Art as Industry 

An Essay by Justin O’Connor

This is Part One of four essays on Culture and Economy – on how art and culture got tangled up in economy sometime in the 1970s. They are written looking backwards, from the perspective of the Covid-19 crisis of 2020, in order that we might go forwards. Part One begins with the crisis of the arts in Australia and why they have found it difficult to articulate what this crisis is and how they can get out of it. 

Laura Tingle: Just a reminder from a walk through Canberra this morning that ‘Arts’ didn’t even make it into the name of the department. No wonder an $111 billion industry is so easy to overlook. (Twitter)

The Agony and the Advocacy

The tweet, by respected financial journalist Laura Tingle, exemplifies much of the frustration in the cultural sector and its supporters with the lack of response by the Federal Government to its calls for help. The arts and culture sector, heavily dependent on live audiences, were amongst the first to be affected by the C-19 lockdown. Very quickly it emerged that many arts and cultural workers would not be eligible for the Jobkeeper allowance because they could not show 12 months continuous employment with one employer. The escalating precarity of arts and cultural work, highlighted by numerous publications and protests over the last two decades, has now become subject of mainstream public debate. This forms part of a general debate around the ‘gig economy’ and the changing landscape of modern labour, and how we might have to re-think the relations between work, income and social protection, from flexible pensions, though Universal Basic Income, to the 30-Hour working week. These are crucial questions, to which we return at the end. However, the immediate concern was two-fold: how could Jobkeeper and other forms of state support be properly purposed to support workers, firms and organisations in arts and culture, and more pointedly, why did the Federal government refuse to do this? 

In some sense this has been a long time coming. Federal funding for arts and culture, including public broadcasting, has been falling since the Coalition came to power in 2013. The ABC, despite being seen to have reclaimed its position as ‘essential service’ in the recent bushfire and C-19 crises, has been saddled with swingeing cuts by an unrepentant Coalition government. The dismal policy failure of the National Broadband Network, compromised and effectively privatised, is just another aspect of this evacuation from public culture and its infrastructure. If some of this can be put down to incompetence, at base it is ideological: the Coalition government, breaking with a century of Australia tradition, deeply resents any form of public provision outside of security and defence. The fate of the higher education sector – an interesting parallel with arts and culture – illustrates this well, as the government managed to rapidly shut down any loopholes through which public universities might claim Jobkeeper.

Laura Tingle’s tweet gives pithy expression to the consternation. First there is photo reference to the fact that the Coalition government, in a recent reorganisation, buried the arts portfolio in a ‘super-ministry’, the absence of ‘arts’ from the name panel reflecting this. Then comes the argument that has been threaded through all the commentary in this space since the crisis began: how is it that the Federal government can overlook an ‘industry’ worth $111 billion? As with the refusal to help Universities, Australia’s fourth largest ‘export’ generator, surely this is pure, self-harming, ideology? These questions were not predominantly rhetorical; there was real mystification as to why this was happening. Tingle’s figure of $111 billion – quoted repeatedly during the crisis – came from a 2018 Working Paper by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (BCAR). The Australia Institute, a centre-left independent think-tank, also laid out the stark econometrics: creative arts employed more people than those two emblems of neoliberal Australia, mining and finance. What was going on? 

There is little doubt that this refusal to help is ideologically motivated. It is not that arts and culture have been overlooked or put aside as some trivial frill, irrelevant to the hard necessities of a national emergency. What the arts and cultural world is slowly waking up to is that the Coalition does not value them, and quite possibly deeply dislikes them. It does not value them despite the metrics of Gross Value Added (GVA) and employment thrown at a government sworn to a ‘laser-like focus’ on ‘jobs and growth’. This aversion to arts and culture is now a global trend amongst right wing governments; the European Far Right campaigns against arts funding, and the new wave of authoritarian rulers look to religion and ‘blood and soil’ as the basis of national cultural policy. The Coalition is part of this trend, and is a tendency certainly demands more investigation and analysis; but we need to start from a different place. 

We want to highlight another aspect of this situation, one that might be more uncomfortable for advocates of the arts and cultural sector but which we believe they must address. Our concern is with the ne plus ultra of arts and cultural advocacy that we now witness: for over twenty years the gamble has been that the framing of arts and culture as ‘an industry’, either in its own right or as part of a broader ‘creative industries’ or ‘creative economy’, would garner more government attention, support and ‘investment’. For arts and culture, in Australia, this has failed, the current crisis merely the final nail. Elsewhere, in countries where governments have adopted a creative industries or creative economy perspective (absent in resource extractive Australia) there may have been more funding for arts and culture, but mostly at the expense of framing these as an adjunct of this new industrial sector. So, we ask here: what did we lose when we started to call art and culture an ‘industry’?

