June 14, 2012

Culture and Value

I have just attended the two day symposium ‘Cultural Value: developing the research agenda’, organized by colleague Eleonora Belfiore, held here at one of Warwick’s conference centres (11-12th). It was a highly interesting event, with a wide range of issues effecting every area of cultural policy research – from arts funding to mega-events to social engagement. I am not going to summarise the event here, which would take a long time. I will just make a few points, which impressed themselves on me in the course of the two days (with its five presentations).

The concept of value is particularly interesting, as it is one of those public policy concepts that has deep philosophical origins, and thus forces the public policy mind to be more reflexive about the language it uses (at least, we hope). In fact, one of the recurring themes of the symposium was the relation between cultural policy and the broader political terrain of public policy, and how the language of the former is determined by the political realpolitik of the latter. For example, I personally am frustrated by the way the crucial term ‘public value’ has been so eaten-up by new public management regime strategists that cultural thinkers now keep away from it. Yet the term ‘value’ is inherently public as it is inherently cultural (subject to changing behaviours of judgment, regimes of taste, meta-ethical activities of ascribing value and evaluation). Because of that, the work of cultural policy on value can perhaps inform public policy thinking in this area. Cultural value is one region that opens up the complex nature of public value per se in its social, cultural as well as economic dimensions. In this area, cultural policy thinking can be the reflexive conscience of public policy.

Two more themes that emerged from the symposium (at least for me….I was there as a virtual gatecrasher): (i) Dave O’Brien’s argument for an ethically-driven bureaucracy challenged certain assumptions on the Left that have become pervasive to the enterprise of cultural policy studies. It is true, that public bureaucracy (from government ministries, NDPBs, quangos and so on) are generally understood as the embodiment of instrumental rationality, and whose methods can only be antithetical to real cultural democracy (indeed, do I remember rightly in thinking the term ‘bureaucracy’ was first used in reference to the British colonial administration in Ireland?).

This is an interesting discussion that needs to continue – we need to excavate some of the lost narratives of critical modernity, where bureaucracy is the mark of a modern civil society (I think of Hegel, then Weber). If we take the founding moment of modernity as the categorical separation of state and civil society, then bureaucracy was ideally the mechanism of democratic mediation that, though sponsored by the state, did not act in its own ‘interests’ (theoretically, it should have none – quite uniquely). Idealist perhaps (and critical and elite theorists, regime theorists and others, would laugh at this of course). Yet given that wishing away the world of bureaucracy is not an option for cultural policy (is not cultural policy a bureaucratic invention?) maybe we need to re-frame our cultural policy understanding of all forms of public administration and do so through intellectual engagement.

(ii) Yet Andy Miles’s presentation would cause one to hesitate. The abstraction or decontextualisation of value from actual forms of social life is endemic to the bureaucratic management of culture. There are some chronic ironies in the public policy management of culture – they want culture both to be business and to participate in social/community development. Yet they refuse the conditions of risk and of social interaction/conflict/difference that make actual business and real social life possible. Miles’s talk suggested a return to the actual everyday social sphere, the realm of urban life, and learn from the values, language and articulations of the populace. For me, this entails a return of some of the defining issues of ‘urban cultural policy’ to mainstream cultural policy debates. National funding regimes by and large have a very abstract grip on the spatio-temporal and urban contexts of culture.

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