Is access to art a human right?

Barry Knight

Two years ago the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP) began to investigate the relationship between social justice and art, leading to the recent publication Framing the Discourse, Advancing the Work: Philanthropy at the nexus of peace and social justice and arts and culture. [1] I was sceptical from the beginning. Art and social justice are surely about different things.

Art belongs in the spiritual realm as something transcendental to be enjoyed like a beautiful landscape, which at its best can induce what psychologist Abraham Maslow called a ‘peak experience’. Social justice, on the other hand, belongs in the material realm, concerned with practical issues of money, food, shelter, safety and relationships, which are way down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. How could something essentially transcendental be relevant to something so practical?

As the work progressed, my doubts increased. A retreat for philanthropists and artists in the summer of 2013 brought together two groups, each with its own incomprehensible jargon. Lofty but ill-defined terms such as ‘equality’, ‘social change’ and ‘human rights’ vied for attention with ‘art’ and ‘culture’. As well as being baffled, I found myself questioning the zealotry of casting art as subservient to social change.

At the end of the process, however, I have come to see that the relationship between art and social justice is vital if we are to make significant progress with the world’s problems, but the relationship is the reverse of that envisaged in the PSJP publication. Indeed, I now see that art is so important that it justifies its place in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27 states:

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Art as the pinnacle of human achievement …
A vital link between art and social justice is provided by John Maynard Keynes. In a paper published in 1930, he foresaw a future in which ‘… for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.’[2] The answer, said Keynes, lies in art.

This is not to say that art does not have societal value. However, an assessment of that value should depend on the essential meaning of art itself, rather than on the attachment of a contingent purpose given to it by social activists.

Keynes was influenced by philosopher G E Moore who, in Principia Ethica, suggested that ‘by far the most valuable things we know or can imagine are certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects’. According to his biographer, Edward Skidelsky, Keynes lived most of his life in the ‘nether regions of capitalist action, but he always had one eye on the heaven of art, love and the quest for knowledge’.

On Keynes’ model, therefore, art is the purpose of social progress: we engage with practical action so society as a whole can engage with a higher state of consciousness. Keynes looked forward to the moment (to be achieved in around 2030 on his prediction model) when ‘the spontaneous, joyful attitude to life now confined to artists and free spirits is diffused throughout society as a whole’.

This reverses the instrumentalist view that art should be used to further social justice. On this model, art is the pinnacle of human achievement, and the goal of social justice is to enable human beings to reach it.

… or a vehicle for social change?
Both Keynes in England and Malraux in France believed that the mass of the people should have access to ‘elite’ art, including opera, ballet and theatre. This was uppermost in their minds in forming organizations such as the Arts Council to make public funds available to the arts.

This approach has produced an important stream of funding for the arts. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, for example, funds art in order ‘to widen access and deepen participation in the arts, to improve education and learning through the arts, and to show that the arts make a difference to people’s lives’.

However, the overall pattern of arts funding has been criticized on the grounds that it tends to reinforce, rather than challenge, existing divisions of wealth and power. A report by the US’s National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy suggested that the large sums ($2.3 billion in 2009) awarded to arts organizations are ‘demonstrably out of balance with our evolving cultural landscape and with the changing demographics of our communities … it disregards large segments of our society’.

The study points out that a growing number of artists and cultural groups are working in artistic traditions from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, as well as in new technology-based and hybrid forms. Their art often addresses issues of economic, educational and environmental injustice as well as inequities in civil and human rights.

This takes us back into the territory covered by the PSJP publication and its central thesis that the power of art should be harnessed as a vehicle for social change. A survey of arts funders prepared for that research revealed a split between those who funded art largely as an instrument to attain social justice and those who did not see it this way.

A fruitless distinction
I suggest that pursuing this distinction between ‘art for its own sake’ and ‘art for social justice’ is ultimately fruitless, for two reasons. First, the idea that support for ‘art for its own sake’ reinforces the elitism in society is at least partly out of date – not because of any philanthropic programme to increase access, but because of the ubiquity of social media. Ordinary people may not be able to afford a ticket to La Scala, but they can now watch performances of first-class opera on YouTube.

Second, and more fundamentally, art sometimes promotes social justice and sometimes it does not. Consider two original compositions by jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson. ‘Hymn to Freedom’ was born out of the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s and is clearly relevant to social justice. ‘St Henri’ was written to celebrate the hustle and bustle of the Montreal neighbourhood where Peterson grew up and has no relevance to social justice. Enjoyment of these pieces may be enhanced by knowing why they were composed, but is not a necessary condition, since art does not depend on having a purpose to have value.

Art and creativity
This is not to say that art does not have societal value. However, an assessment of that value should depend on the essential meaning of art itself, rather than on the attachment of a contingent purpose given to it by social activists. In other words, the value of art needs to be determined by its essence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘art’ is defined as:

‘The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, … producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.’

The arts cover:

‘… various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance’.

The key concept – appearing in both definitions – is ‘creativity’. This is the essence of art and is, I suggest, the central contribution of art to individuals and to wider society. Art is the medium through which human beings engage with their higher selves to reach their full potential – what Maslow called the ‘self-actualizing’ process. According to the literature on aesthetics, there are two main ways in which this process occurs. The first is by developing new ways of seeing; the second is by developing new relationships with others. Through such processes we are all capable of attaining the state of bliss envisaged by Keynes.

The creativity of the artistic process is much required by the human condition. John Paul Lederach in The Moral Imagination: The art and soul of peacebuilding suggests that a society without art is a society without ways of creating solutions to complex problems. He notes that, as the pursuit of professional excellence in society has emphasized the technology, the technique and the skills of process management, we have too often lost a sense of the art. As a result, he suggests:

‘… our approaches have become too cookie-cutter like, too reliant on what proper technique suggests as a frame of reference, and as a result our processes are too rigid and fragile’.

This poses two challenges to philanthropists. The first is to infuse their programmes with art. This is the missing ingredient in a complex non-linear world where the log frame is only good for the technocratic aspects of development.

The second is to embrace a new moral direction. Following Keynes we can see that there is the possibility of another narrative – away from the money-saturated universe of capitalism towards a space where we all have enough to ensure that we can be creative. We replace a materialist account of the universe with a transcendental one. The importance of social justice is that each and every one of us on this planet has sufficient wherewithal (money, food, shelter, education and so on) to be able to embark on our journey to reach our higher selves as set out by Keynes. I believe that this is our birthright.

Barry Knight is secretary of CENTRIS. Email

Lead image: Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson wrote some songs that were overtly about the struggle for social justice. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs


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  2. ^ John Maynard Keynes (1930) ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, in Essays in Persuasion, New York: W W Norton, 1963.

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