Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Speaking Doubt to Power

Here is my idea for an ArtTank. But first, a quick admission.

I’m not an artist. In fact, the arts passed me by for a couple of decades. After some early dalliances, when adolescence kicked in, the arts and I looked at each other in some dusty corridor, and walked on – we got by without each other.

Meanwhile, politics and policy grabbed me – from CND and anti-apartheid marches, to nerdy documents. And policy kept me going throughout my career – even as a teacher, when I was a victim and bystander. From trade unions to think tanks to government departments, I stuck with policy and, beyond the odd novel and movie, stuck without culture.

It’s only been in the last five years, as one of the directors of a programme that uses the arts to transform young people’s lives, have I allowed art, and especially theatre, back into my life, personally and professionally.

So, here's the half-formed idea.

Imagine, for one moment, you are a policymaker, or at the least a policy-shaper. You could be Prime Minister, a civil servant, think tank wonk, or in a tenants’ association. Take your pick. Part of your life is spent recommending or making decisions that will impact on other people’s lives.

Now imagine that, in this role, you have been handed a problem. Somebody’s hunch is that policy can help solve that problem – a new policy, a change in policy, or maybe just the removal of an old policy.
So, what do you do? How to you make recommendations or decisions? You will probably want to gather and analyse evidence, talk to experts, maybe hold a seminar, consult with a wider group of people. Recommendations will emerge, which in time may or may not be taken up, and then may or may not be implemented in the way you envisaged. At some point, no doubt, someone will implore you to think creatively. That someone will probably be holding pens and post it notes of many colours. If you are very unlucky, a rainbow cocktail of pipe cleaners and assorted stationery will also appear.

Policymaking is busy work these days, and the processes are becoming busier and busier. Decades ago, hold one or two meetings, write a couple of strong memos, and out came policy. These days, it’s a more torturous process, involving horrible words like ‘stakeholders’, horrible meetings, and horrible online spaces.

All this activity, however worthwhile and rigorous, may not be sufficient.
My hypothesis is this. Policymakers who actively allow cultural experiences to inform their decision making processes will make better decisions. Or, as I recently said to a think tank director who was wondering how a new cohort of young researchers could come up with more innovative solutions, “Just get them to see some art!”

Art builds new knowledge and creative capital, and provides a sideways look at the critical challenges facing society now. Artists are, whether they or we like it or not, an incredible political resource. At a time when fundamentals about the role of the state and democracy are being questioned, art can help us think through problems that seem impossible to solve. The results are not always straightforward or simple, nor is art a panacea. But it can and does help shift thinking. As the political theorist Murray Edelman has written:

“Commonly held assumptions about the nature of the world are partly arbitrary, partly conventional, often contradictory, only rarely based on verifiable tests, and even in the last case likely to change as scientists revise their premises, hypotheses, and techniques of observation. Successful works of art enhance, destroy, or transform common assumptions, perceptions, and categories, yielding new perspectives and changes insights,,. although they sometimes reinforce conventional assumptions as well. They can transfigure experience and conception, calling attention to aspects and meanings previously slighted or overlooked.”

Or, as the art historian TJ Clark put it:
“Art seeks out the edges of things, of understanding; therefore, its favourite modes are irony, negation, deadpan, the pretence of ignorance or innocence. It prefers the unfinished: the systematically unstable, the semantically malformed. It produces and savours discrepancy in what it shows and how it shows it, since the highest wisdom is knowing that things are pictures that do not add up….”

What are the policy discussions that could benefit from artistic input?

Right now, anyone who is thinking about policies relating to Englishness, identity, rural community or even intergenerational issues should get to the West End to see

If you are wondering about how to personalise the NHS, or about how technology might be used more innovatively across all public services, it would be worth exploring the recent Abandon Normal Devices contemporary art festival in Liverpool.

And if you want to think about how we manage consumerism and how consumerism manages us, take a look at Grayson Perry’s pots, inspired by visits to Westfield Shopping centre.

