$7 billion of neoliberalism

The Stationers' Company mark

The Stationers’ Company: an early example of government cultural policy. Image: Wikipedia.

Australian economist Jason Potts has restarted an important debate about cultural policy in this country with an article entitled “You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?“. I just wish he hadn’t analysed Australian cultural policy from the sort of instrumentalist, neoliberal position we find so familiar in many other spheres of policy debate.

I’ll say right up the top that I’m a fan of Potts’ work, and think him a pretty clever fellow. His work on evolutionary economics is in its own way quite heterodox, and a far cry from the sort of automatic and reflexive market worship we often associate with both the RMIT Economics school, and the Institute for Public Affairs, which he is apparently doing some work with.

On the other hand, his op-ed in The Conversation on cultural policy  is not one of his more perspicacious efforts. Justin O’Connor has already written a useful response, but I thought I’d add a few points of my own, set forth below.

Let’s start by setting forward Potts’ argument. Then we’ll move on to a critique.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the maths – government spends about A$7 billion annually in Australia on arts and culture. The exact dollar figure varies depending on what we count, but it includes heritage, broadcasting and botanical gardens, along with all the usual suspects: performing arts, literature, film, visual arts, and so on.

This is apples, oranges and all sorts of random fruit.  “Heritage” funding, for instance, includes such things as war memorials, botanical gardens, zoos and some national parks expenditure. That’s a pretty different sort of thing to grants to game design companies or tax incentives to Hollywood movie studios. Does it actually make sense to treat all of these things as the same sort of expenditure?

Anyway, moving on:

To make this exercise fun, let’s suppose that no political horse-trading was involved in reaching this figure. Let’s assume this figure is the result of disinterested economic calculation of the size of the positive externality in the production of a public good, all wrapped in willingness-to-pay studies, and tied with a big bright cost-benefit ribbon.

So what’s next?

Do we put away our box of shiny economic tools and turn to grubby political compromise to allocate the exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding?

In Australia, as in Europe, this is more or less what we do. Economics to justify an economically efficient level of spending – and politics to implement it.

Really? Last time I looked, in most nation-states, including most democracies, politics is almost always the over-riding factor in the way  budget priorities are set. Sure, politicians and lobbyists and ordinary citizens use economic arguments to make the case for this spending increase or that tax cut. But the process is always and by definition political. On the really big picture stuff, economics arguably can’t really help us. For instance, how much should Australia invest in national defence, or climate change mitigation? The answer depends on inherently political judgments, such as whether you think global warming is real, or the likelihood of a major war.

Indeed, ‘economic efficiency’ is itself an inherently political argument, because it applies a very particular set of assumptions to public policy — namely that Pareto efficiency can actually hold in the first place. In markets in which there is imperfect information — and cultural markets are amongst the most opaque of all — Pareto efficiency may well be impossible. Potts knows this, which is why his quip about the “exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding” strikes me as disingenuous.

So let’s get to the guts of Potts’ argument:

… modern economics suggests that it would be better if we turned the process upside down. Let politicians determine the level of funding in a given area – and let economists determine the allocation.

Why? The political model of funding allocation is very bad at creating – or even recognising – new knowledge. In fact, political allocation mechanisms cause incentives that reward lobbying and punish experimental or innovative thinking.

Only by weakening those incentives can arts and cultural funding seek to be more than a rearguard preservation exercise or sinecure for vested interests.

I suppose it’s something of ad hominem attack to point this out, but it’s just a tad ironic that the person making this argument is a Federation Fellow of a publicly funded Australian university. A person writing for a website, by the way, also funded by universities and the government, using a medium — the internet — that was created almost exclusively by public investment in research.

“Political allocation mechanisms”, by which I think Potts means governments making budget decisions, certainly create incentives that reward lobbying. Then again, so do market mechanisms. Markets require the state to provide a level playing field via such basic institutions as property rights, police forces and courts of law. All of these create incentives for vested interests to plead their cause.

This is no trivial point, by the way: the cultural industries are completely dependent on intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents. The very fact that many cultural goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable creates huge incentives for content industries to lobby governments to create and strengthen IP regulations — as has been well documented by researchers such as Lessig. When property rights become unenforceable, digital goods become a whole lot less valuable. Anyway, Potts’ claim was that public spending creates lobbying, which is bad. On this analysis, many of the cherished market mechanisms of the cultural industries must also be bad, because they were created via lobbying.

This points to a further naievete: the implicit belief that cultural goods and services are just like any other industrial product.

