Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 6 Relating well-being, values, culture and society

Cultural policy: institutions for well-being

It was the task of C.E.M.A. [Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts] to carry music, drama and pictures to places which would otherwise be cut off from all contact with the masterpieces of happier days and times: to air-raid shelters, to war-time hostels, to factories, to mining villages.

(John Maynard Keynes 1945)

The naturalised relationship between culture and well-being is a consequence of the theoretical lineage of ideas of the good society we touched on above. The culture–well-being relationship has subsequently been operationalised through cultural policy as social policy in numerous ways. The above quote is from John Maynard Keynes, a key figure in economics, whose developments still inform much government policy today. Keynes invokes the culture–well-being relationship here, by describing what would happen without its preservation. He paints a mental picture where cutting off miners from masterpieces jeopardises their happiness, as that is how they access memories of happier days.

For the Victorians, the arts and culture were considered ‘elevating and refining to the working man’1. Public cultural institutions were established ‘to resolve problematic class behaviours’, with Henry Cole advocating in 1884 that ‘museums should go into competition with the Gin Palaces’2, as ‘the rapt contemplation of a Raphael’ would keep wayward husbands from the taproom3. Even the public park emerged for those who migrated to cities during the Industrial Revolution4. In other words, the park as we now know it was another Victorian strategy for the improvement—and regulation—of urban populations.

When culture is categorised as a solution for society, the idea is then developed and operationalised, and presented as a way to restore some form of social balance; whilst recognising that museums are ‘in competition’ with other ways of spending time, whether a park or a pub. Identifying problematic aspects of society and their associated pastimes has been long entwined with ideas that certain activities, and therefore the people that do them, are deficient, and lacking in the right sort of culture, or are ‘uncultured’. People may lack a link to masterpieces of the past, but that does not mean that they lack culture, are ‘cut off from it’ or are indeed less happy as a result.

People in fact choose to not seek links to the culture described as a masterpiece and find happiness in pastimes that may suit them better. This approach to managing society by addressing the ways in which certain people ‘lack’ a certain kind of culture is called a ‘deficit model’. It stigmatises the practices of some people, and not others, the belief being that if certain people only engaged in a particular form of cultural participation, in the same way as these other, more exemplary people do, then we could be closer to ‘a good society’. This model of cultural policy still dominates contemporary UK cultural funding5, despite various attempts to redress it (that we encounter in this chapter).

The current framework of UK cultural policy is indebted to the Victorians and their adoption of ideas of civilising as a way to a good society. Its management is more a history of institutions, and in 1940, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA, to become the Arts Council of Great Britain) was established. It was World War II, and British cultural life—whether professional or amateur—was thought to be retracting, as described by Keynes cited earlier. The Board of Education intervened, saying it is essential ‘to show publicly and unmistakably that the Government cares about the cultural life of this country’6. The funding agreement committed CEMA to the ‘preservation in wartime of the highest standards in the arts of music, drama and painting’ and ‘the widespread provision of opportunities for hearing good music and the enjoyment of the arts generally’7.

We can see that slippage between meanings of culture here cemented in a policy document from 80-odd years ago. Where the idea of a broader ‘cultural life’ becomes synonymous with ‘encouraging music and the arts’, and that these are things ‘the Government cares about’. As Hewison points out ‘these essentially aristocratic, though benign, intentions are at odds with the democratic sentiments’7 of commentators like Raymond Williams who began questioning what and who culture was for.

These concerns of whether people are accessing culture, and who has access, have become key questions for cultural policy. As we shall see, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) commissioned its own survey of ‘characteristic activities and interests’ (to quote T.S. Eliot again), to discover who is doing what. Yet, the model of government funding remains fixated on this link between the masses and masterpieces.((Notably, for example, Arts Council England’s ten-year strategy was called Achieving Great Art for Everyone (2010).)) Consequently, the institutions that formulate and deliver most of what we think of as cultural policy have become fanatical not only about ideas of cultural participation for its perceived personal and social benefits, but also how to fix ‘non-participation’,((For discussion on issues with non-participation as an idea, see Stevenson (2016), and using Taking Part data, see Taylor (2016).)) by engaging those who are not taking part. A cynic might say that this would allow the institutions of cultural policy to gain credibility for social impact and social change by way of simply getting those who are assumed to need more culture to enter their institutions, and we shall see how that plays out in data.

The deficit model of participation, and how many people are participating as an indicator of impact, is increasingly recognised as politically and empirically problematic. Cultural institutions are beginning to address the question: how are we deficient, if we are not engaging communities, rather than why are certain people not engaging with us? It is also important to note that cultural participation is a distant proxy measure of any form of social change. Entering a museum will not dissolve the social structures or traumatic experiences that leave some with ill-being or social disadvantage. So, counting heads of who enters institutions generates data with many limits, yet this method was the staple of data use for some time (as we will see in more detail in Sect. 6.3). To assume anyone who does not wish to participate in a cultural offer is deficient in some way is morally dubious at best and to prescribe particular activities as any sort of cure for social ills may even be argued to be irresponsible8, misleading and misdirecting resources.

Well-being data have been used to plug the gap between attendance numbers and the capacity of cultural institutions to deliver social policy aims. Yet, in spite of years of investment, reams of theory, research and recent evolutions in data analysis, little has changed for the better9. We will return to how well-being data can be used to link the masses to masterpieces and help retain how the culture–well-being relationship remains institutionalised. However, we first of all need to return to questions of how certain aspects of culture are considered good for well-being in certain contexts.

  1. Bennett 2000, 1414 []
  2. cited in Bennett 2000, 1414 []
  3. contemporary magazine [1858], cited in Bennett 2000, 1414 []
  4. Gilmore and Doyle 2019 []
  5. Miles 2013 []
  6. cited in Hewison 1995, 30 []
  7. Hewison 1995, 33 [] []
  8. Oman and Edwards 2020; Oman 2019a, b []
  9. see Brook et al. 2020 []