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.

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