The Arts as a Vocation

National Cultural Policymaking in a Time of Uncertain Everything

in Museum Worlds
Author:
Julian Meyrick Professor, Griffith University, Australia

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Abstract

This article is a revised version of the 2022 Michael Volkerling Memorial Lecture. It offers insights for the GLAM sector into the history of Australian national cultural policy (NCP), now in a new phase with the delivery of Revive in January 2023. It draws on the author's experience as a theatre director, a researcher into evaluation methods, and a policy activist to reflect on the challenges facing cultural policies at the current time. If arts organizations confront tough questions about diversity and inclusion, what happened to the economic ones of market efficiency and value-add that seemed all-consuming just a few years ago? The article utilizes Max Weber's conception of “a vocation” to reconsider the aims and purpose of an NCP. As the world contends with problems of entrenched inequality, catastrophic climate change, and democratic deficit, how can cultural policies, as distinct from other kinds, address these? Should they even try?

The only person who has a vocation for politics is one whose spirit will not be broken if the world proves too stupid to accept what they offer it, but still says “Nevertheless!”

—Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation

This article is a modified version of my Michael Volkerling Memorial Lecture delivered at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in November 2022. The tone, content, and timing of my remarks require some post facto framing. In being invited to give the lecture, I was asked to address the history of national cultural policy (NCP) in Australia with a view to what insights Aotearoa New Zealand might obtain, the GLAM sector in particular. In the event, it offers something rather different: a swinging punch at the ethos of Australian cultural policymaking, and trenchant skepticism about its capacity to achieve socially progressive outcomes given the narrow idea of value on which it is based. In other words, I provide a provocation rather than systematic analysis. In doing so, I draw on my tripartite background as a researcher into evaluation processes, a practicing theatre artist, and a cultural policy activist. I claim no special authority in any of these domains separately, but their combination is comparatively rare. It allows me to triangulate my experience in a hopefully illuminating way. The validity of my generalizations is a matter of empirical investigation for those in the GLAM sector. People will have different experiences to mine. What I provide are forthright views to be tested and/or contested against these.

In the endnotes I give select details of my track record as a researcher, theater director, and policy activist.1 Much of my academic research into evaluation is methodological, often painfully so. It investigates the problems artists and cultural organizations face when they have to “demonstrate the benefits they generate” within the coercive parameters of contemporary assessment procedures. These are neoliberal ones, in both Australia and New Zealand. So much has been written about neoliberalism as a world view and a calculative logic that I felt it redundant to address that political formation in my lecture (and article) directly. A number of my academic publications do so (for example, Meyrick et al. 2023), while two nodal texts to which I regularly turn, Will Davies’ The Limits of Neoliberalism (2014) and Wendy Brown's In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019), provide authoritative deeper analysis.

As one of the last sectors to be captured by neoliberal policymaking, some practitioners in GLAMs seem reluctant to admit either that this is the calculative logic they confront, or that there is anything wrong with it. This explains, though it may not entirely excuse, the tone of my article, which is relentlessly critical. I want to wake up those in arts and culture to the fact that there is a fundamental problem with the evaluative environment in which we operate, and that “being positive” is not helpful when engaging the challenge of systemic change. To give depth to my remarks—to elevate them from summary opinion to a glimpse of an alternative understanding of the value of culture—I draw on Max Weber's concept of “a vocation.” His two celebrated lectures on science and politics in 1918 and 1919 respectively found a response in Wendy Brown's Tanner lectures, delivered on the same themes, in 2019. In raising the idea of an artistic vocation, I aim at greater social gravitas for the choice of being an artist, and to propose, as Weber and Brown do, that the profession must be valued in its own terms first rather than being subjected to endless requests to demonstrate its benefits using generic measures (“efficiency” criteria, cost-benefit analysis, etc.).

The concept of a vocation radically changes the idea of value related to it. Having a vocation is different from having rights. The latter, which is the basis for much current global cultural policymaking, is a matter of legal-political negotiation. Cultural rights are externally bestowed. An artistic vocation, by contrast, arises as a point of coherence within a profession. It is claimed by someone when they join a community of practice. Anna Yeatman calls professions “stewards of particular human goods,” and argues that they are historically contingent. If a profession does not exist in a certain way, we do not have access, as a society, to the human goods it can provide. She writes: “The core idea of professionalism is that it represents service to the public good both as a whole and as this whole is differentiated into distinctive public goods” (Yeatman 2018b: 204).

Being able to generate benefits is a key rationale for claiming a vocation. But this is closely associated with adhering to the principles by which professions define themselves as goods-in-themselves. Their value is not separable from their values, and no calculative logic can meaningfully measure the benefits they provide without engaging the normative reasoning behind their self-identity. There is, thus, both compatibility and difference between the concept of an artistic vocation and the concept of cultural rights, such that both are useful in repositioning arts and culture as having genuine public value.

Finally, in respect of its timing, aspects of my article are already out of date. No Heraclitian river runs swifter than policymaking when a new government takes office bent on even mild reform. Australian federal Labor—only a year into its first term at the time of writing—is delivering new money and new thinking to a cultural sector long starved of them. These challenge some of the critical remarks I make here. Good. A government exceeding (low) expectations is better than a government falling short of them, as was the case with the three Coalition (conservative) ones Australia endured from 2013 to 2022. The neoliberal calculative logic they adopt, however, has not significantly changed, so I believe the main thrust of my argument retains its relevance.

Revive

In January 2023, Australia's federal arts minister, Tony Burke, delivered Revive (Australian Government 2023), the country's latest national cultural policy. Based on five “pillars”—effectively, priority areas of funding—the document is the successor to the short-lived Creative Australia (Australian Government 2013) that appeared in April 2013 and remained in place until Labor lost power to the Coalition in October the same year. Even before Labor returned to office in May 2022, consultation for the next national cultural policy was underway. In this article, I offer some insights for the GLAM sector into that process and reflect on the wider challenges of contemporary cultural policymaking from the perspective of someone who is a professional theatre director, a researcher specializing in evaluation methods in the arts, and a cultural policy activist.

