Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Cultural Value

Picture: Telegraph
Our cultural apparatchiks have turned away from the narrow instrumentalism of measuring performance against targets, which probably just reflects that they could never meet the targets. But art for its own sake is still passé. So how can they justify themselves? The Arts and Humanities Research Council has spent £2m to find out. Private Eye reports that the project's advisors have given over a tenth of the funding to themselves. Cultural elites have never been shy about rewarding themselves with commissions, but in the old days the commissions were for actual artworks, and at least we might have got a good picture out of it. The new elites spend cash to produce reports on things like "the contribution of participatory user-generated machine-cinema to cultural values".

A grant of £38,427 was made to “evaluate the relationship between arts and cultural engagement and long-term health outcomes in the UK”. It's an odd topic for the humanities, given the need for high-level statistical knowledge and engagement with the techniques of medical research. But those problems were bypassed; all they got for £38k was some superficial summaries of fifteen existing studies. It wasn't research at all. It was just advocacy, squandering money to highlight a supposed link between arts funding and public health.

They spent £26,872 for a project “using Facebook to investigate local history: experience, value and policy implications in one town”. It “works with” one Facebook page: ‘Forgotten Abergavenny’, hoping to contribute to the nation’s health by “assisting the understanding of the experiences and value attached by users to the most popular and accessed social media platform in the UK, thus facilitating the usefulness of such a platform as a means for the delivery of news, information and other content relevant to governments and local authorities”.

There is a cynical element to this, where self-selected elites reward themselves with public money. Explaining it as corruption makes easier sense of the absurdity of some of the funded projects. But I think they're actually sincere in wanted to define cultural value better. Trouble is, their stilted efforts to define the problem reveal it as a fool's errand. They want to avoid the accountability that comes from instrumentalist measures, but also avoid the political and philosophical challenge of making the case for art's intrinsic value.

Mocking academic research is a staple of populist philistinism. But my aim is different. I criticise them because I love the arts and humanities, and these ridiculous projects reflect badly on the entire enterprise. The debate needs to be animated with some strong ideas, not using oodles of public cash to manufacture bullshit advocacy research to bolster the case for yet more public cash. 

Bendor Grosvenor reports on another manifestation of this debate with the Arts Council getting Alain de Botton to make a moronic instrumental case for the arts. Arts Council and Alain de Botton is a deadly combination!

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