The effect of arts & culture on inequality and health

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The effect of arts & culture on inequality and health

Glasgow Life or Death

In summer 2008, Variant published an analysis of Culture and Sport Glasgow (CSG), based on an examination of its key personnel and the consequences for the city’s culture their ethos implies.1 This research pointed to the subordination of Glasgow’s culture and leisure services to business interests, particularly tourism and regeneration, which was perceived to have a detrimental impact on those working in the arts and on the long-term welfare of the city’s culture and leisure facilities. It built on concerns, already expressed in Variant, that having a private company running the city’s culture and leisure services may prove disastrous as democratic accountability was lost and speculative funding sources failed to materialise. Against a backdrop of public sector cuts and deep-seated discontent among CSG’s workforce, it seems appropriate to assess whether this has proven to be the case....

Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health, a World Health Organization (WHO) report, published in August 2008, argued: “The development of a society, rich or poor, can be judged by the quality of its population’s health, how fairly health is distributed across the social spectrum, and the degree of protection provided from disadvantage as a result of ill-health”.28 Based on the findings of a WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health set up in 2005, the report cites inequality as a major determinant of health. This idea has been expanded upon by UK academics, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level,29 in which they argue that unequal distribution of wealth, rather than poverty per se, is the major determinant of life expectancy.30

As might be expected, Glasgow is mentioned in the WHO report, appearing twice in a table of male life expectancy, showing that a man living in Lenzie can expect to reach the age of 82 while his counterpart in Calton has the average life expectancy of just 54.31

Picking up on the WHO report and a 2007 map of Britain’s millionaires, which listed Glasgow in seventh place (five places ahead of Edinburgh), journalist, Julien Brygo, met with some of the beneficiaries of the city’s inequality. Interviewing a handful of wealthy Rotarians, Brygo found that “The clichés of the Victorian era – that the rich are beautiful, wise and generous, the poor lazy and alcoholic – persist”.32 Ironically, just a few months before, Bridget McConnell had stated that “Glasgow was one of the first cities in Britain where business leaders accepted [the philanthropist, Robert] Owen’s premise that poverty wasn’t simply due to the moral failing of individuals, but a result of low wages, unemployment, poor housing, lack of amenities and education”.33 However, after talking to the business leaders of Glasgow, Brygo found that the issue of:

“The gap in life expectancy has been removed from politics and the public domain [in Glasgow], and geographical segregation ensures the wealthy remain sealed off from the poor. That social apartheid is allowed to exist without comment illustrates how class struggle has been redefined in traditional, almost reassuring, terms over the last 30 years. Just as in the 19th century, the wretched poor live alongside the philanthropic rich.”34


In order to substantiate her argument about the instrumental value of culture, McConnell cited a Finnish study which “showed that general participation in cultural, social and religious activities improved the [sic] longevity in men to such a degree that the public health services were recommended not to focus solely on specific risk factors like smoking, but on wider cultural participation”.135 That the CSG Chief Executive was fully cognisant of arguments pertaining to the purported health benefits of participation in culture and leisure while recommending the closure of Bellrock Community Centre in Calton, with its appalling life expectancy, suggests a major mismatch between the rhetoric and policy.

In trumpeting the benefits of cultural participation, McConnell repeatedly referred to the reinvention of Glasgow as a “major cultural tourist destination” and, as we have seen, CSG considers itself integral to this rebranding. The problem with cultural tourism is that it contributes to the social apartheid that Julien Brygo witnessed in Glasgow, as parts of the city become no-go areas for the class that remains uncatered for by municipal museums and galleries. During Glasgow’s stint as Capital of Culture in 1990, Euan Sutherland, an artist based in the city, made a body of work under the title Cultural Façade, exposing the complicity of instrumentalised culture in denying this reality. Twenty years on, the façade has become an edifice of inequality, albeit one that is easily ignored by high-earning visitors to the city.

At one point during her New Lanark talk, McConnell mentioned that “In a city of extremes, Glasgow has lots of new money, but also some of the worst poverty and ill health in western Europe – it is a moral, economic and human imperative that our cultural policies reach out to those who are excluded, inspiring a new generation to create, innovate and succeed”.136 But nowhere in CSG’s vision is it explained how marginalised citizens are able to pass through what Tayburn identified as the “gateway to the vibrant side of the city”. Furthermore, in abstracting the causality of poverty and ill health, McConnell spectacularly avoids addressing the connection between the unequal distribution of wealth and curtailed life spans in her organisation’s main area of operation. Then again, if Bridget McConnell were to acknowledge that inequality was the major contributor to ill health and premature death in Glasgow, she might be forced to confront how she herself is implicated in this process, as the head of an organisation that sustains inequality by bolstering an increasingly specious cultural façade.

I found this (lengthy) article, while about a specific geographical area, to be relevant not only to urban challenges in Canada, particularly Vancouver who is also trying to bill itself as an "international" city for tourists and business interests at the expense of its residents, but also to the discussion of instrumentalized culture and cultural façades, the increasing tendency to conflate "culture" with "spectacle" (i.e. international sporting events and arts festivals) and the general benefit of culture to the population at large.





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