Does the Arts ever truly have the social impact its acolytes proclaim? Did 12 Years a Slave change our perceptions of race? Did The Vagina Monologues tear down the patriarchy? This is not a challenge of the merit or intellectual weight of the Arts. Rather, outside of the bubble/ivory tower/liberal arts graduates, does it actually affect significant cultural change – a remoulding of the habitus?
The Arts is deliberately capitalised to make clear that it is its own entity, in its own context. Fundamentally elitist, it is separated from more mass consumption culture by criteria such as politics, high/low pleasures, and historical tradition. Race and gender less vital to its identity than conforming non-conformity. The dividing line between the Arts and more “prosaic” material culture is arbitrary. Bounded yet plastic, the idea of “the Arts” never changes even if its content does. Television and film have joined the club, infuriating the ghost of Brian Sewell, without structurally modifying the concept itself.
Let’s start with the recent RSC Making Mischief Festival and its express purpose to confront taboos and you, yes the audience, your assumptions. Nobody who came to see these plays are genuine racist, misogynistic bigots. There was not a wife beater in the front row of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. experiencing a Damascene moment of clarity. Sure, in the crowds one may hear that it has changed their perspective and from now on they will only say make love with, not to. A tweak to behaviour. Nothing more. This is the problem with the Arts. The audience are a self-selecting sample of bourgeois, liberal, devotees. Of course they think racism is bad, they are watching Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier, a play clearly saying racism is bad. How can cultural change ferment when the luvvies are preaching to the luvvies? The Festival may be a critical success but it has failed to meet its stated aims. The audience agrees with you from the off. You are not challenging anything. Those who disagree do not care and are never coming to see your plays. The elitist metropole challenge brushed aside. It is unfair of me to come down too hard on the RSC, they never actually said they were going to change society. Good model for the Arts though – a well-constructed, well performed, ignored niche.
“If you want to change the world, use mass media”
Still, are huge audiences, measured by the box office, tweets and water cooler chatter, required for change to happen? Could it be that if the Arts influences the decision makers and the powerful then the message diffuses down? A brief parable from architecture. Brasília, the Modernist paradise, designed to create community and fundamentally alter the way Brazilians led their daily lives. The public did not know or care what Modernism was. They took the carefully planned apartments and commercial boulevards, and promptly adapted the environment to their way of life. They could not be forced to swallow the message. They could not be forced to change their behaviour from above. Not to say that individual leaders cannot be influenced by the Arts: Barack Obama cites Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and too many to count are disciples of To Kill a Mockingbird. Whether these books qualify as the Arts, or the equally enigmatic literary “classics”, is largely moot. Both are in the upper echelons of high pleasure material culture. Yet, the influence they have had is lasting. Just so happens that Mockingbird is an immense commercial success too. You can have both after all.
Whether policy can truly be attributed to the architects’ artistic diet is unclear. Expressed motivation and actual motivation are different beasts; further muddied by the issue of whether the policy is actually a success. That is all too tangential but it does highlight the varying mechanics of cultural diffusion. Directed or otherwise. Nevertheless, To Kill a Mockingbird was placed on the national curriculum by policymakers so all school children read it – or at least read the Wikipedia entry. Hopefully watch the film too, it did win an Oscar after all.
There is one resounding success of cultural change in the past year. It is hard to argue that The Archers classifies as the Arts, popular though the dramatization of the lives of country folk is. The recent domestic abuse storyline generated innumerable column inches, front page pieces, and kitchen table discussion. Refuge credits the writers with changing the narrative and widening the public gaze to include middle class suburbia, not just sink estates. True, that the BBC Radio 4 audience may be stereotyped as middle Englanders, but 4.7 million listeners tune in weekly to The Archers. That is 7.28% of the United Kingdom. There has to be some diversity in that figure. So a soap opera (stop it, it is one) gets a huge audience, critical and expert acclaim for its portrayal of abusive relationships – has it actually changed anything? The National Domestic Violence Helpline has seen a 17% increase in calls since the storyline began. Other factors at play? Always. Does not stop Women’s Aid speaking of “The Archers Effect”. At least some of those calls will be from people, not just sufferers but those who care about them, who have listened to the radio, reassessed a situation or an individual’s behaviour, and decided it is wrong. They have then tried to do something about it. If a habitus is just a series of cultural influences that determine behaviour, well, then a 15 minute serial has certainly changed many. If one perceived an act as acceptable prior, listened, then altered their behaviour, that is cultural change. If even one percent of listeners changed then that is 47,000 people changed. One percent of the weekly attendance at the West End theatres? 2385 people.
None of this is meant to undermine the validity of the Arts. It is here not just to entertain but to be reflexive to society, express its hopes and fear, its perceptions of itself. Sometimes it does this exceptionally, sometimes we endure utter nonsense. Its brilliance is not in question. Just that frankly it is a rubbish driver of social change. There is little penetration beyond Guardian Arts Supplement readers and even then they already agree. If you want to change the world, use mass media. Still, if literature can change how the President of the United States engages with life, then the Arts can have power. Ultimately, its greatest tool may be influencing those that have influence; even then you can never be sure if the Arts taught them the lesson or their mum did.