The history of Australian cultural policymaking is unimpressive (Meyrick and Barnett 2017). A number of Western governments established arts agencies after WWII, in recognition of the right of their citizens to a level of public provision of culture (Upchurch 2016). By contrast, Australia's first national funding body, the Australian Elizabethan Arts Trust, was not founded until 1954, and was limited in scope and resources. Not until Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister in 1972 did matters change significantly (Meyrick 2017). The Australia Council for the Arts was made a statutory authority, and its annual budget doubled. But these halcyon days were short-lived, and since the 1970s, public assistance to the arts has declined (Pennington and Eltham 2021). Despite having the highest median wealth in the world, Australia is just twenty-third out of 34 OECD countries in respect of its cultural expenditure (Artshub 2022). Though it can claim the first fully fledged national cultural policy in the world—Creative Nation (Australian Government 1994), launched by the Keating government in 1994—arts and culture have been a fitful government commitment, long on florid rhetoric, short on substantive investment (McGahey 2016).

To appreciate the moment we are in, it is useful to have a historical point from which to draw some bearings. I take 28 January 1919, the date on which German sociologist Max Weber gave his famous lecture, “Politics as a Vocation” (Weber [1919] 2004: 32–94), the title of which is echoed by my own, “The Arts as a Vocation.” Before explaining why I choose Weber's lecture as an orientation point, I should say that, were he to read the above complaint, he would reply “what did we expect? What did we imagine politics to be?” Famously, he called politics “a slow drilling through hard boards” (ibid.: 93), so that the expectation that engagement with policymaking will produce neat and timely outcomes is not only an illusion, but one of the failed utopian imaginings of political activism against which he so sternly warns.

Rather than dwelling on failures and setbacks, a better tack is to see cultural policy as a common endeavor in which all contributions are subsumed and carried to a new destination by what Jean-Jacques Rousseau calls the general will (Rousseau [1672] 1998). The hyper-individualism of the contemporary era is not useful here, nor its preoccupation with thought leaders, pacesetters, influencers, gurus. The fate of one policy is less important than whether we think we are heading towards, or away from, better understanding of the culture we are trying to have a policy about. What matters is the improvement cycle. This is a different measure of success, more forgiving, yet more probing. It asks not for spotlit individual contribution but honest collective self-assessment. There are parts of our lives where we do things just for ourselves and are judged accordingly. Cultural policy is not one of them. I joke that cultural policy is where artists go to support other artists whose work they do not particularly like.

“Politics as a Vocation” was delivered 105 years ago. Reading it now is a humbling experience. Weber is intelligent, perceptive, and direct. Terrible violence characterized his moment. The workers’ uprising in Berlin had been suppressed two weeks before, and one of its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg, was murdered by right-wing thugs. For those who imagine the rise of the Nazis was a surprise, Weber told his listeners, “What lies before us is … a polar night of icy darkness and harshness, whichever group may outwardly turn out the victor … When this night slowly begins to recede, how many will still be alive of all those for whom the spring had seemed to bloom so gloriously?” (Weber [1919] 2004: 93).

Focusing on the past as a series of discrete moments is an antidote to the obsessive now-ism of the contemporary era, which remembers selectively, when it remembers at all. The year 1919 must surely go down as one of the least successful in human history. How many people can explain the causes of WWI in which 30 million people died? Or the Great Depression, whose economic and political conditions Western nations have been assiduously recreating in recent decades? I ask not to aggravate, but to indicate how terrifying it is to lose the moral thread of our collective decision making, to know that we did things, and even what we did—but not know why.

A Vocation in the Arts

The theme of Weber's lecture is politics as a life choice and mode of contribution to public affairs. It is a companion to his “Science as a Vocation” lecture (Weber [1919] 2004: 1–31), where he deals with the same topic in respect of academic knowledge. In both cases, he is not concerned with particular regimes or disciplines, but with politics and science as world views, offering special attraction for certain individuals but conferring wider benefit when engaged for the common good. He uses the German word Beruf, which in the Lutheran tradition of Weber's background, although he was not a religious man, conveys to “serve God through earthly practices.” Both lectures describe the kind of person who can be said to have a vocation in politics and science, and the kind of thinking and methods having one imposes.

To have a vocation is to be called to a mission beyond the self, yet one that rewards the self to the extent it can be sustained in that vocation. It is to be part of an imperfect, disappointing, difficult, collective enterprise in which fortitude and flexibility are key to achieving non-harmful ends. The political philosopher Wendy Brown writes that, against the nihilism of the current era, Weber offers “not hope, but grit” (Brown 2019b). Above all, a vocation means being aware of the nature of the activity to which one is called, its promises and pitfalls, its sense of deeper purpose and identity. In the case of politics, this is provided by a relation to power, and three qualities a politician with a genuine vocation must possess: passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.

My challenge is this: What does it mean to think of the arts as a vocation? What provides cultural activities with their deeper purpose and identity? What qualities should we look for in those with a genuine vocation in the arts? I refer not only to artists, but to those who practice all manner of different roles in every part of the cultural sector, whether the performing arts, communication media, or galleries, libraries, archives, and museums.

Before answering those questions, I touch on three topics. The first is the last 50 years of Australian cultural policy as it has spluttered through a cycle of conceptual inadequacy, budgetary incapacity, and political mistiming. Problems now press on the GLAM sector from all sides: governance, maintenance of infrastructure, program sustainability, social expectations. We can add the ubiquitous “adapting to change,” though that battered phrase is used to label everything from tweaking grant procedures to responding to climate catastrophe. We live at the super-soluble end of liquid Modernity where there are few points of continuity. Everything is in flux, always. When change is constant and open-ended, it no longer provides a point of concrete aspiration. So, I avoid prophetic utterances about History with a capital H, and being on the right or wrong side of it. We are where we are. The question is not what will happen in the future. The question is what should we do now to make the future we want to see?

