Is more always better?

Financial narratives and the symbolic order of value of art in crisis.

Paper presented at the 13th Critical Finance Studies conference, September 2021

Abstract

Faced with the pandemic, art institutions have been forced to make a case for their public value. Perplexingly, their arguments often invoked the economic prowess of the cultural sector: the arts are worth saving because they contribute more to the economy than aviation (they don’t) or that the forthcoming cuts to arts education will make a dent in art’s £32bn of GVA (it’s unclear how). More art means more GVA, more public good, more private returns.

These narratives are surprising because the public arts sector has previously rejected financial accounts of its value. But this ‘more is more’ argument applies Jean-Baptise Say’s now-debunked 1803 law of markets, paraphrased by ‘if you build it, they will come’ that motivated the expansion of the art industry in recent decades.

How much art is enough? Who gets to decide? What happens when the supply of contemporary artists does become synonymous with demand? How can a £32bn financial system justify the poor economic outcomes of most artists? These are profound challenges to competing narratives of artistic and cultural value as public goods and the always good news of the private art market that are only exacerbated by the difficulty of interpreting the financial systems that underpin them.

My paper will highlight some of the problems of the present formulations of art’s public value (busting some financial myths in the process) and will examine the implications of mixing the public and private narratives of art as a commodity using Jean Baudrillard’s critique of value. By questioning the logic of growth from which publicly supported art has not been immune despite its generally anti-market orientation, I will suggest that facing the uncomfortable implications of the financial arguments may in fact help to construct a more resilient arts ecosystem.

Introduction

The arts had a tough time in the pandemic. Museums and galleries were closed and many artists and art workers found their incomes disappearing. What set the arts apart from the other imperilled industries is the ability of the arts workforce to gather and lobby for public support in creative ways. After all, the arts have had to make similar arguments before, for example, during the austerity regime of the coalition government of the 2010s.

In this paper, I will concentrate on the visual arts in the UK, but you’ll see that the boundaries of what that means are porous and confusing, in interesting ways. I will consider how the arts have formulated their political message in this crisis.

I will look at attempts to create narratives of value out of financial and statistical data. For example, I will consider the assertion that ‘the arts are worth £22 billion to the economy’ that has been repeatedly voiced in calls for support. We’ll see that often, these narratives are exaggerated, or simply factually incorrect, but that doesn’t stop them from becoming go-to legitimising arguments. I’ll try to understand how these narratives have come about. 

I’ll conclude by reading these narratives through the prism of Jean Baudrillard’s ideas of simulation and how they undermine the value of commodities. Is the economic fiction of art now the measure of the value of culture? Do we now narrate ourselves as economic artistic agents? Does it matter that our arguments are simply wrong, or that we don’t understand them? What does this mean in relation to the currents of resistance to financialisation and commodification? 

Saving the arts

Let’s start by looking at how far things have changed in the past decades. As a marker, I take a clip from a 1982 episode of the BBC comedy Yes, Minister, in which the hapless secretary of state Jim Hacker must decide between saving an art gallery and saving a football club in times of financial adversity. The civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby puts up a principled fight.[1]Peter Whitmore, ‘The Middle-Class Rip-Off’, ed. by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Minister (BBC, 1982).

Peter Whitmore, director, ‘The Middle-Class Rip-Off’, written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Minister (BBC, 1982)

Since this sketch was written, the language of public support for the arts has changed dramatically. Where once we spoke of subsidy, the evolution of free-market capitalism heralded a language of conscious exploitation of the power of the arts to achieve instrumental outcomes. By the 2010s, the discourse moved even further to ‘investment’. Arts Council England, for example, proudly stated that ‘for every £1 that it invested in the arts, the private sector added a further £3.’ It should be noted that this kind of language was never popular with arts organisations or artists, not even during the austerity regime after the 2008 financial crisis.

A curious change happened in the past pandemic year. Arts organisations came together to campaign for a public bailout and for a new round of public investments to support the industry’s recovery. 

We could think of many arguments for ‘saving the arts’: the intellectual history that validates artistic expression and consumption as inalienable to human existence stretches back to Plato.[2] Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett, The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. However, the arguments we saw in the last year and a half have mostly relied on financial narratives. For example, the social media campaign #ArtIsEssential, organised by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network has relied on statements such as the “creative industries employs [sic] 2 million people across all nations and regions” or that “the arts and culture sector contributes £2.8 billion a year to the Treasury via taxation.”[3]‘#ArtIsEssential’ (CVAN England, 2021) <https://www.artisessential.art> [accessed 1 June 2021].

‘#ArtIsEssential’ (CVAN England, 2021). artisessential.art

Of course, the livelihoods of the two million were in peril and that is not trivial, but there’s a red flag in this message. What is meant by the ‘creative industries’ includes many industries that are not the arts. Most of the employment for which the campaign tried to take credit come from the film, digital, and games industries. Are those the arts? Data from the House of Commons, by contrast, do not entertain such ambiguity and point to a very different number.[4]John Woodhouse and Georgina Hutton, Covid-19 and the Arts and Culture Sectors, Briefing Paper (House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021) Can we defend the value of the visual arts by claiming credit for the employment of software programmers?