Damned Lies

Let’s start with the statistics, which have been crucial to arts advocacy since the mid-1980s. The $111 billion figure from the BCAR is the total for ‘cultural and creative activity’. Two things should be noted immediately: the word is ‘activity’ not ‘industry’, and the figure refers to ‘cultural and creative’ not the arts. Is this just semantics? 

First, the BCAR immediately urge caution ‘when comparing the measurement of cultural and creative activity with activity that occurs in a particular industry of the Australian economy’. The ‘contribution of cultural and creative activity to the economy measures the contribution of that activity across multiple industry sectors’, including ‘manufacturing, education, information media and telecommunications and arts and recreation services. The contribution of a particular industry (such as manufacturing) measures the contribution to the economy of activity from only that industry.’(5) ‘Cultural and creative activity’ is not one specific industry but specified activities dispersed across many industries. Their economic value is (broadly) a combination of the contribution of ‘industry’ sub-sectors (broadcasting, performing arts, newspapers, clothes and footwear manufacture etc.) and that of cultural or creative occupations across different industries – a musician working in education, an actor in mental health, a graphic illustrator in a finance company but also, as we shall see, a computer systems designer in a mining company. If advocates for education, or manufacturing, or engineering, started to count activities in this way, then they too might come up with a GVA far exceeding their own particular industries. Hence the BCAR warning. 

Second, BCAR refer to cultural and creative activities. Unlike in so much cultural sector advocacy these two words are not used interchangeably, nor is ‘creative industry’ used as a catch all term for them both. The statisticians in the Bureau make the point that has repeatedly been made to promoters of the ‘creative industries’ – water off a duck’s back – that culture and creativity overlap but are not the same thing. For the BACR ‘creative activity’ involves human creativity as a ‘significant and identifiable input’; ‘cultural activity’ aims to ‘communicate symbolic meaning, such as in beliefs, values, and traditions’. 

This distinction immediately disaggregates the $111 billion into ‘cultural activity’ ($63.5) and ‘creative activity’ ($48.2). The distinct ‘creative activity’ is made up primarily of ‘Computer system design and related services’ and ‘Fashion’, i.e. clothing and footwear manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing. ‘Computer system design’ is four times bigger than ‘fashion’. Indeed, the BCAR notes that ‘computer systems design’, located in the ‘professional, scientific and technical services’ ANZSIC category, accounts for most ($19.5 out of $25.8 billion) of the total growth over the last decade in cultural and creative activities. 

Why count ‘computer systems design’? Though ‘human creativity’ is clearly an input into computer systems design, why stop there? Is that the limit of creativity outside of the cultural domain? Obviously not – education, health, finance and so on all involve human creativity. It is included here simply because when the UK Government came up with the term ‘creative industries’ in 1998 it notoriously added ‘software and computing’ to an established ‘cultural sector’. The Australian Bureau of Statistics was encouraged (because everyone else seemed to be doing it) to replicate this definition in earlier reports, an example which the BACR is following. 

This addition of computing system design (under various titles in different countries) has consistently added around 40% to both employment and value-added figures for the ‘creative industries’. It is the ‘engine’ at the heart of all those figures showing the creative industries growing faster than the rest of the economy and employing anywhere between 6-10% of the active workforce. Strip computer systems design out and the figures reduce pretty quickly. This 40% inflation is what is happening with that figure of $111 billion. This figure includes anyone employed as ‘computer systems design’ in other industries – such as a data-base designer in a mining company or a wealth management fund. These are not, by anyone’s definition, part of an ‘arts industry’. 

If we restrict our measurement to cultural industries – those sectors coded as such by BACR using the ANZSIC classifications, and not including people with cultural occupations in other industries – then the GVA is reduced by one third, from $63.5 to $41.9 billion. So already, just using the broad definition of ‘cultural industries’ we have more than halved the $111 billion figure. 

We are not yet at ‘the arts industry’. BCAR’s definition of cultural industries includes ‘design’ (minus the computing systems, i.e. mainly architecture, advertising and marketing) which makes up almost a quarter of the total GVA. After this we have book and newspaper printing and retailing, and environmental heritage. Arts and media combined accounted for just a little more than design, that is, just over a quarter of the $41.9 billion total. The ‘arts industry’ – including broadcast and electronic media – is pretty much reduced to just over $14 billion.

