|Picture: Evening Standard|
Britain's cultural institutions have been told that they must justify themselves in economic terms. Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, thinks it's the job of museums and theaters to stimulate economic growth (which some of us might have thought was a job of government). In a speech today she said that the only justification for public funding of the arts is on the basis of economic return on investment. Aside from a few platitudes about the value of culture, she seems mainly to esteem culture for its economic contribution. But measuring culture in money is stupid as well as philistine; it's like trying to measure height in ounces. It's really hard to articulate the value of culture (although most people intuitively understand it), but it's actually even harder to make a convincing case for public subsidy of the arts on the grounds of financial return.
A theatre makes a direct economic impact by selling tickets and programmes and gin and tonic in the interval. That impact is multiplied because the actors and ticket collectors and cleaners who work at the theater buy other things too, stimulating the wider economy. But these are really measures of cost rather than value, accounting for the economic resources that are expended on staging plays. There's no reason for the multiplier to be greater in the cultural sector, so it's no basis to justify state subsidy. You might as well pay people to dig holes in the ground. This argument still leaves the biggest question unanswered - what is the value of culture that justifies targeting of public money to that sector rather than to the hole-digging sector?
Miller talked about tourist revenue, but again it's not a compelling argument for subsidy. Is she asking British taxpayers to subsidise holidays for wealthy foreigners? Isn't there a more cost-effective way of promoting tourism? Maybe some of the biggest national museums that are the biggest tourist magnets could stand on their own by charging high admission prices, and the smaller attractions can be closed. If our only criterion is financial, that might be a better business proposition than current subsidies. Then there's the wider effect; maybe companies will be tempted to locate in London because of the cultural opportunities it affords. This effect is the most ethereal and the most stubbornly resistant to measurement. It's really just a kind of proxy for the ineffable value of culture.
In a superb critique of this kind of reasoning, John Kay writes that, "The only intelligible meaning of 'benefit to the economy' is the contribution - direct or indirect - the activity makes to the welfare of ordinary citizens." That benefit cannot always be expressed meaningfully in pounds shillings and pence. Adding up the money spent on culture doesn't tell you anything about its value. I've seen lots of peculiar judgments in theatre reviews, but I've never heard it said that one play is better than another because it cost more to stage. I particularly enjoyed John Kay's article because it lays bare the way that these arguments corrupt economics as well as culture.