VALUE IN NUMBERS
An essay on post-truth narratives and the symbolic order in times of crisis.
Few questions have received as much attention from art practitioners and critics as that of the value of art and culture to society. Philosophers since Plato have speculated that art is inseparable from human existence as key to emotional, educational, and societal wellbeing. But how should we account for these functions? How should we measure their worth against other social phenomena and in relationship to the state as the medium of exchange of value? Despite thousands of years of debate and the existence of a whole academic discipline that supports it, there are few straightforward answers.
In the past year, the arts have had to argue for their worth in competition with other industries, while cut off from their usual platforms that made previous manifestations of cultural value potent: gallery shows and dance performances on Zoom didn’t carry their usual weight. Even so, what the arts have over many other imperilled industries is their monopoly on boundless creativity. Given the current urgent need to rebuild social bonds and repair fractured cultural values, and the earlier chance for the arts to rehearse similar messages in the post-2008 austerity regimes, we could have expected a campaign that would have, once and for all, proved that ‘only art can save us’. We could have expected a campaign bringing the inspiration and reflection that the arts have delivered for thousands of years. We could have expected a cheesy, morale-boosting message, or maybe even a concerted effort to reassert values such as unity or community pride. Any of these could have been done instead of the series of arts campaigns in the UK obsessed with the economic and statistical value of culture, in an argument that inspired few and convinced fewer still. Given that British cultural policy has long been the trend-setter for many other European arts economies, this moment warrants some critical reflection.
The end of civilisation as we know it
To understand the narratives which took centre ground in the current crisis, it is worth tracing the recent history of art’s relationship with the state. In the UK, it was as recent as the 1980s that the keyword was ‘subsidy’ and the value of ‘high’ culture went unquestioned. In an episode of the iconic BBC comedy Yes, Minister, the hapless secretary of state Jim Hacker has to decide between saving an art gallery and saving a football club in times of adversity. For the civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, the very notion of comparing the two was sacrilege and could only lead to the end of civilisation. Opera is culture. Sports, irrelevant mercantilism.
Since this sketch was written, the language of public support has changed dramatically. Deregulated free-market capitalism has heralded a language of a conscious exploitation of the power of the arts to achieve instrumental social outcomes. Ideas of the transformative potential of the creative economy lurked in the background, but no one was ready to call bluff on the tenuous links between the emergent social art practices of museums and galleries and the booming tech and video games industries. By the 2010s, the discourse had moved further to ‘investment’, and Arts Council England proudly announced that “for every £1 that it invested in the arts, the private sector added a further £3.”
What artists thought of these frameworks seems to have depended on the amount of subsidy or investment. At the turn of the century, conditions were idyllic by today’s standards: the more use for art the state had, the more art workers the state would support. From the confused policy language and the lack of leadership from institutions, perhaps it wasn’t always clear that the subsidy and investment would eventually require a return and that when they would, such returns would likely have to come from excess labour. To confuse matters still, the art market grew into its now nearly-dominant strength, making it difficult for artists and their communities to understand how their creativity and labour translated into the logic of public and private markets. This situation is not without parallel in the knowledge-labour economies in which individuals are invited to ‘invest’ in their education or to form ‘partnerships’ with capital. In the same way that it’s almost impossible for an individual to understand the multiple meanings of the value of their student loan, how is an artist to navigate the multiple interests of the public £1 and the private £3 when neither reaches their pocket?
Too big to fail
If the past twenty years were characterised by cultural institutions’ resistance to financialisation, art schools’ vocal denial of market logic and artists’ qualified mistrust of the art market, the pandemic year has revealed a curious narrative shift. Amid all the chaos and disaster of lockdown museum closures and furlough for the luckier art workers, a group of UK arts organisations and thousands of artists – perhaps dismayed by the relatively ungenerous level of Britain’s state support in comparison to that extended by France or Germany – came together to campaign for a public bailout and for a new round of public investments to support the industry’s recovery. Their message: #artisessential because “the arts and culture sector contributes £2.8 billion a year to the Treasury via taxation” and the “creative industries employs [sic] 2 million people.” Repeatedly, they reminded us that
“the Creatives [sic] Industries contributed £116bn in GVA [gross value added] in 2019.”
These numbers and livelihoods are far from trivial, but the messages themselves are riddled with errors, and not just in spelling. Where do the ‘arts’ end and the ‘creative industries’ begin? Most of the employment for which this campaign tried to take credit comes from the film, digital, and games industries, which are explicitly outside of the purview of the campaign. The GVA figure repeated this confusion, and according to Arts Council England’s already inflated data, overstated art’s economic contribution at least tenfold. Can we defend the value of museums and galleries by claiming credit for the economic worth of software programmers?
