Understanding Well-being Data

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

Well-being and culture: reviewing the long theoretical lineage

to increase the happiness of men by giving them beauty and interest of incident to amuse their leisure, and prevent them wearying even of rest, and by giving them hope and bodily pleasure in their work; or, shortly, to make man’s work happy and his rest fruitful.

(William Morris, Aims of Art lecture, 1887, in Belfiore and Bennett 2008, 144)

The aims of art, according to William Morris, should be to improve ‘man’s’ quality of life in numerous ways. The role of culture (broadly defined) in a ‘good society’ has a long history that can be traced back to ancient Greece. Culture tends to be presented in a positive light, and Aristotle’s name tends to be attached to this representation. As you may remember from Chap. 2, many theoretical lineages of ideas of well-being and its measurement for policy derive from Aristotle. Yet, these ideas are not without problems when viewed from contemporary society((The reliance on slavery to sustain this version of a good society, being just one. See footnotes 3 and 5 in Chap. 2 for further discussion and reading.)) and the representation of the culture–well-being relationship as a positive one also requires context.

The theoretical lineage that culture is vital to a good society actually began in Aristotle’s ‘counterargument’ to Plato. Plato asserted the arts were, in fact, corrupting1. This reframing of the ‘honourable and dishonourable intellectual history of the arts’2 demands attention if we are to consider the culture–well-being relationship, which leans on this moment in its historical tradition.

Theories of the arts’ ‘deeply transformative effects for the individual and society’2 are now an assumed truth that has become naturalised and popularised. However, when this assumption is drawn on, it is the positive effects which are referred to. The noted ‘dishonourable’ and negative outcomes are conveniently discarded and often forgotten, especially in discussions about what culture is for and in cultural policy.

The cultural sector ‘believes that it makes a real difference to people’s lives’3 and in recent decades much effort has gone into investigating the sector’s impact on individuals and how this might play out in communities, societies and nations. So intrinsic is the idea that arts are a social good, that evidence suggests cultural managers believe the sector is good for other people, even if they do not like certain artforms themselves4. Here, we will look at specific aspects of subjective well-being (happiness or feeling that life is worthwhile). We know from previous chapters that these have different theoretical lineages and subtle differences in meaning, and so how they appear in cultural policy documents warrants a revisit, before contemplating what is being captured when using data to understand or measure an aspect of well-being.

For example, Dame Liz Forgan suggested that the arts can ‘cheer us up’ and create forms of ‘escape, comfort, understanding and reference in tough times’5. Forgan, who became the first female chair of ACE the same year, echoes the German philosopher (dubbed the artists’ philosopher) Arthur Schopenhauer’s ([1818] 2000) ideas of the aesthetic experience as protective from the anguish of the human condition. Schopenhauer believed that as understanding and experience of the world develop, we experience pain and responsibility. He felt it was important for the individual to escape certain pressures of communal responsibility, and therefore this was a purpose for the arts.

To contextualise the chair of ACE’s comments, she speaks from what we then thought were tough times: the immediate aftermath of financial crisis (the 2007/2008 crash). Reflecting on Schopenhauer’s idea that we sometimes need to shield ourselves from tough times might cause us to reflect on who Forgan means by ‘us’, particularly in tension with the communal responsibilities we might want shielding from. This function of the arts—as tonic in times of difficulty—is also related to rejecting struggle. As Belfiore and Bennett (2008) point out, Schopenhauer’s meaning of will remains contested, but they conclude (via Janaway 1994, 6) that ‘the best way to understand the concept of “will” is to conceive it as a form of unrelenting yet blind “striving forward” for something’6. Does art, therefore, offer a way out of contemporary life’s relentless impetus to strive forward? If so, how might these ideas of the importance of art for well-being intersect with the version of well-being as a balance of pleasure and purpose that is introduced in Chap. 2? Perhaps art allows us to escape our own will and the will of society, to be immersed in something else. Yet, this also presents a tension between the social responsibility that is implicit in culture’s role in a good society and aesthetic pleasure as an escape from feeling these pressures personally.

Schopenhauer’s thinking builds on that of another German philosopher, Emmanuel Kant. For Kant, aesthetic pleasure lies within the process or state of understanding. More specifically, once the aesthetic experience has captured the imagination, it enables greater insight and meaning, and this is pleasurable. Perhaps for Forgan, this is the understanding we are also able to refer back to from tough times?

Yet again there are contradictions, as the pleasure from aesthetic experiences is found in the striving for personal enlightenment. According to Kant, such awareness can only be found while in a balanced state: some sort of equilibrium of the senses. If this has been achieved, then it is possible to experience the ‘enjoyment of wellbeing’, but only following feeling stirred by ‘the play of affects’7. Another way of looking at this is that Kant’s thinking on hedonism is not about a moment of extreme pleasure (or indeed the chasing of a series of pleasures), but appreciating a moment of satisfaction, which comes after specific kinds of pleasure that lead to enlightenment. For Kant, then, it is important to recognise the feeling of satisfaction that follows this pleasure as a change in well-being.

This is starting to sound more like the language of the happiness economists from Chap. 4 who want to measure subjective well-being as an experience. However, based on this highly simplified version of Kant, the well-being caused by aesthetic pleasure (whether in a park, or in a theatre)

is not a single effect, but a series of effects that happen over time. When relying on the theoretical lineages of well-being, it is important to consider that they do not always map neatly onto the concepts that economists are hoping to operationalise. This is also true for the culture–well-being relationship, and its inherent assumption that all forms of culture (or any of its chosen sub-categories, whether art, leisure, singing, food, travel) can contribute to all forms of well-being (whether they are physical health, fun, enlightenment, relaxation, empathy, escapism, social responsibility etc.).

As a result, discussion of what culture is, who it is for and how it can be instrumentalised tend to be stuck in a cyclical debate, much like the arguments performed to an audience 2000 years ago by our learned friends Plato and Aristotle in the School of Athens. As with the Arts Debate, consideration of what culture is or what it is for often merges with articulations of the value of culture (and often as the arts). By extension, these discussions segue into advocacy, for investment in culture as a good choice for social policy (as with the public consultation on public value referred to above) or into debates over how investment is distributed as a public service. We will return to this latter point, but first we need to establish how cultural policy became a form of social policy.

  1. Belfiore and Bennett 2008, 39 []
  2. Belfiore and Bennett 2008, 10 [] []
  3. NMDC, undated in Selwood 2010, 4 []
  4. Stevenson 2019 []
  5. ACE 2009, 3 []
  6. Belfiore and Bennett 2008, 93–95 []
  7. Kant [1790]1987, 134, cited in Belfiore and Bennett 2008, 86 []