On ‘the very idea of measuring cultural value’

There is a new blog on the DCMS website by Claire Donovan, an academic at Brunel University who has been commissioned to write a report on ‘the very ideaofmeasuring cultural value’. She asks: ‘What are your views on the very idea of measuring cultural value? Is ‘measure’ the right word? What is ‘culture’ anyway? And what does ‘value’ mean and to whom?‘ So, here are some answers.

The problem of value

Each word of the phrase ‘measuring cultural value’ is problematic, not just the familiar difficulty of defining culture, about which I shall say nothing here. Value is tricky because it treats the term ‘value’ as equivalent to ‘good’ without recognizing that human beings do not agree on what is good. Before we can ask whether the value – the good – produced by culture (however defined) can be measured, we must define that good. But no one does.

This opaqueness about what is meant by value is one symptom of the slipperiness of discourse about ‘cultural value’ today. It allows people to promote implicitly positions that might be more contested if they were stated explicitly. It’s characteristic of the post-political discourse apparent since Francis Fukuyama mistakenly announced ‘the end of history’.

The problem of measurement

Measuring is equally tricky. Measurement is a scientific concept that assumes the existence of a fixed scale against which different values (quantities, this time, not goods) can be compared. Celsius, for example, is a fixed scale – in the sense that scientists agree its definition and use – against which to measure temperature. But because people do not agree about culture, its definition or its good, it seems unlikely that they will be able to agree on a scale against which that good could be measured.

The limits of scientific method

The problem here is the application of scientific concepts and methods to questions for which they are not suited. One of the defining characteristics of scientific method is that the knowledge it produces can be tested by replication of the process through which it was originally created. This method works well in the natural sciences but can be misleading when applied to human activity and especially human experience.

Science cannot define, observe, quantify, compare or measure the taste of chocolate, the feeling of jealousy or the experience of hearing Mavis Staples. At best, it may be able to observe some physical symptoms of what people experience in these situations but it is an error to mistake symptoms for their causes.

Science has now become such a dominant form of knowledge in Western thought that it is often seen as the only available human epistemology. It is not: it is just the most powerful. Because it is so powerful, science attracts those who are or who see themselves as politically weak – particularly if they do not understand it very well. (David Edgar has recently written about the arts sector’s efforts to secure political support in The Guardian.)

One basic difficulty faced by bodies such as DCMS in trying to account for the value of their spending is the misconceived application of scientific method. It’s like trying to turn lead into gold (although the effect is more akin to turning gold into lead).Unfortunately, that something can’t be done has never prevented people from expending themselves in the effort. Futility is also difficult to measure using scientific methods.

Lionheart 2

The failure of scientific concepts when applied to artistic experience

Art – and culture more widely – is necessarily experiential. It exists only in the intertwined experience of creator (artist, performer, author, maker) and re-creator (audiences, readers, viewers and listeners). As Alberto Manguel has written:

‘It is the reader who reads the sense; it is the reader who grants or recognises in an object, place or event a certain possible readability; it is the reader who must attribute meaning to a system of signs, and then decipher it.’

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, (London 1997 p.7)

Art is ambiguous. It has no universal character, method, purpose, meaning or even existence. It can therefore have no universal value (good), unless one associates it with a universal deity. Nor can it be measured against a universal scale. Art is always culturally dependent, anchored in time and space and specific to actual people. No artist can predict, control or guarantee the effects of their work because the person experiencing it always remakes it. Culture’s effects cannot be tested or replicated, except in certain limited terms discussed below.

Therefore nothing about art – or culture – can be proven. Very little about it can be measured. If we stopped digging that particular hole we would be better placed to consider how to develop better knowledge about the operation and effects of culture in society today.

One way forward: untangling monitoring, evaluation and advocacy

The simplest thing would be to distinguish properly between monitoring, evaluation and advocacy. These are conceptually, methodologically and politically different activities whose confusion in current practice – itself arising from the misconception of science’s role in cultural evaluation – causes many problems.

