Aesthetic prejudice and philistinism in cultural policy: the RAND Corporation’s “benchmark arts”

A recurring theme in any casual discussion of cultural policy with interested non-experts will be the “but aren’t you just a philistine” argument.  This argument runs along the lines of “Well of course we need to fund artform X – anyone suggesting otherwise is merely a philistine.”

It’s noteworthy that the word “philistine” was used regularly by Matthew Arnold in that foundation text of cultural policy, Culture and Anarchy. But what is perhaps more surprising is the persistence of attitudes amongst cultural policy researchers which can only be described as class prejudices.

Let’s examine, for instance, a recent RAND Corporation paper on audience development in the arts, Cultivating Demand for the Arts: Arts Learning, Arts Engagement, and State Arts Policy by Laura Zakaras and Julia F. Lowell. This otherwise interesting and informative paper none-the-less advances a notion of the arts almost directly descended from Arnold’s belief in a canon of high culture: as the authors  openly announce, “[this] research considered only the benchmark arts central to public policy: ballet, classical music, jazz, musical theater, opera, theater, and the visual arts.”

There are two types of bias in operation here. One is the tendency of cultural policy researchers to examine only the artforms legitimised by funding bodies – a type of instrumental research bias we see in much of the Australia Council’s research. But there is a deeper form of bias at work which can only be described as aesthetic prejudice. In their examination of why young people are less engaged trhan they used to be with the seven artforms funded by the NEA, Zakaras and Powell decide to ignore other forms of cultural or artistic expression altogether – conveniently banishing them as mere “entertainment,” even while positing a rise in popularity for such entertainment as the reason for declining audience figures for the “benchmark arts” amongst younger demographics.

“We define entertainment,” they write in a footnote apparently quite free of any irony, “as cultural activity whose full appreciation requires little in the way of intellectual/aesthetic skill or historical/cultural knowledge. ” So there you have it: fans of television or computer games are little more than dullards, lacking in historical and cultural knowledge. As Bordieu famously noted in Distinction, the sexualised and suggestive movements to be found in both classical dance and Hair, even though empirically they appear almost identical, were held to be very different in 1960′s France because of the differing class status of the audiences who attend them.

It’s especially ironic, in the light of the Rand authors’ claims to the poverty of historical knowledge amongst entertainment consumers, that at least two of the artforms they invoke as “baseline” are in fact only recent additions to the canon of valorised high art: both musical theatre and jazz began as characteristically working class cultures, before becoming popular and then gradually making the transition to NEA-funded “benchmark” status. Indeed, in the case of jazz, as Eric Hobsbawm has explored, the artform emerged from rural ghettos as a marginal music created by African-Americans often described in the white industry as “race music.” In 100 years time, will rap music and computer games also be considered benchmark arts? History tells us it’s possible – perhaps even likely. After all,  we laugh at Adorno nowadays for his racist attitudes to jazz.

Gaming is a case in point. As John Lanchester in the LRB recently pointed out, computer game culture currently suffers from a similar inability on the part of mainstream culture to take it seriously as an artform in its own right:

There is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience. Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren’t interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren’t. Video games have people who play them, and a wider public for whom they simply don’t exist. (The exceptions come in the form of occasional tabloid horror stories, always about a disturbed youth who was ‘inspired’ to do something terrible by a video game.) Their invisibility is interesting in itself, and also allows interesting things to happen in games under the cultural radar.