Even a moment’s reflection shows us this isn’t true. The products of cultural industries are not like any old widget or commodity: they are not even really the same thing as an iPhone or an operating system. Cultural industries produce symbols, and symbols are powerful (or at least highly influential). An aluminium ingot or a wind turbine cannot affect the democratic judgment or voting intentions of millions of citizens. A newspaper empire or television network can.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think that the power of media companies to swing elections is illusory. The history of modern media policy tells us that governments certainly do think symbols are powerful. Media has generally often been heavily regulated, sometimes on the grounds of public interest, but more commonly for naked reasons of political expediency. Even in the US, with its famous First Amendment, successive Washington administrations have had no qualms about controlling spectrum, imposing stringent copyright regulations, and spying extensively on their citizens’ communications. Hosni Mubarak turned off the internet in Egypt for a reason. Whether it’s internet filters or the Stationers Company, the political nature of cultural industries means they can’t be divorced from questions of power.

This curious ignorance of the symbolic reality of culture is often found amongst unsophisticated approaches to cultural economics — much as economics as taught in the modern university tends to ignore key aspects of sociology. As a result, when economists issue prescriptions for cultural policy, they tend to propose cures that are far worse than the supposed disease.

Perhaps this is why Potts misconstrues key facts about real-life cultural policy. For instance, he seems to think arts funding is about “inputs, not outputs”, when in fact nearly all Australian government arts grants are legal contracts specifying outcomes, allowing the government to recoup the funding if not properly acquitted. He also equates prizes as some sort of gold standard of outcome, which is strange because prize committees show exactly the sort of “bullshit” he decries in grant panels.

Similarly, when he argues for “tax credits to anyone – private citizen, corporation, foundation or NGO alike – for spending on arts and culture”, he seems to imply these don’t currently exist. In fact, they do. An individual donating to a DGR-status cultural organisation already receives a tax credit, while a non-profit NGO or foundation already pays no tax beyond the GST.

Two important new research reports from the Australia Council

With the excitement of Australia’s hung Parliament and everything I have been giving cultural policy matters a back seat for my writing on Australian politics itself.

Indeed, the election campaign has also obscured the release of two important research reports from the Australia Council on the state of artists’ incomes and career prospects in Australia.

On August 17th – in other words, during the last week of the election campaign – the Australia Council released the new reports, which it claims “offer a comprehensive picture of the working lives of Australian artists.”

The first, Do You Really Expct to Get Paid? is the latest in the long-running artists’ income survey conducted by eminent Macquarie University cultural economist David Throsby.  This is an important and extremely rich research research project, as it has been running for nearly three decades across five separate surveys.  The latest installment is particularly rewarding, offering fascinating insights and precious hard data on issues like artists’ basic demography, income levels, working hours, employment patterns, professional challenges and use of new technology. It’s a treasure trove of sociological information which I’ll be exploring here in more detail over the next few weeks.

Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs’ What’s Your Other Job?: A census analysis of artists’ employment in Australia is a very thorough and interesting dissection of available Australian Census data. But it inadvertantly shows up of one of the biggest policy  problems posed by the Australia Council by the methodological definitions it employs. Presumably at the request of the Australia Council itself, census definitions  used are not those the ABS uses in it Employment in Culture series, but rather a subset of those classifications that deal only with the artforms currently funded by the Australia Council: Chiefly literature, music, visual arts and crafts, theatre and dance, “cross-artform” arts, and design.

The relevant definitions are carefully explicated – but what it is significant is who is missing. If I read the definitions correctly,  whole swathes of the cultural sector are missing. There are no film-makers, no animators, no game designers or developers, no broadcasters or book or magazine publishers, no librarians or archivists, no journalists and no bloggers – nor any of the related professions that might be snobbishly considerd “non-artistic” but in fact are vital to the production and performance of the arts – jobs like sound recorders and producers, festival promoters, museum curators and film and TV producers.

In fact, the film and television sector appears to have been excluded altogether – a strange and arbitrary decision which appears to have more to do with existing policy ambit of the Australia Council than the relevance or cogency of this definition to the broader debate. After all, what is it exactly makes design more “artistic” than cinematography?

None of which is to criticise Cunningham and Higgs’ report, which still has some really interesting things to tell us – data I’m going to explore over the course of the next week or so.

What’s new in the Journal of Cultural Economy

The latest issue of the Journal of Cultural Economy is out, themed around the idea of “Assembling Culture”.

