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Art & culture must be challenging to enhance social cohesion

Argument for more discerning arts policy
02 October 2015
The project 'Schatgraven' in Emmermeer (photo: Lies Kortenhorst)

Contrary to popular opinion, engaging in or creating art together does not by definition enhance social cohesion within a community. Making music together, for example, or setting up a theatre project, mainly serves to establish existing strong connections. Experiencing ‘challenging’ forms of culture, however, does seem to lower the threshold between people who would otherwise not come into contact with each other. These are the results of research into the cultural participation policy of the province of Drenthe, for which cultural scientist Hanka Otte was awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 1 October. Otte uses her study to argue the case for more discerning and ‘artistically minded’ cultural policy.

‘Art unites us’, is a term commonly used as the basis for cultural policy, particularly when referring to amateur and community art. Joining others to create or experience something beautiful is supposed to bring people closer together. This is one of the reasons put forward by the government when investing in active and passive cultural participation.

Art rarely unites us

The effects are less conclusive than expected, claims Otte: ‘First of all, field tests carried out at amateur art associations and various cultural projects in Drenthe have shown that people who take an active part in cultural activities largely demonstrate connective cohesion on the basis of the things they have in common. Art or culture rarely serves to unite people who do not have a lot in common.’ Otte also monitored five different cultural projects. She concluded that the only work that was challenging enough to bridge the natural gap between people from different backgrounds was that of the youth theatre company PeerJonG. ‘This doesn’t mean that it is necessarily wrong to try to unite people through art, but it does mean that the government should have a clear vision before it invests cultural resources in promoting social cohesion’, says Otte.

Passive better than active

Strangely enough, the research showed that that passive participation, i.e. going to a show or a museum, provided a better basis for connecting people than active participation. A large-scale quantitative study showed that people who go to see art (amateur or professional) were more likely to demonstrate connective cohesive behaviour than people who did not go to see art, but attended sports matches, for example. However, this is only true if the exhibition or performance is innovative and sparks people s imagination. ‘The term “challenging is obviously subjective’ says Otte. ‘Something that one person finds challenging may be ‘old hat’ to someone else. This is why I always ask members of the audience about how they experienced an exhibition or performance.’


Otte concludes that the expectation that projects set up as part of the cultural participation policy in Drenthe would help to bring different social groups closer together was hardly met. She has formulated a number of conditions that she thinks would increase the likelihood of success. The main condition is to ensure that the artist can realize his/her project as autonomously as possible. The researcher advises governments to consider the aim of any policy and the specific circumstances very carefully when looking for ways to promote social cohesion: ‘If the main aim is to bring people in a community closer together, then established art forms or sport are the best options. But if you want groups of people to be more receptive to other social groups, it is better to use more challenging forms of art. The reasoning often seems to be: ‘It doesn’t hurt to try,’ but this isn’t true. Undiscerning cultural policy is actually damaging the cultural sector.’

Curriculum vitae

Hanka Otte (IJsselham, 1974) is a policy worker for the province of Drenthe. She studied Art and Arts Policy at the University of Groningen and conducted her research in the Faculty of Arts. The PhD ceremony was on 1 October 2015. Her thesis is entitled: Binden of overbruggen? Over de relatie tussen kunst, cultuurbeleid en sociale cohesie (Connecting or bridging? The relationship between art, cultural policy and social cohesion ). Her supervisors are Prof. J.J. van Maanen and Prof. P.J.D. Gielen.

More information

Hanka Otte, j.f.otte

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.47 p.m.
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