Secondly, I compare Australia's journey with international cultural policy and the UN's current interest in what it calls “global public goods” (Sabzalieva and Quinteiro 2022). The activist aim is to see culture become the eighteenth UN Sustainable Development Goal. I draw on the work of Justin O'Connor to sketch the timeline and trends of this trajectory, which involves tensions between Global North and Global South, concepts of tangible and intangible heritage, culture as turbocharged driver of economic development, and the sliding of the word “creativity” from a quality of cultural practice to an ingredient in the product innovation cycle (O'Connor forthcoming, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2016).

As the Washington Consensus disintegrates further in the face of another global downturn, culture emerges as a point of redress. Previously lost in a thicket of “jobs and growth” statistics showing its “returns” to deindustrialized, low-productivity service economies, culture steps forward with a mitigating social role to play. Thus far this policy narrative isn't very evolved, at least in Australia. There is discussion of culture in relation to health, wellbeing, and community cohesion. It can go much further, however, and have universal embrace. As O'Connor said recently to a conference on policy reform: “To reimagine cultural policy is to reimagine the world” (O'Connor forthcoming: n.p.).

Thirdly, I offer remarks on my own area of expertise: evaluation methodologies. For a decade now I have been studying approaches to measuring art and culture that are overblown, under-contextualized, politically oblivious, or frankly absurd (see especially Meyrick et al. 2018). The belief in the ability of “data” to inform “evidence-based policymaking” looked dubious when I started. Today it looks fantastical. This does not mean data and evidence have no role to play in cultural policy. It means the scope of their authority and what philosophers call their “veridical truth” is more limited than we typically suppose. But to come between a cultural organization and its proofs of worth is to come between a drunk and a bottle. Reason flies out the window, replaced by a gaggle of conflicting justifications that Sigmund Freud dubbed “kettle logic”: the data is incomplete but better than nothing; is methodologically bogus but politically necessary; won't be accepted but must be seen as having been gathered. And so on.

These topics are interlinked. The history of Australian cultural policy is the history of a failure to develop appropriate value methodologies. It is also its failure to accept the cultural responsibilities associated with several important international agreements. Meanwhile, in the debate between Global North and Global South, postcolonial nations like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada show characteristics of both camps, and might be described as “economically developed yet culturally fragile.” As their settlement histories have come back to haunt them, their identities as branch cultures of a once-imperial power prove increasingly unsatisfactory. What can Australia offer international cultural policy mediated through its own national experience? What can we all learn from broader discussion about better evaluation methods upon which cultural activities are propped like a wobbly tabletop?

National Culture Policymaking in Australia

Table 1 brings together two different horizons of cultural policymaking. In regular type are the major cultural policies of the Australian government from 1976 to now. In bold type, are the international ones over the same period. I put dates, titles, and authors in separate columns. Perhaps the most intriguing column is “rhetorical style.” Voice in cultural policy is a decisive factor. It influences not only the distribution of scare resources to cultural organizations and individual artists, but the meaning of that support, what is conferred by way of public purpose and expectations. These are always particular, never generic. Cultural policies are neither iterative nor interchangeable. A health or education policy developed for Finland or South Korea might share similarities with one for Australia or New Zealand. That is starkly untrue of a cultural policy, and not only on the level of content. The entire outlook of the document will reflect a distinctive understanding of the world and a way of being in it. This is what makes talk of “global standards” and “international benchmarks” in respect of cultural policy nonsensical. However, there are points of comparison, if we match like with like, and are careful interpreting the results. So, the regular type and bold type rows do offer insights. What might these be?

Table 1.

Key Australian vs. Key Select International Cultural Policy Documents.

Date Name Content Authors Rhetorical Style
1970 Intergovernmental Conference on Institutional, Administrative & Financial Aspects of Cultural Policies “The conference marked the start of a movement for cultural development that has spread throughout the world…” unesco expansive
1976 Report on Assistance to the Performing Arts “The terms of this inquiry ask whether assistance should be accorded the performing arts and, if so, its nature and extent.” The Industries Assistance Commission neoliberal
1982 Mondiacult ’82. World Conference on Cultural Policies “The Mexico declaration positioned culture not just as crucial anthropological context but as central to the very definition of human progress. Any development which stressed economic or technological progress was not progress at all.” 126 member states of unesco public democratic
1986 Patronage, Power and the Muse (McLeay Report) “The Committee's intention was to review the broad effectiveness and efficiency of the procedures for delivery of Commonwealth assistance to the arts [and]… the administration of arts support.” The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure bureaucratic & neoliberal
1988–1997 unesco's “Decade of Cultural Development” “The Decade saw the growth of post-independence activism in the Global South, newly energized… ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe, and the expansion of ‘cultural democracy’ movements in the Global North” unesco aspirational
1994 Creative Nation: Commonwealth Cultural Policy “We recognise that the ownership of a heritage and identity, and the means of self-expression and creativity, are essential human needs and essential to the health of society.” Department of Communication and the Arts grand national vision & neoliberal
1999 Securing the Future: Final Report of the Major Performing Arts Inquiry “The Inquiry [was] charged with… making recommendations on actions that can be taken both by governments and the sector to ensure that Australia has a financially healthy, artistically vibrant and broadly accessible major performing arts sector.” A Ministerially- appointed committee (business oriented) technocratic & neoliberal
2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity “The Declaration affirmed that culture was ‘a source of exchange, innovation and creativity… which is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature’.” unesco grand international vision
2005 unesco Convention “The 2005 Convention echoed the aspirations of the Mexico Declaration two decades previously, but is more explicit about the economic realities of cultural goods and services.” unesco defensive & neoliberal-ish
2008 & 2010 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development reports “Global trade was beneficial, generating the growth that older models of… import replacement, nationalisation and state planning within a more equitable international social order had simply failed to deliver.” unctad technocratic & neoliberal
2013 Creative Australia “Creative Australia aims to ensure that the cultural sector—incorporating all aspects of arts, cultural heritage and the creative industries—has the skills, resources and the resilience to play an active role in Australia's future.” Commonwealth government grand national vision & technocratic

