Art can be priceless

July 12, 2002

A council for the arts and humanities may be obliged to make damaging 'value' demands, write Geoffrey Channon and Kate Fullbrook

Scholars and researchers in the arts have looked enviously for decades at the funds earmarked for their counterparts in the sciences and social sciences. These areas have their own generously funded research councils, while the arts have had to suffer in genteel poverty under the wing of first the British Academy and lately the Arts and Humanities Research Board. All this may change as the campaign for a full-blown research council for the arts reaches its culmination.

Creating such a council is a tempting proposition. An Arts and Humanities Research Council, following the model of its sister body, the Economic and Social Research Council, would pull the arts closer to the ear of government and position them far more favourably in terms of influencing national policy decisions. But, in exchange for this increase in power, it is likely that the arts would be required to accept direction in the light of immediate economic needs and government interests. Research councils have to demonstrate how the research they fund is of value to the taxpayer. They are, therefore, interested in control, accountability and value for money.

While it is the case that certain kinds of humanities research can fairly readily and directly be translated into productivity in the "cultural industries", most cannot. It is simply not of this nature, and its value cannot be measured in economic terms. The danger is that in the interests of a utilitarian notion of "relevance", the new council will be tempted to set the themes, perhaps politically driven, that must be addressed to secure funding.

The social and economic benefits of research in the arts are usually indirect, imprecise, and often more attuned to the enhancement of aspects of the quality of life that may not be quantifiable. Further, the critical viewpoint, which is of central importance to all the arts and humanities, is in danger of being smothered if the research council is overly attuned to maintaining its credentials with the government.

The ESRC, with its predilection for pre-selected projects and themes for funding, and its inflexible demands on institutions that wish to gain recognition by it, provides a good example of the way things might go if the AHRB metamorphoses into the AHRC.

Another order of danger must be considered. Collectivities tend to understand and favour other collectivities. Collaborative ventures in the arts and humanities are in fashion, and are somehow seen (probably by a mistaken analogy with laboratory science) as particularly worthy of cultivation through funding. However, once again, the assumption that such collaborative schemes are necessarily the best way to develop research in the arts and humanities is wrong. Most of the best work in the area has never been and never will be collaborative. Independence of mind and in choice of topic, an eye for the unexpected and an obsession with understanding what has been known in a new, deeper or different way are the things that count in the arts, along with a passion for truth and a commitment to the cultivation of knowledge.

All this can easily be superseded by "realistic" arguments linking the arts to relevance and value for money. In addition, there is a danger that "big money" will look for "big projects" backed by "big ideas", whereas the best way to disperse the funding usually entails favouring the opposite attributes.

The history of state sponsorship of research in the arts and humanities is not always pleasing; the history of state control of such research slides from the uninspiring to the truly frightening and totally objectionable. If a new research council is established for the arts and humanities, great care will need to be taken that its new status does not wreck the very activities placed in its care.

Geoffrey Channon is assistant vice-chancellor (academic development) and Kate Fullbrook is associate dean in the faculty of humanities at the University of the West of England.

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