Why Culture Should Focus on Giving People the Means, Instead of Focussing on the Ends

18/10/2013 16:45 BST | Updated 17/12/2013 10:12 GMT

Perhaps the biggest issue facing culture right now is that of instrumentalisation, essentially that culture must be a means to an end.

There are basically two arguments for the role of culture in the political realm

1) It needs to demonstrate its worth in economic terms which essentially is about contributing to the creation of wealth

2) It needs to demonstrate its worth as an agent of social change by contributing to the health agenda, the alleviation of poverty and cohesion between people

Both of these roles are important and culture can contribute both, sometimes at the same time, but we must not

(a) Expect too much of culture and art too quickly when its real effects burn slowly

(b) Run the risk of strangling creativity at birth by overzealous strategizing

It is not the case that we don't wish to prove that culture can achieve points 1) and 2) as we absolutely and passionately want to achieve these things, it's just that we don't want our work to be predefined by these metrics and statistics.

Creative people need time and space - both literally and metaphorically. At the risk of stating the obvious no artist or creative individual sits down thinking 'I must embark on this project because this is going to make a huge difference to the GDP' or 'I must do this because it is better for people than psychoanlaysis'. The macro effects of culture stem from endeavour that is more often than not deeply personal and individualistic and yet when those endeavours are successful they impact on thousands. If you want to look at it in capitalist terms then the same arguments be can be made for giving commercial entrepreneurs time and space, sometimes they need a leg-up too. Entrepreneurialism is the DNA of the artist. However, those metric ends are almost accidental by-products of investment in the means.

In 1982, computer whizz Alan Jay Perlis wrote:

'Often it is means that justify ends: Goals advance technique and technique survives even when goal structures crumble.'

Culture has defined civilizations since the year dot, it is ever-adapting, flexible and organic. What if there is no end? We're always asking 'why' but if the goal structures keep crumbling, as they always do, then what remains are the means.

In 1941 Presbyterian and Baptist Minister Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote:

'He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.'

When we look at legacy, we should recognise that the real success story of Derry's year as City of Culture has been the 'means' and 'giving people the means' - opportunity, time, space and inspiration. In a sense, we begin with an act of generosity which is different thing from charity.

The investment that is needed is that of belief, that arts and culture actually have an important role to play in our society in the first place. I don't think you'll get any arguments from the people of Derry~Londonderry this year that this is the case. I stand by what I wrote in October for the publication of the city of culture programme:

'at the end of 2013, what experiences will stay with people for the rest of their lives, live on in their hearts and minds? ... though, rightly, the legacy of this project will be judged in economic, socio-economic and maybe even political terms, what will really matter are the small bright flames ignited in the 10 year-old boy in Nelson Drive or 15 year-old girl in Galliagh which will never be extinguished and may light the path to a fulfilling, wonderful life.

'We hope that Derry~Londonderry's City of Culture year brings a sense of wonder, a sense of ambition, a sense of pride in our community, a sense of being part of a global community, a sense of joy, a sense of ownership, a sense of feeling special, a sense of purpose and at the end a sense of achievement.

And during this incredible year that's what we have delivered. In the words of young Laura Kelly who joined a workshop with the amazing London based Boy Blue street dance company last week she described her experience as life changing, inspiring, and challenging. " It has given me new skills, said Laura and increased my confidence. In fact it was the best experience of my life"