A main one is that Australia is an early adopter of a neoliberal view of culture, though it was more likely to be called “economic rationalist” when Donald Horne coined the term in 1976 to describe members of Gough Whitlam's government who had an elective affinity for free market economics (Stokes 2014). The Industries Assistance Commission (IAC) is the predecessor to today's Productivity Commission. I have carefully examined the Assistance to the Performing Arts report (IAC 1976). Its framing of arts and culture as consumer goods best left to unregulated markets to provide is a rhetorical strain in cultural policy never repudiated thereafter. The McLeay Report (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia 1986), which announced multi-year funding for major cultural organizations, and Creative Nation in 1994, which united the ministerial portfolios of Communication and the Arts, reproduce the IAC's economic key-stoning and its “market first” approach. Creative Nation is remembered for what I call its “grand national vision.” However, it was its positioning of culture as a driver of the economy that proved internationally influential. Advisors to Tony Blair, about to fight an election in Britain, took note of Australia's national cultural policy, the first of its kind. They fed it into a creative economy paradigm that was part of a “third way” agenda, “based on a rejection of Labour's socialist history, an acceptance of the basic tenets of neoliberal ideology, and a semi-official rebranding of the party as a wholly ‘New’ entity” (Niven 2021).

Creative Australia in 2013 was in place only for a few months, and so its impact is hard to judge. As befits a country implicated in the Global Financial Crisis but slow to feel its effects, the economism of previous documents is muted. In this policy, markets play a decisive role in managing culture, but governments play a decisive role in managing markets. Its rhetorical style is technocratic. In the nine years of Coalition rule from October 2013 to May 2022, no cultural policy of consequence was enacted. You need to go back to the 1950s, when having a cultural policy was equated with Communism, to find similar official inertia.

The international trajectory is a little different. The Mexico Conference of 1982, drawing on a string of regional conferences in the previous decade, advocated for culture on grounds of regional equity, social diversity, and national identity. Culture is a matter of legal rights, not market provision, a civilizational counterweight to the avidity of global economic expansion. This prompted a UNESCO-sponsored “decade of cultural development” in the 1990s, fed by awareness of the uneven pace of economic development across the northern and southern hemispheres, a resurgent capitalist West, and a newly non-socialist East. It culminated in the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity in 2001.

From 2005 onward, the creative economy paradigm, migrating from Britain across the globe, spread the idea that culture is not a palliative to economic development, but a powerful driver of it. After the GFC, these policies also acquired a technocratic flavor, with governments pump-priming their creative industries to pump-prime the wider economy. Justin O'Connor writes:

In the new paradigm, there was no contradiction between culture and economy, and no need to seek balance or even protection—what was good for the economy was good for culture. Win, win… [But] the expansion of global cultural trade has not floated all boats … Developing countries face formidable challenges which cannot be wished away in the rush to positive advocacy … The Global North has first mover advantage … [and] the 1980s saw a massive expansion of global communications infrastructure with high degrees of concentration [there] … Everybody might be creative, but that does not mean they all equally have the means to thrive in a local creative economy. (O'Connor forthcoming: n.p.)

The intersection with Australian cultural policy is not only the equating of arts and culture with their economic impact. That would be an easy mistake to fix. It lies in the collusion of the creative economy with the wider economization of daily life that is the chief feature of neoliberalism. Post-COVID, however, the focus of international cultural policy has swung back to the 1982 Mexico Conference. The recent Mondiacult Declaration reaffirms the principles of equity, diversity, and identity put forward 40 years ago. The message of Australia's latest national cultural policy is unclear (Meyrick 2023). Can Revive escape the pull of its neoliberal past? Hopefully it can, though the contrast in tone with the Mondiacult Declaration is striking.

Table 2.

Statement from Mondiacult Final Declaration, 2022 vs. Statement from Revive, 2023.

“We call on the UN Secretary General to firmly anchor culture as a global public good, and to integrate it as a specific goal in its own right in the development agenda beyond 2030 and, to this end, we ask the Director-General of unesco to… strengthen advocacy for the inclusion of culture in the UN Future Summit… echoing unesco's founding mandate to ‘build peace in the minds of men and women’ through social justice and human dignity.”









unesco World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development – mondiacult 2022 (28–30 September 2022, Mexico City)

Draft Final Declaration



Rhetorical style: public democratic
“Australian stories have global resonance—as demonstrated by our in-demand screen, literature and music industry and game development creatives… Promoting Australia to international audiences as a desirable location for creative investment and activity, including collaboration and coproduction, brings significant opportunities for economic growth and professional skills development across the sector. Overseas markets also provide a significantly larger audience pool for Australian artists and greater opportunity to leverage extra revenue by engaging global audiences and markets.”



Revive: section “Engaging the Audience”



Launched by federal Labor, January 2023





Rhetorical style: unclear

The Rhetoric of Neoliberal Policymaking

I won't define neoliberalism or defend my use of the term. There is a substantial body of scholarship around it from a variety of perspectives (for example, Brown 2019a; Davies 2014; Mirowski and Nik-Khah 2017; Pusey 1991). The point is that in Australian cultural policymaking there are perdurable neoliberal tendencies that compromise it in significant ways. In cultural policies there is always more than one rhetorical strain involved. It is not a question of choosing between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. A nation will always want both. But which strain is dominant is crucial, and it is important that those working in the GLAM sector understand that this is the lens through which their worth is judged.

