists, and are employing ‘specialist ethnic agencies’ to promote arts events to specific communities.

The Arts Council’s Cultural Diversity Action Plan reads: ‘There can no longer be any question that responding to cultural diversity is a mainstream and not a marginal issue.’ It states that ‘the Arts Council should respond to the full complexity of diversity and its varying many-layered needs’ (3). London Arts’ Cultural Diversity Action Plan makes a commitment ‘to reflect the cultural diversity of London’s artists and audiences across the full range of our funding’ and ‘to act as an advocate for cultural diversity in the arts and the wider world’ (4). The Greater London Authority (GLA) organises an annual festival, ‘respect’, to celebrate cultural diversity in the arts – with the aim that this might help London’s communities to ‘learn to understand each other better’ (5).

From one point of view, this represents a refreshing opening up of British cultural life. We’ve seen the Royal National Theatre co-producing the Hindu epic, The Ramayana; Bollywood coming to the West End; black and Asian theatre groups showing their work all over the UK.

Art draws upon particular experiences – the moods, manners and preoccupations of a community – as well as the universal themes of love, loss or tragedy. The British cultural scene is surely richer if it represents a broad range of human experience. Theatre companies like Tara Arts, and novelists like VS Naipaul and Zadie Smith, show how the migrant or immigrant experience – like any other – provides fertile ground for artistic exploration. No doubt there was a certain cultural blindness in the arts world in the past – a preference for a particular range of art, and particular kinds of artists. If this is now being rectified, and if arts organisations are approaching commissioning and funding with an open mind, then this is all to the good.

And of course, the more people who can enjoy and benefit from cultural life, the better. Ample and engaged audiences are essential for the arts to thrive. Britain’s theatres and galleries can broaden our horizons, refine our sensibilities, and enable us to live more interesting and fulfilled lives. That arts organisations are now promoting cultural events to a broader range of people who might not otherwise go to galleries or theatres could enrich British cultural life.

But the practice of organising policy on the basis of people’s identities – which is a growing trend – has a dark side.

Defining particular kinds of ‘culturally diverse’ arts, artists and audiences that should be consciously supported, will tend to pigeon-hole different groups. Artists or directors are seen as Asian artists or black directors; opera- or gallery-goers are defined in terms of their ascribed cultural group. Playwright Tanika Gupta complained: ‘I’m so fed up with being called an “Asian playwright”. They would never describe Tom Stoppard as a “white playwright”, or say “with an all-white cast”.’ (6) Rather than opening up national cultural life, and enabling more people to enjoy more different kinds of culture, cultural diversity policy could actually end up dividing it and closing it down.

These policies will also affect artistic judgement – which is founded on a focused consideration of the art itself, in its own terms. Cultural diversity policy is likely to shift attention away from the quality of art, or the quality of artistic experience, and on to the kinds of people engaging in it. The question of whether an artist deserves funding is not only decided on the basis of their plays or paintings, but also on the basis of their cultural identity.

Which raises the question of whether there is a tokenistic element to the promotion of black and Asian artists – giving groups recognition and funding that they may have not won had their art been judged dispassionately. And it is also worth asking whether this is a comfort or a sleight for those so rewarded.

Also, given the arbitrariness of the groups any arts organisation defines as ‘culturally diverse’, there are always problems deciding which groups to include. If black, Asian and Chinese artists are covered by a cultural diversity programme, some might ask, why aren’t disabled/Irish/lesbian artists also included? Is a third generation Chinese artist who was taught to paint at private school any more deserving of special treatment than others? What begins as an attempt to create a level playing field could end up creating a whole new set of injustices.

Josie Appleton is coodinating a spiked-debate on cultural diversity in the arts, sponsored by decibel. The debate will be launched in June 2003.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) See the Performing Arts Showcase on the decibel website

(2) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, The Runnymede Trust Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, 2000

(3) Cultural Diversity Action Plan, Arts Council of England, May 1998

(4) See the London Arts Cultural Diversity Action Plan (.pdf), June 2001

(5) GLA press release, 12 April 2002

(6) Different strokes, Observer, 6 April 2003

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Topics Culture


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