The Economic Value of Art

Well, how do we feel about this one?

According to The Atlantic, Britain’s culture secretary Maria Miller advocated against tremendous reductions in arts funding by casting the value of the arts in economic terms:

She suggested that state funding of the arts be viewed as a form of “venture capital,” encouraging investment in the British brand: The value of the artistic sector could be “leveraged” to deliver economic growth.

She supported her argument with a recent study demonstrating that arts and culture:

 make up 0.4 percent of Britain’s GDP, a strong return on less than 0.1 percent of government spending….The report’s findings also highlighted the important role of the arts sector in supporting the commercial creative industries, which make up 10 percent of Britain’s GDP. Drawing on academic research, the report concluded that “proximity to arts and culture can translate to higher wages and productivity” through innovation and diffusion of ideas.

She was successful, and the government did not make the drastic reductions in arts funding that many feared was possible, so good on her.

But her argument was not met without criticism. Some felt that reducing the arts to economic terms negates their real value, their potential to capture the soul, essence, heart, etc. of a culture.  That this kind of language will skew the emphasis on arts funding to artistic projects that will be seen to generate wealth and not be evaluated on their non monetary merits. That the other positive and non-quantifiable functions of the arts will be overlooked.

Read the article here.

If you remember from my post about Yo Yo Ma’s speech, “Art for Life’s Sake” on Arts Advocacy Day he stated that societies were motored by three engines: politics, economics, and culture. For a society to really thrive, all three of these engines ought to be functioning at high capacity, serving but not beholden to each other. However, it increasingly seems that politics and culture exist to serve and foster economics—as arguments such as Culture Secretary Miller’s seem to demonstrate. And the debate documented in this article captures what seems to me to be the fundamental dilemma of creating art in a capitalist society. Unless we are all to be hobbyists, the reality of our structures dictates that they produce some kind of return, if only a living wage for our artists. For governments to support the arts, they too need to see a “return” on their “investment.” For patrons to view the arts, they need to possess a level of disposable income. How do we make a non-monetary case for the arts when at the end of the day everything costs money? How do we appeal to any other values—both to encourage their creation and their patronage?

I do not fault Secretary Miller, she did what she needed to make her case and she did so effectively. But what will it take for terms such as “value” and “worth” to be cast in non-economic terms? How can we effectively champion that which we cannot quantify and that which will not, either directly or indirectly lead to capital gains? I’m not sure, but it does seem to me that the vibrancy and vitality of our cultural sectors requires a solution to this dilemma.

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