At a time when so much policy requires changing individual and organisational behaviour, where fewer of the solutions can be found in legislation or compulsion, art and artists can play a key role in helping us ask better questions and understand human behaviour, motivations, passions and spirits.
So, for my Clore research project, I am beginning to play with the idea of an ArtTank, a mechanism that helps put art and artists into the policymaking process. Here are some of my starting assumptions:

- that the arts can influence the decision making processes of policy makers for the better
- that art is a valid form of ‘evidence’ which could complement (without ever replacing) current policymaking processes
- that artists should be seen as thought and doubt-leaders, and can help policymakers redefine and solve problems
- that deliberately using art and artists this way does not surrender art to instrumentalism, or compromise the artistic process or product.
- that positioning art as an essential tool for policy, rather than of policy, will contribute to its public value

For now, I am going back to theoretical basics, reading tough stuff about theatre, policymaking and power, and thinking through my research methods. So bring me your views, however brutal, and top tips for things to read and see. But I am also looking for partners from policy and art worlds who might help me test some of these ideas in practice. So shout if you think that ArtTank might be able to work with you.

Friday, 18 December 2009

User-generated. Content?

How people blog when they are really busy is beyond me. I have been far too preoccupied with two very different tasks. They are linked, tenuously I guess, around the theme of co-production. Much of my past month has been spent in hospital with my daughter, trying to negotiate a way of treating her lung condition that keeps her as well as possible and all the family as sane as possible. Home treatment saves the NHS thousands of pounds a day, despite the cost of home IV antibiotics. Evidence says that hospital treatment has more effect, but whether evidence is too generalised to count for our experience (I’d say we were now ‘expert patients’) and factor in our emotions is difficult to say.

Before that, I was working with the fantastic team at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Earlier this year, Artistic Director Kerry Michael announced that, for the first six months of 2012, the Theatre would open up its programming process to allow our public to completely decide on the Theatre’s programme, two seasons of work on the main stage, studio spaces, bar and off-site. My job was to scope the idea, gather examples of similar initiatives, and begin to create a recommended framework for how this could be done. We named the project Open Stage.

It’s clear that, even within the arts, Theatre Royal is not alone in its ambitions, despite Mark Robinson's account of the arts sector’s ambivalence to this agenda. Notable recent innovations included the Nuffield Theatre Lancaster, London Bubble's Fan Made Theatre, and Fierce Festival's recent innovations The combined might of the British Museum and the BBC are also contributing to this zeitgeist, enabling participants to upload photos of their objects as part of their wonderful ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ initiative, starting in 2010. User-generated content will create the worlds largest museum, adding to rather than challenging the curatorial decisions which led to the first one hundred choices.

However, the Theatre Royal’s plans feel more radical, unique and genuine than anything else I researched. In a way, the concept is already part of the Theatre’s DNA. The theatre has long held a reputation for being a “theatre of the people” and the aim of Open Stage is to take that a step further, building on Joan Littlewood’s ‘continuous loop’ philosophy by giving real programming power to the people the Theatre serves. As Joan herself once said:

I really do believe in the community. I really do believe in the genius of every person. And I’ve heard that greatness comes out of them, that great thing which is in people. And that’s not romanticism, d’you see?

Beyond some financial and ethical constraints, everything about how and what the theatre programmes is genuinely up for grabs. My central suggestion (with huge thanks to Kate from Fuel) was around the creation, through public consultation, of an Open Stage brief, which artists around the world could respond to, and the public would then select and curate from. But the project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, could go in many exciting directions. In the midst of Olympic rhetoric and real, often turbulent change in its Stratford heartland, Open Stage could have a huge influence, not only on the Theatre Royal, but on the whole theatre and arts sector.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Enron and on: art as evidence

A recent article from Michael Billington about how theatre is responding to the recession focused on the current production of Enron at the Royal Court. With Enron, there has been just about enough time for some decent reflection, with the additional hindsight of realising how little was really learnt (If the smug 'we told you so' hindsight of The Economist ever irritates you, it's worth reading some of their 1990s articles about Enron). The forthcoming play by David Hare about the more recent financial crisis may present more of a challenge. When the events that theatre confronts are too contemporary, distance and reflection become more difficult - let's call it the Dambusters dilemma.

Stunning reviews from the Chichester Festival has sold the run out. Thanks to a short placement at the Royal Court, I saw the first preview. The production was thrilling, with complex issues explained and exposed with creativity, sometimes subtle and occasionally bombastic. At times feeling like an adult pantomime, the play rarely stretched its audience to examine our own complicity and values. Given the demographic of the Royal Court audience (albeit on a first night), the performance felt at times like old money was laughing at the vulgarity of new money.

