The social impact of the arts: what do discourses of transformation do?

For our August discussion group, we read excerpts from Eleanora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett’s 2010 book The Social Impact of the Arts: an intellectual history (introduction, chapter four on Personal Wellbeing, conclusion).  This was quite a different type of reading to our usual ethnomusicological fare, chosen by Jonathan to link into current discussions of what is somewhat vaguely termed ‘cultural value’.

The introduction, which we ended up focusing on in our discussion, sets out the problem of finding a language beyond economic value in which to discuss the role of the arts in society: the question of intrinsic or instrumental value.  Unfortunately for our purposes as ethnomusicologists, the book limits itself to discussing drama, literature and theatre, but as the broader debate around cultural value encompasses music, we felt justified in extending the ideas discussed to music as well.  Belfiore and Bennett identify two narratives related to cultural value: a narrative of transformation in which arts ‘change lives or define identity’ (p4), and a narrative of ‘beleaguerment’ or crisis which suggests that ‘the arts are undervalued and in serious danger of collapse’.  They suggest that examining the intellectual history of ideas of value in the arts can help make sense of current debates. 

The idea of a ‘narrative of transformation’ was one we spent some time discussing, and I will focus on that in this post.  It was noted that narratives of transformation are to be found everywhere in our society, not just in the arts – transformation could be seen to be part of the aspirational society which we live in, whereby we are exhorted to improve ourselves and our social position through whatever means possible.  Incidentally, this particular version of social mobility was heavily pushed by New Labour, as was the social impact of the arts agenda – is there a link here?  This discourse of transformation/aspiration can also be criticised for inculcating a sense of false possibilities, as critiques of celebrity culture would have it (as currently being explored/refuted by the fantastic Celeb Youth research project).  So it’s not surprising that the arts also have their own narratives of transformation, although this can probably be traced a bit further back than New Labour.

But what is it in music that brings about this transformation?  In classical music, it is supposed to be the aesthetic qualities of the work of art itself that do this work, by affecting the listener/musician so profoundly as to deeply change them.  But in discussing narratives of transformation in our own research, other factors were also present – the social relations of musical practice; its embodied nature, particularly in singing; the economic opportunities made available through participation in an arts/music programme; or the cultural capital or non-musical skills accumulated.  Whether these can be entirely separated from the aesthetic qualities of the music is something that I am exploring in my own work.

We also discussed what these narratives of transformation might hide – i.e. what else is going on, that is obscured by a focus on transformation that so much advocacy of the arts focuses on.  Belfiore and Bennett note that much research into the social impact of the arts takes a position of advocacy, and call for research that takes a more agnostic view.  Narratives of transformation can be so compelling that it is easy to overlook what happened to all the other kids who didn’t make it out of the slum into a world class orchestra, or fail to examine the complexities of what is being transformed in the wonder and thrill of the transformation.  Of course, advocacy (and marketing) will necessarily focus on these aspects, which makes our strong scepticism towards this trope even more important.

Finally, the question was raised as to whether this discourse, this narrative, creates what it describes.  This is a particular way of talking about the arts and music that we have at our disposal – so does it then serve to frame our experiences, creating transformations where they may not have occurred otherwise?  While this is something of a point of epistemology which can’t easily be confirmed or refuted, those of us who have come across narratives of transformation in our research agreed that the transformations appeared to be more substantive/material than ‘merely’ discursive.  In my own research, transformations are ones that have been recounted to me by participants rather than ones I’ve observed for myself, but they were recounted in a convincing way.  Certainly this discussion made me think more deeply about how these stories were told to me, and what else might be going on.

Overall we were interested in being more specific about the types of transformation that occur ‘through’ music, rather than simply assuming that they are a good thing.  A fairly predictable response from a bunch of critical thinkers, you might say, but helpful in thinking differently about when this comes up in our own research.


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