The first rhetorical strain is a consumerist conception of value. The economist Mariana Mazzucato addresses the problem in The Value of Everything, the first part of which is a historical account of theories of value in modern economics (Mazzucato 2018: 21–100). The key event is the so-called Marginalist Revolution of the late nineteenth century. Until this time, value was associated with the labor that went into making capital productive, the “labor theory of value.” Marginalist economics, which is modern economics, transposed value to the point of market exchange and made it identical to consumer choice. The value of a product is equated with its price. A number of different ideas are swept into one box. Utility, preference, benefit, and scarcity are terms with different meanings and implications. Modern economics conflates them all, just as it conflates, under conditions of market equilibrium, what is feasible with what is desirable. It calls the result “value,” and in doing so renders the concept entirely subjective. Anything consumers will pay for has value, in direct proportion to the price it will fetch. Mazzucato comments that:

Defining everything that commands a price as valuable led to the … conclusion that what you get is what you are worth. Profits are not determined by exploitation but by technology and the “marginal product of capital”… [This] view diverted attention from the tensions between capital and labour, and ultimately from alternative theories on the sources and distribution of value … The neoclassical theory of value has not changed much in the last one hundred years … On the basis of contemporary economic assumptions, we can no longer reliably say who creates value and who extracts it and therefore how the proceeds of production—income—should reasonably be distributed. (Mazzucato 2018: 69–71)

Modern economics empties the concept of value of substantive meaning. In its place, it puts a mathematical theory of consumer preferences. If you work for a cultural organization, read Mazzucato's book. Next time you are faced with a spreadsheet of subscribers, spectators, readers, eyeballs, and footfalls, pause before assuming these numbers reflect the value of the cultural activity in question. Believing they do is the result of a hundred years of indoctrination around an impoverished concept of value, motivated by a desire to avoid the difficult choices involved if the problem is faced in its full intellectual complexity (for more on the valorization of numbers in policymaking, see Poovey 1998).

The second rhetorical strain is a “dis-institutionalizing” one. In part this flows from a consumerist concept of value, though it also has its own unique origins. These lie in what Weber calls “monocratic, bureaucratic administration” (Weber 1947: 337). If the benefit to the consumer is the totality of value, it is only logical that all prior steps to providing that benefit are seen as costs to be minimized or eliminated. The market mechanism is a delivery mechanism. It has no value in itself. Its institutions are divisible sets of functions that can, and should, be rearranged to ensure that maximum value is provided, that is, the greatest ratio of costs to benefits, reflected in market prices as perceived by consumers. If you can detect here the spectral justification of a hundred thousand organizational restructures to come, you'd be right. Institutions are fluid and divisible, and the goods and services they provide are substitutes for each other. Not only do cultural organizations compete against “smarter, leaner” organizations, they compete against all other activities consumers might conceivably do by way of gaining an analogous benefit. Culture, like anything else, like everything else, is infinitely replaceable.

In case you think this is an exaggeration for the purposes of argument, consider this passage in the IAC Assistance to the Performing Arts report:

Much of the evidence received [assumed] that certain art forms and activities are primarily cultural ends in themselves rather than mainly means to cultural ends … [The] performing arts … provide psychological, emotional or intellectual stimulation and other forms of personal satisfaction to individuals. However, [these] … do not, of themselves, justify public assistance … There are many other activities which serve the same purpose . . . These include reading and a growing number of alternatives such as cinema, foreign travel, and sporting and recreational facilities … Once government assistance can be claimed for entertainment, the drain on resources would be endless. (IAC 1976: 12)

A number of rotten eggs are gathered in this basket, including the assumption that market provision is best and customers are never wrong. However, it is the mood of obdurate skepticism, putting cultural institutions on the back foot for being such, that is so familiar to the Australian GLAM sector. In a dis-institutionalized view of value, it is the job of cultural organizations to convince policymakers as to why they should exist. The term for this is “instrumentalism,” and like the consumerist concept of value, it robs policymaking of substance. In this case, it is debate about policy ends, what the Chinese call “the other side of the river.” Instrumental policymaking is always looking to swap out for alternatives that are more beneficial or cheaper, or more beneficial because they are cheaper, while organizations are reduced to minimal agency: the platform. Nothing has value, it only provides it, and that includes all institutions, histories, communities, and social groups. Everything is a means to an end. As discussion about means under neoliberalism becomes rigid and ideological, discussion of policy ends is neglected or dismissed as a matter of individual choice.

But there are no swap-outs for certain things. When human action lays waste to the natural environment, there is nothing that can replace it, and we know it. We then face debate about what Weber calls “ultimate values” (Weber 1948: 51). In monocratic, bureaucratic administrative states, which have been disenchanted by a loss of religious faith and robbed of their capacity for meaning-making by rational science, politics is the arena for managing the resulting value pluralism. In his vocation lecture, Weber emphasizes the fateful nature of modern politics. He insists on “an ethic of responsibility” contrasting it with “an ethic of conviction” ([1919] 2004: 90). It is not that politicians should lack principles. It is that they are personally accountable for the consequences when these are pursued. because it is politics that arbitrates what value finally means.

Weber is surely correct. No efficiency algorithm can decide between different social uses of the same resources, though it may contribute to their framing. It is a category mistake to imagine that a policy's authority emerges from the validity of its evidence. It is the other way around. Proof is always proof to someone. Data is rejectable unless there is an underlying social process that confers upon it shared meaning, significance, and truth. Cultural policy is therefore not “beyond” politics. It is inherently political. Any attempt to rule it off from politics only entrenches the cultural order in place when that ruling-off occurs. What we want from a cultural policy, including its evaluation strategies, is a real cultural politics, one that can participate in, and contribute to, a debate about culture's purpose and ultimate values.

The final rhetorical strain reflects the national narrative in which Australian cultural policy has been implicated for half a century. The arts sector likes to draw its identity from its singular nature. Whether celebrated or decried, it thinks of itself as “the cultural exception.” I have no doubt that culture is special, but the story of Australian cultural policy under neoliberalism is depressingly similar to other domains. Starting with the abolition of tariff protections in the 1970s, Australia embraced a “market first” approach not only to its economy, but to society. Deindustrialization followed in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of the adoption of the doctrine of comparative advantage. This was accompanied by abolition of controls on currency and share markets, leading to a derivatives-trading boom, and the underinvestment in productive capital that comes with financialization. Reductions in social welfare programs and privatization of public assets after the Coalition came to power in 1996 further undermined ideas of public value and public good that drove the post-War Keynesian consensus around a “just society.” Above all, there was insistence on the primacy of the individual as the atomic unit of the nation—Margaret Thatcher's “there is no such thing as society”—and the instilling of a principle of competition in all areas of collective life. Social thinker Anna Yeatman writes: “Competition policy is the quintessential expression of the economic imperialism … of neoliberal thought … The effect … is to cancel the distinction between public and private sectors, thereby bringing about a situation where the … nature of ‘publicness’ can be neither talked about nor comprehended” (Yeatman 2018a: 109).

