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From the sublime to the ridiculous: can we measure the value of the arts?

Tom Hutchinson
112223671 300x233 From the sublime to the ridiculous: can we measure the value of the arts?

Tracey Emin at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate.

In a world that is increasingly quantified, compared and assessed, it is perhaps only fair that a framework for measuring the value of the arts is put in place. But where would we begin?

Assessing economic value can, on one level, be fairly straightforward: for example, balancing out the cost of a concert against box office income and other revenues to calculate the profit, loss or breakeven figure. Statistics are readily available to show that in terms of national expenditure to income generated, the arts industry punches well above its weight in the UK (although even the strongest arguments may not safeguard budgets in times of economic woe).

In his 2010 DCMS report on measuring the value of culture, Dr Dave O’Brien offers a review of current methods for assessing value. However the current range of effective procedures falls short for the cultural world in England, particularly in satisfying the requirements of HM Treasury’s The Green Book (which sets out a framework for the appraisal and evaluation of all policies, programmes and projects).

Given the current economic climate, it seems inevitable that the construction of a set of guidelines, which would allow the value of culture to be measured in relation to other government departments, is necessary. Overall, Dr O’Brien recommends the DCMS steers a course to meet the economic techniques endorsed by The Green Book. A cost-benefit analysis framework, as advocated by The Green Book, aims to quantify each cost and benefit in monetary terms. To measure the value of art purely by weighing its individual components as this methodology instructs, seems incomplete. It narrows culture’s true value.

‘Value’ takes a much broader meaning when considering the growth of El Sistema in Venezuela, which has beautifully united social cohesion with artistic brilliance. Over two hundred local centres are now in place in Venezuela teaching music to over 300,000 of the poorest children. Championing this, the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel play to full capacities across the world with an exuberance, artistry and comradeship second to none. Similar green shoots are beginning to emerge in Scotland, where the El Sistema model is being applied to Raploch, one of the country’s most deprived areas. It is still early days, yet the 2011 evaluation is optimistic. The report shows that in relation to family life there are improved relationships at home, wider social networks and more shared activities between parents and children. Parents see a more positive, aspirational future for their children and the scheme has engendered a sense of pride.

Much has been made of the ability of the arts to play a role in social and environmental regeneration too. The Turner gallery in Margate has boldly shown that architecture can transform a well-worn seaside resort on England’s south coast to a must-go destination. In short, the indicators are positive and emphasise the permeable boundary between art and society. On reflection, an assessment of value through a pure economic system loses weight.

Yet, even if there are situations when one can measure short and long-term ‘value for money’ projects or areas that result in ‘social benefit’ are we still undermining the power of art? Crude, artificially created boundaries such as ‘contingent valuation’ only snare the fundamental root of culture. This method calculates value by assessing what price a person would pay to experience it. Alarmingly, the DCMS report states that this procedure is weak but will continue to be used until an alternative method powerful enough to displace it is developed.

The power of art comes from its totality. Inspiration, creativity and intellectual engagement are part of the mix. The time needed to nurture artistic advancement, the space for constructive critique or the arts’ unique ability to reflect and commentate on an individual and a global level all need to be factored in to the equation.

The cultural sector has an opportunity to actively shape a new system, a system that adequately reflects the breadth of value the arts offer to the United Kingdom and beyond. As the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno writes, ‘No city administration…can decide from which painter it should buy paintings, unless it can rely on people who have a serious, objective and progressive understanding of painting.’ It is essential that the comprehensive knowledge and experience within the cultural workforce is presented to central policymakers. Proactive cultural leaders need to help mould a framework that evolves beyond the pure economic tests. Only then will the sector be able to reflect its extraordinary reach and depth. Only then will government be challenged to accept the value of the arts.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Tom Hutchinson is coordinator of creative projects at The Royal Philharmonic Society.
The RPS Debate at the Battle of Ideas weekend, From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Can we measure the value of the arts?, takes place at 10.30am on Saturday 29 October at the Students Union, Royal College of Art, London.

