At the start of the conference Jude Kelly posed the question that at a time when arts organisations are vulnerable to funding cuts can they afford to court controversy by promoting challenging work? Of course the answer has to be yes, otherwise, as another speaker, said the alternative is to follow the increasingly familiar path towards popularism and spectacle.
By the end of the conference I felt challenged, encouraged, and at the same time fearful as to whether brave words and intentions could survive not only the attacks on individual works of art that are becoming more common, but the governments insidious chipping away at our culture as evidenced by the Ebacc proposals and the cutting of funding to humanities in the university sector.
Personally I find the rise of the minority pressure group and its ability to use the threat of protest as a means to prevent the discussion of issues it wishes to avoid very disturbing indeed.
It's okay to demand the right to believe what you wish to believe in, but why does that right deny my right to oppose or challenge those beliefs? And why is that point of view not being challenged? Mona Siddiqui, in a platform session,asked 'should religious faith be protected at all?' and suggested that 'we don't have the conversation because we are afraid of confrontation.'
The world has changed since the Satanic Verses, as Anthony Julius pointed out. Now any group that senses a challenge, real or imaginary, can play the religious intolerance card with almost instant success.
It's not right, is it? If I can respect your right to believe the moon is made of cheese, why can't you respect my right to disagree? If your faith is firm enough then how can it be weakened by my questions, or damaged by my doubt?
Dr Siddiqui is right - we are afraid of the problems that opening a dialogue might bring. Me? I'm more afraid that in avoiding that dialogue our positions will become even more dangerously entrenched and we'll not learn that our shared humanity is what defines us, not what we choose to believe in.