Cultural diversity policy is one of the few things that unites British cultural institutions today. Every museum and gallery, large and small, has made cultural diversity into a key part of its mission. Funding and policy bodies trumpet this new agenda. The Arts Council’s Cultural Diversity Action Plan reads: ‘There can no longer be any question that responding to cultural diversity is a mainstream and not a marginal issue.
‘ (1) Cultural diversity policy affects institutions’ employment, training and promotion strategies; the subject and style of exhibitions; press and PR; opening hours; even the layout of buildings.The Victoria and Albert Museum’s South East Asian arts officer, Hajra Shaikh, argues that: ‘[Cultural] representation must be examined in all its nuances. It is not simply about collections relevant to ethnic minorities, but it is also about the sensitive and appropriate display and interpretation of those collections, it is about inclusive and targeted education programming relating to collections, and it is about a diverse workforce that reflects the ethnic makeup of our society. ‘ (2) The shift towards this new policy has occurred over the past four or five years.Some argue that this shows that a white cultural profession is at last responding to the reality of Britain’s multicultural society, revising prejudiced assumptions about the kinds of artists and art it should support. It is thanks to diversity policy, goes the argument, that exhibitions about immigrant histories and performances of Sikh theatre are now supplementing the mainstream diet of British history and Shakespeare. It is certainly true that the old cultural elite had certain assumptions about what qualified as ‘proper’ culture, and that many of these assumptions have been revised.
But it is a mistake to see cultural diversity policy in the arts as a more enlightened kind of cultural policy. Instead, cultural diversity policy represents the end of cultural policy as we have understood it. The pursuit of aesthetic or historical understanding, of attempting to distinguish good paintings from bad or correct interpretations from false ones, is deemed impossible. Instead, all cultural institutions can do is to revel in ‘diversity’, by promoting different kinds of art and competing judgements.
Today’s cultural policy rejects the ways of the traditional cultural elite, and presents itself as far more enlightened. However, if we examine the legacy that cultural diversity policy has rejected, we find that some valuable principles have been lost by the wayside. The origins of national cultural policy British national cultural policy has its origins in the early nineteenth century – a time when the new bourgeois elite was gaining power from the old aristocracy, and also faced growing working-class unrest.Promoting public cultural institutions was part of the bourgeois project of nation building. While the 1832 Reform Bill consolidated the bourgeoisie’s political hold over the country, cutting back some of the ‘rotten boroughs’ and expanding suffrage, cultural policy was intended to play a more ideological role.
The elite believed that aesthetic and intellectual refinement would help to discipline the masses, and bring the nation together. In 1832, the House of Commons contributed funds towards the building of the new National Gallery in London.Tory leader Robert Peel told parliament why: ‘In the present times of political excitement, the exacerbation of angry and unsocial feelings might be much softened by the effects which the fine arts had ever produced upon the minds of men.
‘ In 1841, a Commons select committee saw art as a ‘means of moral and intellectual improvement for the people’. The view was that ‘men cease to become mob when they get a taste’ (3). The National Gallery, said Peel, would help by ‘cementing those bonds of union between the richer and poorer orders of the state’ (4).Indeed, the National Gallery’s location in Trafalgar Square, in the official centre of London, was in part so that the rich could come in their carriages from the West End, and the poor could walk from the East End (5). Culture was also looked towards to counter the alienating experience of industrial society, which was marked by impoverishment and anomie. Art, as cultural theorist Raymond Williams put it, functioned as a ‘sphere of imaginative truth’ that developed in opposition to the sphere of the market, which was mechanical, profit-seeking and individualising (6).
Romantic poets such as Blake, Wordsworth and Byron held up wholeness, truth and beauty against poverty and atomisation. Wordsworth saw the role of the poet as ‘the rock of defence for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love’ (7). Some of the elite recognised that high art could compensate for the deficits of capitalist society; beautiful paintings could make the grimness of everyday life a little easier to bear. There is no doubt that the bourgeois elite’s promotion of culture was partial and self-interested.Part of the aim was to contain worthy claims being made by popular movements, to mollify demands for bread and votes with food for the spirit. The elite’s aim was also to use the clothes of high culture to legitimise the state – a state that protected its own property and privilege. And no doubt standards of cultural excellence often left something to be desired.
However, there was much that was valuable in this cultural policy, too. It produced some of the best museum collections in the world, which were accessible to everyone.The National Gallery has become one of the finest collections of painting, stretching from the early Renaissance to the early twentieth century. The public was free to interpret these exhibits as it pleased, and was no doubt relatively immune to the intended pacifying effect. Contrary to Peel’s belief, a love of Titian and a desire for social revolution are not incompatible. A key point is that the nineteenth-century elite really did admire culture. The more elevated and refined the art, the more they wanted to be associated with it.Matthew Arnold, the poet, critic and inspector of schools, wrote in the 1860s that it was ‘men of culture’, ‘persons who are led.