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  • bigned

    As someone who is accused by my friends of being obsessive competitor in my own sport,  i agree about sport’s potentials to enrich,  and  I agree that it can be a mirror to aspects of life in general.   As for the unity and fellowship of being a supporter,  the psychology behind it is that of tribal competition.  We are all human and subject to that.  It’s a base instinct,  not a high spiritual experience.  This is the root of negative forms of nationalism,  tribalism,  gang mentality,  misanthropy, prejudice against ‘the other’ and so on.  I’m not into being part of The Mob.  You can have that part of sport,  thank you.

    ‘I can say the same about all sorts of forms of entertainment.’

    You agree with me here,  but if you choose to classify cinema,  drama,  literature,  poetry and so on PURELY as entertainment,  and deny that the best examples transcend their form,  and attain the level of art,  then you’re simply burying your head in the sand.

    ‘Most activities offer life lessons and challenge our view of the world.’

    Of course they do.  We learn and develop and grow every hour of every day.

    ‘Art isn’t special in this respect.’

    Art is not different or separate from life.  Art is about life,  and engages with life.  If you consciously decide to take the tribalist view,  that ‘arty people’  are ‘the other’,  not ‘part of the lot that I belong to’  then you decide you have nothing to learn from a huge swathe of humanity.    You are perfectly free to cut yourself off in this way.  I wish you well.

  • bigned

    ‘I can think of so many more worthy causes. All that public money wasted’ 

    I too can think of more worthy causes.  I think we should spend even more thousands of millions on slaughtering countless innocent people in pointless wars abroad.

  • bigned

    ‘Why do the arty people always insist that anyone who disagrees them did so because of a lack of understanding?’

    I was saying you didn’t understand the article.

  • bigned

    ‘I’m sorry but I’ve had exactly the same experience attending games of Rugby. ’
    You must be mistaken.  I don’t see how watching sport and looking at The Sistine Chapel ceiling is ‘exactly the same experience’  They would be quite different in nature I would imagine. (having done both)

  • andrew fox

    In reply to below.

    I agree with much of what you wrote but we seem to have differences about definitions. I’d like to add. Rugby is fiercely competitive, but little hatred. The crowds are not segregated. Despite being passionately supporting the teams, there is no trouble between the fans despite sitting next to each other. Competitive and passionate doesn’t equate to prejudice and hostility. Whatever happens on the field the players always shake hands afterwards and attend the after match events to discuss the game. It’s about having respect for your opponent.

    I would also like to add that the internationals are a spiritual experience. I often feel lightheaded and in the presence of greatness. I know others feel this way.

  • Nathan Hulse

    It could be argued that artists like Emin and Lucas are quite blatantly sustained by the rich and consciously provide popular entertainment via the tabloid press – a strategy that their patrons from the PR world no doubt appreciate and actively foster…

  • http://twitter.com/amq1 Anne-Marie Quigg

    Surely the key issue in the article is about the role of quantitative vs qualitative evaluation of the arts? I would argue that Hutchinson’s ‘totality of art’ requires a combination of both in order to be of any use at all.

  • bigned

    Many artists nowadays in the UK are in the main,  clearly  sustained by the rich.  This has been the case throughout Western history. I don’t quite get the significance of ‘blatantly sustained’.  There are some who are mainly not sustained by the rich,  but what are you saying here beyond stating the obvious?

    I don’t think Emin or anyone else in that category is consciously providing ENTERTAINMENT.  They may or may not be colluding with hacks to maintain a high public profile in order to maintain or increase the market value of their work.   If you want to blame tabloids for reducing everything in our culture to the level of gunk,  then I’m in full agreement.

    Emin suffers from the naive delusion that she is a major artist.  She would consider the idea of her being a mere entertainer as a gross insult to the importance of her work (snigger)

    Historically the bulk of Western art has taken the form of PR for rich patrons.  For centuries the church funded pretty much all of the art that was made.  Early Middle Ages Icons were church funded PR for the holiness of Jesus.   The work of the great Renaissance Masters glorified either the church or nobility or royalty or the glorious military victories of their patrons.

    The great artists managed to incorporate their own ideas or visions into these PR pieces.  The less great did not,

  • andrew fox

    ‘You must be mistaken.  I don’t see how watching sport and looking at The
    Sistine Chapel ceiling is ‘exactly the same experience’  They would be
    quite different in nature I would imagine’

    Why would you assume that we receive the same experience in the same situation. To me a game of rugby provides me with a far superior experience. Its even been proven that we don’t even see colours the same. We are all wired up differently.


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