What I learned in four years at the helm of the arts

The departing head of Arts Council England reflects on the thrill of artistic magnificence

There used to be a rather sterile, self-regarding debate in the arts world between the “arts-for-art’s-sake” brigade and the “instrumentalists”– those who stressed tourism, talent for the creative industries, soft power abroad and so on. Four years ago, we took a deep breath and announced, “It’s both, stupid”. We gathered together the inspiring evidence: urban regeneration and talent development, the fundamental but threatened role of the arts in schools, the amazing programmes in prisons and health care.

But we were careful to articulate the intrinsic benefits too – the art-for-art’s-sake folk had a point. Along with identity, entertainment and insight, we plucked another phrase out of the air: “empathetic citizens”. This is the idea that arts and culture are, at their core, the telling of human stories which allow us to put ourselves in other’s shoes. When I then looked into this in earnest, I discovered something important not just for the arts, but also for the whole of civil society.

It was a thought I tended to carry with me when, as chairman of Arts Council England, I would visit George Osborne. During his time as chancellor, a huge Millais portrait of Benjamin Disraeli dominated Osborne’s study at No 11. I took comfort from that picture. As chancellor of the exchequer in 1858, Disraeli allowed Joseph Bazalgette, my ancestor, to borrow £3m to kick off his great health reforms for London.

The power of public investment – an argument that it was my task to make in favour of arts funding. On the final occasion, the then chancellor took little persuading and gave the sector a positive settlement for the period 2016 to 2020. In the Commons he called it “one of the best investments we can make”.

Osborne is a well-known arts lover, but he made clear that he also bought broader arguments for the benefits of arts and culture: intrinsic, social, educational and economic (and there are similarly encouraging signs from the May government). As I step down from a four-year stint at Arts Council England, one of the most significant steps forward in my time has been the way in which arts leaders have developed and articulated this powerful case. 

A boy takes part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival, ‘which reminds us that it’s even more powerful to participate than to watch’.
A boy takes part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival, ‘which reminds us that it’s even more powerful to participate than to watch’. Photograph: Peter Byrne

So this week, to coincide with a farewell lecture (“Arts, Culture and Empathy”), I’m publishing a book, The Empathy Instinct (how to create a more civil society). There are lessons for kinder health and social care, more effective criminal justice, the combating of racism and religious intolerance and for tackling the downsides of our new, digital world. Here, though, I’d like to tell you how it relates to arts and culture – the fascinating tale of how modern science has now proved what our writers and performers have known for hundreds of years.Science has revolutionised our view of empathy. First, think how miraculous it is when you’re moved by a play or a novel. You’re empathising with characters who are fictional. What’s going on in your brain, enabling this brilliant leap of imagination? For a start, it’s thought there are “mirror neurons” helping you feel what it’s like to be one of those fictional characters. In the 1990s, mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys. The same part of their brains activated whether they were eating a grape themselves or seeing another monkey eat one. It seems human brains work in a similar way.

In 2007 an art historian and a neuroscientist tested people who were viewing Michaelangelo’s Prisoners and Goya’s Disasters of War. They discovered that, in their brain activity, they were simulating the emotional expressions and the movement implied in the paintings. There’s research which shows similar neurological patterns among dance audiences too.  

This leads Jonathan Gottschall, in his book The Storytelling Animal, to say: “The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and redefines the neural pathways that lead to skilful navigation of life’s problems.” From The Tiger Who Came to Tea to Pride and Prejudice, we’re a species of story tellers and story listeners. And it’s not just to satisfy our love of entertainment. Keith Oatley is a novelist but he’s also a cognitive psychologist. He carried out a study of people reading novels. It concluded that regular consumption demonstrably develops empathy and makes us more adept at reading the emotions of others.