This is confirmed by the Australia Institute report, whose headline figures on employment in the ‘creative arts’ are quoted but less so its findings on value added – $14.7 billion to GDP in 2017–18. The AI report has a conservative definition and its does not include cultural employment in other industries. Creative arts includes, in descending order of employment size: Creative and Performing Arts Activities; Heritage Activities; Motion Picture and Sound Recording Activities; Broadcasting (except Internet); Publishing (except Internet and Music Publishing); Library and Other Information Services; Internet Publishing and Broadcasting. Total employment is 193,600, and according to the report, is bigger than Finance (190,600), Accommodation (97,500), Electricity supply (65,000) and Coal mining (49,600). 

Bigger than finance and coal make good headlines, but again the caveats. Live by econometrics, die by them. The Creative Arts ‘industry’ GVA is not $111 billion but $14.7 billion, or 0.8% of Australian GDP. This, the report admits, is ‘small, compared to industries like Manufacturing, or Professional, Scientific and Technical Services’.(8) If this relatively low GVA is combined with relatively high employment, then we have a problem: a sector with high employment but low value-added = low productivity. This low productivity is a well-known characteristic of the performing arts as well as the kinds of free or highly subsidised activities in museums, galleries, libraries and heritage sites. It is the highly commercialised sections of media and design (advertising, marketing, architectural services) that have the higher productivity rating (as, of course, do the ‘creative’ activities of computer systems design). 

Which is to say, using econometric statistics to advocate for the value of the arts is a high-risk business. A glance at the last three Australia Census datasets shows an absolute decline in employment in the cultural and creative industries (excluding computer systems) up to 2016. The numbers of those in cultural occupations grew, but at a rate lower than the rest of the economy – driven by design services (excluding computer systems), architecture and ‘own account cultural workers – i.e. ‘freelancers’. The BCAR paper shows a slight decline over the decade in the percentage contribution of cultural and creative activities to GDP: without computer systems design this would be a much greater decline.  

The BACR shows also that growth in cultural activities is driven by growth in ‘design’ (excluding computer systems) offsetting the absolute job losses in printing, manufacturing and related wholesale/ retail services. Other research has shown a significant collapse in ‘blue collar’ jobs in the cultural industries – newspaper and publishing, clothing and footwear manufacture, and other related manufacture. 

We might add to this the numerous reports into persistent below average and low incomes in this sector, despite cultural workers being more educated than the average workforce, and the growth in freelancing which is part of the general escalation of the ‘gig’ or ‘precarious’ economy. 

Even based on these sympathetic statistical accounts, the ‘creative arts’ is not the headline $111 billion industry employing more than finance and mining: it is a highly educated, low productivity, low waged, low job security sector, which contributes $14.7 billion or less than 1% of Australian GDP. Why then would any government even need to take note of it? 

Dying by the Sword?

A ‘jobs and growth’ industry policy, derived from such metrics is clear. Focus on Architecture and Design (including computing systems) along with broadcast and internet media. Find ways of moving high qualified, low paid, precarious workers from the creative arts to the media and design sector. Find ways of linking residual manufacturing skills to ‘advanced manufacture’ and encourage the growth of fashion retail/ wholesale rather than manufacture. The rest can be filed under ‘culture’ and ‘community’ and given over to federal and state/ territory support, along with an increased role for philanthropy. In return, these must show a contribution to R&D and innovation (art as ‘blue skies research’), community benefit and ‘health & well-being’, and achieve a certain level of audience figures or satisfaction based on a dashboard of metrics that would allow government to justify taxpayer subsidy. 

In many ways this is just what we have now. Creative industry promoters have argued for a separation of cultural and creative, commercial and subsidised, economy and community focused sectors. This is a de facto setting for many of the state and territories, who seek to split arts and culture from ‘creative’, giving this latter to economic development agencies or chambers of commerce. Art and culture are then allocated variously to community development, education (museums and galleries), or tourism (festivals and events).

