Should happiness be the goal of British arts policy?

How much happiness does spending on the arts buy us? Which cultural pursuits are the most effective? And are these the questions the UK should be asking in formulating our arts policy?
Kate Oakley
18 April 2011

‘About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters,’ as Auden tells us. But was art ever quite so good on the topic of happiness? While many of the contributors to the openDemocracy happiness debate speculate richly on what the politics of happiness might mean in terms of work, the economy, popular protest and education, one area of British public policy has already gone some way to using the idea of happiness as a guide to future decisions: arts policy.

The Culture And Sport and Evidence (CASE) programme was a three year research programme run by the UK Department of Culture Media and Sport in collaboration with funding bodies such as the Arts Council, Sport England and English Heritage. The purpose of the research was to understand what motivates people to participate in sport or the arts, and what we get out of it. If what we get out of it is happiness – or subjective well being in the jargon – the public policy questions then becomes, how does sport and the arts compare with other uses of public money when it comes to increasing our well being? How much happiness does spending on the arts buy us; and what types of cultural pursuits are the most effective in this respect?

The CASE programme raises a whole host of methodological, philosophical and political questions, few of which I will address here. The findings suggest that participation in sport, going to the movies or a concert, can all raise our feelings of well being, while libraries, museums and heritage have a less cheering effect. Bad news for libraries, if worse news were possible.

Yet it is likely that collective activities of many sorts make us feel happier – for me, going on a demonstration or going to the Oval to watch cricket, are rather similar in that respect. My concern here is less with whether public funding on culture can make us happier, still less with whether we can accurately measure whether we are indeed happier, but whether happiness should be the aim of cultural policy at all.  And what sort of culture do we get - or more importantly, not get – once happiness is enshrined as the goal of cultural policy?

Let’s start with the easy one, sport. I love sport. Or at least I love two sports – cricket and football. But while I was insanely happy when Liverpool first won the European cup in 1977 and ecstatic when England regained the Ashes in 2005, I’ve always understood being a sports fan as primarily a way to accustom oneself to loss and disappointment. My earliest sporting memory is crying when Charlie George scored a late winner for Arsenal in the 1970/1 cup final. My saddest one is Michael Thomas’s goal at Anfield, which won the title for Arsenal (always Arsenal, I never understood why Liverpool fans hate Man Utd more). This was not only the last time Liverpool looked like winning the (then) championship, but was also the last game I ever attended with my mother. Introducing young kids to sport has always seemed to me similar to the idea of buying them a pet; a gentle way of telling them that nothing good ever lasts.

It’s not just that my own cultural tastes tend to run on the dark side, although they do. I prefer King Lear to As you Like it; the Billy Wilder of Ace in the Hole to the one who made Some Like it Hot. I think no-ever wrote as great a song about falling in love, as they have about heartbreak, and one reason I prefer the British tradition of TV comedy to the US one, is the deep vein of sadness than runs through everything from Steptoe and Son to The Office.

Nor is it just that I think funding decisions based on maximising happiness may be unbalanced, although I do think this. A cultural policy based on happiness would no doubt see lots of dance, festivals and music – particularly singing – which we know from the evidence makes us happy. But what about the quieter, more contemplative pastimes of reading or painting, a trip to a museum or even a theatre? In the case of the theatre, ‘a good night out’ is sometimes to be hoped for; but it would be a strange cultural policy that made it a requirement.

It would be wrong to read the recent Arts Council funding decisions purely in the light of a happiness strategy. A lot of other factors seem to be at work including the overall contraction in funds, the need to support touring productions that can compensate in part for local authority cuts, and a desire to boost East London in its Olympic year. But in the rhetoric of arts funding, wellbeing and happiness have now joined the long list of benefits – educational attainment, self-confidence, health and social cohesion – that are said to result from arts activities. My home London borough of Lambeth entitles its cultural commissioning strategy, ‘Wellbeing through Culture,’ and along with telling us that Lambeth’s residents are poorer, sicker, more likely to be unemployed or frightened of crime than the national average, reassures us that those who take part in culture are ‘healthier and happier.

Public policy cannot avoid an element of instrumentality, and the evidence for links between collective cultural activities and subjective wellbeing is probably stronger than some of the other claims made for the arts. Happiness is certainly something to which many in the arts will think they can contribute, and critical voices among those looking for funding may be rare. As one observer commented the other day, ‘it’s difficult to turn up at an arts conference these days, without bumping into someone from the New Economics Foundation,’ which presumably means the measurement business is up and running.  But a cultural policy is presumably supposed to have cultural aims as well as other ones. Yet the more cultural activities become central to our society, the less they seem to offer an alternative to its prevailing ideas.

The philosophical or indeed political tradition of pessimism has not been fashionable for some time. Everyone appears to be a progressive now; even the Conservatives. So there are fewer places to go when one needs to remembers life’s limitations and vicissitudes, to reflect our feelings of futility or inadequacy, or to reach a full awareness of what Rousseau called, ‘the knowledge of death and of its terrors.’ Being pessimistic is generally seen as terribly unhelpful, both on the left and the right of politics; and the time between any human tragedy and someone telling us to ‘move on’ or ‘move forward’, is fast approaching zero. Culture – including being on the losing side in an FA Cup Final – offers one such place. It’s the idea that it is now supposed to make us happy that I find laughable.

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