To do that, it’s now known we use a number of different regions of the brain. For example, our amygdala helps us read the emotions revealed by facial expressions. Another region, the anterior cingulate cortex, activates not only when we’re in pain but when we see someone else in pain. And our medial prefrontal cortex is a sort of hub for processing our own and others’ thoughts and feelings. 

The breakthrough has been functional: magnetic resonance imaging – the MRI scanner. In the past 25 years it has enabled the mapping of the brain to reveal what some call “the empathy circuit” – 10 or more regions so far identified which contribute to our complex empathetic capacity (Professor Simon Baron-Cohen has done much of the pioneering research at Cambridge University). So, arts and popular culture, with their stories about the human condition are, if you like, the empathy gymnasium. And why does it matter? Because empathy is a glue that enables families, communities and countries to function in a civil and civilised manner. If you can see things from someone else’s point of view, then you can go on to act compassionately towards them. 

Nicholas Hytner at the 2014 Shakespeare Schools Festival. The director’s production of Othello at the National Theatre taught us a lot about empathy, says Peter Bazalgette.
Nicholas Hytner at the 2014 Shakespeare Schools Festival. The director’s production of Othello at the National Theatre taught us a lot about empathy, says Peter Bazalgette. Photograph: Shakespeare Schools Foundation

Long before the MRI scanner, artists were exploring this special quality. Here’s Shakespeare in his Sonnet 23: “To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.” And Shelley: “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively … the pleasures and pains of his species must become his own.” George Eliot thought deeply about what she called “the sympathetic imagination”. And, even before that, Aristotle identified pity and fear as the two emotions evoked in the audiences of Greek drama, leading towards what he called catharsis. Pity is, of course, an example of sympathy, the compassion that can result from empathy. 

There’s no more acute example of art evoking pity and fear this past year than Jeremy Deller’s magnificent commemoration of the first day of the battle of the Somme, We’re Here Because We’re Here. Hundreds of volunteers were rehearsed by the Birmingham Rep and the National Theatre, then, while dressed in first world war uniforms, they marched silently into 30 public spaces unannounced.

When asked by commuters why they were there, they simply presented a card to them. On it was the individual name of a Tommy killed that day in the battle. Many of those reading the cards burst into tears as the full import of the performance dawned on them. Fear for the soldiers, pity for their fate. 

Fear, it turns out, is an essential element of our empathy equipment. If you feel it, you can also respond to it in others. One American psychologist calls fear “the only neurocognitive requirement for generating sympathetic concern”. Psychopaths, of course, display a failure of empathy and a key indicator of psychopathy is fearlessness.

I went to a brilliant production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by the English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire. We watched the Don, played by George von Bergen, manipulate, cheat, seduce and kill. Then we heard him sing this line: “I’ll not be called a coward, I’ve never been afraid.” The librettist, Da Ponte, had worked out how the empathy instinct works and doesn’t work. As did Shakespeare. Those of us who were lucky enough to witness Ralph Fiennes in Richard III at the Almeida Theatre last year saw Richard murder his way to the throne and observe: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use.”

Another Shakespeare play yields one of the most sustained studies of psychopathy ever written. I was privileged to see Nick Hytner’s Othello at the National Theatre. Rory Kinnear chilled the blood as Iago, labelled by Ludovico as a “hellish villain”. Here, thanks to Shakespeare’s brilliance, we learn more about empathy. Because in one sense Iago is highly empathetic. With cruel perception he understands Othello perfectly and plays him like a fiddle. This is called cognitive empathy, which he has in spades. What he lacks completely is the other essential half of the equation: emotional empathy, where we feel another’s pain or joy and are thus able to show compassion.

Every year, the Shakespeare Schools Festival helps thousands of pupils perform 30-minute versions of his plays. Should we be surprised to find its most recent evaluation had seven out of 10 teachers judging that participants were then better able to empathise with their peers and with adults?It reminds us that it’s even more powerful to participate than to watch. In 2012, the journal Psychology of Music published a Cambridge study which took two large groups of girls and boys. One took part in musical activities, the other in different communal activities. After testing both groups, the researchers concluded that interacting through music makes us more emotionally attuned to others, even beyond the immediate setting.

