In his petite volume On Bullshit, American professor of moral philosophy Harry G. Frankfurt makes the point that public life is rife with ‘bullshit’, that is, a lack of concern with the truth and an ‘indifference to how things really are’. This notion of bullshit seems useful to describe the status of contemporary public debates around cultural policy in Britain, especially where the search for justifications for the cultural sector’s claims on the public purse are concerned.
Arguably, a lot of Frankfurt’s ‘indifference’ has gone into the policy arguments for the arts. Art can be seen as a reliable tool for engineering social inclusion; for the resolution of a host of social and psychological problems among the disaffected and excluded (however one might decide to identify them); and for the economic development of urban and rural localities. Statistical data and ‘evidence’ of the alleged powers of the arts to bring about both personal and social transformation have been dubiously collected, presented (and more often than that, misrepresented). They supported a line of argument seen as popular with the powers that be, which those looking for funding expediently followed. The sector has done very well out of this rhetorical bullshit in the age of New Labour.
However, Britain now has a new government, which – judging on manifesto declarations – has expressed a commitment to do away with the cult of targets and performance measurement that many see as the hallmark of the previous administration. This – if true - might seem a welcome relief from the imperative of impact assessment, over-evaluation and perhaps a sign that there might be light at the end of the instrumentalist tunnel. But is it really the case?
If we let go of the instrumental bullshit, what arguments are left? At present, not many, if any at all. The sector has relied for years on instrumental justifications that are now tarnished by lack of credibility. The intellectually stifled rhetoric of instrumentalism cannot be attributed solely to the small-mindedness and crass utilitarianism of decision-makers; the sector as a whole has in fact been complicit in affirming a ‘consensus of bullshit’.
Despite vocal protestations to the contrary, all actors involved in debates around the arts, culture and policy are probably more comfortable with a shift of emphasis away from the need to make a political argument for the financial support they receive and to articulate the value of their institutions and of what they do. This might be why, historically, they have preferred to move towards the ostensibly safer grounds of discussions of matters of socio-economic impact and its measurement. Researchers have been complicit too: many consultants and academics have been able to rely on a constant flow of business and commissions for studies on impact evaluation, toolkit development and implementation, etc.
However, we don’t have to put up with bullshit. Now is a good time to engage differently in the debate around the reasons why, as a society, we feel it is important to support the arts, even in difficult financial times. I think it is both possible and necessary to have a more honest debate about the place and functions of the arts in today’s society. It shouldn’t be cloaked in the language of policy advocacy or instrumentalism, but rather should tackle the big questions that surround the very concept of arts funding. Such questions as the kind of society that we want to live in and pass on to future generations, and what we value as people, not just tax-payers.
Firstly, we need more honesty about the fact that, as the reality of policy-making shows (as opposed to the rhetoric that surrounds it), decision-making in the cultural arena is in fact not really driven by ‘evidence’. The arts have been funded, or funded more, even though the general agreement that extant evidence of their impact is unsatisfactory. Those who are engaged in funding, running, and creating art in Britain need to be more open and more confident in explaining to the public the value, purpose and inspiring ideas behind what they do, rather than worrying about ways of measuring these things.
The impact debate has seriously misrepresented British culture as narrowly utilitarian in its assessment of what a legitimate expenditure of tax revenue on arts and culture might be. It is about time the sector rose to the challenge of presenting to the public the nature and importance of their work in the same terms in which they explain it to themselves.
This will require breaking the consensus of bullshit. We need honesty and openness about the values that really are at the core of our cultural institutions. We should humbly reject the inflated and unrealistic claims for what the arts can achieve (which are only going to raise expectations that the sector is never in fact ever going to be able to meet). Above, all, the sector should address the question of the lack of confidence that is currently plaguing it. Self-belief might be the way out of bullshit.