Selective values

November 8, 1996

Colin Painter believes that the arts should find a place in the lives of people outside the professional art worlds.

The issues surrounding "multiculturalism" are arguably the most significant for the arts at the end of the 20th century. Yet an obvious central ingredient is rarely addressed: the simple recognition that what we in the West call "the arts" is not a universal and "given" category of artefacts and activities. It is a category selected by particular groups of people at particular times according to their particular values.

For example, not all paintings, films or poems are deemed to be "art". This status is accorded to a limited selection of artefacts that, like any selection, is exclusive as well as inclusive. The arts are defined as much by what they exclude as what they embrace.

This might be unimportant if such things as poetry, paintings and music were understood merely as entertainment or decorative adjuncts to life - which, of course, they partly are. But, equally, they are ways through which experiences of the human condition are understood and shared. They shape as well as reflect values. The differing values of cultures are inseparable from ways of depicting experience. The process of selecting those representations to be given the status of "art" is, therefore, inseparable from determining whose values should prevail.

In Europe, those who undertake the selection on behalf of governments are largely professional scholars and producers of the artefacts that they themselves validate as art. We can see the official selection that counts as a country's fine art, for example, in national art galleries. The artefacts excluded from this status are less easily encountered in any systematic way.

Academics and art world professionals are ambivalent about the recognition of the "arts" as a category selected by people because it renders their artistic positions a matter of debate rather than inherent authority. This is evident within the so-called "new democracies" where the new freedoms are welcomed but the resultant competition from Walt Disney is not. If the arts are justifiable as superior, and protected by financial subsidies derived from general taxation, it must be on the grounds of efficacy rather than on vague undefined superiority of taste.

Those of us who are arts professionals obviously have as much right as any other groups to argue the value of our beliefs. Equally, if we have skills we believe to be of human benefit, we are morally obliged to share and spread them. To achieve this, it is necessary to take seriously the priorities of other cultural groups with which we coexist.

These issues are exemplified in Britain where cultural differences can relate to social background (as well as ethnic differences). In the area of visual images, for example, the high culture of contemporary fine art is marked by the rejection of most of the ways people outside the professional fine art community relate to images in their lives - as depictions of loved things and places, records of personal events, associations with family and friends, contributions to the decorations of homes - in other words as part of daily life. Even in rare cases where particular artefacts are valued across a spectrum of social groups (certain pictures by Constable, for example) they are valued and understood in markedly different ways.

"Multiculturalism in the arts" should involve a reconsideration of the ways the arts might find a meaningful place in the lives of people outside the professional worlds of the arts. It should involve a genuine engagement with the values of other cultures and subcultures within an acknowledged field of legitimate debate.

Colin Painter is principal of Wimbledon School of Art.

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