Switching on to 'expressive life'

By Sam Jones

Why do I think the idea of the 'expressive life' is important? The first thing to point out is that I'm writing from an international perspective: I am based in the UK. That shapes my opinion (like all countries, the UK brings a particular political context) but it also reminds us that cultural policy must respond to a more technologically diverse and connected world. That is one reason why I think that the idea of expression helps.  Another is that, compared to, say, defence, health, communities and other policy areas, culture is not a major area of public policy and this is common to many countries. It can often be an afterthought, and considered more from the perspective of providing entertainment than anything more essential to life. The idea of 'expressive life' provides reason to think again - maybe it's a case of switching on to expressive life.

The British Museum has recently mounted a series of exhibitions about great leaders including China's Qin Shihuangdi, Rome's Hadrian, Shah Abbas in Iran and Moctezuma of the Aztecs. These have attracted millions of visitors. They have also centred around cultural artefacts, the creative products of the past. The way that those products were made, kept and cared for, expresses beliefs, attitudes and values - and that's how we seek to find out about life in ancient China or Rome or the world of the Aztecs and Isfahan. Today, the place of these objects in a museum and the choices that those millions make in going to see them are also expressions of value.

Why is it that, while we seek to understand the values of the past through cultural products, we rarely approach the choices we make now in what to create, do, consume and think about in the same way? The idea of 'expressive life'  enables policy-makers to think about the value and role of culture differently. When we make these choices, we say something about who we are, what we want to be and with whom we feel affinity: this is the fabric of communities and societies. This puts cultural institutions in a different light: they are spaces for expression (that's a challenge for the professions that I see Marian has picked up below). There is a responsibility to give people the opportunity to take part in responding to the values symbolised around them and in creating values anew.

Each day we encounter an intensity of cultural forms. Online, on the streets and even in restaurants, we have the opportunity to seek out different cultural experiences. In London, there is even a Polish-Mexican restaurant with a French name. Advances in technology and our growing awareness of the experiences now available will mean that this will only increase. What is more, the opportunity to create and share what we have produced has increased as well. Now, I can watch a video put online by a teenager in Azerbaijan more easily - and maybe even less expensively - than I can Warner Bros' latest release at the local cinema.

All this creates fantastic opportunities to see and experience different beliefs, attitudes and worldviews, but it is not without problems. Different attitudes can grate against each other - this happened in the UK with the play Bhezti, and it happened globally with the film 300. Differences become clearer and often more exaggerated. At the same time, inequalities of access become more significant. If, in some parts of the world, cultural production is becoming an important way of getting opinion heard globally and is a field in which new, global values are shaped, is it not inequitable if people in other parts of the world are at a technological disadvantage and do not have as much access? As peoples mix and mingle through migration, education should open people to different cultural forms and how to read and interpret them. If private interest controls the cultural heritage of our past through contracts and copyright, are we not denied the chance to respond to and adapt the cultural heritage that has shaped us? The world would have been a poorer place if Homer or the Norse sagas had been subject to the ligatures of copyright.

As an area of policy, culture is more like like health and learning than it is the health service or education. It must be nurtured, maintained and responded to, rather than thought of as something that is provided, given or - especially at a time of financial pressure - cut or taken away. Culture is not something that is provided to entertain communities: it is the ongoing traffic and conversation between peoples and values of which communities are formed.

Most significantly of all, 'expression' is a basic democratic right. The opportunity to take part in shaping culture must not be denied. People should be given opportunities and skills to communicate through the different forms of expression available. Technology has broadened our potential to do this, but it has also raised new questions about cultural equity. We can create and express freely, but policy must ensure that the heritage that will stimulate that information and the capabilities so to do are freely available.

January 25, 2010 11:04 AM | |


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

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