Cultural policy

This is the fifth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…


The academic discourse surrounding how and, indeed, if the arts might influence social change and the ‘intrinsic’ versus ‘instrumental’ questions (outlined in previous posts), cross into policy discussions about culture and value that perhaps shift the focus even further from the practice of socially engaged art and, for that matter, the arts in general. This section begins by returning to Matarasso’s later work as an illustration of how present policy discussions centre on the concept of ‘cultural value’ rather than ‘social impact’ or ‘social change’.

In 2012, Matarasso wrote On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’ in response to the burgeoning ‘cultural value debate’. He is critical, in his essay, about ‘value’ being perceived as ‘good’ even though ‘human beings do not agree on what is good’ and, if there is no definition of good, potential value cannot be measured (Matarasso, 2012). This ‘slipperiness’ about cultural value, for Matarasso, creates opportunities for tacit positions to go uncontested. Differing in emphasis from his position in Use or Ornament?, Matarasso extols arts and culture as ‘necessarily experiential’, existing ‘only in the intertwined experience of creator (artist, performer, author, maker) and re-creator (audiences, readers, viewers and listeners)’ (Matarasso, 2012). He believes that the ambiguity of the arts means it cannot be considered to have any ‘universal character, method, purpose, meaning or even existence’ and therefore ‘no universal value (good), unless one associates it with a universal deity’; cultural value cannot therefore ‘be measured against a universal scale’ nor can the effects of culture ‘be tested or replicated, except in certain limited terms’ (Matarasso, 2012). In this essay, Matarasso is stating a direct opposition to a policy position he was once demonised for supporting, if not creating: no longer the champion of instrumentalism; now a firm believer in art’s intrinsic nature.

The ‘cultural value debate’ has continued developing apace since Matarasso wrote the aforementioned essay. There are new initiatives appearing in the UK almost every other month at present. A brief overview of the stated aims and objectives of the key current initiatives around cultural value is therefore essential to understand how socially engaged art relates to this debate and its broader future policy implications.

The AHRC Cultural Value Project is clear in adopting a structural approach to ‘experience’, stating that it:

‘seeks to establish a framework that will advance the way in which we talk about the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate that value. The first part of the framework will be an examination of the cultural experience itself and its impact on individuals and its benefit to society. The Project will take as its starting point the different forms of cultural experience, such as, for instance, the aesthetic and cognitive dimensions of our cultural encounters… In giving priority to the cultural experience itself, the Cultural Value Project will take the lead in developing a rigorous approach to what many see as the most important aspect of art and culture’ (AHRC, 2013).

The #culturalvalue Initiative, created by Belfiore, celebrates the new opportunities in this field and wishes to broaden the debate beyond economics. It states that:

‘the very existence of a set of cultural policies is predicated on the notion of cultural value, and the belief in the social importance of its preservation and nurturing… Yet, although how to articulate value is a central concern for cultural organisations in receipt of public funding… the sector finds it difficult to have a serious and honest discussion on the issue. As a result… the public debate on the value of the arts and culture has been intellectually colonised by the discipline of economics, at the expense of the humanities and social sciences’ (Belfiore, 2013).

The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value is led by many senior figures from across arts and culture as well as economics, public policy, sociology, etc. It has identified four trends to investigate and report upon in coming years: Investing; Valuing; Education; and International Trends. The overarching mission is to:

‘explore the “DNA” of the cultural landscape in England from both sector and public perspectives and imagine how it might be better connected and understood using the metaphor of an ecosystem… What kinds of investment do we need to ensure the future of culture and how can we work to ensure that all forms of culture are inclusive and accessible for all?’ (UoW, 2013)

Economics is central to most discussions about cultural value. UNESCO recently reported that the culture sector creates two types of impact: non-economic and economic; the key motive for renewed state intervention in the sector is apparent in UNESCO’s claim that:

‘[t]he growing interest in cultural industries and their rapid acceptance as a fairly general model for addressing development problems at the economic and political level, have contributed that cultural industries become a key component in the formulation of economic policy and strategic development planning.’ (UNESCO b, 2012, p. 7)