There are prosaic technical and statistical reasons for some of these errors, but they hardly excuse the persistent and wilful misuse of ‘facts and figures’ by the arts industry. And the misuse is now a habit: a 2019 report for Arts Council England admitted to counting the value of culture in some bizarre ways, arriving at a headline figure of £22 billion GVA by counting not only the value of the culture produced and consumed plus the value of its supply chain, but also the induced value that includes the rent and grocery bills paid by art workers. To an economist, such an estimate is near-meaningless, suggesting that your local supermarket could include the Mamma Mia tickets bought by its employees in the tally of its economic worth and ask for public subsidy because vegetable retail supports cultural production. Accurate data isn’t impossible to obtain, either. By the time the debate on the value of arts and culture and their pandemic needs reached the UK Parliament, the numbers appeared more modest: arts and culture employ 226,000 people (not two million), and GVA stands at £10.6 billion, but this did not stand in the way of #artisessential lobbying by the Government with the £116 billion figure only weeks later.
Who decided that this financial and statistical argument would best serve the arts’ cause? Do artists and arts organisations know that their numbers are incorrect? Do they understand what they’re talking about? How did they hope to convince bureaucrats of their case? Are they just comforted by the abstraction of impressive-sounding large numbers? And, most damningly, why are they lying?
We have come to expect manipulation of statistics from politicians, exaggeration of budgets from bureaucrats, and empty promises of social value from corporations. Their counterfactual narration of reality may sit well in the shadow of Donald Trump and the low-gloss populism of global politics, but such post-truth demagoguery is demonstrably not the exclusive domain of the political right, if the public art sector can also repeat baseless claims without batting an eyelid. No, it’s not that one in twenty UK adults are artists. No, culture is also not worth more economically than oil and gas combined. Don’t we have better arguments?
Perhaps these numbers are ‘just’ numbers, and ‘deep down’ we know that they are fictions. But if we get the stats so wrong and still rely on them to perform our collective politics, what else are we getting wrong? In his attempt to construct a political theory of the post-truth, Ignas Kalpokas argues that there is nothing post- in post-truth: today’s arts are following in the footsteps of generations that tried (and failed) to free themselves from the reigns of capital-t Truths and the capital-r Reason of the Enlightenment. The unfortunate side-effect may be that in thinking about the present condition as exceptional and beyond the reach of reason, we have lost the ability to deploy reason itself when we need it.
The proof for Kalpokas' characterisation is that none of the floors in the argument mattered, because the UK cultural sector secured an unprecedented bailout of £1.56 billion last year under the government’s Culture Recovery Fund. Even this has had its critics, but the numbers proved themselves to be efficient storytellers, their sums large, the economic story compelling. The arts may think that they won this argument, more or less. It may be natural to try to forget all this and breathe a sigh of relief, rather than quibble over who was right and who was wrong, let alone hurl accusations of hypocrisy at one’s own team.
Art simulating itself
Even if on this occasion the denial of fact displays the hallmarks of an effective tactic, leaving it unquestioned may have significant consequences. Never mind the hollow and unsustainable sense of security that the industry leaders may have felt in their negotiations with politicians on this occasion, the outsourcing of the post-truth problem to the realm of the political right makes it all too easy to overlook the profound challenge in the way that artists and their organisations understand their value in society. The way that value is expressed has puzzled theorists since before Adam Smith. Inasmuch as the arts can be read as market goods – Sir Humphrey Appleby’s view that they should be a purely public affair has little hold in 2021 – Marx’s notions of use-value and exchange-value have been sufficient in reflecting the utility that audiences derive from attending theatre performances, the art market prices being fuelled by fabricated scarcity, and even the language of public ‘investment’.
But what use is Marx when the aesthetic, ethical, epistemic, or instrumental arguments for the value of the arts have so effortlessly rolled into financial matrices, abandoning their earlier complex frameworks? The professional pessimist Jean Baudrillard observed that such a state emerges when society is organised around simulation rather than consumption. Aesthetics can become a subject of commodity consumption, but this is less straightforward in the case of art’s ethical or epistemic features. What if the knowledge economy of the arts does not resonate in the ideas of commodity production? And what if the instrumental value of the arts becomes a matter of discourse, rather than of service-level agreements? When we have mixed in so deeply those dematerialised values of art practice that have little to do with price or utility into the financial tally, Marxian ideas of value collapse.
Baudrillard’s simulacra uncannily encompass the shift in the pandemic value narrative. Where once we had art, we now have an art producing machine. The value or values of the art that this machine produces do not relate to their Marxian values. If the art machine says that it produces £116 billion in GVA, then it almost doesn’t matter whether it also produces any ethical or epistemic qualities. Eventually, the art machine no longer needs the languages used to describe values other than those easily digestible rubrics of pounds and pence.
Other, less exalted commodities are subject to similar evolutions. A quantity of grain has an exchange value (its price) and a use-value (the value it has when turned into a food). But while grain is traded on in international markets, so is the simulation of grain. Financial derivatives such as grain futures are traded in the stock markets in a volume that far exceeds the volume of grain actually produced, exchanged, and consumed. Trading grain futures is based on symbolic value, not use value; grain futures are a simulation of grain. The same may now be happening in art. Neither the £116 nor the £10.6 billion that narrates art and artists has anything to do with the art produced or consumed: it is merely a financial instrument that simulates a real commodity trade (the opera tickets, artist fees, auction sales) that need never take place.
