Is it time to start taking more risks in the arts and beyond?

The Art of Risk final-4Matt Boswell, Arts Engaged Research Fellow

When did risk get such a bad name? Why does the word carry such negative connotations? If someone tells you that a certain course of action is ‘risky’, then they probably mean that you should think twice before doing it. In modern society, risk is generally construed as undesirable and frightening. Like some kind of disease, it is to be minimised, managed and contained. The language of ‘risk management’ has become commonplace in all types of organisation, childishly colour-coded in red, amber and green. Our cities are full of warning signs pointing out hazards, telling us what not to do. We insure ourselves against every conceivable type of risk, right up to the biggest and most unavoidable risk of them all: that of dying.

This pervasively cautious mindset is to some degree understandable. It links to recent historical and political phenomena, such as terrorist attacks, and to climate change and environmental catastrophe. It is accentuated by technological and medical advances, which allow us to better identify and measure risk, and has been further exacerbated by current economic conditions. We all know that risks taken by the banks have plunged us into a period of austerity and public sector cuts.

At the University of Leeds we have a long-standing partnership with Opera North and a breezy appetite for risk-taking is suggested by the name of the collaboration: DARE. However, over the last few months some of us have started to worry that we too are becoming increasingly risk-averse. The cuts have proved particularly challenging for arts organisations, many of whom have been stripped of funding or challenged to demonstrate their broader social value ad nauseam. At the peak of the cuts, the former Culture Secretary Maria Miller even held up the musical War Horse as a shining example of the kind of commercially viable production that the sector should be focussing on — triggering a frenzy of more or less contained lip-biting in the process.

But we started to wonder: were governments, universities and arts organisations alike becoming complicit in a potentially harmful and paralysing drift towards conservatism? Was it the same in other sectors? Was it necessarily a good thing to nurture such a risk-averse culture? Can such a culture become psychologically, even economically damaging? Do we, as a society, need to redevelop our appetite for responsible risk-taking?

More and more people seem to be engaging in this kind of debate. New books are being published on the subject, such as Risk Savvy by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, which takes issue with the popular assumption that ‘rational’ approaches to decision-making must be the most effective ones. In a recent interview with the Radio Times, the explorer and television personality Bear Grylls advocated children playing with knives, arguing that parents were becoming too overprotective and that they must teach children ‘how to embrace and manage risk’.

To explore these questions further, we decided to organise a one day event, The Art of Risk, which begins with the simple premise that when it comes to risk, we have much to learn from each other. Our aim is to bring together representatives from the cultural industries, academia and healthcare, along with students and members of the public, to explore the pitfalls and creative potential of risk. Our speakers include the writer Jay Griffiths, author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, the theatre and opera director Annabel Arden, and Anna Higgs, Commissioner and Head of Digital at Film4. Together, they bring with them a range of stories, experiences and perspectives on topics such as culture, creativity, disaster management, health and the environment.

In the run up to The Art of Risk, we have also created a video blog to explore different approaches to risk. In one post, Maria Balshaw, Director of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery, argues, perhaps counter-intuitively, that ‘the economic downturn has been an impulse towards taking more risks’, contending that ‘if we do really bold and brave things, we will speak up for the things that really matter to British society now’. For Maria, art matters most when social conditions are at their most challenging. ‘The economic downturn is the last point where you should be playing it safe’, she advises.

Our other provocateurs include the writer and former drug smuggler Howard Marks talking about how ‘taking risks increases quality of life’ and deriding our ‘miserable, chicken-type culture’. The DJ Mary Anne Hobbs recalls how baffled people were by her decision to leave Radio 1 at the peak of her career. For Mary Anne, however, this was a risk she felt compelled to take. There are also reflections by those with more calculated approaches to risk, such as the professional gambler Mike Knights and the obstetrician Professor James Drife.

Risk is self-evidently not an exact science. When it comes to the ‘art of risk’, there are no right or wrong answers. In the fraught moment of risk-taking and decision-making, people defer to a range of authorities: science, religion, economics and the unconscious mind all play their part. The aim of this event, then, is not to have the last word on risk, but rather to join those who are willing to ask new types of questions about the status and value of risk in our culture. Questions which only become possible once we recognise that risk is not just an alarming word and that risk-taking is not automatically the precursor to economic, environmental or personal calamity. For many, risk has also proved to be an inspiring word, and its rich promise lies at the heart of some of our greatest scientific discoveries, artistic creations and personal journeys.

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