This has not been the case in Victoria or New South Wales, where the existence of a relatively large and robust ‘cultural and creative’ sector indicates how difficult it is in practice to separate the two, and the destruction wrought when it is attempted. A complex ‘creative ecosystem’ involving a mix of large and small, public, private and not-for-profit, is not one amenable to ‘picking winners’ as in the standard industrial development script. Nonetheless, there is a kind of double vision, where the economic and the cultural rationales overlap or juxtapose but don’t quite coincide, policy goals flitting uneasily between them. Public policy for the creative industries is less oxymoronic than schizophrenic. It has public policy goals for culture but it is also industrial development; it seeks to provide art of the highest quality but needs to express this as GVA; it speaks of the ‘creative industries’ but the vast majority of its funding goes to public institutions in the ‘classical’ performing and visual arts, along with an array of public museums, libraries and galleries. Though it is not formulated in any analytical depth, the hope is that, somehow, what’s good for culture is good for the creative industries, and vice versa. 

Those working in the performing and visual arts, or the media, or the music business, or games development have been encouraged to see themselves as ‘creative industries’ and yet nobody really knows what this means – least of all the policy lead bodies. There is a constant verbal and conceptual stumbling between ‘cultural’, ‘creative’ and ‘cultural and creative’, with maybe ‘digital’ somewhere in the mix. ‘Art’ jumps around between all of them. In many gatherings ‘creative industries’ is repeatedly used as a self-identifier – this is after all the key terminology used by Victorian and New South Wales state governments – but everyone in the room turns out to an artist. The over- inflated claims and predatory inclusion of all sorts of activities to get the numbers up, coupled with the deep terminological confusion testify to an arts and cultural sector that has no real idea how to express its public value and even less how it should make its claims to government. 

Undoing Industry 

This is made even more frustrating when the federal government refuses even to heed the econometrics, bogus or otherwise. For at federal level, despite almost two decades of urging, the government has stepped away from the idea of creative industries. Even Labor, in their two recent terms, failed to deliver any coherent policy. Its Creative Australia in 2012 was a rather flat version of Paul Keating’s much vaunted Creative Nation, further confusing art, culture and creative industry policy. The Coalition government, elected in 2013 and still with us, displays a deep-seated antipathy to subsidised public sectors (the subsidised private sector is another matter entirely), especially in culture and education, which in part relates to Australia’s ‘culture wars’. In these, the broad consensus around the value of art and culture between 1960 and 1990 gave way to a highly politicised conflict. On the centre-left was a modernising cultural vision for the country, including reconciliation with the colonial past, a multiculturalist identity, and embracing the ‘creative industries’ as somehow emblematic of this forward-looking vision. On the centre-right was an increasing antipathy to this modernising vision, with a focus on colonial heritage and tradition (especially military), setting sport and entertainment against the ‘elite’ metropolitan arts, and simply ignoring the creative industries as a policy agenda (unlike, for example, the UK Conservative Party). 

Though the ideological opposition of the Coalition to publicly funded art and culture is widely recognised, this is less so with their dismantling of the kind of ‘industry strategy’ on which so much arts and cultural (and creative industries) advocacy has relied. The Coalition aversion to ‘industrial strategy’ is consequent on its accelerating shift to neoliberalism over the last two decades. In part this goes back to Thatcher and Reagan’s refusal to prop up industries that ought (in their view) to be left to sink or swim in the market. This was always deeply politicised, in that labour in these industries tended to be highly organised and their destruction was symbolic of a major defeat for the unions, consigned now to historic redundancy. Post-industrial was also to be post-labour movement. This was less pronounced in Australia, with strong social democratic roots and with the Australian Labor Party – anticipating Clinton, Blair and Schroeder – itself rolling out neoliberal reforms. It took the refusal of the Abbott government to step in to support the Australian car industry to fully register the Coalition’s final detachment from the pieties of protecting industry. 

However, though ‘industry strategy’ – a coherent set of policy goals and indicators aimed at framing investment and management behaviour within a broad national economic context – was jettisoned under the guise of ‘no bail outs’ and the primacy of the market, actual state subsidies only increased for finance, mining, real estate, construction and certain kinds of agri-business. ‘Extraction’ refers not just to mineral resources but also the ways finance has been used to extract value from real estate, superannuation, telecoms and utility privatisations, infrastructure development, Medicare, Centrelink and related employment services (such as cashless welfare cards), education and training, water allocations – the list is endless. These are all ‘industries’ in the loose sense in which that word is now used to mean any set of activities involving monetary transactions, but they are not ‘industries’ in the sense used in the era of ‘nation building’. This last – a broad liberal/ social democratic consensus – involved a highly resourced and professionally valued public policy body who sought to advance a range of different industries and services as part of developing the economic capacity of the nation to deliver some version of ‘the good life’ to its citizens. Those who use ‘arts industry’ or the ‘creative industries’ seek to appeal to such public policy settings, but these no longer exist in anything like the same way. 

