When cultural policy is “bullshit”

Former UK culture minster Chris Smith, who freely admitted using dubious cultural statistics in order to argue for more money for his portfolio. Source: The Times.

My friend Jana Perkovic recently alerted me to one of the most bracing recent contributions o the field of cultural policy, by the University of Warwick’s Eleonora Belfiore.

Belfiore researches at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at Warwick and is a frequent and respected contributor to the field. She’s also more than a little fed up with the spin and window-dressing that passes for “cultural policy” in Britain. Hence, her recent paper in the International Journal of Cultural Policy is entitled “On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research: notes from the British case.”

Belfiore’s central point is that the policy documents of New Labour are deeply misleading, based on a research project that is at best flawed, and at worst yielding data that directly contradicts the claims made for it. “The article aims to show that many of the key actors in the cultural policy debate indeed display the ‘indifference to how things really are’ and the cultivation of vested interests,” she writes.

In some ways, Belfiore’s paper is similar to Andrew Pinnock‘s recent work attacking rent-seeking in cultural policy-making and questioning the incongruity between extant cultural policy and the evidence (or lack thereof)  underlying it.  Her essay draws on US philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit, but then applies his teachings to the contemporary field. As Belfiore observes, “since the very beginning of politicians’ renewed interest for the social impacts of the arts, the question of evidence has been a delicate one.” She also cites a speech by former DCMS Secreatry Chris Smith, in which he freely admits that:

that when I was Secretary of State, going into what always seemed like a battle with the Treasury, I would try and touch the buttons that would work. I would talk about the educational value of what was being done. I would be passionate about artists working in schools. I would refer to the economic value that can be generated from creative and cultural activity. I would count the added numbers who would flock into a free museum. If it helped to get more funds flowing into the arts, the argument was worth deploying.

Belfiore concludes by observing that bullshit is not just the province of politicians. She argues that much research in the field is in fact tainted by the unexamined assumptions of cultural policy researchers about the positive value of th arts and culture: “one of the problems with large portions of research that has so far been carried out into the social impacts of the arts is its being marred by a profound confusion between genuine research and research for the sake of advocacy.”

This is an important essay with wide implications and resonances in the Australian context, especially for much of the Australia Council’s research.

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One thought on “When cultural policy is “bullshit”

  1. Pingback: What’s new in the International Journal of Cultural Policy? The IJCP’s special book review issue « A Cultural Policy Blog

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