I finally understood the fraud at the heart of the Enron story, the mark to mark market. To quote Jeff Skilling:

"It's a way for us to realize the profits we're gonna make now. if you have an idea, if you sign a deal, say that we're gonna provide someone with a supply of champagne for the next few years at a set price, every month whatever - Then that definite future income can be valued, at market prices today, and written down as earnings the moment the deal is signed. We don't have to wait for the grapes to be grown and squashed and ..however the hell you make champagne. The market will recognise your idea and your profit in that moment. And so will the company. If you come up with something brilliant - You know, life is so short. If you have a moment of genius, that will be rewarded now. No one should be able to kick back in your job years from now and take all the credit for the idea you had. "

Might policy benefit from a mark to market approach? It would enable politicians to take credit for achievements that are unlikely to be realised in their political lifetimes. In the last fortnight, I have visited several Hackney secondary schools. Even beneath the veneer of some stunning buildings, it feels like something extraordinary may be going on which could have as much impact on social mobility as anything tried in the past. Hackney's secondary schools now outperform the national average for GCSE results. At Mossbourne Academy, a huge group of students who five years ago would probably have ended up with minimal qualifications are now starting their A Level courses.

In the same way that the gains in primary school test scores in the late 1990s were probably more due to Tory policies than to New Labour's literacy and numeracy hours, some of this government's real achievements may not bubble through for a decade or more.

Whilst avoiding premature evaluation, is there any way to give our politicians credit now for evidence not yet seen, impact not yet felt, or outcomes not yet realised?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Putting the C into the CSR

All parties are going for some rhetorical slash and burn to prepare voters' minds for the spending cuts ahead. Lord Mandelson yesterday announced that "everything is going to have to be examined".

It was less than two years ago that we reached the end of the last Comprehensive Spending Review, agreeing budgets for 2008 to 2011. Comprehensive it wasn't. For all the macho talk from civil servants about tough choices and total line-by-line examinations of Departmental budgets, ultimately nobody really suffered. If there were any major losers, they didn't shout too loudly. This contrasted with a concurrent Arts Council portfolio review that did dare to make some unpopular choices, although its communication and justification of these choices were more than flawed.

Any government genuinely committed to cuts in public spending will
need a new language to admit its limitations, a polite way of saying that shit happens. I remember one Minister came close when, commenting on a couple of train crash deaths, he compared this to the numbers killed on roads. He was heavily criticised, as was Boris Johnson when responding with justified humour to the transport problems caused by last Winter's snow in London.

A recent
DCSF Press Release on youth crime proclaimed: "Ministers are clear that there is no room for failure when it comes to protecting the public from crime". No room? None at all? Does this mean that whenever a crime happens, some part of Government has actually failed?

George Osborne this weekend praised Tory Councils for providing us with fully itemised details about how our money is spent. Would it be possible to start this openness earlier, to render more transparent the decision making processes about how our money is allocated, well before it's actually spent? The opacity of the current process, conducted in spreadsheet-filled rooms, feels archaic. We need an honest discussion between politicians and voters about why and where cuts might happen. As an addition to recent debates about co-production of public services, is there time and space for some thinking about co-reduction?

Monday, 7 September 2009

research, reuse, recycle

I got back into some kind of post-holiday swing by reading Mark Robinson's Arts Counselling blog, celebrating the Gulbenkian Foundation's republishing of their 1959 report Help For the Arts. Mark's summary and analysis cut through the differences in languages (is it time for the regions to reclaim the word 'provinces'?) to show how little has changed in the key debates around arts funding.

Later, inspired by a brief family visit to the Eiffel Tower and a quick fleecing at the gift shop, we all watched The Lavender Hill Mob, the kids still grasping their solid-metal souvenirs. Filmed in 1951, mainly in the heart of the bomb-damaged City of London, the film provided a beautiful visual accompaniment to the Gulbenkian Report.

If it's really true that, chastened by climate change and the recession, we are all cutting costs and darning socks, we may also benefit from taking the same approach to the way we make and shape policy debates. Rather than rely on fresh-faced glossy pamphlets which blithely describe the 'pace of change', maybe we'll all start looking backwards, and learning far more.

Everyone thinking about policy should try out the wonderful
History and Policy website, which "works for better public policy through an understanding of history". And if someone out there wants to discover what the current Building Schools for the Future programme might learn from the last wave of school building in the 1960s, I can give you a copy of my wife's Masters dissertation.

