It isn’t philistine to judge art economically

The author of a report on arts evaluation responds to Tiffany Jenkins’ accusations of philistinism.

Dave O'Brien

Topics Politics

The problematic question of how to value arts and culture is a continual talking (as well as tweeting) point. The latest addition to the debate is a spiked article by Tiffany Jenkins, who suggests that the cultural sector needs to move away from its obsession with measuring the impact of art and instead embrace quality-based judgments (see Culture: it’s not the economy, stupid!)

Jenkins was responding to my recent report for the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (blogged about here and here). Its recommendations centre on the need for central government to employ economic valuation techniques when making judgements about investment in the arts and cultural sector. These techniques include traditional economic valuation methods, such as preference-based surveys, as well as valuations based on the relationship between a given experience and its effect on an individual’s subjective wellbeing. I would like to defend these recommendations.

It is true that the arts and cultural sector has been bedevilled for almost 30 years by attempts to prove its worth in terms of its social and economic ‘impact’ (with recent work looking into the intrinsic impact of participation). However, just because these attempts have been problematic that should not lead us to retreat into narratives of ‘judgement’ as a way of justifying arts and cultural funding. This is for both pragmatic and ideological reasons.

Understanding economic valuation is sound for pragmatic reasons as this is how the rest of central government is supposed to appraise policy. Her Majesty’s Treasury recommends the use of cost-benefit analysis for deciding on policy, with economic valuation techniques for things that don’t have prices associated with them. Decisions about arts and cultural funding therefore need to find ways to fit in with this way of making public policy. One only has to look at the fate of the McMaster report to see the importance of engaging with the policy process in the terms preferred by HM Treasury. The report’s recommendations for peer-reviews on artistic excellence were largely ignored by both the previous and current administrations.

Although measurement in the arts and cultural sector is difficult, this is no different to any other area of public policy. How can we value a human life? What is the value of the environment? These difficult questions were faced by the Departments for Health and Environment in the 1990s, with similar objections about the uniqueness of the respective policy areas. However, both of these areas of public policy have engaged with economics to construct useful tools for decision-making – for example the Quality Adjusted Life Year for informing decisions about healthcare technologies. These tools are not perfect and are subject to criticism, but they have made transparent and informed decision-making possible in areas where demand is high and resources are scarce.

Environmental economics is especially useful for understanding the nature of the current debate about culture. The natural world is often narrated in similar terms to the cultural sector, as people discuss the intrinsic value or beauty of nature. However, environmental economics has made it possible for previously underrepresented and undervalued aspects of the environment to be factored into public policy decisions and cost-benefit analyses. This isn’t to suggest that we now have perfect environmental policy, nor that we should reduce our understanding of the environment to financial terms. Rather, the use of economics has helped decision-makers understand the costs and benefits of any policy in a clearer way.

Economic valuation does have limits. As the US economist Kenneth Arrow points out, understanding trust through simple economic valuation is contradictory; if you have to pay for trust you clearly don’t understand it! However, the way art and cultural experiences contribute to people’s lives is not in the same category as trust. Economic value may not capture all aspects of the benefits people derive from engagement with arts and culture, but it can still go some way to clarifying how people value the thought-provoking, enjoyable and life-affirming experiences that we think are created by art and culture.

In more ideological terms, the discussion of the nature of art and culture is what is most problematic about the current debate. On the one hand, art and culture have become reified to the extent that it is almost impossible to discuss it in comparison with other areas of public policy without the charge of, at best, misunderstanding or, at worst, philistinism. On the other hand, the limits of this reified vision of art and culture leave the sector vulnerable to charges of unclear decision-making, with policy based on elitist assumptions, further entrenching art and culture’s status as something that should not be taken seriously across Whitehall.

There is a further problem with the idea that we should rely on judgement to make the case for the art and cultural sector. Here it is worth making a point about cultural democracy and trust. Much of the discussion around the problem of asking people the value they attach to arts and culture is elitist, as its assumed people just won’t know the value of arts funding, the value of ‘high art’ or the longer-term value of an institution’s support.

Indeed, this contempt for public engagement with culture is not new, as John Carey’s study of intellectuals’ fear of the masses becoming literate has shown. The arts and cultural sector needs to trust individuals’ judgement and also ask itself some searching questions. If people attach a low economic value to an organisation or an artwork perhaps this suggests a need for the organisation to engage more closely with this alienated audience, or for a practitioner to better communicate the value of their work. This is not a plea for elites to better educate the masses. Rather it suggests economic valuation can be an opportunity for organisational learning, as opposed to offering the threat of more box-ticking.

The work of Australian cultural economist David Throsby is especially useful for clarifying this issue. Throsby stresses the connection between the economic value people place on a given cultural object or experience and its cultural value. Throsby shows how there may be cases where there are objects or experiences with very high cultural value but little or no economic value, and these are the circumstances where we can see the limits of economic valuation. However, in most cases where individuals attach cultural value to something, they are also likely to attach economic value, meaning cultural value can be incorporated into the kind of policymaking frameworks encouraged by HM Treasury.

At a time when the cultural sector is straining to prove its worth with increasingly incoherent narratives of economic impact, better decision-making, informed by methods approved by HM Treasury, must be a good thing. This is not about the debate between instrumental or intrinsic value, but rather about the need to improve the information supporting central government’s decisions.

Jenkins is right to stress the need for judgement with regard to investment by central government in culture, but this means that her exclusion of economics from judgement seems rather contradictory. It may also leave the call for more judgement, as opposed to asking individuals about the value they find in art and culture, open to charges of elitism. In an age of reduced public investments we must be open to making the case for the sector we support in the language that will be understood by those making the decisions, as well as understanding the value voters attach to their engagements with the sector. This is neither cowardly nor philistine, but rather is both a sensible and democratic response to the current issues facing art and culture in the UK.

Dr Dave O’Brien is a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University

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Topics Politics


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