Samuel Jones (Head of Culture, Demos)

31.07.2009 - Interview conducted by Mailin Obermueller

Samuel Jones is the Head of Culture at Demos, a London based think-tank focused on power and politics. Demos aims to provide individuals with ideas on how to increase their ability to shape their lives, and thus seeks to foster a democracy of free and empowered citizens.

Jones’ primary research fields are culture and art, as well as international and intercultural communications. He is the author of numerous influential and widely read pamphlets and reports. His recent works include: ‘Building Cultural Literacy’ (2007), which argues that it is vital to include skills in reading culture in the educational system as we are presently living in an age where culture is more important than ever; ‘It’s a Material World’ (2008), which demonstrates the social value of caring for the material world and thus highlights the importance of conservation; and ‘Expressive Lives’ (2009), a collection of essays examining the idea of expression through the production and consumption of culture, and the value this has for finding our place in society.

In his lecture at the ICD’s International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy, Jones provided participants with innovative perspectives on the future of cultural diplomacy and international exchange. He argued that the consumption of culture should be recognised as a part of expression; that cultural diplomacy needs to be appreciated as a form of interactive cultural exchange that facilitates and creates access to another culture; and that cultural policy makers need to re-think their evaluation of culture and its significance. Following his lecture, a member of ICD News spoke to Jones about questions concerning censorship, multi-ethnicity and the future of Britain’s cultural diplomacy.

My first question concerns the expanding power of the Internet and home-made culture. You mentioned that this could lead to detrimental consequences, in the sense that it can, for instance, allow the negative expression of cultural stereotypes. How dangerous do you think this is in the big picture and would you ever condone any form of censorship?

That’s a really tricky issue. I think that the first step is getting policy makers and people generally to realise that this new form of culture is a massive space: that it’s there and that you can’t do anything to backtrack it. People use the Internet to voice their opinions, and those opinions are not always going to be favourable. Censorship occasionally becomes an issue, because, even though it’s difficult to censor peoples' opinions,they are using someone else’s property to voice those thoughts. A website might claim to be an organ of free speech, butit’s actually moderated by someone and that someone ultimately has a decision to make.

This completely challenges the concept of censorship. Traditionally censorship comes from a position of authority, but with the Internet it is actually a position of responsibility—a sense of saying “this isn’t what I believe in”. The role of websites needs to be investigated further, as it is emerging as a completely unchartered territory and we’re only just beginning to realise how big and dangerous it can actually be.

You just mentioned responsibility. Considering that the people using and creating these websites are not cultural professionals in the traditional sense of the term, how would you encourage this sense of responsibility?

This goes back to the point that you have to completely rethink the role of cultural policy and cultural institutions. There is still a very important place for cultural experts: they can begin a dialogue by asking a person what he or she thinks about an issue; what others think about it; and what we have learned about this. At the same time, there is a strict difference between quality and censorship. Quality is about saying something is good: good art, good expression, good conversation and so on. Censorship is about saying: “actually no, that’s putting something out there that we don’t agree with”. And that’s for the institution to decide.

With regards to censorship, we need to become much more attune to engendering self-censorship. The use of the Internet has brought us to a truly interesting phase. People feel that it abstracts you from an audience—from a sense of communication and conversation. There are a lot of things that people do not say in live conversation, and yet they feel comfortable putting it on the Internet. The question is, why is that? We need some kind of anthropological study to investigatewhy that happens.

It is also important to remember that free speech is not about insulting someone—it’s about having a conversation. In the same way, a democracy is not about total egalitarianism; it’s about accommodating the idea that actually, there are differences of opinion. At the moment the web is a hyper-democratised space, and we have yet to develop the social ability and skills to deal with it.

On the topic of free speech, you have previously mentioned that you believe a certain amount of cleverness is needed when dealing with a potentially offensive topic. Can you think of any examples where you think a controversial issue was dealt with in a successful manner?

