In our last blog, “Knowledge is Power”, we wrote that our work is about so much more than sharing information - it is about sharing in the intellectual and emotional growth people experience within our courses. But what happens after our courses, when the seeds of critical thinking have been sown? How do we nurture that hunger for knowledge and continue to expand our horizons? How can we keep challenging, growing and getting to know our authentic selves?

After existing in survival mode for so long, it can feel difficult to explore new interests, new places, new people, and ultimately figure out what we enjoy doing and what gives us pleasure. We may have lost touch with what used to bring us joy or may not even know what we like, dislike, or what we can and want to do with our time.

For me personally, keeping busy was important and I started to see what I could do for free or cheap in London - and one of those things was getting out and visiting free art galleries and museums, to both nourish and reconnect with society and culture.
Cultural Capital

But when we talk of culture, whose culture are we talking about? And which cultural interests, knowledge and skills are often considered ‘better’ or more valuable than others? The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explored this within his concept of ‘cultural capital’, which he defined as, “the cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and opportunities available to us”.

He observed that certain forms of cultural capital - i.e., tastes, education, qualifications, accent, style of speech, mannerisms, clothes, and posture - are valued more than others, which can help or hinder someone “moving up” and around in the world. In a similar way to wealth or income, Bourdieu states that cultural capital - as it is currently viewed within society - is a major source of social inequality.

For example, what is our view and response to classical music or pop, novels or comic books, theatre or cinema, fine art or street graffiti. Our knowledge, understanding, and experiences of social inequality, related to our sex, race and class, can often give us set ideas about what is considered ‘cultural’ and that society approves of one over another.

We might also be left feeling excluded, ‘othered’, and less than, or that certain places, and social or cultural activities are not meant “for the likes of us”. This can tap into our negative core beliefs, that we are not worthy, that we’re different, that we don’t belong, and that our voices and opinions don't matter. All this can narrow our horizons and mean that we keep our social and cultural worlds familiar and smaller than they need to be.

The benefits of viewing art!

Viewing, and appreciating art in all its forms, is one way we can challenge the current view of ‘cultural capital’, and expand our own social and cultural interests. The Arts can nurture our self-esteem, our creativity, our critical thinking skills, and provide a unique way of looking at ourselves, others and the world. Art can also create a sense of freedom, by allowing us to subvert, confront or escape reality. In this way art can take us in different directions, and is a powerful tool which can be used to promote, as well as challenge societal norms.

Whilst the appreciation of art comes right at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the therapeutic benefits of art and creativity are huge, and connect to every human need that Maslow identifies.

Art and creativity have long been a source of expression, a way of channelling and releasing deep emotions, and as a way to survive, acknowledge, challenge, and heal from trauma. In addition, to lose yourself in doing, focusing, and practising a skill is a great way to decrease stress, activate a different part of our brain, nurture curiosity and our need to learn, as well as bring comfort and release. Art is a way to both reveal and also interpret the world around us, to encourage us to question, to support connection, and to help appreciate the beauty of awe around us.

When viewing and appreciating art, it’s also necessary to question who and whose culture is represented, what do we see, who do we see, who and what don't we see? When looking at old paintings we see people's lives hundreds of years ago, but do they give the whole picture? Do we see representation of people from varied cultures, races, and sexuality, and if so how are they portrayed? We often see women painted naked or semi-naked, and yet do we see men painted the same way? How many paintings or works of art are on show by female artists? In this sense, art requires us to question, challenge, and critique the realm of art itself.

Appreciating art, creativity, and its representation of varied cultures, can bring another benefit too - that of community, and of bonding over things that we enjoy, and the things we don't. Being able to meet up and walk around a museum, gallery or exhibition - for free - whilst connecting with others, and critiquing what we see, hear, feel and experience is all food for the soul, which fosters intellectual and emotional intimacy, and contributes to a sense of belonging and authenticity.

But, what if we have never been inside a museum or art gallery before? They can initially seem like very intimidating places. Visiting these places can put us out of our comfort zone and be unfamiliar, and yet to challenge ourselves, no matter our background, is where we know our most growth can come from. Radical pedagogy, a term coined by the feminist educator bell hooks, teaches us to question the information available to us, to step back, to challenge power dynamics and to look at the world around us systemically. We can start to do this, by challenging our own beliefs about what and where we belong culturally.

What I have personally learnt from visiting museums and galleries, is the importance of taking
up space, of having a voice, and that my voice is just as valid as anyone else's…we are all the artists, we are the audience, and we are enough.