This explains the lack of any significant investment in non-mining R&D, ‘creative tech’, renewables or advanced manufacture, the current default policy settings for most post-mass manufacturing countries. As Perry Anderson noted, outside its advanced economic heartlands neoliberalism tended to favour finance and extraction, rather than invest and plan for an expensive ‘knowledge economy’. Anderson was talking of Brazil, but this can apply to Australia too, which now has one of the least diverse economies in the OECD. It is hard to promote the creative industries as an advanced innovation system to a government which is simply not interested in such policies. Alongside the cries for simple economic recognition – $111 billion! – cultural industries bodies are deeply frustrated by the governments’ lack of basic knowledge as to how music, or the performing arts, or film, or publishing actually work. But this is not just about the cultural and creative industries. Corvid-19 has accelerated awareness of ‘supply chain dependency’ on China, and raised more general questions about what manufacturing capacity countries should attempt to retain. Some countries had already responded to the rise of China – especially its Made in China 2025 strategy – by launching a new generation of ‘national industrial strategies’ focused on technology intensive industries. But an Australian political and economic elite assembled around an extraction model will find it hard to develop the will, let alone the capacity, to deliver such a strategy; it is highly unlikely that the ‘creative industries’ would figure in any such.

The rise of financial extraction has hollowed out the public ethos of Australian governments, resulting in a combination of short-termism, incompetence and corruption (not illegality) that has accelerated in the last decade. In this context, framing art, culture or creativity as an ‘industry’ has little traction. Even Malcolm Turnbull’s short-lived ‘ideas boom’ and ‘smart tech’ fell afoul of the Coalition’s right wing. To an extent this is party political: ‘creatives’ seem less likely to vote Coalition, and in any event creative jobs are metropolitan jobs, far from the right-wing heartlands of outer suburbia and rural Australia. In part it is ideological (though not unrelated to the last point): the anti-cosmopolitan, anti-modernist, anti-arts turn in the global right has had very definite impact in Australia. Enlightenment means John Locke and David Hume, ‘Western Civilisation’ not indigenous art and cultural Marxism. But it is also about the economic interests of those in government, and the networks of personal investments, board appointments and other quasi-governmental sinecures within which their political careers are now embedded.

For outside the most high-profile media and design companies – the big newspaper monopolies cross-linked to free-to-air franchises; on-line streaming services; advertising and marketing agencies; creative real estate like We Work – the ‘arts industry’ is not worth much to them. The low productivity; the low levels and longer timescales for ‘Return on Investment’; the resistance to ‘scaling up’ and conglomeration; the complex value ecosystems and so on, mean that this industry, whatever aggregates the statisticians succeed in coming up with, is not particularly attractive or amenable to large scale financial extraction. The contrast with sport is interesting. Floating on a deep base of community participation and public money, the iceberg tip of the complex sports ecosystem is hugely profitable – venues, clubs, leagues, sponsorships, player management, TV deals and so on. It yields profits of a different magnitude than the major performing arts, museums and galleries – even the Australian music business – which are mostly used for the accumulation of cultural, rather than economic, capital. 

So while the arts advocates fire stats at the government, they look back cold-eyed. The Coalition allowed car manufacturing to go under – what chance the arts? Of course, the government are keen to put out political fires, hence the interminable bickering of how far they have, or have not, supported arts and culture during the pandemic. However, and whatever, we are counting with the figures, a 193,000 ‘creative arts’ workforce is a significant constituency and the narrative of ‘we are all in this together’ needs maintaining by the government. Advocates are right to highlight the real suffering in this sector, which needs to be addressed. But aside from this urgent plea to re-direct Jobkeeper to those that need it and to find funds to support the many cultural organisations that have taken such significant hits, this line of ‘arts-as-industry’ advocacy has hit a brick wall and requires, just as urgently, a radical rethink. For what we are faced with here is not just a cloth-eared government but something far more epochal. 

