AT the age of 32, I joined my very first game of Dungeons & Dragons and it changed my life. Over the past two years I’ve created characters, written elaborate backstories, developed my roleplaying skills – including a couple of ridiculous accents – and learned the skill of “yes and” improvisation, all in the process of playing these sprawling tabletop fantasy games.

Most importantly, though, I’ve found a community by delving into this weird and wonderful world alongside new and old friends. I’ve built my confidence in ways I didn’t think were possible. And I’ve felt happier than I had been in the longest time.

This is the power of imagination – something I understood from a young age and used as a life raft more times than I can count, immersing myself in stories of my own and others’ making.

This, on a basic level, is something to which I know many people can relate. Whether it’s writing, roleplaying, music, theatre, filmmaking or any other form of creative expression, there is a kind of magic in the release and human connection that art provides.

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On the other side, too, And as part of an audience, an undefinable spark is generated by engaging with artistic creation that no other experience can match.

This is why it’s so vital that opportunities to participate in and access the arts and culture are equal – a vision which is sadly far from the reality in Scotland today. When it comes to taking part and working in creative fields, there are significant inequalities around class, race, gender, disability, and geography.

With significant cuts in funding to the arts, change is not always moving in the right direction. It is with this in mind that I viewed with interest a recent discussion paper from the Equal Media and Culture Centre (EMCC) for Scotland exploring how the country can take a rights-based approach to cultural policy.

The Scottish Government has proposed a Human Rights Bill to incorporate international human rights treaties into Scots law, which includes “cultural rights”. But to what extent is participation in culture regarded as a right?

EMCC proposes that it should be – an abstract concept at first glance, maybe, but one that could have life-changing effects for those who are currently shut out of creative opportunities.

Despite a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of arts and culture, this is one of those instances where the money is rarely to be found in the same place as the mouth – an indication that, when it really counts, art is still too often treated as a luxury for only those who can afford it.

Within schools and local authorities, cultural and arts education for children and young people has, time and again, been the first to suffer from cuts. This may be all well and good for children whose parents have the money, time, and knowledge to provide them with creative opportunities and learning. For others, this is a recipe for reinforcing inequalities and sends a clear message: culture isn’t for you.

The EMMC report highlights recent findings that children of professional and managerial class parents make up more than half of all applications, offers, and acceptances on creative courses, and that those applying from working-class backgrounds are less likely to receive an offer than another group.

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Given what we know about the impacts of the arts on various facets of our lives, this is an unacceptable position for any country seeking to build a fairer, more equitable future.

The impacts on health and wellbeing of taking part in creative expression are well-evidenced.

Indeed, the independent report of the National Partnership for Culture – established by the Scottish Government in 2020 – recommends that culture be employed as a key part of delivering national health and social care priorities and that a funding stream be set up to support this. The report also highlights the arts and culture as essential to achieving the government’s vision of a “wellbeing economy”.

The Covid-19 pandemic surely taught us all something about this, as we simultaneously despaired at the prospect of never going to a gig, or the cinema, or the theatre again, and dove headfirst into learning new creative pursuits at home to keep ourselves moderately sane.

They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s lost – now we’ve all seen what it’s like to go without large parts of the creative industries (whether as a participant in or a consumer of), maybe it’s time to consider what it says about our society that some people rarely had access to them to begin with.

More than this though, culture is a route through which people come to understand and engage with the social and political circumstances around them.

Fiction and other forms of creative expression give voice to real, human experiences and problems and help us not only to work through them but also to advocate for change in powerful and widely accessible ways.

To leave certain groups of people underrepresented in the arts is to undermine their ability to develop and express their ideas and visions for wider society, and to have those ideas heard.

Simply to be heard and to connect with others is one of the most basic human needs, and it is one which art and culture have provided a vehicle for since the dawn of time.

This process of sharing experiences and representing life and emotion through art is part of how we have developed our empathy for one another, and even for ourselves.

This is yet another reason why representation of the full diversity of our society in our cultural sector is so important: because it has the potential to change the way people think and feel about people and experiences different to their own.

It can also change how we think about ourselves. “You’ve got to see it to be it”, as the saying goes, and fictional and artistic representations can have just as much impact as real-life examples when it comes to unlocking our belief that we, too, can be part of something – whatever that “something” might look like to us.

EMCC refers to culture as “essential for human flourishing and democratic participation” – a right we should surely all enjoy. Embedding a right to culture in Scottish law could give people the ability to hold public bodies accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof) and to deliver that right in practice.

An unfortunate irony highlighted in EMCC’s paper is that the consultation on the bill received little response from cultural organisations, which the report suggests is a result of the funding crisis facing the sector. This is often the nature of how rights work in practice: those with the most power and resource to advocate for themselves are most able to realise their own rights.

This, perhaps, will be the greatest challenge ahead for the Human Rights Bill and any vision for cultural rights.