Sunday, May 17, 2015

For culture's sake

Culture is increasingly funded on the basis of its societal ‘effects’. The Dutch government’s primary concern is no longer the quality of theatres, museums and cinemas but whether they are ‘useful’: do they contribute to the economy for example? The Dutch Scientific Council (WRR) studied the consequences and risks of this new policy development. In its study “Revaluing culture” (see this link) it addressed the following two fundamental questions: what is the value of culture and how can the government effectively support culture? 

The report presents three types of arguments for justifying cultural subsidies: artistically (culture awakens our appreciation of our world), socially (culture creates social identity and ties) and economically (culture creates jobs). The report concludes that in the Netherlands the artistic argument is no longer enough but that additional justification can be found in social and economic arguments. These arguments however contain a number of risks:

  • Scientific evidence for societal effects of culture is still fragmentary and the effects are complex. Economic development is not just a question of ‘add culture and stir’. Consequently the construction of spectacular cultural venues is a risky business: “just because you build it, it doesn’t mean they’ll come”.
  • We might overestimate the effectiveness of culture as tool for societal effects: “visitors are difficult to orient, financial incentives have little effect, and important factors like social background and education level are difficult to influence.
  • More fundamentally: if we use culture as a tool for societal effects, culture might lose its value. Because what if the same effects can be achieved with other, more effective means?
  • By entrusting the cultural capital of our society to private sources of income, the government ‘lets the market in’ without knowing how this will transform the cultural sector. The loss of cultural subsidies will not always be compensated by private income, so close monitoring of ‘victims’ is required.

Culture as starting point
To minimize these risks, the report recommends that we revalue culture on its own. We shouldn’t ask first what culture can do for other fields (economy, health, education, etc.) but rather take the cultural field as a starting point and see how it can be kept healthy. We don’t do this for culture’s sake only, because a healthy cultural sector implies a healthy link with society. Example: when a regional historic museum loses visitors, we should determine what cultural value we are losing. If that value is potentially important (a source of local identity for a region), the government can decide to help the museum even if it costs money. This is not an economic policy but a cultural policy that benefits both culture and society.

What the government can do
But there are many other ways of supporting culture without “driving it into the safe haven of culture subsidies at the expense of its relation with the audience”. For example by financing research that can suggest new ways to strengthen social cohesion via culture. Or by teaching art students not only how to make art, but also how to “make it” in the world of art. Or by making publicly financed performances freely available online with an adapted business model. Or by promoting new recipes for culture that are not dictated by ‘cultural conventions’ and their ‘authorities’: “the gatekeeper must become someone who opens windows and doors”.

And inspiration for these new cultural recipes is abundant. Flash mobs for example manage to move people by classical music in the street who might not have gone to a classical concert by themselves. And surprisingly, classical music has become for several years now a popular part of the Dutch Lowlands pop festival. These examples show how wrong it would be to think that society is losing interest in classical music: it can reach different audiences in ways that don’t necessarily degrade its quality.

This revaluation of culture recalls UNESCO’s constitution which states that culture is indispensable for human dignity for a specific reason: it strengthens peace. Culture provides the fertile soil peace needs to grow roots: the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”. Although it’s not easy to measure effects like “moral solidarity” we have to capture the value of culture for society better to understand what value our money buys. A safe starting point for this cultural investigation would be what culture is not: a question of economic rationality. This will help us begin to understand why Mozart has such tremendous cultural value: “because of his music and not because he created a tourist industry in Salzburg or gave his name to decadent chocolate and marzipan Saltzburger kugel”.