Here is something I recycled earlier; an extract from
John Berger's Ways of Seeing that has extraordinary resonance to current debates around art, technology and power relationships.

“If the new languages of images were used differently, it would through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate ... that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

"The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. It authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. This touches upon questions of copywright for reproduction ... As usually presented, these are narrow professional matters. One of the aims of this essay has been to show that what really is at stake is much larger. A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why – and it is the only reason why – the entire art of the past has now become a political issue."

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

back to broken basics

Is there a better name for a blog than The Bleeding Heart Show? Neil Robertson's self-confessed 'liberal-left' blog takes the challenge that all of us should face - thinking like a Tory.

Neil compares Cameron's 'broken society' rhetoric with the pronouncements, and occasional policies of John Major's Back to Basics era. Wary of the way in which Major set standards that members of his Cabinet failed to meet, Cameron is being far more specific about a set of societal ills that afflict only a small part of the population.

How broken is society? What has caused those ills, to what extent are we all responsible? Who was Number One in the Charts when Major gave that speech? Amidst the laughable hypocrisy of Back to Basics and cones hotlines, I remember one speech from Major that resonated with me then, and continues to appeal.

In the middle of a speech full of eulogies for nuns on bicycles and warm beer (remember that one?) Major called for a gentler society. He never expanded on this, but, strip away the nostalgia for an age that was far more violent than golden, he may have been onto something.

Could gentleness become an all-encompassing political philosophy? In a faster, frantic modern world, what does gentleness look like? The Young Foundation's latest report on Civility may well provide some fresh, gentle thinking on this issue. For now, the only answer I have is that, in September 1993, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince was Number One, with 'Boom Boom Shake The Room.'

Friday, 17 July 2009

stick to your blogging

As of today, I am a proud member of a new bloggers' circle. Set up by Matthew Cain with the support of the RSA, the idea is that a group of amateur bloggers commit to reading, reviewing and publicising each others' blogs. We all aim to create at least one post a week, and comment on at least two posts from other blogs every month. At the moment, it feels like a warm supportive space. Maybe that's because the process hasn't yet begun.

There are lots of Circles out there, but I have immediate visions of knitting circles. From there, the phrase 'stick to your knitting' comes to mind. The phrase was apparently created by Tom Peters (that business guru whose book 'In Search of Excellence' identified a number of excellent companies whose fortunes nosedived post-publication). It means carry on doing what you are familiar with and what you do best. If your company is good at knitting, don't diversify into something new.

The act of blogging is in a sense a direct denial of this daft principle. Great blogs play with the unfamiliar, create connections between different areas of knowledge, none of which the authors might know much about. They acknowledge the value of genuine expertise, but challenge and probe information, teasing out new insights and taking risks with half-formed opinions.

Let's hope everyone in the bloggers circle and beyond sticks to our blogging and keeps ranting way beyond our authority.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Ends and Means

This post isn't really about education. It just begins that way.

A couple of weeks ago, Conservative Education spokesman Michael Gove gave an important speech to the RSA. The speech revealed the contradiction at the heart of his thinking, and probably that of all parties.

The first half of his speech covered his personal views on the purpose of education. A return to the liberal tradition; a focus on thea subject-based canon of content; a retreat from the pursuit of wider skills and outcomes, as exemplified by 'Every Child Matters'. His views were interesting, coherent, and genuinely guided by a passion for social justice. Matthew Taylor's blog gives a good summary, and will soon challenge Michael to clarify a few points.

The second half focused on Tory plans to free up schools to run schools as they wish, driven by the demands of their parental community. If Michael really believes this, it renders the first half of his speech irrelevant. His opinions are no less interesting, but they become merely opinions, ones which schools and parents could adopt, adapt or ignore as they see fit.

The key 'localism test' for any politician should be this: If you are serious about devolving power, you will have to be prepared not only to devolve methods, but to devolve outcomes too. Every child will still matter, but in very different ways to very different communities.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Raising and Redefining Achievement

I have always had respect for Michael Barber's approach to education, and his ability to make genuine change happen. However his piece on How the school system should respond to a shrinking budget shows that he might have hung round politicians too long. He uses two political devices.