If you’ve ever sung in a choir or played in an orchestra you’ll say, “of course”. It may seem a mysterious alchemy when music stirs us, but there are a number of studies that show how melody can release hormones in our brain, such as the neurotransmitters prolactin and oxytocin. These are also the hormones which play an important part in our neurologically driven empathetic responses.

As our scientific understanding of empathy grows, so does our appreciation of the role of culture as a fundamental expression of this instinct. As a result, empathy is just beginning to become explicit in the practice of the arts. Clare Patey set up what she calls The Empathy Museum and then mounted a travelling exhibition called Walk a Mile in My Shoes. Visitors put on headphones to listen to people tell their life stories, while actually walking in their shoes. Last summer, the London international festival of theatre put on the play Minefield, which required three British and three Argentinian veterans of the Falklands war to perform together: it involved lengthy development where the participants came to understand their differing experiences, and culminated in their all playing in a band together. One review called it “a cathartic reunion”. 

Last year was a pretty dramatic one, if not traumatic. The Brexit referendum seemed to result in an outbreak of overt racism – both online and on our streets – which shocked leavers and remainers alike. And it may sound counterintuitive, but empathy may well be to blame. Consider an observation from leading primatologist Frans de Waal. He has spent a lifetime studying the strong empathy instinct in chimpanzees and other apes and he wrote this: “We’ve evolved to hate our enemies, to ignore people we barely know, and to distrust anybody who doesn’t look like us. Even if we are largely cooperative within our communities, we become almost a different animal in our treatment of strangers.”

So empathy can make us loyal to our tribe but hostile to outsiders. Could this be the origins of racism? But when we extend empathy to those outside our tribe – rival football supporters, people of a different race, those of a different age group – that is when we can truly call ourselves civilised. And it’s arts and culture that are one of the main ways we do this. Let me give just one recent example of this.

Ira Aldridge was a jobbing black actor born in America. In the 1820s he was in London, at the time the great tragedian of his day, Edmund Kean, was playing as Othello. When Kean fell ill the producer drafted Aldridge in to replace him. The public was outraged at a black man … playing the part of a black man. The producers bowed to the protests and soon sacked Aldridge. The Tricycle’s Indhu Rubasingham came across this story and commissioned Lolita Chakrabarti to turn it into a play. It went on to be a multi-award winner. Indhu told me: “Theatre is powerful because it emotionally engages you with character. I feel strongly that you can’t change society unless you can walk in someone else’s shoes, understand a different point of view.”

When we came up with the phrase “empathetic citizens”, we had an idea of what we were getting at. But we discovered that behind it lay some revelatory science with huge significance for the arts. Public support of arts and popular culture is indeed one of the ways that we agree to invest in a civil society. In my time as chairman of Arts Council England it’s been wonderful to see us articulating, more powerfully than ever, the value and benefit of this work. 

As I depart, I’m also proud that we’ve been able to grow the sector, despite cuts in national public funding and despite the particular pressure that local authorities are now under. This is chiefly because of the commercial acumen of our arts and cultural organisations. But it’s true the expansion is influenced by the strength of London arts bodies – it’s much tougher elsewhere.

There’s now a slew of local authorities announcing painful reductions in arts and cultural funding. This is particularly threatening to museums, some of which face closure. Arts Council England can’t fund the gap. This is our single greatest challenge.

We’ve made some progress spreading the benefit of the arts more widely across the country and to more diverse communities. But there’s much more left to do. We need to ensure all publicly funded organisations serve everyone around them, and draw on all the talents for their creative work. 

Peter Bazalgette’s book The Empathy Instinct is published on 26 January . His farewell lecture as Arts Council chair is at the British Library on Wednesday


Peter Bazalgette

The GuardianTramp

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