Today, there is growing awareness that neoliberalism has failed to deliver. New industries have not sprung up to replace those allowed to go to the wall. Income inequality was not reduced as the Kuznets curve spuriously claimed, wealth inequality even less so (Piketty 2020). The abandonment of full employment consigns a section of the population to either perpetual unemployment or penurious underemployment, a figure between three and ten percent. Yet far from ameliorating this outcome of its policy choices by using wealth transfers, the Australian government has done the opposite: blamed the disadvantaged for their own condition in an egregious act of psychological displacement (the Robodebt scandal is only the most visible of these repressive measures).

In short, Australia's national narrative involves very negative outcomes for decisions taken by a small elite, first in response to the stagflation of the 1970s and the fear of the loss of Western economic supremacy, second, to the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and the capitalist triumphalism this unleashed. All good things come to an end sooner or later, bad things too. The GFC, Brexit, the rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe and Asia, the social disarray of the US and the UK, the diplomatic brinkmanship of Russia and China, the global pandemic. It is so, so over, the neoliberal story. Now Australia faces what everyone faces after they have made a string of bad decisions: the consequences.

In cultural policy, we need a historical analysis not only of what governments have done in the arts but what they have done to them. Debates about funding have been rendered viciously redistributive. It is always artist against artist, institution against institution, art form against art form. Weber writes that modern policymaking replaces loyalty to persons with fidelity to norms. Administrative decisions have a disembodied quality. Unlike political ones, they are not readily contested or defied. They are the perfect place to hide bias in a process that might be labelled “power laundering.” Raw power goes in one end, seemingly neutral decisions come out the other. All the social and historical features of culture, expressed in customs and beliefs, institutions and communities of practice, intergenerational memories, craft transmission, and distinctive, collective, national features, are dissolved within a mode of datafied policymaking whose politically troubling features are buried deep within bureaucratic protocols.

Averages, aggregates, weightings, confected formulae and variables: these are the tricks of mainstream economics since Alfred Marshall tried to claim for it the mantle of science by adopting the mathematics Isaac Newton used for the laws of physics. The value produced by numerical quantification masks the values imposed by underlying assumptions. The methods are powerful and imperializing, insisting on the accountability of those they entangle. Yet it is a rare day when they are held to account themselves. It is this baffling asymmetry that is so draining to contend with for those in GLAMs. Monocratic bureaucratic administration is antipathetic to all forms of what we call “traditional knowledge,” where historically particular orders of understanding are at stake. Who speaks, when, how, and why, are questions vital in such communities, but Weber's system of rationalizing rule is indifferent or hostile to them.

How to find a better way of making cultural policy? The first step, as in an AA meeting, is to give up trying to control culture, and let it talk for itself. The era of unbridled data-speak must be brought to a close. The question for the future—for a future we might want to see—is what should replace it?

Concluding Remarks

Cultural policies have been handed in like homework and handed down like court judgements. They have been launched like space rockets and ocean liners. Now they are “dropped,” which says a lot about the mood of the contemporary moment. “Going forward,” as politicians like to say, as if it were possible through some temporal glitch to go sideways, or even backwards. Everyday metaphors tell us a lot about how we are feeling while remaining out of full awareness. Their associations sit beneath our conscious minds, shaping our opinions and dispositions. This is what it means to live in uncertain times, when even our language radiates unease and instability.

To change the government, Paul Keating once remarked, is to change the nation. The coming to power of federal Labor in 2022 brought with it an instant switch of policy focus in Australia, at least on the surface. Both during the election and afterwards, Prime Minister Albanese made clear his intention to formally accept the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and recognize the sovereignty of First Nations people over the land that today we call Australia. This has provided new impetus to the Voice, Treaty, and Truth process as Australians head toward a plebiscite on constitutional change.

I am not a First Nations artist, nor do I speak for them. The Makarrata process includes many perspectives, and some core disagreements. It is likely that progress will be slow and difficult to achieve. Again, Weber would say, that's politics. When ultimate values are at stake, political contestation is unavoidable. Key to recognizing the rights and role of First Nations people, however, is recognizing their culture. This is the heart of the Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017), which includes these words:

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

To reiterate: you cannot solve a political problem with a measurement methodology, however ingenious. And the problems the Australian nation faces right now are all political. It is being dragged back to its past, to review its crimes, disasters, misjudgments, and mistakes. For those in the GLAM sector, part of the issue is that there is no language to talk about the meaning of culture and its substantive value on a policy level, because this type of understanding has not been promoted on a political one. Yet there is no way to manage First Nations visual arts with the blunt tools of cost-benefit analysis. Nor is a swap-out to a cheaper option available. If non-Indigenous Australians do not wish to consume First Nations art, it will be hard for policymakers to argue that, therefore, it is of no value.

The conjunction of our moment is the opposition of a neoliberal logic of calculative value and the fury, frustration, and hope of social values in all their plurality and enflamed lostness. If, today, public debate over values sometimes feels shrill, disrespectful, and not a little narcissistic, it is because it has been cast out of the arena of rational policy agreement and banished to a grim realm of ceaseless sectional antagonism.

To be clear, First Nations culture is not a resource for Western governments to address the chronic problems of late Modernity. It is not yet another thing to be extracted. It is a lifeworld and a history to be respected. Yet the disjunction between the sense of value that emerges from First Nations’ ideas of, and talk around, arts and culture, and the hyper-instrumentalized, pseudo-methodic, self-alienated, dis-organic conceptions imposed by the frameworks of Western countries like Australia is so profound they can only be at odds with each other.

Australia's new national cultural policy needs to be accompanied by a new language of value, and:

  1. If it does not generate a genuine cultural politics, if it continues to present the choices of power as the outcomes of administrative processes, it will fail.

  2. If it empowers ministers and politicians at the expense of practitioners and arts organizations in governance and decision-making, it will fail.