Device 1: Invent extreme-viewed enemies that don't really exist

Tony Blair used to do this all the time; I doubt he was the first. Here are three of Michael's examples:

"Many still cling to the demonstrably false view that creativity consists of each teacher making it up in the classroom. This is not creativity, it is betrayal."

"the widely held but absurd view that because some things can't be measured, we should measure nothing."

"There are many educators and leaders who simply don't believe that successful change is possible."

Where are these people? I have weaved my way round the education world for years, and never seem to meet them. Yes, there are those of us who, backed by evidence, believe that we focus insufficiently on the creative development of our children; that our assessment system is no longer fit for purpose; that change is rendered difficult by societal factors beyond the school walls. But nobody I have met ever takes these views to the extremes that Michael claims. By turning them into extremists he denies the validity of these concerns and closes down debate.

Device 2: Make it sound too simple

His 'systemic solutions' are faultless: train and develop great teachers and leaders; ensure teachers develop their pedagogy with regular opportunities for collaboration and feedback; devolve power and budgets to schools; ensure that data about school and student performance is rich, accurate and transparent. As an education system, we have made progress on all of these solutions.

Here is my additional solution, more messy and complex, but one which could move us on at a time when 'performance' appears to plateauing. Talk about the outomes. As an education system, we need a robust discussion, a new consensus, and finally (and most challenging) a degree of local flexibility about the outcomes we want for our children and young people. Despite the tinkering from government, and braver moves from others, including the RSA's Education Charter, politicians tend to close down discussions about outcomes before they have really begun.

I once claimed that the aim of Creative Partnerships was to raise and redefine achievement. Raising proved much easier than redefining. I hope that the new 21st Century Learning Alliance has more joy. Standards Are Not Enough (worked out the acronym?)

Monday, 6 July 2009

tecchie shit, hippy shit, do shit?

I've always wanted the superhero power to be able to tell if people weren't listening to me. Like those glasses which can tell when people pee in a swimming pool, it's not a really a power that would save the world. But it might help me to adjust my tactics in all sorts of situations. Scientists somewhere are probably onto it.

Today I was at a brilliant conference, surrounded by people who weren't really listening. Reboot Britain asked the question ' how can the promise of our new digital age tackle the challenges we face as a country?' I still don't know the answer, but it's clear that there are more than enough people trying.

All around me, people were twittering, blackberrying, blogging, and even doing that 20th century email thing. On a closer look, most of this activity was entirely unrelated to the purpose of the day, and unconnected with the content of that session. Maybe they were listening to the speakers, but if so, they were taking multi-tasking to new heights.

At one point, the journalist Yvonne Roberts expressed a concern that too many people were trying to solve problems online that could only really be addressed through making something happen on the ground. Tim Smit's rail against hippy shit came from a similar concerned place.

And if I wanted my Luddite intuitions about the digital age confirming, during an imaginative, reflective speech from Jeremy Hunt, up on screen beamed this tweet from OP1UM1. "Line bankers and politicians against my garden fence and shoot them in their faces".

Friday, 19 June 2009

Caution Assessment

For years, I have wanted to create a caution assessment form. Organisations would use the form to ask themselves questions about their recent, current, and future activities, and whether they are doing enough to promote risk. Excessive caution may ultimately be more hazardous than excessive risks.

I have always struggled to think of a possible structure and suitable questions, beyond the obvious 'what risks are you taking?', 'what cock-ups have you made, and how have you learnt from them?' There may already be templates out there, or maybe it's a case of subverting the standard risk assessment form.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Shall We Dance?

Halfway through an illuminating 3 days at Sadlers Wells, my late night remote control-flicking brought me to this advert for McCoy's "man-crisps" - A depressing message for anyone trying to change the image of dance.

Win Man Gadgets with McCoys Man Crisps

What would you cut?

Today the National Campaign for the Arts launched their Manifesto for the Arts. At the conference, The London Mayor's head of Culture Munira Mirza posed the ‘what would you cut?’ question. We used to ask the same question at ippr, during the height of the 'no return to boom and bust' boom. Now, the question is even more relevant and unavoidable.

It is easy and tempting to look beyond the arts for cuts – Trident, ID cards, even the sacred, sometimes opulent spaces of health and education. Having visited lots of schools in the past few years, resourcing levels can occasionally feel extravagant.