.. by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection’, who could lead and unite society (8). He argued that the bourgeois state should seek to embody these ideals: ‘[the question is] whether the nation may not thus acquire in the state an ideal of high reason and right feeling, representing its best self, commanding general respect, and forming a rallying point for the intelligence and for the worthiest instincts of the community.
‘ (9)This wasn’t about cultural parochialism, placing Victorian paintings above the art of other nations and times. There was a curiosity about other cultures, and an attempt to learn from and emulate them. The Victoria and Albert Museum was set up for fiercely nationalistic reasons, aiming to improve standards in design and manufacture at a time that the British were losing advantage to the more cultured French. Yet it is full of the arts of the world, from Gothic Europe to the Ming Dynasty. Better British design meant mastering Japanese calligraphy and Persian pottery, rather than reproducing some ‘British’ way of doing things.Nor was it a time of exclusivity in the way that tends to be assumed today. National art galleries were not intended to be the plaything of the middle classes. The aim of these museums was to relate to the public – to bring together rich man and poor man before great works.
If anything, the working classes were the target audience, since they were seen as the rowdy ones in need of refinement. This was a backhanded compliment: it implied that everyone was capable of appreciating the highest works of art, whatever their class or ethnic background.In Arnold’s idea of the ‘pursuit of perfection’, there was a glimmer of a genuinely universal culture – a culture in which people could come together freely to develop artistic expression and appreciation. Arnold looked towards a time when ‘the whole of society is in the fullest measure permeated by thought, sensible to beauty, intelligent and alive’ (10). The increasing reach of diversity policy British cultural policy remained based on these founding assumptions until the late twentieth century.
Of course, there were changes.There was a stutter between the world wars, when parts of the Modernist movement launched an assault on bourgeois culture and values. Some modernists mocked the refinement of high culture, drawing a moustache on Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and revelling in random and absurd scribbles. There is no such thing as cultural value, they shouted, no ‘perfection’ or ‘best self’. Britain’s cultural policy survived the challenge, to an extent. After the Second World War, cultural policy re-emerged as part of the welfare state.The Arts Council was established in 1947 with the aim to raise the quality of cultural life and to take it to the broadest audience possible.
Under John Maynard Keynes, London’s centres of high culture, such as the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells Ballet and the Old Vic Theatre, were promoted as beacons for the nation. The approach was more insular than the nineteenth century, however. The Arts Council promoted local cultural activities alongside its fairly set diet of national culture; art was seen as a source of comfort and pleasure to lift the spirits of a war-torn Britain, rather than as the ‘pursuit of perfection’.Cultural policy took serious knocks from the 1960s onwards. In the 1960s and 70s, the cultural left derided that which had been known as high culture. There was no way of judging culture, was the argument; no ‘better’ and no ‘worse’. All claims to cultural value were merely the personal opinions of a white middle-class male elite, foisted on to the population in order to maintain power structures. A cultural democracy, by these terms, was a society in which everybody was able to express their opinion and create according to their taste.
Only by getting rid of value judgements could culture serve everybody’s needs.Another assault came from the right. In the 1980s, then prime minister Margaret Thatcher demanded that cultural institutions justify themselves in market terms, and weigh their value in pounds and pence. Here culture was evaluated in the same way as any consumer product: whatever sells. All that stuff about beauty and truth went out of the window.
By 1988, the Arts Council was promoting art as a way of regenerating run-down neighbourhoods (11). The sphere of culture, which had self-consciously opposed itself to the terms of the market, was now called upon to conform.Paintings became products and galleries became businesses. Both the cultural left and the economic right attack the idea of culture as a separate sphere that should be judged in its own terms – instead holding it to account with external political or economic criteria. Both deny the possibility of developing common standards for judging art, and see culture as merely a collection of disparate individual preferences. The difference is that the left saw these preferences as personal identities; the right saw them as market choices.Even during the 1980s, the leftist and rightist criticisms of culture were often intermingled.
A 1986 publication by Geoff Mulgan and Ken Worpole, then cultural policy advisers to the Greater London Council, bore the hallmarks of both. ‘In an age when we no longer expect to find a single, all-encompassing truth..
. the best strategies for survival often involve creating alternative, exclusive realms which reject dominant modes’, they argue, sounding cultural leftist (12). Yet they also state that ‘the real popular pleasures have been provided and defined within the market-place’.