Alongside UNESCO’s research into measuring the economic benefits of arts and culture sits Measuring cultural participation (2012). It aims to develop ‘a conceptual foundation and a common understanding of culture that will assist the measurement of a wide range of cultural expressions – irrespective of any particular economic and/or social mode of production’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 8); it points to the ‘scientific measurement scale, the psychological general wellbeing index’ as a long-existing tool for measuring positive impacts of arts participation, irrespective of ‘artistic competence’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). But surely these are big claims to make, especially as the PGWBI is a generic psychological tool for measuring perceived wellbeing that does not measure any specific responses to either cultural activity or participation. Indeed, UNESCO go on to conclude that any attempt at even local standardisation will be difficult ‘[g]iven that most active participation tends to happen in a dispersed and uncoordinated way through small, often predominantly social, organizations that are neither recognised nor funded by governments as sustainable “institutions”’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 9). Is this international recognition that participation is independent and, if so, a territory to be colonised by new forms of instrumentalism? Certainly, the report’s authors identify ‘a disjuncture between three coexisting but fundamentally different sets of values – intrinsic, instrumental and institutional’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 10) and are perplexed by linguistic problems not just between different international interpretations of ‘participation’ but also between its active and passive forms of meaning (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 19).

Measuring cultural participation makes clear that UNESCO are not interested in artistic quality nor ‘[o]pposed concepts and cultural hierarchies (active/passive, high/low, professional/amateur)’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 20). The report is also clear that participation can only be understood ‘in a meaningful, wider context’ by investigating ‘a range of issues which can be understood only by using qualitative methods’ (UNESCO a, 2012, p. 49). The report concludes that no single ‘standard’ model will be able to describe ‘[t]he inter-relationships between cultural participation, participation as a whole, social inclusion and civil society’; attempts to measure participation in cultural activities must therefore use local ‘lenses and tools’ based upon ‘[s]cientific findings’ presented ‘in the best and widest possible way to encourage effective policies’ (UNESCO a, 2012, pp. 73-74).

A crisis of the legitimacy of cultural value was identified back in 2006 by Holden. He argued this could only be addressed by creating a democratic consensus through better and broader arguments about the value of culture that politicians could understand and support (Holden, 2006, p. 9). He explained that cultural value has three forms - ‘intrinsic value, instrumental value and institutional value’ – and is ‘created and “consumed”’ in ‘a triangular relationship between cultural professionals, politicians, policy-makers and the public’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). The solution lay, for Holden, in creating ‘a different alignment between culture, politics and the public’ that nurtures ‘greater legitimacy directly with citizens’ (Holden, 2006, p. 10). But it would appear that, since then, cultural policy and cultural value have, in fact, moved further away from people outside a very narrow sphere of the arts, into a highly professionalised world of ‘cultural leaders’ and ‘public policy-makers’.

O’Brien’s 2010 report to the DCMS, Measuring the value of culture, warned that ‘the cultural sector will need to use the tools and concepts of economics to fully state their benefits in the prevailing language of policy appraisal and evaluation’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 4). His report argues for increased state instrumentalism as well as an adoption of economic measures delivered ‘using the language of public policy and cultural value’ because only can ‘funding decisions… be made that are acceptable to both central government and the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 5). Whilst acknowledging the value of narratives as useful in articulating cultural value, O’Brien warns they ‘fail to represent the benefits of culture in a manner that is commensurable with other calls on the public purse’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 9). His stringent solution: find a way of fitting ‘the unique aspects of culture, outside of the social and economic impacts, into the economic language of the welfare economic paradigm suggested by the guidance in Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the Green Book’ (O'Brien, 2010, pp. 16-17). He concludes by requesting that the DCMS ‘rectify this issue by producing detailed guidance on measuring cultural value with stated preference techniques, making it clear that this will be the standard approach to valuation for central government’s consideration of policy for the cultural sector’ (O'Brien, 2010, p. 48). The voice of public policy abounds.

Public arts policy-maker and funder, Arts Council England (ACE), were surprisingly late in joining the ‘cultural policy debate’, publishing The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, in April 2014. Their report has been much maligned since publication because of its drive to increase instrumentalism and its poorly conducted research. ACE make their position clear from the start, describing the intrinsic value of arts and culture as being ‘in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers’, whilst stating that ‘[q]uantifying the [instrumental] benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence [their] contribution… is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4). They reinforce their drive towards measuring instrumental values by stating:

'When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world… But while we do not cherish arts and culture because of the impact on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy, they do confer these benefits and need to show how important this is… on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors, and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors… to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource… [and] to see where the impact of our work is felt, and where we don’t yet reach’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 4).

The remainder of the report, which should perhaps be titled The Value of State Support for the Arts, gives very little in terms of ‘evidence’ of instrumental measures. Beginning with five ways in which arts and culture might lead be economically beneficial - ‘attracting visitors; creating jobs and developing skills; attracting and retaining businesses revitalising places; and developing talent’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7) – the examples descend into exceptionally tenuous realms. The published examples directly relating to participation in the arts and social change include statements such as:

'Those who had attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60 percent more likely to report good health compared to those who had not, and theatre goers were 25 percent more likely to report good health’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7).

