Ok so I was a bit (a lot) disingenuous in part one of this post.
The part that was written six weeks or so ago. Before the election. Before the recently announced £30m cuts to the Department for Culture Media and Sport (which the Guardian thinks could have been worse if the Arts Council hadn’t made the economic case for the arts).
Anyway, the rise of the economic case for the arts isn’t as simple as I might have suggested. Obviously.
Firstly, I think that artistic work can do a lot of different things at once. Different things that might be at odds with each other for example like making money and raising consciousness.
And then the Arts Council and (industry body) Dance UK have actually been making a broader case for the value of dance and the arts. Arts Council England currently call this the holistic case – society, education and economy – encouraging individual artists and arts organisations to make their own individual case for the arts. This is a rehash of their previous society/ education/ health and wellbeing model.
Dance UK’s 2015 dance manifesto broadly echoed these themes with health and wellbeing, education and ‘Brand UK’. And Bob and Robert Smith who I also mentioned last post had been making a wide reaching case for all the things that the arts do for us as individuals and as a society.
These other instrumental arguments for the arts have their own problems. For example they might be softeners for the economic argument – last year the New Economic Foundation’s Christine Berry warned of how wellbeing is often treated as a luxury for good economic times rather than a genuine priority to rival economic growth.
And even where the benefits of the arts are very real, we might get ourselves into trouble if they become the primary motive for making art. American choreographer Andrew Simonet sets this out really clearly in his brilliant, inspiring and free book Making Your Life As An Artist.
This is really such a wonderful book that is very practical and honest but also very eloquent in making a case for the value of art and artists. These other kinds of arguments about the value of the arts feel crude and bare and leave me feeling like I’ve let myself down when I use them.
So I feel empowered when I come across people like Simonet who can talk about art in terms that are straightforward but not apologetic or subservient to some other agenda.
Rob and Roberta Smith is similarly empowering not just because of the range of arguments he makes but also because of his use of slow, impractical, craftsmanlike materials. The medium is the message.
— Bob&Roberta Smith (@BobandRoberta) April 1, 2015
The third advocate that I find myself turning to is educator Ken Robinson. Here he is in conversation with Sarah Montague on ‘The Educators‘ Radio 4, 1 September 2014 explaining why it is as important to learn dance as maths. It’s really worth a listen.
But here’s the transcript (by Simon Ellis)
Sarah Montague: Are you really saying that dance is as important as maths at school?
Ken Robinson: Yes.
SM: You are?
SM: So every child should have as many dance lessons as they have maths lessons?
KR: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. Yes, of course yes, because children, like you and me, are not brains on a stick. We are embodied.
SM: But everything we do in life, almost, requires some mathematical ability, whether it’s going into a shop or buying your home or seeing your salary. You don’t dance, necessarily, that frequently.
KR: No, but you live in your body all day long. You are in it right now. And our physical condition, how we relate to ourselves physically is of fundamental importance to our sense of self. I mean, when you say that we use mathematics every day, actually we really don’t. A lot of the mathematics we learn in school we never use again in any practical sense. Very few people after school use calculus or algebra. Yes, general arithmetic, things of that sort. I’m nor arguing against that. I’m always keen to say this: I have never anywhere said that the arts are more important than the sciences, or that dance is more important than mathematics. What I am saying is that they are equally important and they are all connected.
Robinson is perhaps the best known advocate for a full rounded education, and became best know perhaps through his 2006 TED talk in which he made similar points.
“Children dance all the time if they’re allowed to, we all do. We all have bodies, don’t we? Did I miss a meeting? Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.“
Last year cartoonist Gavin Aung turned part of the interview into a comic strip (which you can read in full here).
I think this is a really important text and a nicely drawn strip but I think the way Aung depicts dance betrays the same kind of devaluation of dance that Robinson decries. Dance is so much more than ballet or the other traditional forms listed on the blackboard. Indeed one might argue that these reified forms of dance given as examples are part of the problem that Robinson is warning against. It feels like Robinson’s is arguing both for embodied knowledge (including dance but also other art forms) and for creativity, which feel like different things, although perhaps they are often seen as interchangeable.
Robinson’s point isn’t that we shouldn’t be put off by how hard it is to get a job in the arts, but that you don’t need a job in the arts for the arts to be valuable. In fact the ‘ineffectiveness’ of an arts education (in terms of it’s ability to get you a well paid job) is kind of its power – it is not playing by the rules of mainstream education that have been in play since the 19th Century, namely to serve industry.
And so dance is not valuable because ballet is highly valued by some people, but because dancing and making dances involves a range of intellectual, emotional and physical thinking; thinking that runs through all human endeavours by virtue of the fact that we all have bodies. Perhaps an equivalent argument is that children should be taught critical thinking, not because they will go on to be philosophers, but because it will hopefully shape how they do all other things. I guess the irony is that because dance doesn’t get much exposure beyond highly codified, traditionally and commercial forms it’s quite hard to picture what else dance can be.