A Review of the ‘Value of culture’ by Arjo Klamer

(Boekmancahier: Kwartaalschrift over Kunst, Onderzoek en Beleid, Jg.7, Nr.26, 1995, pp.444-49)

Hans Blokland



The central problem of contemporary cultural policy in the Netherlands is its lack of public or political legitimacy. This is the result of the fact that every citizen has to pay for a good which is only valued and consumed by a small social-economic elite as well as the fact that this elite is not able to formulate a convincing justification for this situation. This problem is also at the core of Klamers article The Value of Culture. In the following I will first summarize what I understand to be the main elements of Klamers line of reasoning. After this I will analyse whether or not this line holds.

The problem

Those who go to the theatre, observes Klamer, only pay a very small portion of the costs. Accor­ding to the CBS each visitor to a subsidized play pays on average 11 guilders. The contributi­on of the state and the local govern­ments to this visit amounts to 175 guilders. This poses a problem: how can this exorbitant endowment of the arts be justified? Klamer, an economist, states that 'conventional economics does not produce a convin­cing economic rationale for the public support of the arts.' So when the right-wing republi­can Newt Gingrich argues that the subsidies are unfair because they force everybo­dy to pay for the enjoyment of a selected and usually well-endowed few, he, writes Klamer, 'has a point'. And, Klamer adds, 'there is no good defense against it, at least not from the conventio­nal economic perspective.'

Arguments in favour of subsidies which are based on the view that art is a public good or that art has positive external benefits are in the opinion of Klamer hard to sustain. Undefensible is also the argument that low prices for cultural events and products lower the threshold for low income groups: 'In reality low prices for cultural products mainly benefit those who already enjoy them and seduce only a few of the target group.' Forthright 'tricky' is according to Klamer the argument that art is a merit good. This argument 'implies that some people have better tastes than others .. and violates the modern principles of individual sovereignty and equality.' It is an 'aristocratic', 'undemocratic' view which can not be defen­ded in a modern society (I will return to this point later).

In general, Klamer notices that in the economists' perspective cultural products are reduced to commodities and their values to prices. The result is that 'reasons for public support dissolve for your eyes.' Nevertheless, Klamer is not satisfied with this conclusion, he has the feeling something is missing in the picture. The insights gained with the econo­mists' perspective are limited or even pernicious and do not seem to do justice to the pheno­mena studied. So he wants 'to alter the economic glasses to get a more interes­ting but also more truthful picture of reality.'

Klamers solution

What is exactly missing? Or, in other words, what could be a tenable argument for state-subsidies for the arts? First Klamer asks himself in what way art differs from other goods. He believes the distinguis­hing feature of art is its 'open' meaning: it is never possible to define what an artist tries to say with his work in an accurate way. The moment you can, we are no longer talking about art. Art, writes Klamer, 'happens in the sensation of a problem, that is, a problem of meaning. (..) art exists (..) in the moment of wonderment, of the question mark that the physical form evokes in our mind.' Solving the problem of meaning 'would destroy the art' (This seems to me a rather narrow, because western, modern and middle class definition of art. The upshot of this definition is that all art produced in our civilizati­on before about the twentieth century and most of the art produced in other cultures is no art at all. After all, most of the artists concerned (and some of their contem­porary western colleagues too) 'only' tried and try to express in an esthetic, but still understand­able, way the common truths of their culture. Should we in this case speak of 'deco­ra­tion' or 'arts and crafts'? I am afraid the artists in question, as well as their public, would not agree. Neither do I.)

Money, writes Klamer in the next step of his argumentation, is antithetical to art. This needs some explanation. Thanks to money we can measure and compare the value of different goods. Measuring - in time, length, or value units - might be called characteristic of modern times. Distinctive too is the increasing pricisi­on of our measu­ring and the expan­ding spheres of life in which we measure and calculate.[1] By doing so, something is lost. Klamer stresses that any measurement interve­nes in the nature of the object measured. Karl Marx made in this context a well-known distinction between the use and the exchange value of an object. The imposition of an exchange value trans­forms the object in a commodity which can be compa­red and exchan­ged with other commodities. A preoccu­pation with this exchange value, Marx wrote, can turn people blind to the distinc­tive characteristics of the object concerned as well as to the social relations underlying its production. Knowing for instance that a particular painting of Van Gogh has an exchange value of 75 million dollar usually devalues the experience of its art.[2]

Measuring human relationships in money or time normally devalues them too. You do not pay a friend for a good conversation and if you would offer or ask a payment this would normally imply the end of the friendship. Neither will parents send their child a bill at its eighteenth birthday for its upbrin­ging. The difference between commercial transactions and exchanges with friends, relatives, collegues, et cetera is, Klamer writes, that these last exchanges are measured nor well defined. They are based instead on reciprocity: there is always the expectation that something will come in return but it remains open when this will happen and of what this return will consist.