The editorial for this issue by Chris Healy and Tony Bennett is available online, and what an interesting issue it is too. Taking their cue from Bruno Latour’s rethinking of power and its agency, Bennett and Healy ask:

If the social does not exist as a special domain but as ‘a peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling’, what implications does this have for how ‘the cultural’ might best be conceived? Is this too usefully thought of as composed of distinctive processes of assembly giving rise to ‘cultural assemblages’ which produce and exercise particular kinds of power? If so, how are we to think the relations between such assemblages and those processes and forms through which the economy and the social are made up? What new ways of thinking the relations between culture, the economy and the social might be developed by pursuing such lines of inquiry? And what are there implications for the relations between culture and politics? And what, finally, are the limits of recasting the concerns of cultural analysis through the prism of assembly/ assemblage theory?
The edition itself contains a fascinating series of articles including Tim Rowse on the “ontological politics of closing the gaps”, Celia Lury on “Brand as Assemblage”, Gerard Goggin on “Assembling media culture: the case of mobile phones”, and GayHawkins on the politics of bottled water. Lots to get your teeth into here.

Bejmain Genocchio on Avital Oz in the New York Times



Avital Oz's “Linkage” (1982), left, and “Black Sun” (1980), from Benjamin Genocchio's review of his retrospective in the New York Times, courtesy of Art Sites.

Australian visual art audiences will no doubt be pleased to see art Australian critic Benjamin Genocchio writing for thew New York Times.

In a recent article, Genocchio reviews the work of noted minimalist Avital Oz, a former protege of Sol Le Witt. It’s typical of Genocchio’s stylish yet understated prose, which makes him one of our best art writers.

For those interested in Genocchio as a critic and writer, the ABC’s Ally Moore interviewed him last year (click forward to 19 minutes in the sound file). The interview canvasses resale royalty rights and why Genocchio thinks that any droit de suite will only benefit the estates of the top few artists. His most recent book is Dollar Dreaming, about the Australian Aboriginal visual art market.

Michael Berube on the trouble with cultural studies

There’s plenty, as seemingly everyone in the field seems to agree. Now we have Michael Berube at the Chronicle of Higher Education, arguing that:

Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978), the Birmingham collection that predicted the British Labour Party’s epochal demise, is now more than 30 years old. In that time, has cultural studies transformed the disciplines of the human sciences? Has cultural studies changed the means of transmission of knowledge? Has cultural studies made the American university a more egalitarian or progressive institution? Those seem to me to be useful questions to ask, and one useful way of answering them is to say, sadly, no. Cultural studies hasn’t had much of an impact at all.

I’m saying this baldly and polemically for a reason. I know there are worthy programs in cultural studies at some North American universities, like Kansas State and George Mason, where there were once no programs at all. I know that there is more interdisciplinary work than there was 25 years ago; there is even an entire Cultural Studies Association, dating all the way back to 2003. But I want to accentuate the negative in order to point out that over the past 25 years, there has been a great deal of cultural-studies triumphalism that now seems unwarranted and embarrassing.

Berube conludes by arguing that despite the fertile interdisciplinary links the movement has established, it appears to have exerted little influence on sociology in the US (followers of Paul Di Maggio might beg to differ); worse, “the situation is even bleaker if you ask about cultural studies’ impact on psychology, economics, political science, or international relations, because you might as well be asking about the carbon footprint of unicorns.”

I think there is actually much more cause for optimism than Berube admits. Even so,  this is a enjoyable and provoking little piece.

Andrew Ross’ No-Collar

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading Andrew Ross’ No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs , his early 2000’s book exploring the working lives of the employees of New York web consultancy Razorfish.

As usual with Ross’ work, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Ross has an effortless prose style that is simultaneously nuanced and succint, placing him somewhere between intelligent long-form journalism and engaged ethnography, though of course that term itself is a loaded one in the academic context of the sociology of work.

The book is some years old now and I don’t propose to thoroughly review it, but a couple of features are salient.

First is Ross’ ambivalence and curiosity about the nature of what a “good job” might constitute. Given the very different working conditions of most white- and blue-collar workers (again, taking these general and somewhat outdated terms very advisably),  he is understandably fascinated at the promise of what a really enjoyable work culture might provide. Continue reading

Nathan Jurgenson on Facebook, the transumer and liquid capitalism

Mark Bahnisch at Larvatus Prodeo has posted on Nathan Jurgenson’s blog post at Sociology Lens on Facebook, the transumer and liquid capitalism:

During this “great recession” capitalism might become lighter and more liquid while older and more solidified traditions wash away in the flux of unstable markets (potentially an economic “reboot,” similar to Schumpeter’snotion of capitalism as “creative destruction”). Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquidity” thesis about our late-modern world becoming more fluid seems relevant in light of the “transumer” and “virtual commodities”, both having received recent attention.

