Should we question our beliefs in the arts?

The ‘transformative power’ of the arts: History of an idea by Eleanora Belfiore is an interesting read in The Routledge International Handbook of Creative Learning. Belfiore highlights the claims many of us are guilty of making that ‘being involved with the arts can have a lasting and transforming effect on many aspects of people’s lives… whose sense of identity and purpose can be changed through art’ (ACE 2003). She writes ‘despite the lack of evidence that the arts and creativity can [have a lasting and transforming effect on many aspects of people’s lives]… and the perceived excessive ‘instrumentalisation’ of the arts and culture that have been voiced by many cultural professionals, media pundits and researchers, equally grandiose claims have been consistently and persistently made by the DCMS – the government department with responsibilities for the cultural sector’ (p. 27). Belfiore encourages us to consider the values that underpin our ideas about arts and cultural education, and the concept of ‘creative learning’. She suggests that a research-informed approach is absent from policy-making (relying on anecdotes but acknowledging the need for a more robust evidence-informed approach[1]) and we should interrogate the values and beliefs that shape policy and our approach to arts education. A great deal of public money funds arts and culture[2]and it can be challenging to make a research-informed justification for the allocation of this money for (particular) arts and culture. Belfiore helps us to realign our lens that maybe we have been believing in the ‘power of the arts’ with faith and have inherited ideas of their worth that have been brewing since the days of Plato, ungrounded in empirical data.

‘Do you believe in the POWER of art education?’ asks AccessArt[3]. On their website they mention ‘the impact a meaningful cultural education has on the individual has been demonstrated time and again’ quoting the work of Darren Hanley and Nicholas Serota (both involved in ACE). Assumption drives many of the ideas quoted on the AccessArt website. Jennie Henley[4]noted a similar situation when preparing a book chapter: ‘As I began reading I started to realise that much of the research [exploring the connections between emotion and music in music education] was based on huge assumptions about the connections between emotional development and musical learning’.

‘I am personally very tired of hearing people say that their music projects ‘work’ because it is informal not formal, or community based not school based, or uses pop music not classical music, or uses classical music not pop music, or uses technology, or improvisation, or performance, or …… ! All of these arguments are still content-centred, none of them relate to ‘how’ the learning takes place. I have seen awful community music projects that have been ‘delivered’ in a very behavorist way but claimed as transformative simply because they use improvisation. In reality the participants are told what riffs to use, when to play, when not to play, and there is very little creative content – the ‘success’ of the project is based, and measured, on demonstrable behaviours’.

Henley sees the content as subordinate to the pedagogy. The exact art or culture explored is irrelevant, but the approach to teaching (and learning) creates the change and has the ‘power to transform’. She writes that ‘education in itself is a transformative process – that is the point of education. The mechanism for transformation is pedagogy, not curriculum. The curriculum merely forms the content. Why else would the same outcomes be reported in evaluations of prison projects using different musics or even different art forms – theatre, dance, creative writing. It is not the music that is transformative, it is the music learning that is transformative. But, transformation goes both ways’.

It is exciting to see that Guildhall School of Music & Drama has been awarded £984,000 to lead a 3-year international research project on the social impact of making music[5]. ‘The research will examine the growing number of participatory music-making activities being offered to groups around the world, defined by factors such as their social needs or deprivation. These Socially Impactful Music Making (SIMM) activities focus on marginalised or excluded groups such as in regions of poverty, conflict or social disruption, people in prison or those who are homeless, and assist participants to perform music for its intrinsic value, as well as helping them to achieve defined social goals such as inclusion, empowerment, community building and activism’. It is exciting that this research might be able to provide the research base that justifies the ACE beliefs of the transformative power of arts and culture. I do wonder if the outcomes might not provide the evidence to support the musical genres that receive the most funding from ACE (opera and classical music, for example) and we might be questioning much more about arts and cultural education approaches that are promoted and funded. I hope so, as this research seems to be promising for championing the role of pedagogy, and ultimately facilitator/teacher, in achieving the transformations that can build communities and boost empowerment.


[1]The RSA has been developing support for arts organisations with their Evidence Champions Network. Whilst this is not about corroborating our beliefs in the ‘power of the arts’ it is very much about promoting honest reflection and consultation with the evidence base and literature

[2]The recent article in Arts Professional highlighted the inconsistency of funding between different parts of England from ACE England, where London received the biggest share




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