Wearing conventional economics glasses one would not notice that measurement can devalue goods and relationships. Economic theory, Klamer writes, 'does not account for relationships and does not recognize a value that is beyond measure.' He recommendates these to be become incorpora­ted in economic theory, an incorporation which will require a shift in focus and in method of the discipline concerned. By way of a first contribution to this shift Klamer presents two theses: '1. A commercial transaction devalu­es a good whose value is beyond measure; 2. When direct payments devalue the good traded, the parties have an incentive to esta­blish round­about ways of financing the costs of producing the good.'

Klamer interpre­tes the ubiquitousness of indirect payments, that is subsi­dies, in the world of the arts as an indication of the correctness of his second thesis. But what exactly explains the existing mixture of direct and indirect payments? Klamer stipulates that art as a product differs from art as activity and as experience. In the last two cases art has a value not measurable and, therefore, a value that can not be expressed with money, it even conflicts with money. A piece of art normally possesses different values. A painting, for example, has a potential to give an artistic expe­rience, but it can serve as an investment or as decorati­on too.

If I understand Klamer correctly, his central thesis is that we are willing to pay directly for the art as a product and only indirectly (via taxes and subsidies) for the art as an activity and as an experience. When you go to the theatre you know for sure that as long as you consider the perfor­mance as a product the evening will be a success (you are amused or improving your image in the Bourdieuan sense). So, according to Klamer, you are prepa­red to pay directly for this product. This is not the case with the experience-values the performance eventually generates: 'there is no quarantee that you will be inspired and stimulated so why pay hundred guilders (my italics: I do not think that this spreading of risks-argument is in this line of reasoning on the right place; why should other taxpayers anyway pay for my artistic risks?). Moreover, commerciali­zation of the play as expressed in high prices and slick marke­ting techni­ques, will devalue the art in the play.'

What does all this imply for our original question: how can the subsidi­zing of the arts by the state be defended? Klamer then takes a big leap. I better quote him fully: 'To sustain the values that are communicated by means of art products, people through all times have been inventive to circumvent the quid pro quo of commercial transactions for the very good reasons that their requirement of measurement devalues the art experience but also that a strictly commercial transaction ends the relationship. For the very same reason that we avoid commercial deals with friends and children, we avoid the intrusion of the com­mercial lifeworld in the world of the arts. The values that are communicated in that world are tender and defenseless against calculation, and can be sustained only in the relations­hips that people form with each other and in the ongoing conversations among them.'

Is Klamers solution tenable?

I feel quite sympathetic to Klamers line of reasoning and I totally agree with the thesis that there is a flaw in economic theory because its practitio­ners usually do not understand that measuring and calculating can devalue goods and human activities and relationships. Still, there is one problem left: I am not convinced. I do not think that Klamer has managed to formulate a satisfying justification for subsidizing the participation of a social-econo­mic elite in cultural activities. He still is not able to counter Newt Gingrich.

Let us first simplify the problem and take a look at the case all the inhabi­tants of a political community participate in comparable measures in cultural activi­ties. There are no big differences between the activities of people with different income, education, gender, social back­ground or whatever. Say, the people in question do not want to talk about or do not want to know the costs of art as an activity and as an experience: this would devalue their experience. They are only prepared to pay directly for the art as a product. The other costs are paid indirectly, via taxes. This is in fact the picture Klamer gives of the present situation and of the political problem underly­ing this situation. This picture is not correct, but let us, for the sake of argument, assume it is. Subsidizing the arts is, then, a strange kind of burying one's head in the sand. Because people do not want to pay all the costs directly they pay the largest part indirectly. But they still pay the full amount. It is like collecting Air-Miles. Nevertheless, subsidizing can of course be justified by this ostrich policy.

Still, why not turn the argument upside down: if the people who go to the theatre and the concert hall really cared about the art which is performed in these temples, why bother about the price of the tickets? Why even menti­on it? By talking about the price of the ticket they themselve devalue the art. They give the impression they only know the price, not the value. Besides this, why not expand the argument to, for instance, the visiting of restau­rants? The food in a restaurant also possesses different values: a value as a product (to appease one's hunger) and a value as an experience (to tickle one's palate). Why not subsidize this last value? Perhaps something is wrong with the argument.

But, as I already mentioned, this is not the real problem. It is not the case that all kinds of people participate in comparable measures in cultural activities. The problem is that only a very small social-economic elite, which is even decreasing in size, goes to theatres, art museums and concert halls and that every citizen has to pay for these visits. The lower social-economic strata are in fact subsidizing the higher strata. When the non-visitors concerned ask why they should continue their efforts (and they are asking this more and more), you can not silence them by shouting back to shut up because they are devaluing the art by asking this kind of ques­tions. These people want to hear reasons. They want to know about the values of art in general (it is not necessary to understand the value of every piece of art which is subsidized to acknowledge the overall importance of the endowment of the arts). It is not enough to tell them that 'people from all times' have tried 'to sustain the values that are communicated by means of art products' by circumventing 'the quid pro quo of commercial transacti­ons for the very good reasons that their requirement of measurement devalues the art experience.' It is not enough, because it is simply not true: 'the people' or 'we' have not decided together to pay only indirectly for the value of art as an experience. The non-visitors were in fact never asked their opinion.