John Woodhouse and Georgina Hutton, Covid-19 and the Arts and Culture Sectors, Briefing Paper (House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021).

Later, when arguing against the cuts to arts higher education funding, the same campaign claimed that “The Creatives [sic] Industries contributed £116bn in GVA in 2019.”[5]Leading UK Contemporary Visual Arts Institutions and Art Schools Unite against Proposed Government Cuts to Arts Education’ (Contemorary Visual Arts Network, 2021) [accessed 6 August 2021]. This number is misleading in many ways. First, it takes credit for regions of the UK to which the funding cut did not apply. Second, it treats ‘creative industries’ and ‘the arts’ as synonymous again. Third, it exaggerates the GVA about tenfold. 

Cebr, Contribution of the Arts and Culture Industry to the UK Economy: Report for Arts Council England (London, April 2019).

Looking at data from Arts Council England,[6]Cebr, Contribution of the Arts and Culture Industry to the UK Economy: Report for Arts Council England (London, April 2019). we see the source of such exaggerations. A 2019 report that valued the arts GVA at just above £10bn admitted to counting the value of culture in some bizarre ways. For example, the headline total number used was about £22 billion and was arrived at by counting not only the value of the industry, the value of its supply chain, but also the induced value. That total value includes, for example, the rent and grocery bills paid by artists, which renders such an estimate completely meaningless. So no, the arts were not worth £116bn, not £22bn, but about £10.6bn in GVA before the pandemic.

Cebr, Contribution of the Arts and Culture Industry to the UK Economy: Report for Arts Council England (London, April 2019).

But it’s not only the industry’s spokespeople that play loose with numbers. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport is aware of this trick and is somewhat complicit in reproducing fuzzy definitions and triple-counting. The official statistics the department produces contains many overlaps so that in the end, it’s difficult to know whether the analysis confuses the value of the visual arts with, for example, the value of digital services.[7]DCMS Sectors Economic Estimates 2018: GVA’ (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, 2020) [accessed 1 June 2020].


‘DCMS Sectors Economic Estimates 2018: GVA’ (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, 2020).

We could go on with these examples. By contrast, when it came to making arguments for the aesthetic, social, or intellectual value of the arts, the #artisessential campaign outsourced the question to artists, with underwhelming results. One could be a little disheartened by the lacklustre aesthetics and message of this particular campaign and others like it.

‘#ArtIsEssential’ (CVAN England, 2021). artisessential.art

I’m not trying to pick on the arts in particular: every industry has had to mount a defence of its value in the recent months. But some fundamental questions come from these examples. 

Do artists and arts organisations know that their numbers are incorrect? Do they understand what they’re talking about? How do they hope to convince bureaucrats of their case? Are they just comforted by the abstraction of impressive-sounding large numbers?

Perhaps the answer is that none of these issues mattered in the negotiation. The arts sector did secure an unprecedented bailout of £1.56 billion last year under the DCMS Culture Recovery Fund. The fight to preserve higher education funding this year was lost, but the financial value of that cut was by comparison minuscule.

At the same time, this shift implies a serious change in the way that artists and their organisations understand the value of the arts. The numbers are large. The economic story is good. The argument is won, more or less. It all seems rather alluring: the aesthetic, ethical, epistemic, or instrumental arguments for the value of the arts can be so effortlessly expressed in terms of finance.

Public and Private Value

This warrants some reflection. If the veracity of the financial argument does not matter, why did the arts give way to this narrative so easily? There was, presumably, no need at all to take on this GVA matrix, because the state already had the numbers it needed to make its decision at its disposal.

What is interesting is that artists perhaps actually believe these numbers. If so, then GVA has the potential to become a determining narrative just as earlier intellectual arguments for the value of cultural experiences did. It also extends a long line of questions about the public and private nature of cultural experiences[8]Belfiore and Bennett. and phrases them in elusively simple-to-understand terms. Is art a public or a private good? Does it warrant public support – as in Sir Humphrey’s view – or should it rely on its own commercial worth?It seems that for now, the arts industry has become attached to the notion of art being a market-friendly good. This may be advantageous in a moment of crisis, although I question the foundations of such a position. The industry appears to be pursuing a slightly bizarre argument based on Jean-Baptise Say’s 1803 law of markets which proposed that aggregate supply generates aggregate demand. This, in effect, means that the more art we have in the economy, the more demand there will be for it. In this view, there are no reasons ever to constrict the supply of art and artists. If you build it, they will come. Say’s law has long been debunked, but I think that its spirit continues to drive the expansionary motives of market capitalism.

