Deep hanging out in the arts: an anthropological approach to capturing cultural value

Article English CLOSED
Walmsley, BA (2018)
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis

This article presents the findings of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project carried out from September 2013 to March 2014 by five researchers at the University of Leeds (UK), who paired off with five audience-participants and engaged in a process of “deep hanging out” (Geertz 1998) at events curated as part of Leeds’ annual LoveArts festival. As part of AHRC’s Cultural Value project, the overarching aim of the research was to produce a rich, polyvocal, evocative and complex account of cultural value by co-investigating arts engagement with audience-participants. Findings suggested that both the methods and purpose of knowing about cultural value impact significantly on any exploration of cultural experience. Fieldwork culminated in the apparent paradox that we know, and yet still don’t seem to know, the value and impact of the arts. Protracted discussions with the participants suggested that this paradox stemmed from a misplaced focus on knowledge; that instead of striving to understand and rationalize the value of the arts, we should instead aim to feel and experience it. During a process of deep hanging out, our participants revealed the limitations of language in capturing the value of the arts, yet confirmed perceptions of the arts as a vehicle for developing self-identity and -expression and for living a better life. These findings suggest that the Cultural Value debate needs to be reframed from what is currently an interminable epistemological obsession (that seeks to prove and evidence the value of culture) into a more complex phenomenological question, which asks how people experience the arts and culture and why people want to understand its value. This in turn implies a re-conceptualization of the relationships between artists or arts organisations and their publics, based on a more relational form of engagement and on a more anthropological approach to capturing and co-creating cultural value.
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