Art as Economic Impact 

The use of economic metrics to make the case for arts funding began in the early 1980s, as publicly funded arts institutions, and their policy narratives, sought a new accommodation with the overall shift in public policy towards predominantly economic forms of legitimation. Arts ‘impact studies’ tried to show how such funding was not just about taxpayer spend but actually generated economic activity. John Myerscough got his 15 minutes with his use of ‘multiplier effects’, where public subsidy was shown to create employment along with direct (tickets, interval drinks) and indirect (car parks, local restaurants) consumer spending. Every $1 spent generated $X in related economic activity. Cultural institutions and precincts, events and festivals, even whole year events such as Glasgow’s 1990 City of Culture, could be shown to be good value for money. This form of advocacy metric began as an optional extra for those institutions that could afford the consultancy and wanted to enhance their next funding bid. As New Public Management ideas made real inroads into public administration from the 1980s onwards, such metrics (and many more were added) became compulsory as part of any public funding, their application to this sector at a level that could only be described as punitive. These economic indicators formed part of a general shift in the legitimation of the arts from a publicly provided service to an economic ‘sector’.

Arts and culture, the argument went, accounted for significant consumer spending (5 percent was Myerscough’s figure) and was only set to grow as leisure, income and education increased; it was thus only proper that its economic contribution should be acknowledged (and measured). Familiar themes were already in place: arts smuggled within the higher figures associated with commercial cultural industries; ‘special pleading’ (spending on the arts ignored what was not therefore spent elsewhere – the Treasury were sniffy); and any consternation that the arts were being made to justify themselves in this way was dismissed as ‘unhelpful’. The new discipline of cultural economics took off in this decade, with practitioners such as David Throsby seeking to advocate for art and culture, and address many of their challenges by the application of standard economic concepts. They came not to bury the arts but to praise them, but this now needed to be done in the grown-up language of economics. Only in this way could they get government to take them seriously, and focus public policy on some long term problems, such as the actual, often dire, working conditions of artists. Economics as the only way to address employment issues facing creatives is another advocacy theme that is still with us, as are, of course, those dire working conditions. 

Art’s economic benefit was articulated at the Australian federal level in 1994’s Creative Nation, which strongly influenced New Labour in the UK. ‘Culture creates wealth’ was one of its claims, and many have seen its imbrication of art and culture with the economy as accelerating their instrumentalization, subsuming arts organisations into standard business and marketing discourses, and promoting the rise and rise of business leaders and corporate lawyers within arts policy bodies and boards. In particular, some saw Creative Nation as introducing the idea of ‘art as industry’: ‘cultural policy is economic policy’ it proclaimed. But the modernising vision which energised Creative Nation came less from its promotion of the cultural industries as an economic sector – retrospectively overemphasised – than its embrace of democratic-popular, commercial culture as part of renewed, forward-looking identity for an Australia stepping out from a colonial heritage and finding its new place in an Asia-Pacific world. Though economic impact was clearly flagged – the arts conveniently conflated with the ‘cultural industries’ when the numbers were needed – for Creative Nation art’s economic value lay primarily in employment and consumer spend (hence the subsequent emphasis on marketing and audience research) not as an integrated set of production and distribution activities associated with ‘industry’ proper. 

In the 1980s ‘industry’ had been mostly synonymous with ‘factory’, hence the polemical juxtaposition of culture and industry made famous by Adorno and Horkheimer. By the 1990s, in the Anglosphere, ‘industry’ was uncoupled from mass manufacture in factories and made applicable to any set of activities that involved monetary transaction –everything from sex, aged care, health, racing, football, education, therapy ad infinitum. In this sense one might talk (other languages found this more difficult) of an ‘arts industry’ loosely referring to the economic dimension of its practices. 

Yet even in this sense ‘art-as-industry’ was always awkward and had limited traction: the arts never really had the numbers and it was clear to (almost) all that they delivered a range of social benefits that should be stressed over straight economic impact. So began the taxonomy years. Throsby identified multiple different non-economic values for art and culture; François Matarasso itemised the various social impacts of art participation; John Holden developed his intrinsic-instrumental-institutional heuristic. Finding ways to classify and measure these non-economic impacts reached some kind of summit in the online ‘dashboard’ of Culture Counts. The ‘intrinsic’ value of art was separated out from its social and economic value, this last designated ‘instrumental’: art used as a means to public policy ends separate to whatever ‘intrinsic value’ it possessed. This form of value accountancy now forms the bread and butter of arts advocacy: art is economically valuable (especially when it piggy-backs onto a much wide ‘cultural and creative’ sector) but it also has other values too, which can be itemised.