Maybe part of the problem is that more and more non-visitors deny that contemporary art has got a value as experience and perhaps this absence of experience-value is caused by the prevailing definition of art, a definition which Klamer also formulates: art as 'wonder­ment' or bewil­derment or art as a 'problem of meaning' without any solution.

Possible defensible arguments

What could be tenable arguments for continuing the state subsidy for the arts although only a tiny elite benefits at this moment from these subsidies? Klamer dismisses the arguments normal­ly given for subsidiz­ing the arts. For instance, he does not believe in positive exter­nal effects: 'It's not clear, for example, how my enjoyment of subsidized theatre is shared by other Dutchman. There may be some spillover effects on my environ­ment - although I would not know which one's - and, who knows, on future generations but they remain undetermi­ned.' I believe Klamer get out of this too easily.[3] The arts can, among others, play a role in the renewing of a culture, they can liberate people (individu­ally or collectively) from old, obsolete or confining values, habits and ideas, they can enlarge the under­standing between people. I write 'can', I do not claim that contempo­rary artist in fact do this. Doubts about this might be, again, part of the pro­blem. Any­way, these possible effects of art could be reasons for the non-visitors to subsidi­ze the visitors. There is a chance that they will be convin­ced by the relevant argument.

Another argument for supporting the arts refers to their merit.[4]The arts have a value even though not everybody recognizes it at this moment. The government has to continue its policy on subsidy even though the majority of the people does not support this policy. As we saw earlier, this argument is also dismissed by Klamer. In his opinion it 'implies that some people have better tastes than others - in accordance with the old aristocra­tic idea - and violates the modern principles of individual sover­eignty and equality. According to good anti-aristocratic and democratic values no one, not even a government, can tell an individual what to like.' I can not help to consider this complete nonsense. I know nowadays every­body swallows this kind of reasoning (democra­cy! freedom! equality! just do it!), and you do not make yourself popular by critizing it, but still: it is nonsense.

Why? This brings me to a second flaw in economic thinking, a flaw which is not noticed by Klamer: he is a willing victim of it himself. The shortco­ming in question is that most economists take the present preferen­ces for granted.[5] They never or hardly ask themselves how, in what social context, under the influence of which circumstances and powers, these preferences developed and whether they could have been different in another context. Before they start to build their impressive mathematical framework economists usually assume that present preferences are chosen in a well-considered, rational way on basis of a full knowledge of the availa­ble alterna­tives. In a next step respect for people, that is: free­dom, equality and democracy, is put on a par with respect for these preferen­ces.[6] If you dare to question the preferences, if you ask what has been the influence of the upbringing, of the school system, of the massme­dia and of the daily bom­bardment of advertising in developing them, you 'violate the modern principles of individual sovereignty and equality.' Still, it is my belief that you have to ask this kind of questions if you really want to take people seriously. Only then you can develop the social conditions which give people the opportunity to free themselves of their present horizon, to question their present preferences, and to choose themselve which values, opinions or inclinations fit them best. That is why some people know better and that is why merit-goods exist.


[1] See for a brilliant analyses of the economic way of thinking, of measu­ring and calculating, and the social consequences of the invasion of this thinking in more and more spheres of life: André Gorz, Critique of Econo­mic Reason, London/New York, Verso, 1989

[2] Listen to Harry Jekkers' song 'De man in de wolken' (1991) and you will better under­stand what this means.

[3] It depends, by the way, on your definition of art what you consider as a external effect. What some consider as an external effect might be conside­red by others as the core of art. In the cited sentence Klamer speaks of 'my enjoyment of subsidized theatre', I think there is more to the picture than 'enjoyment', but maybe this was just a slip of Klamers pen.

[4] For an overview of possible justifications for support for the arts and the spreading of culture, see my Wegen naar Vrijheid: Autonomie, Emancipatie en Cultuur in the Westerse Wereld (Amsterdam, Boom, 1995)(in 1996 also available in English), Ch.6.

[5] I developed this point further in: 'Een politieke theorie over kunst en economie in de verzorgingsstaat', in: Diels, D.(red.) Schoonheid, smaak en welbehagen; Opstellen over kunst en culturele politiek, Antwerpen, Dedalus, 1992; as well as in: Wegen naar Vrijheid (see note 4). Extremely insightfull in this context are the later publications of the economist and political scientist Charles E. Lindblom. See among others: Politics and Markets: The world's political-economic systems, New York, Basic Books, 1977 and Inquiry and Change, The troubled attempt to understand and shape society, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1990

[6] In still another next step a lot of economists contend that the market system gives people more freedom, equality and democracy than any other conceivable system. I do not believe Klamer belongs to this anarcho-liberal party. He is just an economist who accuses others impru­dently from aristocratic and anti-demo­cra­tic ideas because he is an econo­mist.