  3. If it does not find a better balance between producers and consumers in its conception of value and its evaluation methodologies, it will fail.

  4. If it does not attract increased investment into the cultural sector to shift funding out of a Hunger Games redistribution mentality, it will fail.

  5. If it does not resuscitate concepts of public good and public value, and make these key to a policy framework that can robustly confront the neoliberal doxa of “more for less,” it will fail.

  6. If it does not speak with a knowledgeable, inclusive, and trustworthy voice to the Australian nation it aims to reflect, both in respect of the checkered past of the nation, and the “just future” for which we all should strive, it will fail.

The arts as a vocation: not a leisure activity, market choice, or means of employment, a business venture or a platform for innovation, though it may be all those things as well; but something serious, principled, and binding—a calling. If we accept that science and politics are vocations in the way Weber describes, how does it change our understanding of cultural policy to see the arts as operating with the same inner imperatives? It changes it completely. It changes its tone, aims and outcomes. Most especially, it changes its meaning.

If politics is defined by a particular and unavoidable relation to power, and science to knowledge, then art is defined by a relation to the imagination. What are the qualities that define a vocation in the arts? Following Weber, I will name three. First, for arts and culture, there is no thinking outside the box, because there is no box. The practitioner must go wherever, whenever, their art and art form lead them, however difficult, inconvenient, or risky, an absolute liberty of soul. Second, a willingness to give your art to whoever wants it, without reservation or exclusion, an implicit universality of address. What I am describing here are not the personal virtues of every cultural practitioner; they are structural features of the vocation itself, dimensions of what Weber would call its “ideal type” (Weber 1948: 55). They are called into being by choice of profession, so that if you are not particularly courageous or generous—and I would fit both categories—then a life in arts and culture will require them of you. Imaginative freedom will be demanded, as will a maximum orbit of communication.

For who is a poem intended, if not for anyone who can read it? A painting, if not for anyone who can see it? A song, if not for anyone who can hear it? A drama, if not for anyone willing to open themselves to its worlds-making transformations?

The third quality is this: art is always personal. Arts practitioners do not lead others, like politicians, or study discrete bodies of knowledge, like scholars. They are their own political party, their own scientific experiment. They advance their work as a “case of one,” looking to connect with a broader feeling, debate, or condition. In speaking for themselves they seek to speak for a larger view, at a minimum for anyone who thinks or feels as they do. A vocation in the arts is an insertion of the self into the world on an intersubjective, not merely subjective level. Because the practitioner advances in their individual self, looking, hoping, but unsure of this resonant connection, they are always, indefeasibly and “unrescuably,” vulnerable. It is this that infuses cultural work with its high-touch, magnificent humanity, and makes it personal.

Taken together, these qualities shape what Germans would call a Zweck, which in English is a word that hovers between “goal” and “purpose.” It is at once non-instrumental and practical. It is not about satisfying criteria or fulfilling a list. It is a rationale for pursing a course of action in light of a higher end. To have a vocation in the arts is to be called to a Zweck, with the qualities I have described, for a life in service to the imagination in its public role.

This moment. This unreadable moment we are in, so fractured and frightened. Something has come to an end, certainly. But it is not necessary to invest that with tragic fervor, to see the end of everything in the end of something, to accept that we face not just new choices, but new kinds of choices. Economistic, asocial policy settings will be less effective “going forward,” both domestically and internationally. The conceptual impoverishment and instrumentalization of cultural policy constrains and disparages the visionary contribution arts and culture can make. For they are the generator of alternative choices par excellence, and their activities and offerings, from soap opera to grand opera, standup comedy to Shakespeare, fulfill this deep need of the human soul. Imagination is the key to their doing so, and it is imagination we need right now, to break the downward spiral into which we are locked, and to make a future we want to see.

Wendy Brown, who discerns in neoliberalism's obsessive calculating the dark hues of political nihilism, writes:

We cannot cling to the belief that either reason or interest will awaken those lured or soothed by authoritarian plutocrats. We cannot expect to recruit through rational argument or evidence that a Trump or a Bolsonaro are exploiting fears and resentments and burning all of our children's futures. Rather, our task is to kindle desire for a just, livable, sustainable world. This is a cultural project. It is significant that the Right has worked for decades at this level, in schools, churches, civic associations, media and more. The Left … not so much. (Brown 2019b)

As Max Weber faced his moment, so those in GLAMs must face ours. Though no one knew it in 1919, Europe had 10 years to solve the problems that caused and came out of the First World War. It failed to do so, and repeated the catastrophe on a larger scale. How long do we have before our problems overwhelm us? Let us treat the idea of a vocation in either politics, science, or the arts with the utmost gravity, then, and pay heed to the closing words of Weber's lecture:

It is absolutely true, and our entire historical experience confirms it, that what is possible could never have been accomplished unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible … Even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that staunchness of heart that refuses to be daunted by the collapse of all their hopes, for otherwise they will not be capable of accomplishing what is possible today. (Weber [1919] 2004: 93)

Can there be a better purpose for a national cultural policy than this? That it aims to make the impossible possible in art, to help us make the impossible possible in the world.