The ability to articulate multiple values – a dual or triple ‘bottom line’, or ‘fourth pillar’ – is seen as sophisticated arts advocacy, but in fact it is incoherent and self-defeating. It slips ‘intrinsic value’ into a black box, consigned to the oubliette of ‘art for art’s sake’ and it accepts the ‘social’ and ‘economic’ as categorical givens, each with public policy agendas to which art can contribute but in which it has little say. That art and culture might radically cut across, disrupt or even help reframe the meanings of these given categories cannot be considered because this would disrupt the evaluation matrix itself. Equally, they never set the cultural ‘goods’ against the ‘bads’ – gentrification, social displacement, hyper-commercialisation: arts evaluation matrixes count only positives. These matrixes reify art and culture, and as a consequence they reify our social life in common. Rather than being a way of softening or supplementing economic rationalism with other non-economic considerations, they are its perfect expression. 

Moreover, these multiple-value evaluation matrixes systematically mispresent the actual economic value of art, which is created by art’s ‘intrinsic’ value’. The economic weight of the ‘arts industry’ is small in terms of employment and GVA; its real ‘impact’ is located not in these metrics but in the value added to other sectors, mostly urban real estate, hospitality and retail economies. It is not that art has been ‘instrumentalised’, used for an end (creating jobs, for example) indifferent its essential quality or purpose; the arts precisely bring their own specific, ‘intrinsic’ value to these other economic practices. The glitter of aesthetics, the patina of authenticity, the energy of artistic creativity – these form the economic impact of the arts. Art’s imbrication within the generation of high value urban consumption economies is far more ‘instrumental’ and corrupting than having to write reports on bums-on-seats and car park receipts. However, most arts institutions – and most artists – have little control over the context in which they are being used and, crucially, they recoup very little of the economic value they help create. They are routinely exploited. 

Yet though they demand the metrics governments rarely refer to them when deciding levels of subsidy. Big cities especially know that developers, hotels and hospitality, up-market retail chains and those ‘footloose professionals’ whose needs are indexed by Most Liveable City lists, depend on arts and culture but are incapable of providing for it directly. Publicly funded art and culture is part of the enabling infrastructure of the contemporary city, even though, like subsidised public transport, they are regularly dismissed as a net drain on the public purse – unlike the ‘wealth creating’ developer coalitions who retain much of the value the arts (and public transport) help generate. The systematic exploitation of artists and art institutions by the consumption-driven urban development they help foster has only gotten worse in the last twenty years, the term ‘gentrification’ being a common, if crude, identifier of this process. 

In this context a more production focused notion of ‘art as industry’ has retained its appeal, as more sustainable and less compromised than art as a consumption sector. Though the growth of the cultural, then creative, industries has rightly been associated with the economic instrumentalization of art, the situation is much more complex. For a start, aligning itself with these new terminologies allowed art to insert its ‘intrinsic value’, its own specific qualities as art, within a wider economic context, and in ways that go beyond brute metrics. This is exemplified in David Throsby’s highly influential concentric circles model of the creative economy, which places the arts at the ‘creative core’ of a wider set of cultural and creative industries, as privileged providers of key skills and know-how, creative ‘R&D’, arts-driven innovation. As the idea of the cultural and creative industries took off in the late 1990s, the arts were able to present themselves less as an inert statistical bulk and more as the dynamic base of the creative ecosystem. In the UK and elsewhere the arts not only borrowed the numbers from the cultural and creative industries, but also their access to the zeitgeist; the economic future was creative, and the arts were indispensable to it. 

In Australia, the end of the Keating Government just two years after Creative Nation, and the installation of John Howard’s retro-Australia, meant the cultural industry agenda fizzled out. Launching a conservative vision of Australia against the cultural modernisation of the Whitlam-Frazer-Hawke-Keating era, the ‘culture wars’ saw the Coalition progressively abandoning ‘culture’ as a field of contestation. They did not have a conservative cultural policy; they simply stopped having any cultural policy. Or rather, they felt their way to a cultural policy in which the arts were mostly peripheral. The cultural industries, on the other hand, resurfaced in Queensland in the late 1990s, as ‘creative industries’, with a strongly anti-subsidy, anti-art and pro-commercial inflection. Consequently, for two decades in Australia ‘the arts’ and the ‘creative industries’ have taken different paths; the latter became increasingly about innovation systems and digital technologies, the former left stranded as the creative zeitgeist seemed to leave it behind. 

