Justifying Arts and Culture: Why the evidence base needs an argument base

Posted on October 16th, 2014 by Julian Baggini

Following last week’s post on the threat to culture and arts in Sheffield, our Philosopher in Residence Julian Baggini reflects on how to improve arguments for arts funding. He argues the focus should not just be on statistical evidence, but intellectual justification.

Given Britain’s proud empiricist heritage, it should be a source of encouragement that public bodies are increasingly looking for evidence of efficacy before ploughing money into projects. “Evidence-based medicine” has been a buzz phrase in health policy for some time, and there has also been increased interest in looking at the effectiveness of different overseas aid programmes. Most recently, Arts Council England has announced its intention “to build and improve the evidence base around the value, impact and benefit of arts and culture.”

No one with any sense can be against good evidence. The absurdity of that was captured brilliantly by the comedian Stewart Lee in a skit about a taxi driver who objected to an argument by saying “You can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”

The quest for evidence

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However, the quest for an evidence base is a perilous one. One of biggest dangers is that there is a difference between the disinterested pursuit of all evidence and the political accumulation of the evidence that can be used to support your objective. Put the wrong incentives in place and even people of great intelligence and integrity see the demand for evidence as a purely political game in which their job is to give the powers that be what they need to be satisfied.

My concern – which is based on some observation – is that the arts and culture community has little doubt of the value of what it does and it sees the demand for evidence of value as something that must be satisfied for pragmatic ends. They will therefore go away and gather whatever kind of evidence is believed to carry most weight: numbers of people who have participated in a project, numbers who have reported increased well-being as a result, amount of money spent in local economy as a result, and so on. In each case, the incentive is not to provide the most accurate, objective data, but the most impressive.

In the short term, this keeps funders and funded satisfied. But in the long-run it is corrosive. Either the arts and culture community ends up telling a story about itself which it doesn’t believe, or it comes to believe its own invented narrative, and in doing distorts its sense of its own value.

Intellectual justification

How do we avoid this trap? By doing a bit more intellectual work before we go and gather the evidence. We need to start by clarifying why we really value arts and culture and only then asking what sort of evidence would show these valued goods are or are not being achieved. This is difficult, because when you start from this point, the list of goods you come up with tends to be hard to quantify. It might seem obviously good that we have a society which is creative, diverse, dynamic and free-thinking but you can’t score any of those things on a scale of one-to-ten or in pounds, shillings and pence.

This is good. It is a warning that we should not just run down the road marked “evidence base” but should also make an argument base for the arts, one which is convincing independent of any measurable social goods. ACE’s chair Sir Peter Bazalgette points towards something like this when he looks to “articulate a new language of cultural value that will help all of us to understand better the essential contribution that the arts make to our lives.” He is right, and that new language is not the old bureaucratic language of economic and social impacts. Given that the value of culture lies precisely in that it contributes to more than just our narrow utilitarian needs, to judge it only according to such measures would be to miss the point spectacularly.

Having done that, we will then notice that there are also plenty of measurable, utilitarian goods that we ought to consider as well, such as those listed in ACE’s report “The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society” under the headings of Economy, Health and Wellbeing, Society, and Education. None of this is needed to justify some public spending on arts and culture, but because resources are limited, an awareness of these kinds of benefits is needed to justify spending higher amounts.

Clarity

Disentangling these two kinds of arguments for the benefits of arts and culture could also help bring some clarity to what sorts of projects should receive the most money. My strong hunch, for example, is that if you are interested in public goods, then money is much better directed to arts groups which work with communities rather than simply put on shows for them. Similarly, if you are interested in the health benefits of music, then those are much more evident in projects that specifically use health therapeutically than more general ones.

The ACE report talks about making “the holistic case”, arguing that “arts and culture have an impact on our lives in complex, subtle and interrelated ways, and that each benefit relates to a cluster of other benefits.” This is true. But at the same time, this whole is made up of parts which have different kinds of impacts and value. That means there can be no monolithic case for arts funding. We need to decide how much we want to focus on artistic excellence, economic stimulus, education, health and so on. Of course, these are not hermetically sealed domains and all are interrelated. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it is still the sum of its parts and we need to make sure we fund and support the right ones.

ACE is going to award £3m in research grants to build and improve the evidence base around the value, impacts and benefits of arts and culture. For this evidence base to be robust and do its work, it needs to be accompanied by an argument base which goes back to basics and asks what we want from arts and culture before we start to try to measure it. This is a more difficult, theoretical task than simply amassing facts. But that is another example of why culture is so valuable: without arts and culture to enable us to reflect on what is of value, we would not know which facts matter and which don’t. We must make sure the evidence base is not itself baseless.

 

Julian Baggini is Philosopher in Residence at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. His latest book is The Virtues of the Table and his website is www.julianbaggini.com

Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.

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