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

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.

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