However, sticking with the arts, Munira pointed to the ‘bureaucracy that is supposed to support you’. She made similar points in her Culture Vultures publication. There is without doubt a messy clutter out there of organisations and agencies that are supposed to support artists, or support artists to support others.. Radical action, especially if resources are reallocated to the creation of art, could be timely and popular.

But bureaucracies are easy prey, and cutting them rarely saves you as much money as you think it will.

Here is one other option, backed by zero data, and unlikely to be popular. Given that audience numbers are unlikely to rise much more in tight economic times, is it now time to face the possibility that we have an oversupply of cultural venues, in particular performance spaces? Last week, I heard about a £1.5 Million theatre, built at the start of the decade with mainly Arts Council money, that was now dormant, maybe used for two weeks of the year. This could be a London problem, or even an inner London issue. Meanwhile, the Building Schools for the Future programme is only just peaking; hundreds of schools will open or reopen every year for the next decade, many with modern performing and visual arts facilities – BSF has been described as England’s largest ever cultural building programme. If used as they ought to be, for wider public rather than school-only use, these schools will create even more capacity, but contribute to oversupply.

Also, the trend for producing theatre at mobile venues, or reclaiming space to produce temporary theatre, continues, and the recession has made many more spaces available for ‘pop-up’ performances and galleries.

So, what would I cut? If we do have an oversupply of permanent 'static' venues, in certain areas, now may be to cut some of them loose and cut our losses.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Good politicians borrow, great politicians steal

Tory Education spokesman Michael Gove today proposed that 11 year olds should take their tests in the first week of secondary school, rather than when at Primary School.

Here is what I wrote in The Guardian on the subject seven years ago:

A simple solution [to problems with SATs] would be for 11-year-olds to take their SATs during their first few weeks at secondary school, invigilated by their new teachers. For the number-crunchers out there, the results could still be aggregated back to produce primary school league tables. Primary teachers would be able to prepare children without cramming them, and secondary teachers would believe the results, and use them diagnostically. Taking the test after six weeks holiday (provided they aren't eroded by yet more "booster classes") would give a more accurate reflection of children's literacy and numeracy levels.

The Tories are right on this one, and will probably have the chance to prove it.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


I swore I would never blog about children or animals, at least not my own. Children rarely do the funniest things, and even those things are rarely funny to anyone unrelated to them. Here is where I break my promise.

I am reading Atul Gawande's Better: A Surgeon's notes on performance. Gawande identifies "three core components for success in medicine - or any endeavour that involves risk and responsibility" These are: diligence, do right, and ingenuity. Simple.

On Saturday I took my seven year old out for a Pizza. She is overtaking her older sister in the race to adolescence, and even during the act of ordering I did something to annoy her. I asked her how I could be A Better Dad. In the style of Norman Foster, she scribbled all over a serviette, and thrust it at me.

Be Better
  1. don't. tell. other. people. what. I. said.
  2. don't. say. err. in. the. middle. of. the. sentence.
  3. don't. do. disgusting. burps. and. farts. and. poos. and. breathing.
  4. don't. tell. us. off.
  5. don't. make. us. do. work.
  6. don't. make. us. walk.
  7. don't. eat. and. slurp. your. food.
I guess I now know my seven deadly sins. I am just trying to work out how many of these I can do at the same time.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Tyranny of Success

I once knew a brilliant headteacher in Leeds who suggested that the national curriculum should be designed by those who failed at school. Or, at the very least, the content of each subject should be decided by those who hated that subject, or found it very difficult. Getting a roomful of geographers to determine the geography curriculum just created overload from people who may love the subject, but were too precious and knowledgeable to make good choices.

I was reminded of this at last week's Clore Leadership conference ' Its the Arts, Stupid'. A panel of four artists spoke passionately about how the arts infrastructure, and we leaders, could better support artists. Kwane Kwei-Armah asked us what we were going to do to create environments for artists to fulfil their potential across different artforms. Siobhan Davies argued that Dance needed a formal 'warts and all' history to take the form forward. Grayson Perry railed against the cult of 'originality', the quest for which can devalue the search for quality. Louise Wilson talked about how collaboration can be nurtured.

Thoughtful stuff; one problem. Similar to most 'panels', these were four highly successful artists, whom the arts infrastructure has clearly worked for, in various ways. From the joy of arts school to public funding of buildings to the Turner Prize to close relationships with theatre directors, the usual cocktail or talent, effort and serendipity had brought them success.