'People value being in the audience to the arts at about £2,000 per person per year and participating at £1,500 per person. The value of participating in sports is about £1,500 per year.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 7)

'High-school students who engage in the arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer… and 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults… Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment… There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger.’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)

'Schools that integrate arts across the curriculum in the US have shown consistently higher reading and mathematics scores compared with similar schools that do not… Participation in structured arts activities increases cognitive abilities… Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree…’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 8)

So, apparently, going to ‘a cultural place or event’ makes you healthier; it is more valuable to watch a cultural event than participate creatively or take part in sport; art at ‘high-school’ makes young people really ‘good’ all-round citizens; integrated art teaching improves literacy and numeracy; structured art arts improves (structured) thinking; and, amazingly, by participating in school arts, poor students are much more likely to gain a degree (presumably in any subject). Is this a (re)turn to state instrumentalism in the mode of Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? It would certainly appear so with ACE themselves concluding that:

'We know that arts and culture play an important role in promoting social and economic goals through local regeneration, attracting tourists, the development of talent and innovation, improving health and wellbeing, and delivering essential services. These benefits are “instrumental” because art and culture can be a means to achieve ends beyond the immediate intrinsic experience and value of the art itself’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 11).

The report does, however, warn that there is little evidence to support claims that ‘preventative interventions which use arts and culture to reduce the need for other public services’ do not, in fact, ‘demonstrate the associated reduction in public spending’ (Arts Council England, 2014, p. 23).

This review also briefly considers the role of art in regenerating public spaces as part of public policy. The Art of Regeneration (1996), written several authors including the ubiquitous Matarasso, identified the increasing role of the arts in urban regeneration which, whilst initially mainly focused upon expensive, large-scale capital works, was becoming increasing interested in ’participatory arts programmes which are low-cost, flexible and responsive to local needs’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). This was a clear policy change – ‘a shift in emphasis in regeneration strategies towards seeing local people as the principal asset through which renewal can be achieved’ with arts activities becoming ‘effective routes to a wide range of social policy objectives’ (Landry, et al., 1996, p. i). Here, perhaps, lies the seeds of Use or Ornament? This participatory approach to regeneration led to a movement, particularly strong in the US, and now growing in the UK, known as ‘creative placemaking’, which the NEA defines as:

‘In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired (Nicodemus, 2012).

Bedoya is more cautious about the motives behind creative placemaking. His essay, Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging (2012), reminds practitioners to ensure they apply an authenticity and ‘ethos of belonging’ when working in this area to ensure residents ‘achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility’ (Bedoya, 2012). Bedoya warns against a ‘build it and they will come’ culture based upon speculative economics as ‘suffocating, unethical, and [supportive of] a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place”’ (Bedoya, 2012). He is at pains that creative placemaking must not become ‘a development strategy but… a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities and sites of imaginations’ (Bedoya, 2012). Clearly then, creative placemaking, with its routes in policies aligned with regeneration and participation, may well always be a form of ‘instrumentalism-lite’ at best; a means of gentrification and state interventionism at worst.

Belfiore’s 2012 essay, “Defensive instrumentalism”, offers a thoughtful evaluation of the question of instrumentalism as cultural policy. She argues for a more nuanced, ‘philosophical approach to the notions of “impact”, “instrumentalism”, and the underlying assumption that the arts can be used as a tool to effect real transformation on individuals’ sense of self, place, belonging, morality, etc., and ultimately on communities and society’; describing UK cultural policy as being, for more than a century, dominated by increasingly normative forms of institutionalisation now ‘embedded within powerful cultural and educational organisations, national curricula and public sensibility’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 104). The result, contends Belfiore, is the present UK arts funding system in which ‘the recipients of the largest grants, which account for a very substantial portion of the available funding, have changed little since Keynes, and:

‘the exquisitely ideological question of making the (political) case for the arts has been translated in the rather more technical (and therefore apparently neutral) issue of arts impact assessment, with the focus firmly on the methodological problems of evaluation rather than on thorny questions of cultural value, and the political problem of how to address the as of yet unresolved issue of widening access and participation to the publicly supported arts’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 107).

Linking the current cultural policy situation with that under New Labour, Belfiore unveils a ‘new guise of economic instrumentalism’ – a form of ‘“defensive instrumentalism” that leaves no room for a positive and constructive vision’ (Belfiore, 2012, pp. 108-109). Perhaps, then, debates about cultural value and instrumentalism reflect the complete 'commodification of public policy’ (Belfiore, 2012, p. 110). Yet none of these debates and policies ever mention socially engaged arts practice; participation is mentioned fleetingly and often incoherently.