The Art of Life: how arts and culture affect our values

“We need new ideas, we need new ways of doing things and we need a whole new way of approaching each other with much more empathy and understanding. This means that the rest of society really needs to focus on the world of art and culture as a vital source for not only solutions, but also ways of finding solutions… and a whole knew concept of what a valuable life really means.” – Uffe Elbaek, former Danish Minister of Culture

Last year the Future Generation Art Prize was created to help younger artists participate in the cultural development of societies in global transition. On launching the Prize, founder Victor Pinchuk said, “I believe artists can show our world of tomorrow better than politicians and analysts”.

This month a group of philanthropists working to promote social justice and peace met with artists to work on their relationship with art and culture.

Next week an art school will open in East London with a new model as both a school and communal space emphasising cooperation and experimentation. It is being set up to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and skills between artists, local residents and neighbourhood organisations.

These few examples go beyond art for art’s sake, they make art for our sake. More and more people are coming to the realisation that we are reaching the limits of our planet’s capacity to support us. Our wellbeing is declining and inequality is rising, which is fuelling conflict, mass migration, poverty and many other social problems. We need to act fast if we are to find new economic and social paradigms that recognise the limits of our finite planet and enable all people to flourish.

Can we transition the values of our society and economy within a generation? Well we need to give it our best shot, armed with insight into what makes a real difference. Our customs, behaviors, and values are byproducts of our culture. No one is born with greed, prejudice, bigotry and hatred; these are all learned behaviours. We need to find more and better ways to learn from and understand each other, disrupt vested interests and imagine and create more sustainable ways of living.

Art and culture’s core practice is one of the most participative, dynamic and social forms of human behaviour. It has the capacity to trigger reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue and foster new ideas and relationships and offers a powerful and democratic way of expressing, sharing and shaping values. It can help us build new capabilities and understand how to imagine and rehearse a different way of being and relating. It can enable us to design useful and meaningful things and is increasingly the basis of livelihoods and enterprises that are motivated by much more than profit.

But to fully release this potential, we need to deepen our understanding of how arts impact on our values and rethink how and why we value art. Our values represent our guiding principles, our broadest motivations, influencing the attitudes we hold and how we act. They shape the way we look at and understand the world and the mental structures that order our ideas. They are the frame through which we construct the stories that we tell ourselves and others about what is important.

In The Art of Life, Tim Kasser, professor of psychology and co-author of Common Cause; The Case for Working with our Cultural Values, sets out the evidence base for the shaping of values and explores the potential of engagement with art and culture to affect our:

  • self-acceptance,
  • affiliation, and
  • community feeling,

As well as values that are known to affect higher levels of personal, social, and ecological well-being such as:

  • freedom,
  • creativity,
  • self-respect,
  • equality and
  • unity with nature.

A number of people have offered their responses to the ideas that Tim explores in his article, including an emergent artist, a playwright, a campaigner, a designer, a director of a cultural organisation, and two academics from different disciplines. Their generous contributions and critique are fascinating and sometimes fierce.

This report is the beginning of a dialogue about how art and culture impact on our values, what that might look like in practice, and how we might foster new collaborations between artists and cultural institutions and the third sector to create new ideas for development.

This is a dialogue that needs lots of voices, and we’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to be involved.

This is a guest post by Shelagh Wright of Mission Models Money. You can download the report below, or contact her at: [email protected]

The Art of Life: Understanding how participation in arts and culture can affect our values

The Art of Life: Understanding how participation in arts and culture can affect our values

Mission Models Money & Common Cause | September 2, 2013

This report is the beginning of a dialogue about how arts and culture impact on our values, what that might look like in practice, and how we might foster new collaborations between artists, cultural institutions and the third sector to create new ideas for development.

783.9 KB | 7281 Downloads

People for Ecosystem Services: Rethinking market solutions for sustainable farming practice

I have just been reading Jay Griffith’s latest book ‘Kith’, in which she urges us not to lose sight of our relationship with nature and our connectedness with the earth:

“Land can make someone who they are, can create their psyche, giving them fragments of themselves… shatter the relation to the land and you can shatter personalities”

Common Cause for Nature (CCfN) brings the same plea centre stage as a means to guide the conservation sector in their task of championing, protecting and restoring the environment that is our home. Demonstrating the importance of nurturing intrinsic values, which foster care for others of every species, ‘Common Cause…’ provides an important caution against the ever increasing reliance we now place in economic value and market solutions. Read more

Food for thought: how values affect our food choices

We in the West are living in an age of food plenty: faced with dizzying choice in our supermarket aisles, with foods from across the globe available – whatever the season – at prices that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. How do we navigate this? What guides our decision to pick one product over another, or to forgo some foods altogether? And how much can our own personal choices really affect the way the food system works?

When it comes to the big issues we are concerned about, be it animal welfare, climate change, or health and nutrition, there is only so much that our individual shopping choices can do. The responsibility lies also, and sometimes more so, with the powers that structure the food industry. In the UK, for example, we generate about 16 million tonnes of food waste a year, but 60% of this occurs in the supply chain, before it even reaches our shelves. So the power we wield with our shopping baskets, in cases like this, is somewhat limited. However, if we understand what motivates our food choices, on our own and as a society, we can get a better understanding of what’s accentuating those bigger problems we care about. And this will hopefully give us a better idea of how we can be more effective at making the changes we’d like to see. Read more

Common Cause for Nature: A call to collaborate

This is a guest post by Jon Alexander of the National Trust.