This is a serious indictment and, in Baudrillard’s terms, a dead-end for art. We cannot merely blame the art market for this narrative failure, either. Contrary to our instinctive understanding of neoliberal capitalism, the simulation does not come about because art and culture have become completely commodified by the market logic that replaced state support. Certainly, plenty of art objects from Monet to KAWS hold their comfortable status as premium commodities traded in auction houses and stored in freeports; for them, Marx’s notions of exchange and value hold – they are free from the lure of simulation. But paradoxically, as most artists and their institutions have resisted thinking about their participatory art projects, non-profit galleries, or experimental installations in those same commercial ways, they have inadvertently given up their claim to the utility or exchangeability of their work. When in addition other notions of value collapse, as they did during the pandemic, post-truth manipulation may seem like the best of options.
For Baudrillard, the dichotomy between the luxury art object and the non-economic art practice would be evidence for his thesis: if the art industry resists commodification, it is because it has lost its connection to the very commodity that it represents. This matters because anything that we consume is a commodity and art does itself a disservice by denying this classification. If the arts have resisted thinking about the public value of their work in market terms, all they are left with is a false narrative of overabundance and symbolic value as a simulation.
In his writing on art, Baudrillard extended this scepticism to the aesthetic and pronounced the end of art as an inevitable consequence of the endless proliferation of artistic practices. The recent rise of NFTs is a further indictment of art’s loss of confidence in its value, and the explosion of this market during the pandemic, when physical art lost access to exchange and utility, is no coincidence. NFTs are the perfect containers of symbolic value: they present themselves to be free of utility, ethical, or epistemic claims, and they bypass even the fundamental question of whether they are art or not by espousing an aesthetic that inspires little discourse. Even if NFT sales correspond to individual artworks, these works resist becoming commodities in the traditional sense by manufacturing scarcity just as the contemporary art before them did. Only they do so more efficiently, where speculation in the future value of physical art objects was subject to the obscuring behaviours of the traditional art market. NFTs are perfectly designed to become the basis of financial speculation in how they are ready-made financial instruments, index funds designed to breed further simulated derivatives. When Christie’s staged the record-breaking sale of Beeple’s $69 million masterpiece, the lack of attention to any discernible qualities of the work was deafening because of how NFTs don’t even have the pretence of a cumbersome physical commodity behind them, meaning that they need not be governed by the exchange value narratives of the traditional art market.
While the arts industry remains broadly sceptical of animated GIFs, the one aspect of the NFT simulation that the mainstream cultural narrative has embodied unquestioningly is the unthinking optimism and hype of the crypto asset trade. As the value of Bitcoin relies in no small measure on millions of speculators blindly believing in it, so does the value of the art industry. In a world of simulation, isn’t it imperative to maintain that art and culture generate £116 billion in GVA? Is this our future worth?
Although Baudrillard’s vision of the role of art in the simulation is bleak, it reveals an opportunity for art and artist to break out of the simulacrum. Baudrillard jested that the contemporary world’s greatest achievement was not the commercialisation of anything and everything, but instead the aestheticization of the whole world that turns it into images and symbols that become simulations of the formerly real thing. This means that there is no role left for art, because it can no longer subvert the simulation and because art relies on participating in the simulation for its existence.
But have we indeed reached a point of aesthetic oversaturation in which the Instagram feed has taken over all attempts to mediate meaning? The experience of the past months suggests that art does not take its aesthetics nearly as seriously as it could. The same #artisessential campaign that made claims of the industry’s financial prowess chose to outsource the question of aesthetics to artists and the results were underwhelming, to say the least. Are frowning selfies and handmade banners all that we can do? Why haven’t we thrown ourselves into the making of inspiring images, gaze-arresting displays of aesthetic, social, or intellectual value?
As long as some of these avenues remain underexplored, there may be a way to escape the still-incomplete simulation, and it lies in the renewal of aesthetic practices. Such evolution is always already taking place in the ever-changing landscape of art production, but we must consider once more the balance of aesthetic, social, and market interests that fuel our work. Trying to venture too far into Baudrillardian territory could mean that we are left with nothing but hollow hashtags or GVA stories. If we succeed, it will be as artists, not as social workers or commodity traders. In the neon words of Stefan Brüggemann: to be political, it has to look nice.
Another option whose radical potential is also poorly served by the post-truth turn to economic value accounts, could be to invest in developing a broader value literacy in the art industry so that it can build new, convincing narratives. It may even be that when the narratives are brought back in line with their underlying realities, they can no longer reinforce the simulacra: a self-induced collapse predicted by the more benevolent strands of accelerationism. Until we take active control of our own ‘progress narrative’, help could only perversely come from the politician or the bureaucrat who simply dismisses the arts’ economic arguments, and who forces our attention back on those values that we can maintain as a matter of our own realities.