Notes

1

Relevant academic publications: (book) What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture with Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, 2018; (book chapters) “Critical Perspectives on Valuing Culture: Tensions and Disconnections Between Research, Policy and Practice” with Ben Walmsley, in Routledge Companion to Audiences and the Performing Arts, ed. M. Reason, L. Conner, K. Johanson, and B. Walmsley, New York: Routledge, 229–40; “The Professor and the Word: On Value in Culture and Economics,” Griffith Review No.71, Jan. 2021: 227–240; “From Cultural Value to Culture's Value: The Part-to-Whole Relationship in Assessments of Arts and Cultural Experience” with Tully Barnett, in Exploring Cultural Value: Contemporary Issues for Theory and Practice, Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2021: 25–38; (articles) “Crisis, What's a Crisis? Some Methodological Reflections on Evaluating the Impact of Covid-19 on Australian Arts and Culture” with Ben Green, Diana Tolmie, Jane Frank, and Guy Cooper, 2023, Journal for Cultural Research, https://doi.org/10.1080/14797585.2023.2217368; “From Public Good to Public Value: Arts and Culture in a Time of Crisis” with Tully Barnett, Cultural Trends, COVID special issue, December 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/09548963.2020.1844542; “What's the Story? “Credible” Narrative in the Evaluation of Arts and Culture” with Tully Barnett, Heather Robinson, and Matt Russell, The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, Sept. 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/10632921.2019.1646176; “The Conferral of Value: The Role of Reporting Processes in the Assessment of Culture” with Tully Barnett and Robert Phiddian, Media International Australia, September 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X18798704; “Culture Counts: A ‘Step Along the Way’ or a Step Back?” with Robert Phiddian, Tully Barnett, and Richard Maltby, Cultural Trends 2017 26 (2): 174–180; “Culture without “World”: Australian Cultural Policy in the Age of Stupid” with Tully Barnett, Cultural Trends 2017 26 (2): 107–124; “Counting Culture to Death: An Australian Perspective on Culture Counts and Quality Metrics” with Robert Phiddian, Tully Barnett, and Richard Maltby, Cultural Trends 2017 26 (2): 174–180; “Telling the Story of Culture's Value: Ideal Type Analysis and Integrated Reporting,” Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society 2016 46 (4): 141–152; “Numbers, Schnumbers: Total Cultural Value and Talking About Everything We Do, Even Culture,” International Journal of Event and Festival Management 2015 6 (2): 99–110.

Relevant arts experience: Literary Adviser to the Queensland Theatre (2020–), the State Theatre of South Australia (2012–19), and Associate Director and Literary Adviser of the Melbourne Theatre Company (2002–2007). I have directed for all the major state theatre companies in Australia. At MTC, I established the Hard Lines play development scheme, expanded the company's commission base, and inaugurated a new program of studio production. I was a member of the senior management team that ran the company, contributing to marketing, administration, and revenue raising. From 1987 to 1997, I was artistic director of kickhouse theatre, which received numerous project and development grants. During its short life, kickhouse staged nine shows, commissioned seven new Australian plays, two adaptations and one translation,and gave numerous readings of other dramatic works. At kickhouse, I learned the hard way about the problems facing independent artists.

Relevant policy experience: I was a participant in the Australian federal government's 2008 community conference (the “2020 Summit”), as a representative in the Creative Stream. Thereafter, I joined the Creative Australia Advisory Committee, consulting with the federal minister on the development of Australia's last national cultural policy, Creative Australia (Australian Government 2013). I was responsible for drawing up a policy preamble and contributing briefing notes to the Office of the Arts, especially in the performing arts. More recent policy contributions include three submissions to the 2020 federal House of Representatives’ Inquiry into Australia's Creative and Cultural Industries and Institutions (https://www.aph.gov.au/ParliamentaryBusiness/Committees/House/Communications/Arts Submissions No.16 & Supplementary Submission, and Submission No.58). I also provided oral testimony to the Committee, alongside David Throsby (https://www.aph.gov.au/ParliamentaryBusiness/Hansard/HansardDisplay?bid=committees/commrep/81d8ef62-9ab3-47ed-b098-b9fad8368801/&sid=0002). My policy activism is perhaps best reflected in the 90+ articles I have written for The Conversation (https://theconversation.com/profiles/julian-meyrick-101221).

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Contributor Notes

JULIAN MEYRICK is Professor of Creative Arts at Griffith University. He is Literary Adviser for the Queensland Theatre and was General Editor of Currency House Press's New Platform Paper series 2020-23. He was Associate Director and Literary Advisor at Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) 2002–07 and Artistic Director of kickhouse theatre 1989–98. He has directed over 40 theatre productions and written histories of the Nimrod Theatre, MTC, the Paris Theatre, the Hunter Valley Theatre, and Anthill Theatre, and numerous articles on arts and cultural policy, including 90+ articles for The Conversation. His book, Australian Theatre after the New Wave: Policy, Subsidy and the Alternative Artist, appeared in 2017. What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture, coauthored with Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett, was published in 2018. Australia in 50 Plays was published by Currency Press in March 2022.

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  • ArtsHub. 2022. “Australia Lags Behind OECD in Cultural Funding.Artshub News, 16 February. https://www.artshub.com.au/news/news/australia-lags-behind-oecd-in-cultural-funding-2530805/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Australian Government. 2023. Revive: A Place for Every Story, A Story for Every Place—Australia's Cultural Policy for the Next Five Years. Commonwealth of Australia. https://www.arts.gov.au/publications/national-cultural-policy-revive-place-every-story-story-every-place (accessed 29 March 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Australian Government. 2013. Creative Australia—National Cultural Policy. Commonwealth of Australia. https://www.arts.gov.au/publications/creative-australia-national-cultural-policy-2013 (accessed 6 August 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Australian Government. 1994. Creative Nation: Commonwealth Cultural Policy, October 1994. Canberra: Department of Communication and the Arts. Commonwealth of Australia.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, Wendy. 2019a. In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. New York: Columbia University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, Wendy. 2019b. “Politics and Knowledge in Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber.” Video, 1:16:50. Uploaded 29 October. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG52tEGghTA.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davies, Will. 2014. The Limits of Neoliberalism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

  • IAC (Industries Assistance Commission). 1976. Inquiry into the Performing Arts. Parliamentary Paper No. 290. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. See https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22publications%2Ftabledpapers%2FHPP052016005990%22;src1=sm1 (accessed 30 August 2023).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mazzucato, Mariana. 2018. The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. New York: Public Affairs.

  • McGahey, Freya. 2016. “Sizing up Australia's Arts Funding Against the World's Cultural Capitals.Happy. 25 October. https://happymag.tv/sizing-up-australias-arts-funding-against-the-worlds-cultural-capitals-are-we-doing-enough/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Meyrick, Julian. 2023. “Revive: A Second Look.ArtsHub, 10 February. https://www.artshub.com.au/news/opinions-analysis/revive-a-second-look-2611316/.

    • Search Google Scholar
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