The lessons for the conservation movement held within Common Cause for Nature are deep and many. But I would argue the most important is the simplest of all, and comes before you get beyond the cover. It is the title – Common Cause for Nature. This is a call to arms to all of us who work in this space not just to work and campaign separately on our own specific ‘bits’, but far more importantly, to get beyond those bits and work together to create a proactive, persuasive, powerful whole. Read more

The spirit of Fenton

The Common Cause for Nature report highlights the importance of both talking about and experiencing nature in motivating people to support the environmental agenda. We asked author of Silent Spring Revisited and Looking for the Goshawk Conor Mark Jameson to write something about the importance of connecting with nature. He found inspiration from nature in an unlikely suburban setting, via YouTube.

I’m not sure why I laughed so much when I saw Fenton the black labrador in what is by now a legendary piece of amateur footage. It has even gone viral, viewed about 10 million times on the internet. In fact I’m not sure it’s even right to laugh at it, but laugh I – and so many others – obviously have. I’m not actually sure why it’s even funny. I’ve been trying to analyse the reasons. Read more

Nature: container, object, person, self?

Common Cause for Nature highlights the importance of frames in motivating support for wildlife and the environment, and discusses dominant frames in nature conservation. Here, Nadine Andrews discusses her own research on people’s personal frames around their own relationship with nature.

Scholars like George Lakoff, John S Dryzek, Brendon Larson and Arran Stibbe have analysed political and environmental science discourse. A dominant frame is nature as a useful resource which is there to be exploited for human benefit. Its value is not intrinsic but instrumental. Read more

Get Myself Connected

For the launch of the Common Cause for Nature report Ralph Underhill explores the endless ways we can get in touch with nature.

“Gonna get myself connected 
I ain’t gonna go blind
For the light which is reflected”

Frankly I have no idea what the origins of this song are but it is just possible that the Stereo MCs were motivated to write this classic after the feeling of connection produced by a chance meeting with a pine marten on a forestry path in the Cairngorms. Read more

New report: Common Cause for Nature


Creating and maintaining a sustainable, wildlife-rich world requires active, concerned citizens and a political system capable of rising to the challenge. Governments, businesses and the public will need the space and motivation to make the right choices. The UK conservation sector is large and well-resourced yet, as the recent State of Nature report attests, biodiversity is still in decline. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Where is the public concern and political will to address these issues?

In 2012, thirteen UK conservation organisations – including WWF-UK, the John Muir Award, RSPB and CPRE – came together to commission an analysis of the values they promote in their work. Led by PIRC, academic researchers from Lancaster University, Royal Holloway, and Essex University carried out innovative linguistic analysis of six months of external communications of these organisations. The analysis was supplemented by interviews, surveys and workshop discussion with those in the conservation sector. Today sees the release of the resulting report. Read more

Common Threads – July 2013

  • The Charity-Industrial Complex – A great critique of how philanthropy maintains structures of inequality: “The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over…. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.” What we need, he says, is systemic change: “It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.”
  • On questioning the ‘economic common sense’ – We can’t imagine a different type of economy when we’re trapped by thinking taxes are bad and investment and speculation are the same thing.
  • Who framed the asylum seeker? – A good article from Australia on the framing of asylum. Why’s it always discussed as a ‘problem’?
  • Keith Joseph smiles and a baby cries – Jim Coe on single-issue campaigns: in a world of austerity, are we in a zero-sum game? How do we go for the structural changes we need?
  • Paths to climate action survey – Aberystwyth researcher Rachel Howell is doing some research into motivations behind climate change action and she’s after survey respondents: can you help?
  • Targeted advertising in doctors’ surgeries – Seriously?! And this one’s seriously creepy: A newly developed transmitter can send advertising messages to sleepy commuters who rest against the window, so sounds appear to come from inside their own heads…
  • Childish mistakes – Experiences, particularly those that are repeated, shape our values by telling us what is ‘normal, possible and desirable’. What are we learning about ‘equality’ as children (and adults)? “If a teacher tells you in media studies … that Page 3 and similar images are airbrushed and photoshopped and therefore unrealistic, but the boys in your school compare you to them every day, then once again the experience is likely to win out over the facts. Add to this the fact that if anything is repeated often enough it eventually takes on a kind of truth of its own, whether or not it started out as a lie or a joke or ‘just a bit of fun’. The act of repetition legitimises things, as advertisers know very well. In this way images such as the Sun’s page 3 effectively ‘advertise’ to viewers the wares on show and make them seem normal and desirable.”

What have the immigrants ever done for us?
Five reasons why the economic argument for immigration is destined to fail

“Immigration is like trade. It makes us rich” – The Times (paywall), May 27th 2013

“Immigrants: don’t you just love ‘em? They travel to Britain from far-flung lands, coming here to toil away in our shops and offices and homes, paying their taxes and generally making us all better off.” – The Telegraph, June 13th 2013.

On the Australian campaign website, Kick a Migrant, you’re encouraged to chuck an immigrant into the sea (“as far as you can”). I’ve just hurled Kumar into the shark-infested sea, screaming. As soon as he hits the water, I’m confronted by a box condemning what I’ve done: Kumar was a scout-leading, local employment-improving, community man. But totally overshadowing this is a big, bold, red dollar sign and a large negative number: what I’ve cost the Australian economy by kicking Kumar out. Subversive, I think.

Immigration is a regular hot potato. It’s surrounded by economic myths: immigrants cost the health service millions, “they” are taking “our” jobs, they’re claiming loads of benefits and taking “taxpayers’ money”. But recent figures from the OECD show that – much like the Australian campaign – immigration has provided net economic gain for the UK. Great. I guess we can all stop arguing about it, and Nigel Farage will go away and leave us in peace? Sadly, I think there are five reasons why not. Read more

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