Sustainable Music


Friday, March 8, 2013

Music is not a cultural asset (1)

   Once again this semester at Brown University I'm leading a seminar in music and cultural policy. In that seminar we've returned to ideas discussed in the first few years of this blog, those involving the dominant concepts operating in the arts policy world today, namely heritage, cultural tourism, and the arts as cultural assets. Using the term "asset" brings the arts into the sphere of economics, one which met initial resistance from arts administrators who voiced fears that commerce runs counter to the spirit of art. That resistance dissolved as arguments about the "creative economy" began to persuade government decision-makers to spend money to stimulate the arts. But thinking of the arts as economic assets also runs counter to what we now know about sustainability. I believe that a policy which views music as a cultural asset will not sustain music—or people making music—in a way that is worth having. Quite the contrary, it will transform music—and people—into things not worth wanting.
    In his book The Economics of Cultural Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2010), David Throsby makes a powerful argument for the economic value of the arts; that is, an argument that the arts do not merely cultivate the personality, provide aesthetic pleasure and civilized refinements. Throsby argues that the arts also stimulate personal creativity. Creativity leads to innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit, required for individuals and businesses to compete successfully in today's globalized, corporate world. For that reason, corporations, foundations and governments should invest in the arts--and such patronage, along with the new economic value that is placed on the arts, will assure their sustainability. This is a seductive line of reasoning for cultural policymakers because if true, it makes the arts (and their advocates) much more powerful players in public policy debates. Yet despite the argument’s sustainabilty-friendly appearance, I remain concerned that something bad happens to arts and people when objectified into economic assets. In the next blog entry I will critique Throsby’s argument. It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it on this blog, but because it is winning more and more allies in the world of arts and politics, it’s important to come to come to grips with its limitations. But first, some background. How did we get to the place where support for the arts is thought to yield economic benefit?
    As Throsby notes, thirty and forty years ago government, corporate and individual patrons sustained the arts in Western nations mainly with financial grants to exemplary artists and arts presenting institutions, such as “educational television” (as PBS was called then), museums and symphony orchestras. Then, policy discussions took up such issues as how the arts “contribute to a civilized society, how more people could be introduced to the benefits of artistic consumption, and how the arts content of education systems and the media could be improved” (p. 1). In the early 1980s when I helped the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment of the Arts distribute nearly $3 million in grants per year, our awards went in this direction, often to sponsor specific events such as festivals, arts education workshops, and media productions targeted to a large audience. Gradually, these cultural policy agencies began to move away from event-centered arts patronage and towards arts infrastructure support. A guiding principle, cultural conservation, began to be articulated. As in natural conservation, the idea was a series of targeted interventions that would enable folk and traditional arts cultures to maintain themselves and, as the N.E.A. guidelines put it, “move confidently into their futures” secure in their connections with the past.
Guitar as folk art.
Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, Bangor, ME, 2011.
Creative Commons License
    The apprenticeship grant was regarded as an outstanding example of this new kind of initiative in cultural conservation. An apprenticeship grant meant money paid to a master traditional folk artist such as a Portugese fado singer or a Penobscot basket maker to teach a worthy tradition-bearer in the younger generations how to master this art, usually in a one-on-one collaboration over a period of months or years, with a young person who had shown much talent and serious interest and was likely to make it a career (or as much of one as was possible, if such a career wasn’t very remunerative). This kind of grant was thought to have more long-term positive effect in sustaining the tradition than a one-time festival or workshop, or a media product that had only a short presentational life before it was put on the storage shelf. Grants also were given in increasing numbers directly to arts agencies themselves—that is, to local NGOs consisting of culture workers encouraging folk and ethnic arts activities, who would themselves offer assistance to local arts-presenting organizations. It was not a coincidence that the cultural conservation initiative took hold at a period in the United States when support for the arts was being challenged by political conservatives. Just as the welfare state was reformed in the 1980s and 1990s, so arts support thinking moved from welfare to conservation.
    Along with the change in thinking from welfare to conservation, the word “culture” began to be used more and more as in anthropology, referring a people’s way of life, what’s learned and passed along from one generation to the next, the non-biological inheritance. But how to fund cultural conservation efforts remained a problem. Yet a solution, as I pointed out years ago on this blog, was already available—in the arena of historic preservation—and what worked over there could be used to fund the arts. In so doing, tourism, the economic lifeblood of historic preservation, was brought into cultural conservation. Not that arts tourism was unknown, but for more than a century it had been aimed at the fine arts objects in museums, cathedrals, and the like. Traditional arts, on the other hand, could become the focus of arts tourism in living history settings. These arts were alive; the artifacts could, as one museum executive director put it, emerge from their glass cases and reunite with their makers who would demonstrate their making for the tourists.
    Historic preservation sounded a little too musty for the arts in this context, though. UNESCO in particular took the initiative and settled on the concept of heritage, which is to say history with a certain kind of cultural value placed on it. With UNESCO, heritage was already in use to describe historical monuments, and so the somewhat awkward contrast was made between tangible heritage, such as a historic building, and intangible heritage, such as a traditional art, understood both as cultural knowledge and expression or product. Eventually the term in use, intangible cultural heritage, became shortened to its acronym, ICH.
    Although usually pronounced eye-see-aitch, the UNESCO policy regarding ICH also itched, or irritated, some cultural policymakers for a number of reasons: fuzzy conceptualization and problematic implementation, for starters. Nevertheless, cultural policymakers throughout the world began using intangible cultural heritage and the arts, particularly traditional music, to promote tourism and then, the argument ran, with tourist dollars not only sustain the arts but also pour money into the local economies.  At a time when, in the so-called developed world, manufacturing had been outsourced and economies had changed to largely service and information providing, when income inequality was increasing, and when local economies were under great stress, arts tourism seemed an avenue worth encouraging. Soon arts were being regarded as potentially powerful economic assets.    
    In the next blog entry I will critique the argument for sustaining music and the arts by treating them as economic assets, particularly when termed cultural assets. I will reveal the confusion underlying Throsby’s attempt to differentiate between art’s economic value and cultural value, while assigning a measurable worth to each. I continue to believe that local, participatory music in small groups, based on commons, social networks and gifts exchanges, is a better alternative for long-term sustainability than economic asset-think which, despite Throsby’s seductive presentation, makes neoliberal assumptions concerning economic growth and competition that are inimical to both music and sustainability.

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