But even when we consider art to be a purely public good, one that warrants state subsidy, the maximalising narrative inevitably arises. This is because, in the absence of a market, a politician deciding how to allocate resources will need to rely on narratives of value to estimate the net benefit of competing projects. All narratives of value are therefore liable to narrative manipulation.[9]Douglas S Noonan, ‘Valuing Arts and Culture: A Research Agenda for Contingent Valuation’, The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 34.3 (2004), 205–21 … Continue reading

Mixing the private and public good economies is potentially the worst of all possible systems. We have seen this happen over the past decades: the social value of the arts has become entangled with economic evaluations. This always seems to take the arts industry by surprise, as though it was not obvious that in every attempt to reallocate resources, there must be losers as well as winners.

Art simulating itself

As a final point, I want to consider the potential crisis that the shift towards financial arguments implies for understandings of the value of the arts and culture. To do this, I will refer to Jean Baudrillard’s critique of Marx’s theory of exchange and use value. Where Marx relates value to the cost of production of a commodity, its utility, and its price, Baudrillard thinks that contemporary society is organised around simulation rather than consumption. In a world of simulation, values have become completely detached from the objects.[10]Douglas Kellner, ‘Jean Baudrillard’, ed. by Edward N. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020) [accessed 6 July 2021]. A work of art, therefore, no longer has any value that we could have described in Marxian terms. The work of art may as well be a mere simulation, that symbolises a narrative and this narrative need not be backed up by any reality.

Baudrillard’s simulacra perfectly encompass the shift from the artwork to the simulation of art in general. Where once we had art, we now have an art producing machine. The value, or values, of the art that this machine produces are not related to their Marxian values. Instead, what matters are the narratives of the value of the machine. To be explicit: the statement that ‘the arts are worth £22 billion to the economy’ describes the value of art more than any statement made about any individual artwork. 

What does this mean as part of the trend of ‘commodification’ of art and culture that is visible in the intermingling narratives of public and private value of art? It is possible to argue that certain classes of art have achieved the stable status of private commodities and we only need to look at contemporary art auction results for confirmation. The whole industry, however, continues to ideologically resist this drive towards financialisaton and insists that culture is a pure public good. Art schools, museums, and art non-profits all vocally oppose private market demands. 

I think that Baudrillard would see this dichotomy as evidence for his thesis: if the art industry resists commodification, it is because it has lost its connection to the very commodity that it represses. All we are left with is the narrative symbolic value as a simulation.

There’s a parallel in traditional financial markets too. We could think about other commodities that are valued in counterintuitive ways. Grain, for example, is traded through myriad financial instruments. Some of these rely heavily on simulation: grain futures, for example, are traded in a volume that far exceeds the volume of grain actually produced, exchanged, and consumed. Trading grain futures is based on symbolic value, not use value. Grain futures are a simulation of grain.I suggest that the same is happening with art now. £22 billion worth of art has nothing to do with the art produced or consumed. This is merely a financial instrument that simulates a real commodity trade that need not ever take place. We can see evidence of this in the recent flash rise of NFT art that reached unprecedented prices, for example, the $69 million auction price for a work by the artist Beeple. Even if these NFT transactions correspond to individual artworks, these works are by no means commodities. Instead, they are financial instruments that only simulate commodity consumption.

EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS (Beeple, 2021)

Conclusion

Baudrillard jested that the contemporary world’s greatest achievement was not the commercialisation of anything and everything, but instead, it was the aestheticization of the whole world, that is turning it into images and symbols that become simulations of the formerly real thing.[11]Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. by J Benedict (Verso, 1993). This meant that there was no role left for art because it could no longer subvert the simulation and because art relies on participating in the simulation for its existence. 

Does this mean that art is now completely irredeemable, as Baudrillard predicted? Perhaps not. Baudrillard’s pessimism towards contemporary art was profound, but there are limitations to it. In contemporary society, everything is political, sexual, or economic,[12]Douglas Kellner, ‘Jean Baudrillard and Art’ <https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/baudrillardandart.pdf> [accessed 6 August 2021]. but a state of ‘transaesthetics’ in which everything has become aesthetic that Baudrillard prophesised has not yet come about.

If there is hope here, it lies in the fact that the system may be self-correcting as long as the real and the simulation coexist. It could, perversely, be the politician or the cultural economist who simply dismisses the economic arguments put forward by the arts industry, knowing them to be mere narratives. By this I mean that the art industry does not yet have the power to engage in the simulacra in a way that propagates the financial narratives externally. It may be that artists have begun to see themselves through the prism of billion-pound valuations, but they are not able to convince anyone else of this – at least not yet. So we are in a moment where Baudrillard’s transeconomic and trasnaesthetic conditions are still in competition over the codes that determine the rules of the simulation. The end result is not necessarily predetermined.

There are two ways in which I think we could address the problem. One is the renewal of aesthetic practices, such as is always already taking place in the ever-evolving landscape of art production. The other could be to invest in developing financial literacy in the art industry, so that it can face and evaluate its own uncomfortable narratives. It could be that when the narratives are brought back in line with their underlying realities, they can no longer reinforce the simulacra.

Notes[+]