THE POLITICS OF THE VALUE OF CULTURE
A Review of the ‘Value of culture’ by Arjo Klamer
Kwartaalschrift over Kunst, Onderzoek en Beleid, Jg.7, Nr.26, 1995,
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.
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
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.'
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Another argument for supporting the arts refers to their
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.
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.
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