The Arts and Civil Society - RSA

The Arts and Civil Society

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  • Picture of Graham Henderson FRSA
    Graham Henderson FRSA
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Regularly shorn of educational funding and condemned as a luxury, the arts, culture and philosophical ideas are not indulgences - they are essential ingredients in creating a society of free expression and robust intellectual engagement.

When I launched a new arts organisation in 2006, I initially had no idea that I was engaged in an important social capital building project. This organisation (Poet in the City) was committed to promoting poetry to new audiences and my main focus was, of course, on how to obtain grant funding and sponsorship for its ambitious events programme, poetry placements in schools and other arts-related activities. However, it quickly became clear to me that the success of this new organisation depended entirely on the strength and commitment of its community. An organisation which began with a list of 200 names on a dog-eared piece of A4 paper ended up with a database of over 10,000 names, something which gave it the ability to run 50 events per year, and to regularly fill venues of over 400 seats with capacity paying audiences. Even more important was the establishment of a core community of volunteers, a group that eventually numbered several hundred people, including individuals from all age groups and walks of life. It was this group, of which around 50 people were active at any one time, which really powered the growth of the organisation, and which allowed it to deliver such ambitious programmes. As well as providing young people with valuable experience of working in the arts, the community allowed individuals to meet like-minded people from many different backgrounds. It became increasingly apparent that, in mobilising people around a shared interest in the arts, the organisation was making a real contribution to civil society.

It was this experience that convinced me that the connections between the arts, and civil society are much more important and essential to the proper functioning of a democracy than is usually recognised. The arts are often seen only as a ‘nice to have’ luxury extra whose practical value is very hard to measure, and which should only be supported financially by government funding where they are being used to provide educational opportunity, especially for those from deprived backgrounds, or to achieve other social outcomes. From my own experience this view of the arts as of limited and marginal importance is completely mistaken. I have therefore spent most of the last five years exploring ways in which to challenge this assumption, which I now believe represents a serious deficiency in our society and in our political system. The arts play an important role in making us thinking and reflective people. And, as Socrates argued, a commitment to philosophy, to an active life of the mind, is the key to a successful political community.

The obvious starting point is to return to the origins of democracy in ancient Athens, although the more one looks at this political experiment the stranger it looks from a modern perspective. Not only was ancient Athens a society run for and on behalf of male citizens, a narrowly defined group, but it relied on slavery for its everyday functioning, and formally discriminated against women and foreigners (metics). It was also a direct democracy, with many roles being allocated to citizens on the basis of a rota rather than on the basis of any obvious experience or merit. The ideas of specialism and expertise are so deeply rooted in our own society that we find it hard to comprehend a society that might pluck an ordinary citizen from obscurity and ask him to lead an army in war, or manage the exchequer. Moreover, ancient Athenian democracy had nothing to do with capitalism. The making of money for its own sake was regarded as an unworthy pursuit, and citizens were expected to serve the state (the Polis) as their highest form of fulfilment. It is perhaps still surprising to learn that the citizens responsible for designing and managing the construction of the Parthenon did so without any financial rewards. They did so in their capacity as participating citizens and for the greater glory of Athens. In this sense the ancient Athenian Polis seems to have more in common with an anarchist collective than with a modern parliamentary democracy. Its understanding of civil society and the responsibility of citizens goes far beyond anything we would be comfortable with, and people power was exercised in a way which we would now regard as wantonly populist, without any of the checks and balances supposedly operative within a representative democracy.

Even so, for the purposes of my championship of the arts, the ancient Athenians provide a startling example of a (much praised) model which placed the arts firmly at the heart of its political system. The streets and walk-ways of the city were adorned by a plethora of statues of gods and goddesses and humans, and its walls were adorned by text, including political exhortations, poetry and graffiti. Ancient Athens has been described as being like a major open-air public art installation.

Imagine, if you will, every street in London being adorned by statues, sculptures, light installations and text carved on walls, much of it celebrating the city and encouraging political participation on the part of citizens. Nor was this the only way in which the arts were central to the life of ancient Athens. As Edith Hall has demonstrated in her book about ‘Greek Tragedy’, the annual play cycles involved a huge number of citizens as actors, chorus members, producers or directors, and actively sought to present challenging and sometimes insoluble moral dilemmas. It appears that there was a clear understanding amongst the ancient Athenians that the arts contributed directly to the education of the citizen, teaching him to question, and to think critically. Thus, at the birth of democracy, we find a crucial awareness that the arts play a vital role in educating active citizens for participation in a democracy, and for encouraging them to see all sides of difficult and challenging problems. One is perhaps entitled to wonder whether the plays of Sophocles and his contemporaries did in fact contribute to better political decision-making by the citizen body in the assembly, or to a sounder approach by elected leaders to the prosecution of foreign wars. However, the intention was clearly there. Knowledge of and participation in the arts was regarded as inseparable from being a citizen of the city, and indeed inseparable from being a civilised person. The arts were closely connected to their view of political community.

This all seems rather a far cry from the way the arts and culture are talked about now.

