Monday, March 11, 2013

Music is not a cultural asset (2)

    David Throsby is today’s foremost theorist writing about the economics of cultural policy. Concerned with putting the arts (including music) on a sustainable footing, he argues that the arts are best viewed not as an alternative to or a respite from a base and commercial world of money-making but, rather, as an engine of economic competition and growth. The arts, he reminds us, have significant economic consequences, whether local or global. His argument that the arts are economically valuable cultural assets, though persuasive today among arts advocates, rests on a problematic distinction between art’s economic value and its cultural value.
    When Throsby writes that the arts have economic value he refers to the fact that arts are products involved in commodity exchanges, supported by a massive entertainment arts industry that involves venues, art products, advertising, gear, and so forth. We contract to buy music, whether in concerts, on CDs, over the Internet, or in the form of instruments, music lessons, and so forth. As long as we buy it and it has a price, as long as the money we pay supports the arts industry, art has an economic value. In fact, music and the entertainment arts represent a significant portion of the consumer economy.
    Throsby also claims that music and the arts have what he calls cultural value. He lists several kinds of cultural value: aesthetic, spiritual, social, historical, symbolic, authenticity and locational. Cultural value is realized in collective, not individual terms: “collective benefits that cannot be factored out to individuals and yet are important.” Cultural values are those aspects of a group’s lifeways that members of the group have strong feelings about, either positive or negative. That is, they have aesthetic feelings, spiritual feelings, feelings concerning social solidarity or solitude, and so forth. Cultural value is difficult to quantify. It seems to be outside of, or in addition to, the realm of commodity exchange. Throsby’s usual example is the collective benefit of a traditional art to a group of people who identify with that art. So, for instance, an ethnic group identifies with a music that it calls its own, and this has a value that seems beyond price.
    The cultural value argument is seductive; surely those of us involved in promoting traditional arts believe that it expresses group cultural identity. Indeed, folklorists and ethnomusicologists have been making a similar point over and over again in case studies of traditional and contemporary art in various cultural groups for the past fifty years. The notion that traditional art expresses, reinforces and even constitutes collective identity has become a truism.
    If we agree that the arts have cultural value, it does not necessarily follow that arts are cultural assets. Throsby wants to translate cultural values into cultural assets; that is, he believes that cultural policymakers can—and should—factor cultural values into the economic worth of artistic activities and products. The problem turns on the different meanings of value. When Throsby writes of economic value, he is thinking of price, what the art would be bought for as a product in a commodity exchange. But when he writes of cultural value, he is thinking not of price but principle. Cultural values are ideas, principles that guide individual and group behavior. As Throsby recognizes, cultural values are not the result of commodity exchange. They are “values added” but not measurable as added value. Cultural values are invaluable.
    Throsby’s dual use of value conflates value (price) with values (principles) and in so doing it tricks cultural values, which operate chiefly in the arena of gift exchange, into becoming assets with measurable worth which can enter a calculus for a cultural policy operating within the framework of an economic neoliberalism based in property rights, economic deregulation, competition and growth. Then, instead of operating as a critique of the social structure, or as providing an alternative social structure (e.g., commons, gift exchanges, egalitarian democracy), the arts are enlisted to serve a very different end, global corporate capitalism. According to Throsby, they do so by stimulating the creativity required for business innovation and successful competition, which leads to improved technology and continual economic growth, a rising tide that is supposed to lift all boats. Unfortunately, however, this set of economic assumptions is what has made our world unsustainable in the first place.
    Throsby’s argument leaves out the most important aspect of trade: the personal relations that obtain as a result. In a commodity exchange—say, a purchase of an mp3 over the Internet—the legal contract between buyer and seller obviates the need for any personal relationship at all. In a gift exchange, even when the gift is a commodity with economic value—say, a DVD that I purchase and give to you—there is no legal contract between giver and receiver, only a set of personal obligations which I have discussed in earlier blog entries. Throsby’s concept of cultural value recognizes the gift exchange aspect of the arts, but transforms its consequences. Music has economic value, but it may be involved in both commodity and gift exchanges. One of the characteristics of music and the arts is that compared with other goods they partake of a greater proportion of gift exchanges; in fact, the arts often are regarded as belonging to a collectivity, not a single individual.
    Indeed, many artists have testified that they feel their ability is a “gift,” which is not far in concept from the more common notion of “talent” as something one does not earn but either has or does not. Recall the story old-time fiddler Clyde Davenport told me about a rich man who came to him and asked Clyde to teach him. After a few lessons, Clyde advised the man to give up. “But I’ll pay you anything if you can teach me to play like you!” said the rich man. Clyde replied that he had found something money could not buy. Clyde’s ability, he said, was a gift.
    Insistence that art is a cultural asset objectifies and propertizes it. When music is regarded as private property, whether intellectual property or something tangible that one can collect, social relations arising from music exchanges are defined by legal contracts among individuals (or corporations acting under the fiction that they are individuals), instead of by the obligations of gift-giving and friendship within collectivities operating as social networks. As economic value increases, cultural values decrease. What, then, are the alternatives? How does local participatory art, gift exchanges within social networks, operate largely outside this neoliberal economic mainstream, and how may it become a viable alternative? In truth, it already is becoming one; and in future blog entries we shall be seeing where and how.

Sharing music at a festival.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Green.
Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. Really good stuff, Jeff. Hitting on issues here that have troubled me for a long time.

    stay close,