PoW: Can we measure the well-being impact of the arts?

The British arts and culture sector is in a flap. The Office of National Statistics is about to finish its consultation defining the domains of well-being, and guess what…arts and culture aren’t in there! Shit! Cue some desperate lobbying of the ONS to make sure they include arts and culture in their official definition of well-being, otherwise the arts piglet won’t be at the well-being trough when all that public funding is poured out.

Paul Allin, the nice chap at the ONS (pictured on the right) who is in charge of Defining National Well-Being (quite a task you’ve been handed there Paul), says: “I am aware of the impact of the arts on wellbeing and social inclusion, and encourage those involved in the sector to make the case for this by responding to the consultation. This will give us the most comprehensive evidence possible on which we can base the further development of the Well-being programme.” He’s aware of the impact! He likes us! Just a bit more lobbying and maybe the arts can get into the definition of Well-Being. It’s like Paul is Noah and we’re all animals desperately scrambling to get on the Ark before it sets sail.

There’s a lot of other things left out of the Official National Definition of Well-Being, by the way. Like religion. Holy shit! They left out God! Quick, call the Archbishop. And sex. They left out sex! Call Jordan! And chocolate. Call Willy Wonka! (etc). But let’s focus on arts and culture this week. Because there is a more serious point behind these concerns about how to evaluate the impact of the arts.

We live in an age that has ever more faith in empirical evidence, an age of facts and non-fiction, of statistics, graphs, experiments and surveys. If you want to influence public policy, you need graphs, evidence and data in a pretty Power Point presentation. As the former head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’ Donnell, said: ‘If you treasure it, measure it.’ His successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood, this week suggested launching a body to scientifically evaluate social policy interventions, in the same way that NICE evaluates pharmaceutical interventions. Policy-makers want facts, bar charts, pie graphs. Otherwise they stumble in the darkness of ethical confusion. There’s a sort of Positivist revival happening at the moment, which poses a real challenge to the arts and humanities: how do we measure their impact, to prove to the bureaucrats we deserve our funding? What’s the point of the arts, and what sort of arts should receive public funding?

State funding of the arts goes back to Renaissance Florence, which had an official buildings fund that commissioned artists for major state works (it seems to have chosen pretty well). But in the UK, state funding of the arts only really began after World War II, with the launch in the late 1940s of the Arts Council, the RSC, the ‘Third Programme’ on BBC Radio, and so on.

The Arts Council was designed, in the words of one chairman of the Council, ‘as a protection of the best in our culture against the barbarians’. In other words, a protection of elitist art against the threat of populism, commercialism and philistinism. The first chairman of the Arts Council, the very elitist John Maynard Keynes (shown in a painting on the left by his lover Duncan Grant), launched it with a speech on BBC Radio which ended with the rallying war cry: ‘Death to Hollywood!’

But the Arts Council quickly turned into not just a protection of past culture, but a financier for new art and new organisations.This led to arguments. Should subsidies support artistic excellence, or mass popular engagement? How much independence should organisations like the Arts Council have from politicians? And what kind of arts should it support? What is the ‘value’ of the arts? Who should set the nation’s cultural agenda?

The consensus on what sorts of arts should get public financing has shifted over time. According to an interesting article by David Edgar in the Guardian this weekend, in the 1960s and 1970s, public funding of the arts often went to quite edgy, radical and political arts projects, but this changed under the Thatcher government. Some Tories didn’t think any arts should get public funding, while others thought public subsidies should protect our ‘cultural heritage’ and thereby promote tourism and foreign trade. Culture should be valued for its ability to make money from foreign viewers and foreign tourists (for ‘foreign’ read mainly ‘American’). Less John Osborne, more Jane Austen.


This week, David Cameron outlined a vision for public financing of the film industry which was very close to this Thatcherite conception of the arts as tourism-promoter. The British Film Institute and Lottery Fund should, he said, help companies ‘make commercially successful pictures that rival the quality and impact of the best international productions’ – like The King’s Speech.

What this means is that the arts should sell a certain vision of Britain to foreigners – a Britain where all the men are posh and floppy-haired and say ‘um’ a lot, like Hugh Grant, and all the women look like Diana and say ‘gosh’ a lot, like Kirsten Scott Thomas, and all the houses are gorgeous country mansions. Downton Abbey, basically. In fact, Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, is the lead author of the report behind Cameron’s comments.

So much British film, it seems to me, is still stuck in this idea of selling an anachronistic version of England to foreigners – think of Richard Curtis’ films, from the enjoyable Four Weddings and a Funeral to the increasingly awful Notting Hill and Love Actually. I don’t feel those films were made for us. They’re a self-demeaning dance put on for Americans.

Anyway, during the years of New Labour, again to quote the David Edgar article, a new idea arose among policy-makers that you could measure the value of the arts through their impact on things like social exclusion, literacy, health and well-being. The idea of ‘evidence-based policy making’ began in medical policy in the 1990s, and then spread to other areas of policy, including the arts. In 2007, for example, the Arts Council published a report together with the Department of Health, called ‘The arts, health and well-being‘, promoting all the health benefits got from, say, seeing a nice painting in a hospital, or singing in a choir.