The transumer (video) is, in part, one who encounters “stuff” temporarily as opposed to accumulating it permanently. ZipcarNetflix and others mentioned articulate that for many, especially the young and/or wealthy, the physical amassing of “stuff” is unwanted and instead have begun to rent items people once accumulated. “Stuff”, for many, is decreasingly allowed to solidify on our shelves and in our attics, instead flowing in a more liquid and nimble sense through consumers’ lives.

Another article discusses the rise of “virtual goods” -digital commodities such as gifts on Facebook or weapons on World of Warcraft. Again, the trend is towards “lighter” exchange as opposed to the solid and heavier exchange of physical goods. Microsoft was Bauman’s example of “light capitalism”, producing light products such as software, which is, opposed to heavier items such as automobiles, more changeable and disposable. The proliferation of virtual goods also exemplifies this trend.

As Bahnisch points out, 

For quite some time, it’s been becoming easier to conceive of the commodity as something immaterial – a social relation – and indeed of economic value as a social construct. […] To cut a long story short, there is a real sense in which the concept of the ‘prosumer’ gestures towards a hypostasised economic (and social) relation as well as a blurring of borders between consumption and production of content and knowledge.

Philip Schlesinger on think-tanks and the policy process

From Philip Schlesinger, Professor of Cultural Policy at the University of Glasgow, comes a fine paper on think-tanks as cultural and policy institutions: “Creativity and the Experts: New Labour, Think Tanks, and the Policy Process.” It’s published in the January 2009 issue of The International Journal of Press/Politics, 14(3): 3-20.

This enviably well-written article looks at the phenomenon of UK think-tanks specifically from a creative industries perspective: an important topic, given the vast influence exerted by institutions like Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research on the Blair and Brown governments.

Those who work in think tanks, as policy advisers or consultants, are a tiny and select segment of the university-educated
intelligentsia. They operate within elite circles where the costs of entry to
knowledgeable policy discussion are high. Their exclusivity — or as Pierre Bourdieu (1986) would put it, their “distinction” — is based in the claims to expertise made by the ‘thinktankerati.’

Those who work in think tanks, as policy advisers or consultants, are a tiny and select segment of the university-educated intelligentsia. They operate within elite circles where the costs of entry to  knowledgeable policy discussion are high. Their exclusivity — or as Pierre Bourdieu (1986) would put it, their “distinction” — is based in the claims to expertise made by the ‘thinktankerati.’

Continue reading

Organising the musical canon: US symphony performances in the 19th and 20th centuries

Today, a look at one of the more interesting papers in the sociology of music of the last decade: Timothy Dowd, Kathleen Liddle, Kim Lupo and Anne Borden’s “Organizing the musical canon: the repertoires of major U.S. symphony orchestras, 1842 to 1969,” published in a special issue on music sociology in Poetics in 2002 (volume 30, issue 1-2).  

This impressive work of scholarship analyses 86,000 musical performances by 27 major US symphony orcehstras over more than a century. There’s a lot of fascinating discussion in this paper that draws on the work of Paul DiMaggio – but in terms of the data, the take-home message for me is that “the canon” is both more diverse and more stable than you might expect. Take the following data points, from Table 2 of this paper:

Top five composers accounting for the most performances in a given time period:


Mendelssohn (14.4); Beethoven (12.1); Weber (10.6); Mozart (8.6); Spohr (6.6). Combined percentage: 52%


Beethoven (15.0); Wagner (8.1); Liszt (7.4); Mendelssohn (7.1); Schumann (5.1). Combined percentage: 43%


Wagner (10.2); Beethoven (7.3); Brahms (4.9); Mozart (4.1); Strauss, R. (4.0). Combined percentage: 30%


Beethoven (8.8); Mozart (7.2); Brahms (5.5); Wagner (4.2); Tchaikovsky (3.4). Combined percentage: 29.1%


What does this tell us? What do you think?


Organizing the musical canon:
the repertoires of major U.S. symphony
orchestras, 1842 to 196  

The First ISA Forum of Sociology in Barcelona: some interesting abstracts in the sociology of the arts

Last September saw the first International Sociological Forum of Sociology held in Barcelona.

It’s a sobering excercise to examine the 8Mb PDF that contains the many hundreds of abstracts presented at he conference. It must have been a weighty tome when printed.

But contained in this document are a number of fascinating abstracts in the sociology of the arts.  Below the fold, I’ve reproduce just a few that caught my eye:


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