Why Arts and Culture are Important for the Global Goals?

Screenwriter, director and UN SDGs Advocate Richard Curtis recently spoke about culture and sustainable development at the Culture High-level Event convened by the President of the General Assembly. Here's his speech:

Hello. Ignore the clock, it stopped working years ago.  My name is Richard Curtis, and huge thanks to the President of the General Assembly for the opportunity to talk to you today. Just to quickly introduce myself, I’m a writer and over the years have been responsible for TV things like Mr Bean and movies like Notting Hill and Love Actually that have made Hugh Grant very rich and very unhappy.

To compensate for all that stuff – I’ve tried to spend the other half of my life as well as I can - I set up the charity Comic Relief which has raised $2 billion dollars so far  –  was part of the Make Poverty History and Live 8 Campaigns that supported the MDGs  – and now I’m honoured to be one of the Secretary-General’s Advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals.

I know it’s a huge agenda today – and I’ll just focus in on a few things. This is all in the context of my belief that arts and culture are per se incredibly important to the joy and self-knowledge of nations. They are actually included in the SDGs 4, 8,11 and 17 – of course – because the SDGS support everything that’s important.

But also – I really believe that without arts and culture, I’d never have developed at all as a person who hopes the world can get better. It was the films of people like Costa Gavras and Ken Loach that made me feel what injustice feels like – it was a musical event – Live Aid – that opened my heart to the tragedy of extreme poverty – it’s writers like James Baldwin and even our dear old Charles Dickens who’ve made me feel injustice in my bones.

But particularly today, I’d like to focus on how arts and culture specifically can help change the world directly.

Let me start with the SDGs – you’d expect me to say they are one of the great proposals and documents that the world has ever produced. But I do believe they have also needed artists and communicators to fulfil their promise. Over the last five years, a huge group of people have worked together to make the design of them attractive, easy to understand, easy to teach -and therefore easier to adopt.

Filmmakers, musicians, actors, designers, broadcasters, have all come together to make Goals-related thing that spread through the general public. You can’t fight for your rights if you don’t know what they are – and the arts have been crucial in spreading the Goals far and wide – igniting them in people’s imagination and therefore making them actually apply them in their lives.

This has always been the way – artists and communicators have boiled down issues of injustice to simple, emotional messages and stories that have made a huge difference. In the battle against slavery in the UK – it was the circulation of an amazing diagram of the conditions on slave ships that struck the public to the core – and it was the most famous ceramicist in the UK,  Josiah Wedgwood, producing beautiful objects saying “ Am I Not a Man and a Brother” that brought to reality the slavery into the homes of millions.

The fight against racism has been illuminated by the work of singers from Sam Cooke to Beyonce – and as I say, it was the Live Aid and Band Aid concerts that woke the world up in the 1980s – and in my own little way, it’s been the work of comedians for Comic Relief that has been part of not only raising money – but helping to create a generation in the UK who understand that other people’s lives are hard but that we can all do something about it.

Art and artists and Culture endlessly re-present lives truths and injustices. So I passionately believe in their power to change the world – and the UN shares that confidence and has often engaged with our industries to make people Ambassadors and it’s a great honour that we can do that. 

But we can do more, and we have more to give – including making our own industries more aligned with the SDGs. More equal, more fair, free from all forms of discrimination and injustice. The exploitation of cultural workers of all stripes, including through unfair pay and working practices, had been normalised for too long.

We need policy changes that secure artists and cultural workers’ human, social and economic rights. And we need cultural and behavioural change within our industries, to address where we can do better, and what we must prioritise in facing the crises that are besieging our world.

So I’d like to ask, I’d like to end by asking all of you – including the world leaders and cultural ministers in attendance - two things:

How are you going to protect and strengthen culture throughout this pandemic and beyond, and include our sectors in your recovery plans, so we can play our part in rebuilding back better from this pandemic?

And also, how can you encourage culture and the arts to bring people together and get everyone on board for the SDGs themselves? We can help make them simple and passionate – so please, use us!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing your policy responses and plans. To make things happen you have to make things – and artists have always made things that help change the world. And it’s so urgent – 2030 is charging towards us and art and culture can be at the very front of the campaign against poverty, climate change and injustice. I hope you have a great, and useful day, thank you very much.