By monitoring, I mean the collection and analysis of factual quantitative data about arts and cultural provision and its use. This is not difficult, though it requires commitment, patience and consistency. Done properly, it would enable funding bodies, including DCMS, to account better for the outputs of spending. That alone would be a significant improvement on existing knowledge.

By evaluation, I mean the use of appropriate methods to research and understand arts and cultural practice and the responses of those involved in it. Since this knowledge is most immediately valuable to practitioners and managers, it should be a normal part of creative work. Independent and skilled external evaluation can provide a check for self-evaluation and larger comparative studies aimed at developing professional knowledge.

By advocacy, I mean the process of improving understanding of and debates about art, culture and their place in society. Again, the primary responsibility for that lies with the cultural sector. If it feels misunderstood or undervalued (and I question the foundation of both beliefs) it is pointless to complain: it must find ways of improving the situation.

Epidemiology: where science really could help

None of this is intended to suggest that scientific method has no place in developing understanding of culture, just that it must be used appropriately.

That means, among other things, drawing on the knowledge and methods of epidemiology. Rather than throwing ever-greater intellectual and financial resources at failing to ‘prove’ the value of culture in certain ideologically loaded but unacknowledged ways, it would be better to step back and take a societal perspective on its actual effects.If the effects of a specific cultural experience on a specific individual can (almost) never be predicted or guaranteed, we need other ways of deciding how to invest resources (as well as good arguments, which remain strikingly absent).

But culture is not alone in this. A doctor cannot guarantee the results of a specific medical intervention: instead, she will discuss with a patient the probability of different positive and negative outcomes, based on meta-studies using epidemiological methods.

Moving to a probability-based approach to understanding and accounting for the cost-effectiveness of public spending on culture would be a significant political, intellectual and ethical improvement on the present situation.

Why none of this is going to happen

I’m not sure that what I’m suggesting here would address all the problems ouched on above – how could I be, given my caution about the nature of knowledge? But I think it would take both practice and policy in a more productive direction than they are currently pursuing.

On the other hand, I’m fairly sure that the institutions that control public culture will not wish to adopt this thinking because a clear picture of what actually happens  in a society’s cultural life – and why – has never been in the interest of those who govern. As anyone who appreciates the symbolic and ritual aspects of culture will recognise, it’s the appearance of a commitment, in this case to evidence-based policy, that matters. If you get the rhetoric of cultural democracy right, you can do most of what you want.

Fortunately, all states eventually learn that culture is far bigger, more complex and unpredictable than the parts of it they can control.

Next post in this series.


  1. I agree with your final comment Francois, the DCMS thread feels like a toad, sounds like a toad, looks like a toad – so it probably is a toad. I find myself energised by what is happening outside of the political control of the state, and the energy and innovation that young artists of all disciplines are bringing into the mix. Well said.

  2. I’ve enjoyed the posts from both of you on the DCMS blog and very much agree with Francois Matarasso’s thinking on these issues as well as admiring its clarity. It is frustrating to see so much scarce public money being spent on going round this circle again. I hope the distinctions that Francois makes between monitoring, evaluation and advocacy will eventually make their way into public policy thinking but, like him, I am doubtful. James Clifford, 30 years ago, described the discussion of culture as ‘grieving over an empty coffin’. It may be that all we are seeing is an institutionalised coffin that is not empty but filled with ghosts of the hopes and dreams of those who are to imagine a culture that is not constrained or controlled by those who fund it.

    1. I like the metaphor of the empty coffin; it reminds me of Cavafy’s poem. ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. It’s easy to find oneself anxious for culture’s future or mourning an idea of its past. But as I concluded the post, I’m an optimist about culture precisely because it’s too rich, elusive and complex for anyone to control. Of course, that doesn’t mean that those who try won’t create all sorts of damage in the attempt.

      1. I agree with you that culture seems wonderfully diverse, energetic and everywhere. But optimism seems fragile at this time. We may be enjoying the surplus value of the wonderful young publically educated creative people produced by the last decade of boom. I hope that they also know enough about economics, technology and organisations to get us and them through the dearth that will undoubtedly follow. Perhaps more Joseph’s dream than Cavafy’s.

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