Off the top of my head, I can only think of examples where things have gone desperately wrong; where people rushed into things gung ho. Such examples of poor handling are much more frequent. I think part of this is because we haven’t developed a widespread sensitivity to what is likely to be controversial with whom and why. This is why we have to start education for that sensitivity. For instance, I know I shouldn’t say something to offend you now, because of what I was taught when I was younger. But when you have a massive conversation going on with culture, you don’t have the same kind of inhibition. Again, we need to investigate the reasons for this.

Just thinking out loud, maybe we are looking at censorship the wrong way around. Maybe it shouldn’t be about taking a decision, but about developing a sort of innate sense of self-censorship. Do you see where I am going with this?

It’s an interesting idea. But it still leaves open the question of where the line between free speech and censorship is, or perhaps should be.

There is a good book by Caroline Levine called ‘Provoking Democracy’, that deals with the value of the avant-garde and through this looks at the very question you just raised. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, for instance, was banned when it came out. But what it was doing was pushing, and pushing, and pushing the boundaries of what we would accept. And clearly that form of censorship was totally out of tune with the times. It seems as though the line of censorship is actually this ever-progressing frontier, which movesin various directions. Avant-garde art pushes that line. And we need that; it’s important in promoting a democracy.

If you go back to Jacob Epstein’s ‘Rima’ statue, when it was first put into Hyde Park, people were absolutely appalled. And now it’s one of the classic sculptures of that period! You can see it in terms of explicit lyrics in music as well, like that famous 80s group of rappers from America, “2 Live Crew”. Levine’s description of the changes surrounding these artists is brilliant: she shows how these things, which were once banned, are now accepted, but that this acceptance only exists because those groups pushed the borders. In that sense, censorship is a really interesting area to gauge an idea of what we will and won’t accept.

What about the issue of multiculturalism? With society changing towards becoming more multicultural, how is this factored into cultural projects?

One of the things that always strikes me as problematic about the multicultural agenda is that it focuses on cultures as distinct units. But of course, they’re not. I can be from Birmingham at one time, from London at another, then from England, and then I can be from Europe. You shift and change all the time.

UK politics has been fraught with the rejection of multiculturalism for a long time, and we’ve played around with different terms such as ‘interculturalism’. But there is a real problem with attaching labels to culture, because they just don’t hold up anymore. For instance, in a project called ICONS, which explores representations of England through its icons, one of the ones listed is morris dancing. But many people have never even seen morris dancing, let alone think it to be the epitome of Englishness!

As we walk down the street, we trip over cultural forms of every type—every form—every origin—every minute. If you look at some of the UK’s favourite food, famously chicken tikka massala, what have you got? It’s a spicy food from India to which gravy was added so that the British soldiers would like it, but with spices that originally came from Portugal. Fish and Chips is another item on the ICONS list, but it’s a mixture of Huguenot and Jewish origin. The fact that it’s seen as the quintessential British food shows that there is a great deal of mix that we never question.

Every day, we walk through this mix, brought to us at a great intensity by, for example, the Internet or migration. This is why I use the term ‘liquid modernity’: it shows that we are in an absolute mêlée. The danger of that is that people fall back on safe images. And when old values play against new values it tends to lead to the net result that things grate against one another.

A very senior figure in UK politics was sitting next to me on a panel one day, and he made the flippant comment: “wouldn’t it be brilliant if anthropology were taught in primary schools”. And you thought, well yes, it would. Not by slinging a copy of Marcel Mauss at a five year old, but this approach of reading different cultures, understanding them and thinking about them—of seeing a chair and thinking about why that chair is that shape—that’s a basic skill, or a basic literacy if you like. Culture is becoming the flashpoint for so many things, and so understanding culture is crucially important if you’re going to find your way around the world.

You just mentioned ‘liquid modernity’, a term used by Bauman. He speaks a lot about heightened reflexivity and the confusion this brings with it—features that to him are characteristic of liquid modernity. Considering this and your wish that we would think more about different cultures, could the combination of these two factors not lead to even more confusion?

Yes, it could. But that’s like saying that learning more words leads to more confusion—it also leads to greater fluency. And it’s a fluency that we need. That is why I like the term liquid modernity: because it suggests a need to learn to swim. It is like throwing someone in the deep end. And yes, there will be confusion. But it’s like the Internet: there is no way back and so we need to find the skills. Putting in place the mechanisms by which we can manage a transition into that confusion, into that mêlée, is important. And this is why cultural institutions need to change and why policy needs to support culture and cultural learning much more.

