Culture: it’s not the economy, stupid!

Plans to get UK cultural institutions to measure the economic value of art are both philistine and futile.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

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How should we measure the value of culture? Take, for example, Michelangelo’s sculpture of the biblical hero David shown preparing for battle with Goliath, in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. As the statue attracts visitors – the gold standard of a successful art gallery – the box denoting popularity gets a tick. And those audiences pay – not just to look, but to leave with merchandise, from t-shirts to postcards. Plus they’ll no doubt consume coffee and cake. The sculpture, then, stimulates revenue. It attracts millions to Italy. And there is the amount the piece would fetch in a hypothetical sale: so much so that it is priceless.

Adding up these numbers is one method of assessing the value of the work. But such an exercise clearly misses the point: David is a masterpiece. As the first large, nude sculpture made after ancient times – no-one had dared to better Greek and Roman achievements – it recalls antique models, but it is also anti-classical. The young boy in marble is paused in a brief moment before he launches an attack: strong, tense and, above all, filled with an inner life. For Florentines he expressed the spirit of the New Republic that had removed the Medici in the fifteenth century. Knowing what the Galleria dell’Accademia raises in euros, the audience figures and its attraction as a tourist site, does not capture the value of this amazing work.

Society has long debated how to assess the arts: What is their role? How do you know if a work is good and who chooses? Admittedly, deciding that a work is excellent is difficult, at times controversial and far from a science. But the absence of certainty had not been a problem with consequences for public funding, until recently. Rather, it has long been recognised that the vagaries of the market do not always produce excellent culture and, for the sake of the public good, most people have accepted that the government should support art without requiring the kind of evidence of its worth that a court room would demand.

Public funding requires a leap of faith and a shared agreement that a civilised society finances something that is not always predictable, profitable or even popular, because there is a belief that something beautiful, truthful or provocative could be created. I think many could still share that ideal. But the Department of Culture Media and Sport, and other bodies that fund the arts, have given up trying to make that case. They are frantically trying to quantify value in a way that they think can prove the worth of culture.

A fraught discussion about how to measure the impact of the arts as a way of justifying their existence has developed since the 1980s. Much cultural policymaking today is about how to measure culture, rather than address how it might be created. Over time the suggestions have become more artistically illiterate. Most recently, claims of worth have focused on two kinds of impact: economic (art makes money) and social (art makes people feel better, raises self-esteem and regenerates communities).

Despite strenuous efforts, the attempts to prove economic and social impact have failed. Not all art produces profit or has direct social consequences, and trying to account for it in this way ignores art’s intrinsic qualities. Struggling to produce figures to prove impact has led to a desperate search for ‘evidence’, resulting in a burden on cultural organisations to collect data that appears to show results but is just advocacy research.

Nonetheless, the DCMS are gearing up to formalise further methods to value culture, which will waste even more time and money. The new project involves the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Economic and Social Research Council, with advisers from NESTA, the GLA, English Heritage, and Arts Council England. Many, desperate for funding and unsure of another way, have rolled over and jumped on board.

It’s an important group that will have serious implications for the future of cultural funding and academic research. It wants to move away from impact, and instead ‘value’ the arts with the techniques of economics. In the words of one report,

But this is no way to hold an institution to account. If it is not popular, maybe it is good and needs time to convince people that it is worth seeing. Maybe the research at the Galleria dell’Accademia is revolutionary, or the education programme transformative; the collection is unparalleled. Maybe the sculpture is brilliant and nicely displayed, and that is why it is worthwhile. Economic approaches will not capture any of this, for they fail to address the role a particular artwork plays and why it is significant. The results will be of no use, either, to those organisations looking to improve upon the work they do.

Economic evaluations are not always irrelevant, but they should not be the main method of valuing art, which departs from the tangible outcomes of health and transport. Many aspects of human life – love, belief, culture, cannot be meaningfully understood by statistics and graphs.

What is missing is the organisation’s accountability for the work it should be doing, in particular, an assessment of the art. One central question should at least be about the art work. To put it simply, the question that should be asked of a painting, a score or a dance is: is it any good?

That is where a judgement is made, an act that draws on knowledge of the particular tradition, personal experience and an openness to what could be new. Today, unfortunately, judgement is something that is considered too partial or personal and no one will take that risk.

Non-judgementalism is now regarded as a positive virtue. But for those too scared to dismiss other people’s point of view, let us not forget, as Hannah Arendt argued in her essay ‘Truth and Politics’: ‘The power of judgement rests on a potential agreement with others.’ Trying to make the case for supporting an orchestra, for example, holds the possibility of winning agreement. Evading and avoiding such dialogue closes the door to the possible elaboration of an agreed public consensus.

Agreement shows that our likes and dislikes are not just our personal opinion. This isn’t an objective test or a scientific proof of value; it is something that is tested, discussed and shared in public. And actually, disagreement also helps to build up a common culture of what is considered valuable and what should be disregarded.

The reluctance to judge reveals a lack of genuine interest in art and an absence of confidence in other people. For if someone is truly engaged in art they will argue the case for an artwork or a new genre with others. Anyone really interested in culture tries to persuade their friends, family and others around them of something’s worth; and they do so by explaining what they like about it – which will have nothing to do with economic valuation techniques.

Going the way of the DCMS, which is drawing up news evaluation forms with questions based on economic tools, will encourage the arts sector to develop further the skills of box-ticking, adding and subtracting. This is more than just a waste of time: calculable and measurable criteria will distract those working in the arts sector from developing their capacity to form an opinion and convince others that they are right or wrong. Not doing so, relying on calculations and polling to do that job instead, is disrespectful to the art, the artist and the audience.

Not taking the plunge and holding a discussion about the quality and purpose of culture, and relying on economic measurements to justify funding the arts instead, is cowardly. The arts sector should throw away the sums and regain what our forebears had – the courage and confidence to make a judgement and argue a position. Otherwise we will all miss the measure of culture.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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Topics Culture


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