“What shall we do, now that we are happy?” – Reconciling the intrinsic and the instrumental in the Culture Industry

I was in conversation recently with one of our leading theatre artists. The topic of the government’s impending national culture policy discussion document, culture2025, came up so I asked their opinion. They looked up from under lowered brows and uttered, in that tired contemptuous tone, a single word: “Instrumentalist”.

The great debate between the concepts of instrumental and intrinsic value has been raging for a number of years now.  On the one hand the artists, arguing for increased state funding for the arts because, well because they’re the arts for gods sake. On the other hand the politicians and the bureaucrats who feel compelled to measure that good in terms of immediate socio-economic outcomes to justify an allocation of scarce financial resources. (Underlying it all the assumption that politicians are prudent and artists are spendthrift). It would seem that both sides are irreconcilable.  As if yin and yang had been irrevocably sundered.

So I’m wondering can  these two concepts be understood in such a way that allows the debate to move forward.

Impact, not Value

Intrinsic value is a deceptive name. For example a commercial enterprise has an intrinsic value, which is its value independent of its market valuation. In an arts context we use the same idea by saying that art has ‘value’ independent of its market value. The arts argument says that art is valuable because its art. But that doesn’t hold up for long – because you can say to me look at that valuable piece of art and I could say what, that piece of junk? At which point the intrinsic value becomes a matter of taste. The concept is further complicated by the distinction between process and product. Is the intrinsic value of the arts experienced by making it or by being in the presence of it?

When we try to measure the intrinsic value we tend to focus on its emotional, intellectual and spiritual impact. And this is where it gets really interesting. We measure the intrinsic value of art by measuring its impact on the individual. On the other hand we measure its instrumental value by measuring its impact on the economy and society. In both instances we are measuring impact.

So what’s the problem? Why are they seen as opposing positions? Surely any impact at an individual level will have an impact at the social and economic level eventually?

Eventually. There’s the rub.

Time, Power and Control

I would suggest that the instrumental position beloved of politicians – and increasingly of funding agencies –  has nothing to do with the usability or superiority of the concept and everything to do with time, power and control.

Instrumental outcomes can be measured within a departmental budget cycle or – at the very least – within the lifetime of a government.  Intrinsic outcomes have a slower and a deeper roll-out. For example I can prove that as a result of a government or an arts funding agency strategy that 20% more children visited a gallery at least once this year as opposed to last year. That’s an instrumental outcome. I can  prove that 20% of all tourists visited because of our international cultural reputation and this added a measurable amount to GDP.  I can measure all these things within a single budget cycle, so that the impact of specific financial decisions can be quickly brought to the attention of a constituency or an electorate. They can be immediately justified in terms of we spent this, we got this.

Intrinsic value, on the other hand,  is politically difficult because its nearly impossible to measure its wider impact in a short electoral time frame, and it doesn’t respond to quick fixes. So, for example, that 20% of children who visited the gallery once may have done so under duress and had a shit time, or they may have had a remarkable time. In any event that single event will fade quickly unless it is reinforced by frequent visits, and by frequent engagement in practice. Intrinsic impact is akin to a course of antibiotics.  One is useless, you’ve got to take them all.  Politically speaking, other than the fact that 20% more kids attended a gallery we can see no other measurable effect in the course of the short – the bureaucratic and political – term.

Power and control are the other two factors that work against intrinsic value.  Let’s just say that those 20% of children had the most amazing experience.  An experience that widened their understanding of the world and their place in it, that inspired them to imagine new possibilities, that empowered them as never before.  That’s good isn’t it?

Well, politically speaking not necessarily. The political and bureaucratic perspective is not concerned with the fact that they feel empowered, it is concerned with what they will do now that they are empowered. The point is that we don’t know what they’ll do. They might just paint in their gardens on summer weekends or they might demand, ask, protest, strike. We just don’t know. What we do know is that they will do something, so how do we control that.

The simplest way is to determine what we want people to do as a result of the intrinsic impact and then set that as a criteria for funding and support.  Reduce the crime rate, reduce drug use, stop homeless people feeling depressed, reduce bullying etc etc.  By setting the outcome before we light the touchpaper we fundamentally change the intrinsic impact. (We’re also asking art to achieve things it can’t achieve. Bullying rates may decline in the context of an engaging arts programme, however it is the people who stopped the bullying, not the arts programme.)

So, in summary: when we measure intrinsic and instrumental values we are measuring impact; in the former we measure the impact on the individual and in the latter we measure the socio-economic impact; any impact on the individual will eventually have an impact on the community, the society and the economy. Impact at the individual level takes time to manifest itself in the wider society but will be longer lasting because behaviour will have changed. Impact only at an instrumental level is shallow and both difficult and expensive to maintain because behaviour will not be changed. Politicians and bureaucrats favour instrumentalism because it produces short term wins within an electoral or budgetary cycle.

If we understand intrinsic and instrumental as different levels of impact, then we can see that they are not opposing concepts, just different points along the impact scale. We can also see that they are intimately connected, and that the greatest impact can be achieved when both are used strategically together.

As a colleague recently remarked when we were discussing this, “The intrinsic is intrinsically instrumental”.

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