But some were sceptical about taking this instrumental and evidence-based approach to the arts. The former chairman of the Arts Council, Christopher Frayling, said on his resignation in 2009: “Evidence-based policy-making…assumes that everything is measurable in quantitative terms. Since then there’s been a lot of research – actually it has mainly been advocacy masquerading as research – full of unexamined assumptions desperately trying to prove all sorts of things about the power of the arts in relation to the economy, society and public value, even the individual. But we all know that evidence-based policy, resting as it does on a relatively narrow range of measurable indicators – has serious limitations when applied to the arts.”

Likewise, New Labour’s minister of culture, Tessa Jowell, published a very interesting pamphlet in 2004, called ‘Government and the Value of Culture‘, in which she warned against over-instrumentalising the arts: “Too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas – education, the reduction of crime, improvements in wellbeing – explaining – or in some instances almost apologising for – our investment in culture only in terms of something else.”

So why, then, should government subsidise the arts? Jowell writes (and it’s a long quote, but worth reading in full):

We live in a complex world; the result is that we prize, and perhaps sometimes even suspect, those who understand its complexities. We not only celebrate the genius of great scientists or technological pioneers, but we make daily use of their inventions…But the internal world we all inhabit – the world of…love or pain, joy or misery, fear and relief, success and disappointment – that, too, has its genius discoverers and inventors, people who can show us things we could not see for ourselves, and experts who can help us to understand them. Their insights are no less accessible than the workings of the internal combustion engine. Society seems to take for granted that learning complex skills about the external world is within the range of far more people than developing an appreciation for the insights of great art. But there is no reason why that should be so.

Those who have had the transcendent thrill of feeling the power of great art in any medium, have gained the use of a sense to add to those of touch, taste, smell, sound and sight. And grappling with the complexity is almost always the necessary condition of access to that enriching sixth sense. I am not saying that culture has to be complicated, or that what is not complicated cannot have cultural value. But I do believe that the rewards of grappling with great art in any medium are enormous. The reluctance of so many to attempt that challenge is a terrible waste of human potential, with a concomitant loss of human realisation.


That is why, in a nutshell, subsidy for ‘high culture’ activities is a proper task for government: not to provide the “cultured” wealthy with a night out cheaper than it might be but because if great works of art are not exposed, the chance of acquiring that sixth sense may not be on offer at all. Complex cultural activity is not just a pleasurable hinterland for the public, a fall back after the important things – work and paying tax – are done. It is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being.
I completely agree with Jowell’s argument, and think she has put it very well. Great art introduces us to the complexity of human experience. It broadens our emotional palette, our sense of the interestingness of life. It should broaden our minds, not reduce them, and raise questions, not answer them. That’s why I don’t think it’s appropriate to try and reduce its impact and value to some box-ticking scientific definition of well-being.

Great art is, by its very nature, complex, and not readily reduced to a well-being questionnaire. Alas, though, when we’re curious about our inner worlds today, we so often turn to social science popular books of non-fiction like Malcolm Gladwell or Martin Seligman – authors who don’t increase our sense of the complexity of human experience, but rather reduce it to neat little ideas supported by neat little Power Point graphs. They reduce experience to 20-minute upbeat TED talks, which is really the ruling format of this Positivist age. I think novels, plays, or even great TV dramas like The Sopranos, give us a sense of the complexity of life better.

But, you say, if we can’t scientifically measure the value of the arts, then won’t we have to make subjective judgement calls about what constitutes great art? Well, yes. But I think to some extent we have to trust the taste of ‘curators’ to guide the cultural agenda in a country – while always reserving our right to disagree with the curators and to oppose their judgements. Even populist shows like X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing are not completely populist – they still have the ‘judges’ table, who are supposed to know a bit better than the public what is ‘good’. The Arts Council is, basically, the judges table for the nation. They should balance a sense of what the public wants to see with a judgement of what is really worth making and worth seeing. That may be elitist – but it’s an open, inclusive elitism for everyone. As Joan Littlewood, the great leftie theatre director, once said: ”If you offer the public anything less than the best, you’re just being patronising’.
Let me temper that: I also believe that engaging in the arts is good for our well-being, regardless of the quality of the art produced. Being in a choir is great for our well-being. Reading together is great for our well-being. Writing or painting is great for our well-being, on the whole. So I guess we can evaluate the health impact of those activities and use that evaluation to justify public funding.
But public subsidies to the arts can’t just be about getting more people involved in arts production for their own well-being. It also needs to support great art, by virtuosos, because their art also has a really important human impact – although one that’s harder to measure. But contrary to what Sir Gus O’ Donnell said, not everything worth treasuring can be measured.

Comments:

  • Legh says:

    It's predictable to see the whole arts funding argument revolve around the use value and passive consumption of other "geniuses."

    As an artist and a therapist, however, the more straightforward connection of art to wellness would be its use in the therapy process – to reach feelings otherwise inaccessible or inexpressible, create calm and give caretakers something productive to do with patients. The Winterbourne View documentary shows that a Philip Zimbardo like "power of the situation" environment can arise without a schedule and commitment to therapeutic activities.

    Have you seen Marwencol?

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Legh

    Fair point – though I dont think reading a great book is a passive experience, at all. It's a transformative experience, and it very much depends on what the reader brings to the table, how deeply they read etc.

    But I think you're right, participating in the arts also has an important therapeutic value, and I didnt recognise that sufficiently in this piece. Ive added a couple of paragraphs to try and give it more balance.

    I hadnt heard of the Winterbourne View or Marwencol – thanks, Ill check them out.

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