Opinion: The Misvaluing of the Humanities in the Policy Realm

Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston

Two weeks ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof extolled the virtues the humanities bring to a civil and progressive society; which is fair, just, and absolutely correct. The humanities should be extolled as that branch of human endeavour that gives shape and heft to the rest of political society. However, Kristof’s column also inadvertently displayed the poverty of current thinking about the value of arts and culture.

I don’t want to take away from Kristof’s good intentions, just to tease out the dark corollary to his process of thought – a form of thinking that turns on and kills cultural policy. This is particularly visible in Canada, and especially with our current business-centered style of government.

Kristof regards culture with a lens fundamentally informed by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) – i.e. that value comes from success. Through this lens, culture is a product quantified in discrete units: the thought of John Rawls; the writing of Isaiah Berlin. Each unit finds its particular value only in placement at a strategic point along a chain that make citizens reconsider their opinion on public policies. Culture is something that can only be understood in terms of production. In fact, he directly equates the two .

Paid to Fail: Culture and the Innovation Economy

In the STEM world, the process of eventual success is built on numerous instances of failure. This is ingrained into engineering and technology, because the eventual result is always some sort of tangible gain. Governments work to provide funds for science and innovation in hopes of raising the population’s overall ability. Canada has multiple funds and agencies, operating at every level of governance. It remains a constant theme of our federal budget, and of our political editorials.

By contrast, in the world of culture and art, nobody is paid to fail – in fact, people are barely paid at all. Kristof illuminates the value of cultural work thusly:

Our world is enriched when coders and marketers dazzle us with smartphones and tablets, but, by themselves, they are just slabs. It is the music, essays, entertainment and provocations that they access, spawned by the humanities, that animate them — and us.

But let’s compare the stark realities of the two professions. The poverty level of those in the cultural sector is sad, while that of practicing artists is startling. A 2009 Hill Strategies report noted the average annual income of practicing Canadian cultural sector workers is $32 900, 9% less than the overall average for all jobs. Artists earn on average $22 700 – 37% less than the Canadian overall labour force average of $36 300. Yet the average income for a software engineer, according to Service Canada, is $72 202. When someone in a STEM profession fails, they fail far above the poverty line.

Even if what you value is only the production of whole works of art or thought by exceptional people – what the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “expert performance” – how can a society plan to produce such things by fostering wages that often fall below the poverty line? We should at the very least be funding the sector enough that so that practitioners have room to grow. There’s a lot of work circulating these days about the “good jobs” model: organizations like Costco and Spain’s Mercadona are paying employees far above the prevailing market wage for their services, and asking employees to be flexible, adaptable. Empirically we know that this works – we are seeing a crop of industries thrive using just such a tactic of increasing personal productivity in workers. So if teaching employees to be flexible and paying them a strong, living wage can create success in a low-skill customer service position, what difference would it create in an arts and culture sector?

There is no substitute for practice in the performance of complex cognitive tasks. Even the most conservative estimate for the effectiveness of deliberate practice on artistic professions is a gain in performance of 21%. How many people are pushed out of their profession long before they can achieve the highest levels of skill?

What are we valuing?

As public policy practitioners, we understand that every decision is a cost-benefit calculation. Even a value of “priceless” is a value. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: what are we evaluating? Nicholas Kristof believes that he is valuing the process of questioning that the humanities breeds into us; but what he is actually valuing is the product of certain expert labours. For most people with “serious” jobs, arts and cultural skills are a type of ‘value-added’ skill that serves as a step along the process, a module that links to a more real and tangible piece of value.

What we need to be asking is the fundamental question “what are we measuring when we measure success in the arts”? In Canada we try to measure return-on-investment in a dollar basis, and we often under-fund and starve our cultural institutions. But as the Canadian Arts Coalition points out“Between 2000 and 2010, the information and cultural industries, and the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors experienced higher annual nominal GDP growth than the average annual growth rate of the Canadian business sector as a whole: 5.18% (information and cultural industries), 4.53% (arts, entertainment and recreation) and 4.10% (total Canadian business sector)”.

The metrics we use to measure success in arts and culture funding are based a bit in data, but also a bit in the dry, ancient assumptions about the arts being unnecessary or trivial. Richard Florida’s contribution to the field was to expand the scope of what was considered a success –  noting not simply how cultural industries grew, but also how that growth affected the cities around them. In asking the right question, he turned a minor thought (that skilled people want to live in culturally rich environments)  into a major externality in the field of cultural economics.

We want a CBC, but not one that can produce challenging documentaries or serve us with regional news. We fund artists, but on a granting basis – a funding model sprung directly out of our celebration of immediate successes, that puts less emphasis on lifelong development and training of artistic ‘veterans’. We spend roughly a quarter less on arts and culture per capita than the United States.

We need to ask not simply what the arts and culture sector can offer us in labour, but what the arts and culture do to the broader fabric of society. In what ways does participation enrich the lives of non-artists? Would it make us a more ethical society? Less corrupt? More equitable? Would a real policy push for valuing self-expression make a dent in the estimated $50 billion dollar/year cost of mental health issues?

We should be asking more questions on this subject. Ironically, we might have needed to progress to the present-day preoccupation with economic thought and evidence-based policy to genuinely get a good look at quantifying the elusive value of the arts and culture sector.

Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston is a Master of Pubic Policy graduate and a former Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Public Policy & Governance Review.  He previously achieved a Bachelor of Humanities and M.A. in Literature from Carleton University. His work has been published in the Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Xpress, and the Globe and Mail.