And I guess confusion might hopefully lead to some form of dialogue.

Yes. And I think the basic point, which goes back to the first thing you asked, is that this is a simple reality of life. The problem is that not a lot of people have realised that this is the case. It is something that we can’t, and shouldn’t, undo.

We spoke before of how controversial art is important for pushing boundaries. At the same time, sensitivity is important in the realm of cultural diplomacy. What are your thoughts on striking a balance between pushing boundaries and maintaining sensitivity?

Not all art has to be controversial of course. The fact that art is also there to be enjoyed should not be forgotten. With art that is controversial, there is a balance to be struck. There are debates in the UK about how public funding allows and supports challenges from the cultural sphere, because quite often it is actually very difficult to get something funded unless people like it. But occasionally you need to allow an art organisation that goes against the grain to do what it wants to do—and you have to be bold about that. But within this there are limits. You cannot have someone producing very offensive material just for the sake of being offensive. And provocation isn’t necessarily provocation of anger. It can also be provocation of a question, a person thinking ‘I don’t understand’. And that is a very important achievement.

You entitled your lecture: ‘The Future of Cultural Diplomacy’. Do you think the Olympics will have an influence on the future of UK cultural diplomacy?

Yes, and there are lot of things being done there. There is the cultural Olympiad, and the question of whether that actually encourages participation in the arts. Then there is the legacy of the Cultural Olympiad, and whether that legacy stops after four years or whether it carries on. I think it is an opportunity to show creativity. Not in the sense of simply saying “look what we have done: here is the Mini”, but in the sense of being creative and undertaking exactly the kind of projects we have been talking about. Beyond that, it’s an opportunity to draw in lots of different cultures from around the world, as they will all be sitting there in one place and at one time.

This is one of the recommendations we wrote in the English language pamphlet, actually. Beijing ran a campaign before the Olympics called ‘Beijing speaks English’. Well, in London there are over three hundred spoken languages; it speaks to the world. And it has a chance to do this in the Olympics and we shouldn’t miss that chance. In fact, I think it is as much an opportunity as it is a duty.

The talk about art as cultural diplomacy over the past week has often been focused on increasing dialogue between different cultural groups. Would you also like art as cultural diplomacy to encourage people to use a broader range of art institutions? To see people broaden the horizons in terms of what form of cultural institutions they use?

I was thinking today about what cultural diplomacy is. For me, it’s lots of different things. It’s the act of conscious reference to culture in diplomatic circles, but also about how we are all now cultural diplomats. I think that broadening our consumption of culture is very important. For instance when we speak of classical music, it’s about Mozart, Brahms, Bach and so on. But does that mean there isn’t, for instance, such a thing as classical African or Indian music? The education that we have quite often focuses on westernised musical forms, and hence it doesn’t allow access to the full richness of other cultures.

It is important to broaden a person’s focus much earlier on, and this is why education of children is so important, as well as what opportunities we give people. For instance, when we released the conservation pamphlet last year, we also released a video. I was speaking to a graffiti artist for this, and it became apparent very quickly that he was speaking about his work, as a graffiti artist, in the same way that the conservators from the British library speak about theirs. He was saying what a shame it is when you see things getting painted over, because it’s a whole history—a whole heritage—that that’s the eighties getting painted out.

It was remarkably apparent that both the graffiti artist and the conservators were talking about the same values, just in different forms. Opening that outlet up to both parties was important—and this is what I mean when I say that constantly stimulating people is important—because it gets people thinking about and questioning things in a different way. And yes, this is confusing, but actually, it is also enriching. And suddenly you have a situation where someone who was seen as a social nuisance, begins to be appreciated as an artist. Or rather, that an artist whom people never saw as such, is beginning to be recognised as an artist and finding his values appreciated—and then maybe next time, the work won’t be painted out.   

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. This was really great.

It was a pleasure.