Eleonora Belfiore shares her thoughts on the public value of culture.
I’m grateful for this opportunity to develop here some of the twitter comments I made on the day of the What Next? event. They are not meant as commentary on the conference, which I didn’t attend, but offer a general reflection which I hope might help push forward the debate around the value of culture and rationales for public funding in times of austerity.
Readers even vaguely acquainted with my academic work (or, for that matter, my Twitter feed) will know how critical I have always been of the impact rhetoric, and the related ‘toolkit fever’, when they have been used as a way to justify subsidy rather than as an effort to understand the nature and potential effect of artistic experiences. I very much stand by my earlier criticism of the limitation of much economic impact figures and the methods through which they are obtained. This does not mean that it is not desirable to try and find better ways to understand the economic dimension of activities such as creating and consuming culture. However, it is a narrow view one that only sees them as such.
The economic reductionism that dominated Maria Miller’s first ‘arts speech’ is not a prerogative of the cultural sector, but it reflects broader tendencies within contemporary society. In his highly readable Monoculture: How one story is changing everything, F.S. Michaels describes how different ‘cultural stories’ tend to become dominant in different historical times, and shows how today ‘the master story is economic’. So I think it is very important that a resistance to the predominance of the economic frame in our public discourse should become part of a larger debate on the purpose and value of the public sector, and how it should be best protected by the excessive encroachment on of market values and logic.
It is also important to be clear about the fact that there is no legitimate room in cultural policy debates for special pleading for the arts and culture. But there is plenty of room for connecting what is happening to the cultural sector to broader concerns for what Michael Sandel calls the dangerous shift from a ‘market economy’ to a ‘market society’. It is this market fundamentalism and its cognate economic instrumentalism that ought to be resisted. Not because it demands the arts too much, but frankly because it demands too little. One of the problems of an exclusive focus on economic instrumentalism as a justification for funding is that it actually gets the arts off the hook too easily in other areas. And I come here to my second point.
I am not suggesting here that economic instrumentalism should be rebutted so that we can all be free to celebrate the intrinsic value of the arts (whatever we decide that might be) or “arts for arts sake” (another rather dubious concept), which seems to have been the default position in the cultural value debate so far. What I am suggesting is that the predominance of the economics frame needs to be challenged so that a space for more rounded reflection and questioning can be opened up. A space in which public cultural organisations in receipt of public subsidy, whether big or small, cannot hide away from scrutiny by lambasting that every pound ‘invested’ on them offers a return of however large a £ figure they think they can get away with.
If the debate on cultural value is to go beyond an empty rhetoric of self-celebration then it needs to be an occasion in which awkward questions are asked of the sector as a whole. Question such as ‘for whom does the sector generate value?’. What do organisations big and small do to live up to their status as public cultural organisations? When both academic research and sector data confirm that social class, education and a professional occupation are very accurate predictors of uptake of subsidised opportunities for cultural participation, how is arts funding creating value for the wider public? And are there ways in which the funding pie could be distributed differently that would result in a fairer and more equitable outcome? It seems to me that the initiatives that got participants in What Next? really excited were smaller, local and grass roots ones. Perhaps on the basis of that enthusiasm we might want to have a rethink about how the British cultural ecosystem is supported at all levels of administration.
Rather than reinventing the economic impact toolkit wheel we might want to go back to basics and ask some fundamental questions: what is arts funding for? What are the arts for in a modern liberal democracy? In the context of limited available resources, which forms of human creativity should be supported and which ones should be left to fend for themselves in the marketplace? When savings need to be made, where in the ecosystem is it less damaging to cut? And I suggest that we really need to focus on the most basic and most fundamental question of all: who gets to decide on all of the above? In other words: where do those in a decision-making capacity derive such authority from? What relations of power are hidden behind these processes of value allocation? And what role do public institutions have in these mechanisms of valuation? Try and deal with all of that with an impact toolkit!