Cultural value, and why this should be important to Arts People, policy-makers, and the general public

When I tell people that my PhD is about cultural value, most of them ask me what this is.

The quick answer is “value that cannot be expressed in terms of a currency”.

This often draws blank looks, so this blog entry is going to be about what cultural value is and why arts people should be passionately interested in being able to talk about it.

When an orchestra performs, the people who have bought tickets for the concert expect to gain something positive from the experience they will have as audience members. This means they attach value to the experience of listening to a live music performance – but which kind of value is this? For some people this might be simply being in a space outside of work and home and therefore being able to relax. For others, it might be experiencing an exciting rendition of a favourite piece, something which energises and inspires them. Both these examples count as cultural values, because they can’t be measured in terms of money.

Researching cultural value falls into the field of cultural economics, a discipline which is only a few decades old, extremely interdisciplinary, and which is offered as a subject at postgraduate level by only one university in Europe.

Contributors to the literature on cultural economics come from classical economics, anthropology, philosophy, art history, music, and other humanities disciplines. All contributors are concerned with defining the area of human experience which is valued, but can’t be measured, and examining how it interacts with classical economic concerns.

One economist who has contributed prolifically to the international debate on the value of culture is Bruno S. Frey.

I met Bruno Frey in the autumn of 2013 to discuss my research.

He made an important point about Arts People and the arguments they use to describe the value of their arts projects when applying for sponsorship or subsidy: Arts People, he said, like to use the language of economists. They talk about impact value, number of jobs created, number of consumers attracted to the area or project in question, cost efficiency of the project. Arts People, he said, are not good at using the language of economists, because they don’t have as much experience with it as economists do, and therefore Arts People tend not to be as convincing promoting their project as it is actually valuable. He suggested that Arts People might be more convincing if they spoke about the value of their project in the terms which they are experts in, that is, cultural value.

This seems like a fair point, but on further reflection, most people I have spoken to were actually very hazy about what it was they valued about a particular arts project they were involved in. Moreover, if any values were particularly clear to any one person, it was not clear if they were shared by any other person involved in the same activity. There was a sort of intuitive consensus that the value of an arts activity was “probably” this or that, but no actual set of values that applied to many people and therefore no vocabulary to speak convincingly about cultural value for one particular arts activity.

This is what my research is trying to define.

In the group of people “involved in Historically Informed Performance” (often known as “Early Music” or “Period Performance”), I researched three sub-groups: the performers (including students intending to become professionals), the consumers, and the enablers (the group of people who promote or support HIP at an institutional level).

By means of surveys and interviews I tried to find out exactly what value these people attribute to the process of “doing HIP”.

The picture emerging suggests that there are values held by all three groups – two such areas identified are emotional communication and innovation. There are other values that are held only by one group, for example the “aural museum” that my audiences in both cities believed they were entering when they went to the performance. This value correlates strongly with the idea of cultural heritage as basis for cultural identity, therefore promoting social cohesion.

If Bruno Frey is right, Arts People using categories such as these to talk about their projects might begin to have an even wider impact at a societal level regarding the importance of what they do, not just at the level of applying for funding. Social cohesion in today’s “post-truth” world is a subject that has sustained media attention, but rarely any constructive suggestions to promote it. If the part cultural value can play in achieving better social cohesion is better understood, this could have important implications for policy-making in the future.

 

 

(For anyone interested in reading an introduction to the international debate, there are two collections of essays on the subject: The Value of Culture and Beyond Price.)

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