Last week I was in Hong Kong, helping to deliver Hong Kong University’s Advanced Cultural Leadership Programme. We began on Monday with a discussion about cultural policy, noting how difficult it is to define culture, and the consequent problems that policymakers have with the subject. Local authorities, for example, treat culture in different ways, often as a sub-set of something else, like economic development, tourism or planning, rather than as being important in its own right. In many countries there is no Ministry for Culture, and when there is, it always has the lowest budget and hence is the lowest in the pecking-order of political concerns. Worse than that, European nationalism and Trumpian antipathy to intellectualism, freedom of speech, and let’s be honest, fun and pleasure, are sending the message that the arts do not matter. The abolition of the National Endowment of the Arts in the U.S. is a clear symbolic gesture of contempt from an insecure President.
And then, on Tuesday, came the news of the Manchester bomb. It was no coincidence that the target was a music concert. Music is life-affirming, liberating, and creative. In other words, everything that fundamentalists loathe. I have a strong personal connection with Manchester. I was born, and my family still live, just up the road in Bolton. When I was a teenager I used to go to concerts at the Free Trade Hall to see Led Zepplin and Fleetwood Mac, and I walked through Victoria Station to get there. So I can imagine all those teenagers streaming into the station, with smiles on their faces, buoyed up by hearing the music they loved, with joy in their hearts. I watched the news avidly, and so it was that I witnessed two things. The first was a poet, Tony Walsh, reading to a huge gathering of people in Albert Square. Poetry is not usually thought of as a popular thing, and yet here were tens of thousands hushed and listening to words that helped them to cope with the atrocious event. And the second was a crowd spontaneously singing Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’; adopting a song to sum up their feelings and tell them to the world.
And so when the week came to an end it struck me that although cultural leaders around the world might feel embattled by political neglect and populist antagonism, they are doing important work. They are affirming the good side of our humanity. Culture is not just about pleasure, fun and entertainment – though it is about all those things. Culture is also what we turn to when we struggle to articulate our feelings, when we express our solidarity and when we show our belief in a better future.