Bigger than ME?

On my way to a meeting in the engine room of the Pompidou Centre yesterday, I was caught short by two very powerful posters carefully blu-tacked to some office doors. The first simply said Je Suis Charlie.....



It may seem obvious, but these two posters made me realise just how much time cultural organisations spend thinking about how to allow people to have fun - which is great - but very little time thinking about how they might influence our world for the collective good.  

On the other side of those postered doors I had a really interesting discussion with staff from the Pompidou about the impact of the French Government's long-standing commitment to providing state-funded cultural activity. It sounds idyllic to have such generous public funding, particularly to us in the UK who are catching up with the American model based on private philanthropy. When I asked which system worked best for people  my interlocutor put down his pen, looked me square in the face and said "Listen, it is the duty of the French State to provide education and high level cultural activity. It's as simple as that."

His clarity echoed the clarity of those posters - art and democratic freedom of thought and freedom of expression are completely essential to the life of the nation and therefore it's the job of the government to make sure art continues to thrive.  C'est évident, non?

Of course, the discussions over "art for art's sake" versus "committed art" have been raging for centuries and my blog isn't going to bring these two poles together. But the horror of the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo do affect us all and we should remember how priveleged we are to enjoy such freedom of expression through our many cultural institutions. The morning left me with a feeling that "museum selfies" aren't really enough to engage people in the power of art and culture. That while cafes and toilets and push chair access are hugely important, there also needs to be room in the conversation to talk about the purpose of art and its great potential to change lives, to change the world for the better. 

So my "Thought for the Day" is to add the voice of American sociologist Steven J. Tepper to that of Charlie. Tepper teaches the importance of cultural activities that go beyond personal experience and immediate gratification and asks his students to engage with ideas and images and worlds that are "Bigger than Me" .