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In his RSA Journal article Freedom Of Expression Bill Ivey, Director of the Curb Centre for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, argues for a rights based approach to cultural policy. The case for public cultural investment should be made, he argues, in the context of a wider argument about the right to an 'expressive life', including, for example, the right to an artistic life (e.g. the opportunity to learn a musical instrument), the right of artists to be heard in public discourse, the right of access to national heritage. <!--more-->Intriguingly, Ivey concludes with comments which provide a link between his argument and the conversation being provoked on my blog site and elsewhere by the RSA’s new strap line; 21st century enlightenment:

'…the argument in favour of cultural rights and expressive life is not really about the arts at all. Rather our task is to answer the pressing 21st century challenge… 'If Western democracies must abandon the false promise of consumerism, then how shall we live?''

This is an interesting argument but one I’m not sure of. On the one hand, I like the idea that we should aspire to an expressive life. We sometimes talk here at the RSA about ‘sustainable citizenship’ by which we mean the way we need to live for society to prosper in the 21st century. This, we argue, means people need in aggregate to be more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social. It is easy to see how an expressive life could be seen to underpin sustainable citizenship providing a route for participation, creativity and collaboration.

Art is not just there for itself, nor is it there to deliver other kinds of social good, it helps us to re-imagine the good life in the good society

On the other hand I worry about the idea of rights in this setting. Partly, because it leaves unaddressed questions of civic responsibility implying that the expressive life is for someone (presumably the state) to guarantee not something we must create together. Also, I am uncomfortable with the legalistic overtones of a rights based approach, implying that progress is best secured by rules and judges rather than collective debate and mobilisation.

The RSA is currently developing a research project which we hope will provide a framework of ideas for our second State of the Arts conference, in 2011. We want to try to disentangle the various arguments made for public investment in arts – from art for arts sake to instrumentalism – not to say that one is better than another but call for clarity about the kinds of claims and evidence that fit with different arguments.

Bill Ivey’s powerful bid to embed the case for arts funding within a broader account of citizenship and social rights inserts a wedge between the intrinsic and instrumental. Art is not just there for itself, nor is it there to deliver other kinds of social good; it helps us to re-imagine the good life in the good society. Art can be judged by its social impact but only if it is able to redefine the criteria by which we judge the good life in the good society.


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