Painting by numbers: the danger of reducing the arts to their profitability

2454516079_bd293843d0_o Originally published by Contributoria on 1st May 2014.

With funding being cut left right and centre and arts education being increasingly marginalised in the national curriculum, the sector has been somewhat blighted over the last few years. But earlier this year, the Department for Culture Media and Sport had some rare good news in the form of a report detailing the arts’ contribution to the economy. Excluding the sums generated by marketing, advertising and IT (considered part of the creative industries), the arts added some £30 billion in value to the economy, up 3.5% on the previous year.

These figures only tell one side of the story though, with artists amongst the lowest paid professions in Britain, with 72% earning less than £10,000 a year; if they are their household’s sole earner it is very likely (especially for those based in London) that they are living below the poverty line. Artists are usually self-employed, and it is estimated that self-employed people who earn less than £100,000 a year have seen their average incomes drop by 31% since 2008.

The figures also help fuel an increasingly common narrative, which reduces the arts to the amount of revenue they generate. This is not a new trend, as the exorbitant fees paid for works on the art market continue to soar to dizzying levels – Christie’s latest contemporary art auction series made $782 million – art has become a commodity to be traded like oil or stocks and shares. In the context of austerity this has only been exacerbated, with the arts forced to justify their funding in terms of economic viability or visitor numbers. As the head of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Campbell puts it, arts practitioners should “make their case with metrics in a language businessmen understand”. I find the idea of artists behaving more like businessmen a little disconcerting; how can they exercise their creative freedom if all they are worried about is the bottom line?

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it is extremely limiting and risks derailing the innovation, risk-taking and creativity that makes so many successful pieces of work. Several of the most exciting and forward-thinking types of art are fundamentally incongruous with monetisation: pop-up performances cannot charge an entry fee; sound and video art are less saleable than a painting or sculpture; large-scale installations have inherently high costs and few revenue streams. Does this mean we should simply turn our back on these art forms that can’t be sold or generate ticket sales?

I’m all for greater accessibility, but I still think it’s wrong to assign arts funding based on visitor numbers alone, irrespective of artistic merit. This approach raises the prospect of lowest-common-denominator art and would restrict the expression of practitioners who would be less likely to push the boundaries. It would also put regional and small scale institutions at greater risk, and the deck is already stacked massively against them; the per-head public spending on culture is 15 times greater in London than it is outside the capital.

There has been a growing movement to validate the cost of the arts in terms of the health benefits they provide. Music therapy has been demonstrated to reduce anxiety and help the control of pain; one study found that heart-attack sufferers experienced decreased heart rate, respiratory rate, myocardial oxygen demand, and, in particular, anxiety after listening to 20 minutes of music. Visual art therapy has been demonstrated to be highly effective in cancer treatment by improving self-worth, helping patients come to terms with grief and focusing their minds of positive outcomes; all of which contribute to better clinical outcomes including better vital signs, diminished stress levels, and less medication needed to induce sleep.

Research has also suggested that participation in the arts induces happiness. But for me, the great thing about art is not just that it can make you happier – indeed, it can disturb and unsettle in equal measure – but that it has the power to challenge your belief systems, make you see the world in a different way and take you on an emotional journey.

Whilst all of this research into the health benefits of the arts is both welcome and laudable, I don’t think the arts should have to be justified in terms of a quantifiable benefit, either monetary or otherwise. I am a believer that culture empowers those it engages and enriches our society by orders of magnitude that simply cannot be measured. If we keep squeezing the arts for profits alone, our cultural lives will be much the poorer for it.

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