But maybe our starting point needs to consider those for whom the infrastructure has failed. Those with unrecognised talent, whose creativity was never nurtured. We all know them. Some of you are them. It is easy to fault the education system, and wider societal barriers, and the concept of a meritocracy in the arts is as outlandish as in any other sphere. But what could the cultural sector do itself to make sure that success came more to those who deserved it?

Friday, 29 May 2009

Creativity, IQ and cultural bias

Last week's New Scientist featured research on the existence of a 'creativity chemical'.

The University of New Mexico's Rex Jung (with a name like that, don't you already believe everything he is going to say?) explored whether the chemical N-acetyl-aspartate, which is already associated with neural health, metabolism and intelligence, could also play a role in human creativity.

Jung measured the NAA levels, IQ and 'capacity for divergent thinking' in 56 adult volunteers. His findings:

Overall, volunteers' creativity scores correlated with levels of NAA in a brain region called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG), which regulates the activity of the frontal cortex - implicated in higher mental functions. But while low levels of NAA in the ACG correlated with high creativity in people of average intelligence, in people with IQs of above 120, the reverse was true (The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.0588-09.2009).

Jung speculates that if there is less NAA to regulate frontal cortex activity in "average" brains, they are freer to roam and find new ideas. In highly intelligent people, however, tighter control over the frontal cortex seems to enhance creativity. Perhaps this is because they are more likely to come up with new ideas anyway, and the tighter control allows them to "fine-tune" that ability.

"People say you have to let your mind wonder freely to be creative," says Jung. "For people of average intelligence, perhaps it's true that you need to utilise more areas of your [frontal cortex] for something truly novel and creative to emerge, but in more intelligent folks, there's something different going on."

If this is true, it would imply a completely different approach to the development of people's creativity, depending on their IQ. With a two decade old O level in Chemistry, I am not going to challenge Jung's lab work. However, the problem may lie in the testing. The history and critique of IQ testing is well known; many believe that cultural and class biases are inherent. How about testing for 'divergent thinking'? Compared to the huge IQ industry, testing for divergent thinking has less profile, status and research. But if given similar scrutiny, would we also discover that these tests are equally flawed, if not more so?

The other problem is that divergent thinking is just a part of what makes us creative. Convergent thinking can help too, amongst other attributes.

Meanwhile, expect Holland and Barrett to soon stock a creativity supplement, somewhere near the fish oil.

Last word to Mr Jung: 'I would have loved to see what Einstein's ACG looked like'.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Following my Leader

My wonderful ex-boss Matthew Taylor is often used and abused by the media as an 'ex spin-doctor'. His Blog reveals far more depth and substance.

Commenting on a recent RSA seminar, Matthew describes a contribution from the Director of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy, Professor Anton Hemerijck. 

In presenting the core arguments of his forthcoming book on the welfare state in Europe after the financial crisis, Hmerijck gabe five dimensions of welfare state recalibration:

• Functional: what should the welfare state do?
• Normative: what are the duties and values underpinning the welfare state?
• Distributive: who gets what?
• Institutional: how is the welfare state organised?
• Referential: who do we compare ourselves with?

Take out the word 'welfare', and these are really useful dimensions for thinking about the state more generally. Reapply them to the arts, and we could have the start of a helpful new framework.

An Artistic Theory of Everything?

In our island's troubled, introverted times, it pays to look any direction but down. The US has always provided fertile terrain for innovative writing about politics and policy, but the recent stimulation of a new president and an economy in crisis is generating some brilliant thinking, even on cultural policy, an area the US mainstream often ignores.

Whatever your views on physics, you should check out Eric Booth's essay on
An Artistic Theory of Everything. Applying Einstein's 'unified field theory' to the arts world, his conclusions include:

"Practitioners of different art forms just don’t think of themselves as part of a larger functional entity. Even though multidisciplinary performances and presentations are increasingly common, the various artistic tribes compete more often than they cooperate, believing that the concerns they share are less significant than the ones they face on their own..."

"This fundamental act of art occurs when we find the right word in a poem or the dance move that captures what we know and cannot say. We spark the arts connection when we enter a "world" made by someone else (a work of art, a spoken image, a story, an eloquent gesture) and find a personally relevant connection inside it. We fire the art connection when we pick just the right song to play for a suffering friend and when we listen deeply to a friend's story and connect to its unspoken core. We slip into the physics of art when we resonate inside with the note just played, when we experience a sense of eternity under a night sky...

