John Holden in Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy writes, “No one would

suggest that defining culture is easy… and government certainly struggles”.34

Indeed despite government reticence to define culture in any overt way “in practice

definitions are used by policy-makers at national, regional and local levels. The

definitions flow from administrative convenience, and do not match people’s

everyday understanding and experience of culture”.35 Quite. So the government’s

recent Culture White Paper slides in the following gloss for culture in its opening



Culture no longer simply means being familiar with a select list of works

of art and architecture, but the accumulated influence of creativity, the arts,

museums, galleries, libraries, archives and heritage upon all our lives. When we

talk about our ‘cultural sectors’, we are referring to an extraordinary network of

individuals and organisations, that together preserve, reflect and promote who we

are as a nation, in all our rich diversity.

There will always be an aesthetic aspect to culture in its many forms; and the

government will always champion cultural excellence. But each community

has its own culture – its own history, museums and traditions. In this global,

interconnected economy, what is local and unique has a special value and should

be supported and encouraged. We should no more dictate a community’s

culture than we should tell people what to create or how to create it. The role of

government is to enable great culture and creativity to flourish – and to ensure

that everyone can have access to it.36

The White Paper goes on to talk about some of the instrumental values added by what

it refers to as the “cultural sectors” or “networks” of individuals and organisations

whose work has an aesthetic element. The sheer inadequacy of this description is

revealed by asking whether nail art and hair removal are included in this category

of “aesthetic” endeavour, and whether Dadaism would have somehow slipped itself

out of the net?


Furthermore, while saying that we should not “dictate a community’s culture” the

paper is woven through with assumptions about what constitutes “our nation’s”

culture. Shakespeare is cited, no invoked, at least three times in the opening pages.

So we can definitely be sure that Shakespeare is “Culture”. There’s an uncomfortable

accommodation between a need to offer up some examples of national culture with

a welcome aversion to being prescriptive. In this discomfort, Shakespeare becomes

the one “constant good” in Larkin’s phrase.


Another unsatisfactory description of culture is attempted in Mirza’s 2008

contribution about what she views to be the politicisation of culture through arts

policy since the Blair years in particular. She looks back at a cultural policy that

once, in what appears to have been a golden age, “adhered, at least in its presentation,

to the Enlightenment view of culture as something that should be allowed to exist

freely [sic.] of social pressure and need. It indicated a belief in the need to defend

culture’s autonomy. The criteria by which it was judged would not be the arbitrary

tastes of individuals, private institutions, or politicians, but of experts who had

transparent authority and could ensure standards of excellence.”37 The problem is

partly that the Enlightenment never had a simple view of culture “as something

that existed freely [sic.] of social pressure and need”; one only need to look at what

happened to the philosophes in the hands of the French Revolution to see that the

Romantic-Enlightenment polarity is overplayed (they overlap in meaningful ways).

Furthermore, the Enlightenment in general (Mirza doesn’t give us a historical

definition) could be prescriptive and instrumental about the politics and uses of

culture and the arts: from Robespierrean pageantry outside the Pantheon38 to the

popularity and cultivation of dry operas that promoted republican virtues like

Cherubini’s Lodoiska, the Enlightenment ethic does not necessarily produce (that

anachronism) “art for arts sake”.


The status of the expert and the idea of inherent cultural value – and who decides

what is culture – are crucial to Mirza. When she says of the Rich Mix arts centre

in the East End of London that “the choice of culture was based on what engaged

the end user, not on any inherent notion of cultural value itself. Indeed, the rhetoric

of diversity is self-avowedly against ‘traditional’ models of cultural policy”39 she

is advocating for a notion of cultural value that only allows for two sides of what

John Holden has usefully described as a triangulation of values agreed between

professionals, politicians and people. Mirza bridles at the thought of people being

able to engage in definitions of cultural value.


Mirza is astute when she critiques what she terms the “anthropological” definition

of culture insofar as it re-inscribes the racist and patronising stereotype that the

“non-white” are somehow beyond the pale of “real” cultural discourse. However

her critique of this usage – of culture as “…social habit, traditions and values”40 – is a

simplified adoption of the discussion of culture found in John Holden’s 2006 paper

Crisis of Legitimacy. The problem is that her definition of universalism41 does nothing

to tackle the problem that, in her own study, the “universal” is synonymous with

the white, the male, with the hegemonic. Yes, she seeks to deconstruct essentialist

reifications of race, ethnicity and community but she does not go far enough.

