TAITMAIL We have to grow up about race to keep the soft power pedal down

Sonia Boyce has been chosen to represent Britain at next year’s Venice Biennale. Boyce is 58 and a lauded member of the art establishment: an OBE, a Royal Academician, a UAL professor. She’s been chosen, not a moment too soon, for her innovative art-making that uses performance, drawing and photography which has been stunning us for 25 years.

She has been a pioneer in so much that has become the new norm: collaborative working with other artists; cross-discipline work; spectator involvement. Yet the press has picked up not on her accomplishments but that she is the first black female artist to be chosen, and rather than cause for celebration it should be a matter of shame both that it has taken so long and that her being black is more interesting than her creative achievements. The Daily Telegraph, The Times and even The Guardian have almost the same headline: “Sonia Boyce first black woman to represent Britain at Venice Biennale”, “Sonia Boyce becomes first black woman to…”. The Daily Mail didn’t notice.

Why has it taken us until 2020 to bring ourselves to accept that black artists are a part of the British cultural offer? Why is it that other (we can still count ourselves among them) European nations don’t seem to have a problem with colour-blindness?

A few days after the British Council made the announcement, the Arts Council defied those of us that accused it of having no teeth by promising to cut funding for grant receivers if they don’t rebalance their diversity, against a new report showing that 11% of the workforce in ACE’s national portfolio organisations are non-white, and the same 11% for artistic directors, against 15% of society.

The British Council is responsible for appointing the official Biennale rep and announced Boyce as “part of theburgeoning Black-British art scene of the early 1980s. She was one of the youngest artists of her generation to have her work acquired by Tate, featuring deeply personal reflections on race, class and gender in Britain...” etc, as it should be.

But our obsession with colour – and I’m not going anywhere near the government’s unrepentant racism in the Windrush scandal – is likely to be seriously damaging as we try to make our way as non-Europeans in a decreasingly sympathetic world. Because one of our best assets is soft power.

Soft power is the ability to attract, persuade and earn trust rather than coerce, and a key component is culture. We no longer have the muscle to make coercion work, but until now we’ve been very good at soft power.

The British Council has been doing it for 80 years or more, but it’s concerned. It has just published Sources of Soft Power: How perceptions determine the success of nations  https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/insight-articles/soft-power-values. It shows that while the UK is still leading in this, we’re being closed in on by France and Japan. In fact, the latest Portland Soft Power index shows the UK as having fallen behind France, and as a brand we’re now fourth behind the US, China and Japan.

“The real enemy for the UK here is complacency” says the British Council’s senior policy adviser, Alistair MacDonald, in his blog this week

https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/insight-articles/culture-arts-sonia-boyce. “Its rivals, both friendly and hostile, all recognise the importance of soft power. They are investing huge sums in growing their networks and in the socio-cultural ‘assets’ that are the key to attractiveness and trust”.

Never mind the government’s attitude, unless we as a society can grow up and get over our preoccupation with colour our soft power will be increasingly ineffective, just when we need it most.

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