"What can we do, as believers in the power of the fundamental act of creation, to align our actions, our creations, our organizations, our intentions and interactions with everyone inside and outside the arts to maximize that power? How can we create environments that effectively, irresistibly support and nurture that power? What events can we devise that are dedicated to that power, not merely to the presentation of artworks that we hope will contain it for those few who pay to attend?"

I laid a similar challenge for the arts education sector in my 'culture change' article about the Find Your Talent programme. But, like Eric, I was better on the diagnosis than the prognosis. I have no other answers as yet, but in seeking them I will also remember another Einstein theory - "you can't count everything that counts".

Friday, 22 May 2009

No ads, no art?

My multi-talented brother in-law Alex Osman's has a cracking Blog, Rambunktion. This post directed me to Add-Art, a free and clever application, that turns internet banner advertisments into curated art. As someone with the will but without the balls to be a real adbuster, I love the idea of doing this virtually. The problem is this. Much of the art which replaces the art isn't very good, and in some cases is even more irritating - albeit without the hyperactive flickering of most internet banner ads. With their 'high production values' (is this just a euphemism for big budget?), maybe it is inevitable that ad-art produces better art than add-art.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

No ads, no comment

I contacted the Guardian to ask about possible columns this week. They got back to me in haste, promising me to look at my ideas, but not promising too much, since the size of their supplements are shrinking by the month. The decline in advertising revenue is catching up with them.

Today the DCSF announced that Tribal had been awarded the contract to create a schools recruitment service. '
This programme aims to reduce the cost of advertising and fill school staff vacancies through ‘talent pooling’. Sounds sensible, rationale, and hits all the cost-cutting buttons. If it works, it will also hit the TES hard, and affect those other education supplements people leave on the bus, unread. The TES is unlikely to die, but fewer ads means fewer pages, both news and comment.

Does this matter? The DCSF needs to do the right thing with our resources for our schools. But are they also quietly rejoicing in their role as curtailers of the powers of the press? Is this the most boring conspiracy theory ever?

What me, a cultural critic?

Who the hell am I to judge culture? If I knew how to knit, maybe I would stick to it, but I have always skated on a thin veneer of knowledge, so why should my relationship with culture be any different?

My only recent qualification is having seen a fair amount of theatre in a short space of time. Here is a layman's view of four of them.

The one where the film was better than the play
Matinees are special - worth the ticket price just for the feeling of coming out blinking into daylight - the sunnier it is, the better the guilty feeling. At the National Theatre, in an audience of hundreds of pensioners I saw
'Burnt by the Sun', a Russian play set during the inception of Stalin's purges. Based on a recent film, it left me aching to see the movie. Despite the usual National Theatre Lavishness, I am not sure what a stage production added. Maybe I need to see the film before judging.

The one where the book was better than the play
Then, at the Arcola,
Monsters told the story of the Jamie Bulger murder. I chose this because I loved As if, Blake Morrison's profoundly moving account of the same events. Written by Niklas Rådström, a Swedish Playwright, I expected those new insights that sometimes only foreign writers can bring to a situation. Instead, we received a far too generalised message, removed from the cultural context, especially around class and place, that Morrison mined to make his book so compelling.

The one where the Play was not a Play, or a Dance, or anything else
My fellow Clore Fellow Kate produced a piece with the
Clod Ensemble, set in the Village Underground, a warehouse in Hackney. I am not even going to go close to trying to describe or critique this piece of theatre, but the music and movement gave me strange dreams for days.

The one where Children's Theatre may improve on the original
Finally, at the Unicorn, I took my nine year old and her half-Spanish friend to
Twelfth Night. The kids occasionally lost the plot, and thought Shakespeare 'mad' for 'using old-fashioned language', but it was engaging enough for them to want to stick with it. Barely pared down, let alone dumbed down, for the audience of over-10s, the production squeezed everything it could out of its small and versatile cast and set. One soliloquy was given new meaning through its transformation into an indie-boy ballad. Best of all, an actress chose my knee to sit on over Jude Law's.

Other highlights: England at the Whitechapel, and the magical Coraline in 3D.