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The cultural value debate and the need for awkward questions by Eleonora Belfiore

Following on from Casey Brienza’s reaction to the first speech on the arts by Maria Miller, the British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, here are some of my own thoughts on the debate that followed the speech and the return to old arguments of economic impact. This post was first published on the Arts Professional web site, in their ‘Opinion’ section, which was meant to host different readings, reflections and critiques on the ‘What Next?’ national conference that took place in London on the 29th of April 2013. ‘What Next?’ is a movement originating from the arts and cultural sector’s desire to start – as the conference strapline went – ‘a national conversation on new ways to champion the arts and culture’. Quite understandably, Miller’s speech was both an implicit and explicit point of reference for much of the debate among the over 600 ‘What Next?’ participants. This post is more a commentary on the broader post-Miller debate on arts funding and cultural value (and indeed, the value of arts funding) than a specific commentary on the ‘What Next?’ conference, which I was not able to attend. As such, it is offered here as a contribution to the ongoing cultural value debate, with thanks to Liz Hill of Arts Professional for both inviting me to write a blog for her publication and for the permission to reproduce it here. 

NOTE (added on 11/05/2013): I have just come across an excellent blog post by Bridget McKenzie, ‘The Oikonomic Value of  Culture’, which responds to some of the issues I raise in the post below, but most importantly makes an original and really engaging contribution to the value debate. Definitely worth a read!

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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 and so don’t feel I can properly comment on.  Rather I’ll offer a general reflection which I hope might help pushing the debate around the value of culture and rationales for public funding in times of austerity forward in a constructive manner.

I think that 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 with 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 confirms 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 the participant 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!

 

BIO

Dr Eleonora Belfiore (@elebelfiore) is Associate Professor in Cultural Policy at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick. She has a longstanding interest in researching rationales for state involvement in culture and arts funding, the idea of the social impact of the arts and, more recently, cultural value. She is co-author (with Oliver Bennett) of The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History, a survey of the idea that the arts have transformative powers which spans 2,500 years of thinking and writing about the arts. The #culturalvalue Initiative project is how she spends many of her late evenings.

 

Discussion

6 Responses to “The cultural value debate and the need for awkward questions by Eleonora Belfiore”

  1. Excellent piece Eleonora.

    Posted by Julia Negus | May 10, 2013, 8:12 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] can’t help asking awkward questions so I like this response to the issue by Eleonora Belfiore on her Cultural Value platform, in which she stresses the importance of asking [...]

  2. [...] (and I accept that for those working in the sector this might give rise to all sorts of anxieties) now is the time to asks really awkward questions about ‘cultural value’, arts funding and what happens as a result of further cuts. At a presentation I gave at a recent [...]

  3. […]  There has been progress in the diversity of representations within exhibitions, for example the Meshac Gaba and Ibrahim El-Salahi exhibitions at the Tate – which the kids and parents loved. But adequate progress has not been made in how these institutions, funded by public money, encourage those from underrepresented groups. As Dr Eleonora Belfiore from Warwick University has pointed out, there are fundamental and ‘awkward’ questions that need to be asked about the social and institutional structures that support and maintain hierarchies of taste, ‘if the debate on cultural value is to go beyond an empty rhetoric of self-celebration’ Belfiore writes ‘then it needs to be an occasion in which awkward questions are asked of the sector as a whole. Questions 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?’ […]

  4. […]  There has been progress in the diversity of representations within exhibitions, for example the Meshac Gaba and Ibrahim El-Salahi exhibitions at the Tate – which the kids and parents loved. But adequate progress has not been made in how these institutions, funded by public money, encourage those from underrepresented groups. As Dr Eleonora Belfiore from Warwick University has pointed out, there are fundamental and ‘awkward’ questions that need to be asked about the social and institutional structures that support and maintain hierarchies of taste, ‘if the debate on cultural value is to go beyond an empty rhetoric of self-celebration’ Belfiore writes ‘then it needs to be an occasion in which awkward questions are asked of the sector as a whole. Questions 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?’ […]

  5. […] tackles many of the key questions around cultural value, cultural authority and power that, as I have argued here, is important to move the cultural policy debate forward. For this reason, it seemed a good idea […]

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