UK culture minister Margaret Hodge argued this year that cultural institutions 'need to embrace the diversity of the present', while also stressing the importance of 'nurturing our sense of Britishness, of finding common identity and creating a common sense of belonging'.
In Sir Brian McMaster's groundbreaking review, Supporting Excellence in the Arts - From Measurement to Judgement (January 2008), artists, arts organisations and funders are told that they must represent a whole 'span of ages, religions, cultures, sexualities, disabilities and socio-economic backgrounds'.
Meanwhile, arts festivals across Europe have signed up to the 2008 Declaration on Intercultural Dialogue. It appears that the arts are increasingly seen as a useful instrument to increase mutual understanding between cultures and nations, and to cohere a common sense of identity within them.
Yet, at the same time, the key theme of the McMaster report is a rhetorical commitment to championing 'the very best art and culture for everyone… regardless of class, education or ethnicity'; an apparent clarion call to universalism rather than the politics of identity.
Indeed, as well as defining particular cultures, the arts at their best do seemingly have the ability to rise above those cultures: to speak to something universal in the human condition. We may talk of Irish literature, Indian dance, French cinema or Malian music, for example, but these are all things that appeal to people from ostensibly very different cultures and great art is something we feel that we all share in, regardless of who we might be.
So what does it mean to ‘celebrate diversity’ in the arts? Does it come at the expense of ‘the very best art’ or does it complement it? Do children need to first achieve a solid grounding in one particular culture and then move on to engage with a range of cultural sources? Did Britishness come before universalism? Or was it the other way round? Must ‘universal culture’ be only either a pejorative reference to ‘Western elite culture’ or a sop to a watered-down art soup not really much to anyone’s tastes?
Western enthusiasm for an undifferentiated ‘world music’, and the banal insight in the government’s Music Manifesto that music is universal because everyone can sing (allegedly), indicate that today’s faux universalism is a pale imitation of a tradition that treasured art for its capacity to transcend cultural difference.
Are the arts doomed to be subordinated to multiculturalist policy goals, forced on us as passive consumers, or might they still add up to a truly shared living legacy, accessible to anyone willing to put in the work required to appreciate it? Is ‘the very best art’ truly the best there is or just what is considered best for us?- Institute of Ideas
Dolan Cummings is research and editorial director at the IoI. He edits the IoI's reviews website, Culture Wars and is a co-convener of the yearly Battle of Ideas festival, next taking place in London in October 2007.
Cummings's interests lie in the relationship between ideas and politics, the role of the intellectual, ideology, and religion in public life. He is especially interested in the question of intellectual authority and how it is contested. Cummings firmly believes that politics should start from the needs and passions of the public, and that this puts a premium on open debate and free speech. Most recently he has edited a collection of essays, Debating Humanism by contributors to the Battle of Ideas 2005.
His interest in the role of intellectuals builds on Ideas, Intellectuals and the Public, a conference he organized in 2003.
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas (IoI), which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint.
Fox initiated the IoI while co-publisher of the current affairs journal LM magazine (formerly Living Marxism). The IoI has since worked with a variety of prestigious institutions in Britain and abroad.
Fox is a panelist on BBC Radio 4's "The Moral Maze" and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education and the media on TV and radio. Fox writes regularly for national newspapers and a range of specialist journals. Fox has a monthly column in the Municipal Journal.
Sir Christopher Frayling
Sir Christopher Frayling is professor of Cultural History and rector of the Royal College of Art, the only wholly postgraduate university of art and design in the world. In addition, he is chairman of Arts Council England, the largest funding body for the arts in the UK.
Frayling is well-known as an historian, critic and an award-winning broadcaster, with his work appearing regularly on network radio and television. He has published fifteen books and numerous articles on the arts, popular culture, design and the history of ideas, two of the most recent being his vast biography of the Italian film-maker Sergio Leone, Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy and Mad, Bad and Dangerous?, which traces the genealogy of the filmic scientist.
Frayling is the longest-serving Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum and was until recently chairman of the Design Council, a Trustee of the Design Museum, chairman of the Crafts Study Centre and a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Board. Christopher was knighted for 'services to art and design education' in January 2001.
Charles Saumarez Smith is Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts. He was born in 1954 and educated at Marlborough and King's College, Cambridge.
After graduating, he spent a year at Harvard University as a Henry Fellow studying at the Fogg Art Museum and then returned to the Warburg Institute as a postgraduate student. In 1979, he was elected Christ's Research Fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge and, in 1982, he joined the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum as an Assistant Keeper with special responsibility for V&A/RCA MA in the History of Design.
In 1990, he was appointed Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1994, he was appointed Director of the National Portrait Gallery and, in 2002, Director of the National Gallery. He took up his appointment as Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in September 2007.
Dr. Saumarez Smith is a Governor of the University of Arts, London, an Honorary Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and has received honorary degrees from the Universities of London, Westminster, Sussex, East Anglia and Essex. In 2002, he was Slade Professor at Oxford University.
Anmol Vellani, Director India Foundation for the Arts, an independent philanthropic organization, since 1995. From 1986 to 1995 he was Program Officer in the New Delhi Office of the Ford Foundation with responsibility for grant making in the performing arts, folklore and classical learning.
Vellani has written on a range of subjects - including the arts and religion, corporate patronage, arts entrepreneurship, the role of foundations, intercultural dialogue, and cultural mapping. In an advisory capacity, he has served as the Co-Chair of Conference of Asian Foundations and Organizations; on the Advisory Council of the Asia Society India Centre; and on the India Advisory Committee of The Resource Alliance, among others.
Vellani has helped to design courses on the arts and management, served as faculty for training workshops in grant making, and used theatre methods to conduct creativity workshops. He studied philosophy at the Universities of Poona, Oxford and Cambridge, and taught at Bombay University in the 1970s. He has been active as a theatre director for the last 35 years.