What does it take for a culture to thrive?
The answer’s simpler than you might think. Participation is the essential element. Culture isn’t what a group of professors, historians, critics or even practitioners tell you it is, it’s what the common consensus decides it is.
Our society is currently driven by a Technocracy, and that’s a pity. Technocrats are great organisers – that’s why their pals in government are so willing to listen to them. But they offer a poisoned chalice. Like any lobbyist group, they’re driven by an agenda, and their agenda is profit. It’s all they understand. Sure, they can adapt someone else’s ideas to make them profitable. But it’s always someone else’s ideas. It never seems to occur to them that someone has to teach the “someone else” who has the ideas. Worse still, our Tory ruling elite seems to regard the encouragement of education for the majority as best limited to those skills required to deliver a docile and unquestioning workforce. So much for “free market competition”!
As a result, the Arts and Humanities, essential to foster creativity, have been systematically denigrated in our schools. The reality is, that they’re just as vital a part of learning as Literacy and Numeracy. The result is sadly predictable: endless generations of young adults turned out of education visually illiterate, lacking the confidence to create for themselves, or even to own an opinion and express it with confidence. The naysayers amongst you will now immediately point to Scotland’s thriving Game Industry, but it’s really the exception that proves my rule. Kids in Japan or China grow up learning to paint at the same time they learn to spell. It would never occur to them to regard Art as somehow a non-essential “leisure activity”, or the fringe domain of a few “gifted” individuals. For them, it’s an essential life skill. I’ll leave that thought here for a moment while I remind you just who’s currently handing us our asses economically, and allow you to draw your own conclusions.
We like to point to Renaissance as the fount of our artistic heritage. The truth is, that period was a hotbed of squabbling, fiercely competitive entrepreneur artists who constantly adapted their practice to attract patronage. It wasn’t enough for them that a thing be utilitarian – it had to be beautiful, too. We ponder like hypocrites over those works today, consumed by reverence, when we should be green with envy and determined to outdo them with our contemporary works. Dead artists are of no relevance to an era they didn’t live in and could never have imagined. It’s up to living ones to take up that challenge, and the only way we’re going to give them the opportunity is put Art back in its rightful place as an essential Life Skill. That’s going to take political will, so you’d better start demanding it of your politicians. The alternative is a slow lingering death for our increasingly inward looking, revisionist culture.