However, my own view is that the ancient Athenians understood clearly the philosophical importance of the arts, something that is often forgotten now. In her book ‘The Velvet Philosophers’ Barbara Day writes about the encouragement and support provided by Oxford philosophers and others in the West for the intellectuals of Czechoslovakia, struggling under Soviet style authoritarianism in the 1980s. This included a programme of visits by Western philosophers to deliver talks or seminars held in semi-clandestine circumstances, often in private flats, and at constant risk from secret police harassment. As laudable as the efforts of these Western academics were, the real heroes and heroines of this story are the individual Czechs and Slovaks who risked imprisonment and persecution by organising, hosting or attending such gatherings. Despite the best efforts of the Communist authorities and their secret policemen the programme of philosophy lectures flourished both in Prague and in other cities, providing an essential forum in which young people could learn to think more freely, and to consider an ethical and philosophical basis for society outside of the narrow ideology of Soviet Communism. Czechoslovakia had been one of the few Eastern European countries to embrace Communism of its own volition in 1945, and the country gave birth to its own Reform Communism movement which culminated in the Prague Spring in 1968. When this popular Reform Communist movement was crushed by Russian tanks later that year, any lingering interest that young people had in Marxist-Leninism disappeared. By the 1980s, encouraged by the courageous stand in favour of free expression and human rights taken by the signatories of Charter 77 in 1977, there was a considerable hunger for knowledge and ideas in the country, a hunger which the philosophy seminars went some small way to addressing.

It is tempting to regard these seminars as something rather small and unimportant in the general run of history. Indeed, as Barbara Day’s book makes clear, the world of the seminars and the samizdat publications accompanying them sometimes appeared to those taking part as frustrating, disappointing, and marked by failure. The resources that could be provided by private fundraising amongst Oxford academics were limited, and the task of holding seminars and obtaining copies of books and research papers was fraught with difficulty. Many of those who participated in these ‘Patočka universities’ (named after the Czech philosopher and Charter signatory who died after interrogation by the secret police in 1977), suffered persecution at the hands of the Communist authorities. Most of the local intellectuals, including writers, artists and academics, were deprived of the opportunity to practice their professions, often being forced to work as boiler engineers or cleaners or security guards, their children deprived of a proper education. Rarely has it been so difficult for citizens to participate.

The arts were often the touchstone for wider philosophical notions of freedom. The Charter 77 movement had been stimulated by the persecution of a rock band The Plastic People of the Universe, and Vaclav Havel, the playwright, emerged in due course as the country’s leading dissident intellectual. Never have the connections between the arts and artists and the roots of a thriving civil society been more clearly exposed to the light. Reading now about the intensely difficult challenges of meeting and talking together about philosophy in Communist Czechoslovakia it still feels like a story of failure, and yet one has to remind oneself that the Velvet Revolution in 1989 swept Havel into the presidency of the country in a matter of a few days, and that the networks of dissident intellectuals in cities across the country formed a vital source of talent and integrity which the country could draw upon in creating a new anti-authoritarian ethos. Many of those who participated in the alternative arts scene or in the clandestine seminars went on to play an important part in the development of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as new democratic states. And yes, it is possible to look at these countries now and wonder to what extent they have really moved on from an authoritarian mindset. Both successor states are still wrestling with the legacy of decades of authoritarianism. However, I do not think this should blind us to the fact that it was philosophy and the arts which provided a way in which ideas of public decency, ethical politics and civil participation were maintained, ready to come forth again when they were most needed.

The arts, culture and philosophical ideas are, in the end, not luxuries at all but are absolutely essential ingredients in creating the ecosystem of free expression, intellectual engagement and challenge which contributes to change, innovation and human fulfilment in a pluralistic democratic society. The ancient Athenians demonstrate their potential contribution to ideas of active citizenship. And the experience of dissident intellectuals and artists enduring persecution under authoritarian regimes show us in vivid ways just how important the arts are to a thriving society. In resisting extremism, intolerance and xenophobia the arts are one of our most important sources of integrity, authenticity, and truth. Far from treating them as a luxury, we should be treating them as a high priority at a time of rapid social, political and technological change. The arts show us the way to be brave, active and self-questioning.

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  • Graham, you are a rare and necessary voice within the RSA promoting arts ‘important role in making us thinking and reflective people’.

    Art is a function of our humanness, of our self expression. It encourages amplification of feeling and though and this expression is scalable from the individual to the wider social levels.

    However there is this ‘blind spot’, the idea that art is something to be attached as opposed to something which resides ‘within’

    Unfortunately this blind spot also exists within the RSA.


     It’s founding concept of “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce" has been adapted “ to enrich society through ideas and action”, which of course is a noble cause and worthwhile

    However the original intent regarding ‘refine art’ appears to have been lost if not totally ignored. With its attempt to deliver 21st century enlightenment it has inadvertently dismissed the opportunity of refining our understanding of Art and the enrichment potential that could brings to both the RSA and society at large.

    Art – self expression - is intrinsic to our humanness, the common DNA which has bound individuals and nations throughout time. Like air we sometimes forget it is there but we also can’t imagine a world without it.

    Understanding better and working toward Refining art’, I would suggest, carries not only social weight, as your article promotes but also individual benefit. And…what is society if not a group of individuals?

    A first step may be restoring and recognising the ‘Art’ element within The Royal Society of ‘Art’, possibly appointing an officer tasked with its promotion.

    Well done....great article!


  • I was born in former Czechoslovakia and I now live in Slovakia. The arts sector was widely supported during the communist era here, there were major book publishers hiring illustrators for example and painters or sculptors were highly valued. They received state commissions although many of these supported the ideology rather than free expression. These days the situation is very difficult for the art industry in Slovakia. The arts funding seems to be exclusive and elitist. The same with galleries and their support of professional creativity. We have to widely export our creativity to exist too.

  • You think Nick Gibb (Schools Minister) didn’t know this?!

  • "The arts, culture and philosophical ideas are, in the end, not luxuries at all but are absolutely essential ingredients in creating the ecosystem of free expression, intellectual engagement and challenge which contributes to change, innovation and human fulfilment in a pluralistic democratic society."

    Hear Hear !!  It is vital to make arts and education inclusive and accessible for all, not just for social justice but to cultivate a sustainable future for mankind...

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