Valuing the traditional arts

There’s a fascinating thread just cropped up on the session dot org website (https://thesession.org/discussions/35169) about funding arts vs. healthcare, education etc. The same old questions about the social value of the arts, instrumental vs. intrinsic values come up here and various shades in-between (we’ve been debating this topic in the West since Plato). However, Mark Harmer’s post where he points out that much cultural policy is based upon the consumption of artistic products does not match up to how he experiences the phenomenon of art as experience. This is a key distinction in the social value of the arts and one that has been also raised and debated probably since before John Dewey’s key contribution ‘Art as Experience’ in 1934. Dewey’s key point was that art’s most significant benefits are experienced in the doing or the perceiving of art, and that their value lies in the process of taking part, not the artistic object. This is one of the reasons why his theorisation of aesthetics didn’t really gain any traction with aestheticians in the twentieth century until the revised pragmatist tradition came along with Rorty and Shushterman (see my earlier blog post on somaesthetics etc.). Analytical aesthetics needs an object to focus on in order for the aesthetic stuff to make sense; thereby robbing art of its most essential benefits which we experience, rather than passively observe (one of the reasons why I find social semiotics much more useful for studying music than any analytical aesthetic tradition). 
More recently, this debate has been taken up successfully in the UK by Belfiore and Bennett in their 2010 volume The Social Impact of the Arts, which came out in the same year as the significant report authored by Dave O’Brien for government: Measuring the value of culture. Belfiore and Bennett provide us with a very useful examination of the historical trajectory of these debates about the values of arts which underlines the depth of these issues historically. They also usefully warn us against simple dichotomous thinking, emphasising the sheer complexity of this area which has ranged across so many intellectual and disciplinary traditions. 
  O’Brien (2010, 2013) has suggested that we move past the false binary polarisation of instrumental—intrinsic value of the arts. Belfiore and Bennett give us a concise history of this debate in their volume sometimes discussed as the moralism (instrumental) vs. autonomism (intrinsic) value. He has also exposed the politics of different narratives of ‘common sense’ in public policy making that stem from their own competing histories. Economic positivism vis-a-vis cultural studies vis-a-vis aesthetics etc. and I think he is right to demonstrate that often these separate groups talk past each other because their underlying assumptions are so different (watch him outlining these ideas very cleanly here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCMXVspRVgQ). 
O’Brien shows us that central UK government cultural policy for the arts (and sports) relies on positivist, economic models of value, and that the Department for Culture Media and Sport has basically formulated their model of funding around the concept of ‘market failure’—where the ‘market’ for culture undervalues the benefits of them to ‘consumers’ in society so that they must be supported in order to support the ‘market failure’. Thus government policy on cultural value is today basically predicated on economic, positivist models of value drawn from the ‘common sense’ of economics which underwrites the legitimacy of most other public policy areas such as health and education. This results in the current climate with most arts organisations having to produce economic and positivist models of cultural value to try to fit the central government’s model of how to measure cultural value (based on ’The Green Book’ evolved in central government): arts centres, exhibitions, gigs and arts educational programmes end up being discussed in terms of their cost-benefit analysis, in terms of their contingent value, use and non-use values, choice modelling, hedonic pricing, Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY), etc. All of which are attempts to put numbers (usually pounds and pence) on the value of art—which squashes a kind of neo-liberalist, positivist framework onto artistic practice making us all consumers and make paintings, albums and exhibitions into products. The problems of these models are numerous and have regularly been decried by those in the artistic communities in the UK.
However, as Mark Hamer’s post on thesession.org clearly shows—much of the benefit of the arts lies beyond this economic conception altogether, and so becomes disenfranchised in cultural spending policy in the UK and Scotland. What then might be useful in the future? And what is specifically useful for the traditional arts?
In short I think the answer(s) are complex but doable, and like Belfiore and Bennett we need a more sophisticated discourse surrounding ‘instrumentalism’ which has been unfairly denigrated by the artistic community. Firstly I think we need more research (surprise surprise) about the longitudinal value of art in society. Almost all of our arts projects are temporary and transient which is a response to the politically determined climate of short termism of state funding. If we could enable better long term understanding of how artistic practice can be transformative and beneficial to individuals and groups then we will be in a better place to identify what we might want to fund at the state level. 
  Secondly I think that artists, arts professionals and educators must start working on more sophisticated and useful cultural models of value that attempt to evidence Dewey’s ‘wholeness’ of artistic experience. This also of course involves educating the musicians and artists of tomorrow in cultural economics and more than this; in demonstrating not just why the arts are essential for living a good life and their aesthetic value, but also how art can in fact do things like improve quality of life, reduce recidivism, improve employability and so on. These are not usually direct benefits but come when we gather narrative qualitative evidence from interviews. There is of course an important discursive problem here which is that most aesthetic discourse relies on the very personal and individual, and most public policy relies on mass statistical, group and reductive forms of evidence. But these two traditions are not mutually exclusive, we just need to be a bit more sophisticated about how we employ evidence. 
Happily, the traditional arts (traditional music, dance and crafts) are very good at doing things like social cohesion, providing deep and spiritual experiences and for constructing a sense of belonging, as people like Matarasso (1996, 1997) and others have reminded us. Furthermore, as I suggested in my (2014) paper, I think there is a good argument for the indigenous traditional arts to be ring fenced again in Scottish cultural policy. No other Arts Council in Sweden, France, Germany or in England for that matter, is going to ring fence money for Scottish traditional arts. In addition to that, the very close historical (and contemporary) relationship between nationalism(s) and traditional and folk arts arguably makes them a stronger genre than others in which to test and research cultural policy and the issues surrounding cultural value. In Scotland, we are lucky in that the policy makers and the artistic community that they serve are not so distant from each other. There is a conversation developing now around how we can better evidence the value of the arts and traditional arts should and will be at the heart of this debate. However, we need longer term study and evidence of how valuable the traditional arts are, and we could perhaps start by evaluating just how valuable some of our older arts projects that have been and gone have been for today. If we can do this then we will be able to make a more convincing argument about the value of the arts.
Belfiore, Eleonora, and Oliver Bennett. 2008. The social impact of the arts: an intellectual history (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)
Dewey, John. 1934 [2005]. Art as Experience (Perigee Books)
Matarasso, François. 1996. Northern Lights: the social impact of the Feisean (Gaelic Festivals) (Stroud, Glos.: Comedia)
Matarasso, François. 1997. Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts (Stroud, Glos.: Comedia)

McKerrell, Simon. 2014. ‘Traditional arts and the state: The Scottish case’, Cultural Trends, 23: 1–10.

O’Brien, Dave. 2010. Measuring the value of culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)
O’Brien, Dave. 2013. Cultural Policy: Management, Value and Modernity in the Creative Industries (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis)

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