What is crucially missing from Mirza’s account of culture is any meaningful

engagement with postcolonial thinking. And what is missed in the process of

denying or resisting the complexity of imperialist power structures and their cultural

legacy is crucial if we are going to make any real advances in this area. The history

of European expansion and colonialism is inseparably woven into contemporary

notions of European cultures and non-European cultures. Parts of the colonial

project relied on a denigration of the cultures encountered in the colonies. At the

same time, it was accompanied by an anxiety about European or British cultures in

the face of difference. Thus, Macaulay in 1835 famously felt the need to say:

 And I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that

the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European

nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts

are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans

becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all

the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in

the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry

abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical

or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same.42

Admittedly even at the time, Macaulay’s view was contested and it is now argued

that his role has been somewhat exaggerated, yet it is fair to say that this kind of

attitude did characterise aspects of the colonial enterprise.43


As Dalal states in his discussion of Frantz Fanon “To have a history is to have a

past as a self-reflective being. In other words it is to be human, and what is being

said is that the colonised is not human, and having no history or culture is part

of nature.”44 Contemporary debates around the “cultures” of formerly colonised

peoples sometimes focus on the most obscurantist, narrow and easily patronised

elements of those cultures. The argument that “we don’t tell a community what

it’s Culture is” (as expressed in the 2016 Culture White Paper) emerges as an

overdetermined gesture. It means more than one thing. On the one hand it becomes

a guilty disavowal of colonial attitudes of cultural supremacy. On the other hand

it can also use the guise of liberal openness to disguise a deeply held ignorance

and patronage towards non-European and so-called minority ethnic cultures. The

powerful have the privilege of ignorance. They do not need to inform themselves

about the culture of the disempowered. Thus ‘communities’ define what they

want their culture to be and reconfirm stereotypes. It is in this regard that Mirza’s

argument for ‘universalism’ is perhaps compelling: apply the same standards to

‘minority’ arts and demand the same levels of expertise and quality as we see in

mainstream arts. Of course, this would require cohorts of cultural leaders who are

better informed about a greater variety of cultural traditions, languages and forms.45

Regardless of how uncomfortable it is for everyone involved, we cannot discuss

culture in historical vacuums. To persist in doing so is akin to trying to parse

out the idea of European culture without addressing the repeated trope of antisemitism

over centuries that culminated in the Shoah. Simply put, we define

ourselves as a group with a shared culture by that which “we” exclude; the

“denigrated other is made to carry unwanted aspects of the self ”.46 Central to

any conversation about how we define culture today is an open conversation

and genuine encounter with the ways that the non-European has always had

and maintains a role in European and British cultures.


There is every reason to urge a real and radical equalisation of what we mean when

we talk about ethnic and “minority” cultures. When talking about the South Asian

communities in the UK why not talk about Bapsi Sidhwa, Zehra Nigah and Ghalib

as well as bhangra, samosas or “Bollywood”? In talking about or giving a platform to

the most popular or dumbed down products, by in other words using populism and

community “outreach” as a fig leaf for ignorance, patronage and mediocrity, white

supremacy is re-inscribed: the Asian and the African can again be condemned for

not having a culture that equals Keats, Shakespeare or Goethe. This lack of nuance

is captured by respondents to Art Professional’s recent Pulse Report. One respondent

points out that Indian Classical Dance is rarely seen as a heritage form like ballet,

nor is it given comparative support. Indeed there is little distinction between Indian

classical and modern dance forms in the U.K.47


Often, rather than calling for an equal exchange between heterogenous cultures, we

call for uni-directional “integration” where the inscrutable or inadequate native or

ethnic other (as when people talk about shallow pools or lack of talent) is required

to fit in with “British Culture” which becomes synonymous with an un-contested

canon that is safe from challenge because of its ‘excellence’, a term often abused

as a synonym for “what I think is good”. Thus the absence of BAME audiences in

concert halls, theatres, Opera Houses and museums is met with the wringing of

hands. How many white British audience members are there for Indian Classical



For centuries, the colonial enterprise gave the British ruling elite the privilege of

remaining ignorant of “native” (and indeed working class) cultures. It remains the

case that attitudes towards “racialised” and minority programming still envisage

cultural diversity as a risk and challenge to quality, even though multiculturalism

and diversity have dominated policy agendas for more than three decades. I have

personally encountered a major museum director who finds Indian and Chinese

Classical music a-tonal and a source of embarrassed giggling: that a man who has

the sophistication to see the art in a cleverly placed urinal (no offence intended to

Duchamp) fails to understand or appreciate whole musical canons is an indictment

of our education system and indeed, our very notions of ‘culture’. A “minority

ethnic” arts professional with corresponding prejudices would be unthinkable.

They would certainly never be described as “cultured”.48


Conversations about separate cultural traditions necessarily facilitate related terms

such as intercultural and multicultural. Ideas that are rendered fatuous if you

consider that culture is by its nature polymorphous and live rather than fixed or

singular. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie vividly captures how the realities of cultures

are in flux, when she says “Culture does not make people, people make culture.”49

Yet well-meaning institutions and policy makers persist, and inadvertently entrench

essentialist accounts of particular cultures.

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