We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, prior to my current role at King’s College London, referred to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, I had the privilege of working in the arts for 30 years. They were 30 years in which I experienced at first hand, in schools, hospitals and local communities, the ways in which art inspires and empowers individuals to imagine a world beyond their own—to dream, then to aspire and then to achieve. Encounters with prisoners on parole, young people at risk and patients in hospitals convinced me of the multiple benefits that flow from engagement with art—to people, to communities and on to society.
Over the years, I gathered many powerful anecdotes about individuals inspired and lives transformed through art, but, as I never tire of saying, the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence”. So when I had the chance to take up a role within a university, where I might connect what I had done for so many years with robust evidence about its value, the opportunity was too good to turn down. Therefore, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for what I see as an early Christmas gift— the opportunity to talk on one of the subjects about which I am most passionate.
Over recent years, two authoritative reviews have provided the most comprehensive overview to date of the value of arts and culture to society. The 2015 Warwick commission and the 2016 Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value project both expound the array of benefits that art generates—economic, educational, and for health and well-being, as well as social.
As time is limited, I will note only in passing the underpinning economic contribution of the cultural sector and the jobs it provides. I will talk about how arts participation supports improved educational outcomes through enhancing cognitive abilities, confidence, and problem-solving and communication skills. Nor will I expand on art’s contribution to health and well-being—a subject so ably covered already in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. Instead, I will concentrate on those issues that might be grouped under the heading “social”: community cohesion, civic engagement and crime reduction.
Across the world and across history, there are many examples of art building bridges and fostering dialogue across fractured communities. In 1947, the Edinburgh International Festival was founded by Rudolf Bing, an Austrian who had fled the rise of Nazi Germany and come to the UK to run Glyndebourne opera house. Bing conceived the Edinburgh Festival as a way to unite divided nations through art. Four decades later, on the site of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted musicians from both east and west in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, its final movement memorably reimagined as an ode not to joy but to freedom. More recently, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was formed to include both Arab and Israeli musicians, working together as equal artists across political and ideological divides.
So what are the properties of art that it can play such a powerful role in reconciliation and community cohesion? I believe that art offers a safe environment in which to explore differing views—a way to see the world through other people’s eyes. These are not just fine sentiments; a growing body of evidence shows that participation in art helps diverse groups to form friendships and understand each other across cultural divides. It helps us become more tolerant, more empathetic and more altruistic, better able to coexist in a diverse world. I cannot think of a moment in my lifetime when this has been more important.
There is also a proven correlation between arts engagement and civic behaviours. Students from low-income families who engage in arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer and 20% more likely to vote. A range of studies show that arts participation helps young people build the confidence for political engagement, which is fundamental to the processes of democracy.
I do not pretend that the arts are a panacea for all of society’s ills, and I am well aware that similar claims to these about the benefits of sport have already been made in this debate by other noble Lords, but I believe that there is something unique about art, and that distinction derives from the personal experience of it. As the AHRC’s 2016 report made clear, some of the most important contributions made by art to society are embedded in the individual experience—in art’s ability to make us more self-reflective and better able to understand ourselves and therefore to understand others.
Perhaps nowhere is that more powerfully demonstrated than in the still-too-rare examples of art in prisons. The 2013 Re-Imagining Futures report explored arts interventions in the processes of desistance. It found that arts engagement helped prisoners redefine themselves. It increased their ability to work with others, which correlated with increased self-control, and through art they were able to imagine and then to explore alternative ways of living their lives.
In reviewing the evidence, it is hard not to be struck by how often research shows arts participation to be of disproportionate benefit to the well-being of people from disadvantaged backgrounds and to those living in disadvantageous circumstances. Yet we know from the Warwick commission that children born into low-income families are the least likely to engage with the arts and culture, either through education or at home. We also know that in state schools hours of arts teaching and the number of arts teachers are falling, while fee-paying schools continue to sell themselves to parents on the basis of their outstanding arts provision and facilities.
Does the Minister agree that we need urgently to find ways to address this conundrum—that those people who would derive most benefit from engagement with the arts are often the least likely to be given the means through which to access it? In the end, the well-being of society, whether through art, sport or recreation, depends on the well-being of individuals—individuals across all parts of society, and particularly those most in need.