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September 11, 2012

This is my 4th favourite blog post

I’ve recently had a new book chapter published –‘ List-culture and literary taste in a time of endless choice’ in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, edited by Anouk Lang of Strathclyde University. The book gathers contributions to a conference in 2008 – Beyond the Book – at which scholars from a range of disciplines, together with librarians and policy makers discussed the new reading practices that are emerging in the light of new technologies and changes to the broader literary landscape.

My chapter reflects on the ‘list’ – a perennial staple of cultural journalism as a mediating ‘technology’ in the judgment of authority and value – and not one that is just confined to the field of reading. A recent example of the kind of phenomenon I was considering is provided by the relegation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from its position as ‘the greatest film ever made’, according to the BFI’s decennial surveyof critics and its replacement with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Vertigo was second in the list in 2002 but not even in the top 10 in the 1972 poll; Citizen Kane has been top since 1962 - but wasn’t even in the top 10 in 1952. Given that neither of these films have changed since their releases - 1941 for Kane and 1958 for Vertigo – how can one now be ‘better’ than the other, after being ‘worse’, sometimes significantly so, for so many years? The answer is of course that the films don’t change, but that cultural value is a dynamic thing. The criteria of judgment of, in this case, serious film critics aren't fixed. Lists of this kind act can, then, act as intriguing indicators of the shifting sands of cultural authority.

In the chapter I explore the relationships between different kinds of authority evident in the ‘great books’ lists of the turn of the twentieth century (produced by writers such as Arnold Bennett in 1909 and John Cowper Powys in 1916), the bestseller chart which rose to prominence with the consolidation of the cultural industries in the mid-twentieth century, the list as popular poll – exemplified by the BBC’s The Big Read initiative - and the most recent iteration of list-culture – the listmania feature of Amazon, through which readers post lists of their favourite books for the benefit of other browsers. These different types of lists share an overriding aim to navigate readers through the abundant choices that the ‘industrial’ production of literature provides them with. The early twentieth century lists were proposed as a kind of practical ‘canon’, guiding readers towards the kinds of books they ought to read and away from those which might be salacious or radical. By the late twentieth century this patrician element of list-culture was less evident, replaced with a more apparently democratic republic of taste in which the authority of ‘serious’ critics competed with the often subtle promotional tools of publishing industry (literary prizes, TV book clubs) in managing readers’ choices. And in the early twenty-first century, on-line lists, complemented by the algorithms of retailers like Amazon, mean that readers can find what they want through like-minded readers (‘customers who bought this also bought…’) without recourse to any obvious ‘authority’ at all.

There are some revealing tensions in this story. Critics of various kinds dismiss popular lists in particular as trivializing or commercializing culture – and there are elements of the list which can re-cast cultural judgment as a crude form of competition. What they also do, though, is open up the kinds of dialogue and debate which John Frow refers to as the ‘circulating energies of culture’ – the seemingly irrational pleasures of liking and disliking, and sharing your likes and dislikes with others, which are a fundamental part of the fun of cultural consumption. This is clearly a challenge to established forms of cultural authority – though one that is, in my view, broadly to be welcomed.

You can read a review of the book in the Columbia Journalism Review here, and follow my research on

August 09, 2012

What’s brewing? The #culturalvalue Initiative

The most perceptive and observant readers of this blog will have noticed references to some recent happenings here at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, such as mention of a cultural value workshop in the thoughtful post by my colleague Jonathan Vickery, and in Maria Barrett’s compelling report of the recent ICCPR conference in Barcelona. Indeed, something has been brewing, and I am now really excited to reveal all, or at least some of the activities that I have been working on developing over the past year or two (yes, really that long!).

There is widespread agreement within the cultural policy community (and I’m not talking just the academy) that ‘cultural value’ is shaping out to be the defining debate for the foreseeable future, not just in our relatively small field, but more broadly: the recent announcement by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (the main public funding agency for arts & humanities research in the UK) that they have set aside £2 million for a cultural value project headed by prominent social historian Geoff Crossick testifies to a broader relevance of the topic, and a shared sense of urgency as to the timeliness of a serious and rigorous engagement with it.

For me, personally, the identification of cultural value as a key area worth of in-depth exploration has resulted from my long-standing engagement with researching the idea that the arts have transformative powers, and the related notion of the social impacts of the arts as a driver of cultural policy-making. I might at this point subject you to my full publication list on the topic, but I’ll spare you that, and instead I’ll summarise in a few sentences the conclusion that the past 11 years of research have led me to: in spite of public declarations of commitment to evidence-based policy making, what has been driving cultural policy in Britain (and elsewhere, of course, but I’m sticking here to what I have focused on myself) is a belief in the ameliorative and positive effects of the arts. Such belief has a very long history in Western civilisation (ever heard of Plato & Aristotle?). Due its resilience and continued elaboration over time, such belief in the transformative powers of the arts has become embedded, normalised and institutionalised: it lies at the heart of the workings of our cultural organisations and our educational system. In other words, we have a cultural policy because we have some notion of cultural value as something worth nurturing. Whilst I am not dismissing the growing importance of empirical evidence in aiding decision-making, it is clear that looking at the evidence alone does not explain what has occurred in cultural policy in the past 20-odd years.

Every cultural policy decision is predicated on the existence of cultural value: every decision is in effect a process of valuation predicated on the exercise of cultural authority. This is where things get tricky of course (and terribly interesting): who has the authority to bestow cultural value on some cultural forms and not others? And what vested interests, mechanisms of social distinction and what recognition/silencing processes are at work in these value-bestowing practices? It is clear that, whatever the discipline of cultural studies would have you believe, outside of the academy, cultural authority has not really been democratised, and the power to allocate cultural value is still far from being inclusively distributed across society. In a policy context, a clear sense of this can be gained by having a quick look at arts spending data: in the UK most of the available funding still goes to a handful of big cultural organisations, (too) many of them located in metropolitan London.

Those of you who know me will not be terribly surprised to find out that it is precisely this slightly unsavoury, politically problematic aspect of the cultural value debate that I intend to explore; that and its connection to the politics of measurement and evaluation, another keen interest of mine.

Over the past few months I have been campaigning internationally to make ‘cultural value’ a central theme for cultural policy research, and have been overwhelmed by the response. So much so that, together with colleagues at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at the University of Melbourne, my serial co-conspirator Dr Anna Upchurch of Leeds University, and the research departments at the English and Australian arts councils, I have been working on developing an international cultural value network of individuals and organisations who are committed to developing a rigorous, collaborative research agenda on cultural value. We are currently looking to find ways to resource the network with a view of facilitating this and opening up the debate beyond the core project partner and our current affiliates worldwide.

I am still recruiting for more cultural value champions for what I am calling The #culturalvalue Initiative, so I might soon appear at a research seminar near you! Whilst I work frantically on filling in funding applications to make all (or at least some) of the interesting projects ideas in my mind happen, you can share your cultural value related thoughts with me on twitter: the Initiative has its own account: @CulturalValue1 or you can tweet me directly: @elebelfiore.

In addition, thanks to generous funding by Warwick’s Arts Impact Officer (who ever said ‘impact’ was all bad?!), I have been able to have the June workshop on cultural value professionally filmed (another post on the workshop to come soon, I promise) and to enlist the help of a web designer to create a nice and functional blog for the #culturalvalue Initiative. This means that, hopefully soon, there will be some really interesting resources on cultural value freely available online, providing a great stimulus for what I hope will be a conversation you will want to be a part of.

More, much more is brewing… so watch this space, and get in touch if you want to be part of the Initiative!

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