The uncoupling of art and creative industries, and the governments lack of interest in either, have given the arts an air of pious irrelevance. They had to work hard to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist – Australian stories as soft power, creative occupations as resistant to AI and so on. Finding the future again– a different kind of future – is an urgent task for the Australian arts, but it will require a radical break with the impasse to which these various forms of economic impact arguments have led.

The Wasteland

There’s a coda to the Australia Institute report. After the acknowledgement that the economic value contribution of the creative arts was ‘relatively small’, we are told they have a greater economic impact than their production value alone: 

Art makes a significant contribution to shaping people’s individual tastes and preferences. The core theories of economics stem from the idea that each individual has a set of preferences that decide what goods and services they will consume. Yet these theories are silent on how such preferences arise. Clearly culture and art play a large part in this process of shaping individual preferences, and aligning preference across individuals, and subsequently indirectly shape major investment and consumption decisions that are based on those preferences. 

It is hard to know what to make of this, from a left of centre think-tank trying to make a case for the creative arts. During this pandemic it has been routine to argue the economic value of the ‘arts industry’ followed by a supplementary plea for how it makes life worth living – especially whilst we are all at home watching streaming services. This is different: art shapes and aligns people’s individual consumption preferences, and thus shape subsequent investment and consumption decisions. Are these preferences good or bad, or simply neutral facts to inform future investment? In the next passage the report seems to suggest that these preferences are part of the ‘cultural norms’ which art helps ‘transmit across generations’, so perhaps (depending on what kind of art and what kind of norms we are talking about of course) this is a ‘good thing’? What we have is a justification for the arts based their behavioural contribution to the coordination of consumption economies, with some residual contribution to ‘cultural norms’. 

It would be wrong to pick on some heinous argumentation from one report, were it not for the fact that this kind of ‘advocacy’ is so widespread. The title (rather bizarrely for a report claiming to advocate for the arts) is ‘Art versus the Dismal Science’. This is a common trope amongst economists who like to show that economics, dismal and hard-headed as it is, is quite capable of determining the value of art and culture. Indeed, best leave this stuff to the economists anyway and don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Beneath the specific problematic of an Australian government mired deep in corrosive extractivism lies a forty-year long ‘revaluation of all values’ in the name of economic reason.

Art, and the cultural values it animated, had been opposed to that reason – often hypocritically, blind to its own multiple complicities – since its inception at the end of the 18th century; its progressive accommodation to that reason over the last forty years has been nothing short of catastrophic. Art-as-industry – which could in the 1920/30s or 1960/70s work as a salutary reminder to a smug, elitist art world that its roots lay in the material world – has now become a key source of its ‘social license’. What we witness in this war of statistics is not a gauche advocacy rhetoric gone awry but a withering of our ability to recognise and articulate the value of art and culture. Whilst the world desperately needs a sense of shared meaning and shared future in the other bigger emergency to come, arts advocacy has spent the time talking about employment statistics. As an economist might say, this was a major ‘opportunity cost’. 

Alison Croggan, talking of the collapse of federal funding for the arts in Australia, described the process as ‘desertification’. The point is well made but perhaps a more apt image might be the landscape left after a catastrophic process of land-clearing, of the kind which Don Watson describes in The Bush, stretching back to the first years of white Australian history. Not the sparse but still complex ecosystem of a desert but stumps and scars and mudslides and dead animals. Like some injured Joey stumbling across the floor of what was once a magnificent rain forest, ‘art helps shape individual preferences’, seems the best we can come up with. ‘Art-as-industry’ has not only failed to convince the current government in Australia, it speaks to the wider crisis of cultural value, a gaping vacuum created by the metastasis of economic reason from useful instrument to humanity’s foundational raison d’être. ‘The art industry is worth $111 billion’ is less special pleading from all those workers, companies and organisations left to swing by this government, more a cry for help from a culture sinking slowly into nihilism. 

Yet becalmed in the doldrums, far from the zeitgeist, Australia culture has gradually discovered a very different temporal order, amongst a group who would never for a moment consider calling culture an industry. Australian art’s growing acknowledgement and connection with aboriginal culture is one of its greatest gifts, a small flame in the kindling. This is where we should look for the future, rooted in a different past.


3 thoughts on “Art as Industry 

  1. Fantastic analysis Justin. The art/culture as economic grower gravy train has reached the end of the line. I think Potts/Cunningham use the art and culture as shaping preferences in their social market theory, with obvious functionalist instrumental consequences. The Australian policy seems to be mirrored by the idea of making art, humanities and social science degrees 3 times the price of STEM ones.

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