The Benefits of the Cultural Economy

The Benefits of the Cultural Economy are significant.

A cultural economy is where production and consumption involves the processing of ideas, symbols, and emotional experiences rather than the dissipation of energy and the break­down of matter. The consumption of creative cultural goods and activities is therefore more sustainable than the consumption of purely material goods. 

A study on consumption by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi showed that there was a negative relationship between embodied energy in a ‘product’ and the positive emotion that consumers gain from it. This means that low embodied-energy products like art, music, literature and theatre generally provide more positive emotion. The reason is that cultural experiences require consumers to use their mental energy to engage more and therefore get a greater emotional reward.

If this is the case why don’t we produce more low-energy, creative consumption, which would be much more sustainable? The reason is that it is much easier for businesses to make and sell material goods and services. It is harder for businesses to make profit from cultural products. 

Creative cultural practices by their very nature are constantly in flux; evolving organically without specific end goals or control systems. They are a fluid and vital mix of peoples’ creative and social values, intentions, attitudes, identity and need for expression.

What is the Cultural Economy?

There is plenty of conjecture about what the cultural economy includes. In 2009 UNESCO released its Framework for Cultural Statistics and defined the following six cultural domains:

  • Cultural and Natural Heritage – including Museums (also virtual); Archeological and Historical Places; Cultural Landscapes; Natural Heritage.
  • Performance and Celebration – including Performing Arts; Music; Festivals, Fairs and Feasts.
  • Visual Arts and Crafts – including Fine Arts; Photography; Crafts.
  • Books and Press – including Books; Newspaper and Magazine; Other printed matter; Library (also virtual); Book Fairs.
  • Audio-Visual and Interactive Media – including Film and Video; TV and Radio (also Internet livestreaming); Internet Video and Podcasting; Video Games (also Online).
  • Design and Creative Services – including Product Design; Fashion Design, Graphic and Communication Design; Interior Design; Landscape Design; Architectural Services; Advertising Services.

As well as the six cultural domains, there are two further ‘related domains’ namely, Tourism, and, Sports and Recreation. In addition there are a variety of supporting, transversal domains namely: Archiving and Preserving; Education and Training; and, Equipment and Supporting Materials. These domains are partially cultural because they contain elements and activities that are cultural and they support the cultural domains.

People not profit

The Cultural Economy is about people not profit. It is primarily based on the talents, skills and creativity of people. It is not an industrial endeavour where there is reliance on capital like plant, tools, machinery, automation and assembly-line processes.

On the contrary, cultural practices are typically local and small-scale. (Read this post about the ideal business being small, simple and circular.) Often, their goal is to break-even and quite a number of ventures are expressly not-for-profit. The Cultural Economy has many organisational forms that are not companies; these include trusts, societies, guilds, membership organisations, co-operatives and other forms of collective. In addition, many of the individual practitioners are ‘free agents’ who move from project to project either working alone or collectively. Many participants freely associate in informal groups such as musical groups, theatre troupes, craft guilds and artist collectives.

The intrinsic value of culture

Cultural products have intrinsic value that go beyond the extrinsic utility of material goods and services. The consumption of cultural products including visual art, music, film, dance, theatre, literature, new media, heritage and cultural events is not just more environmentally sustainable than industrial production, it is obviously more culturally sustainable too. Cultural products are experiential by nature and offer consumers a way to feel connected with others and with their place. Other intrinsic benefits are that cultural products:

  • help us learn about ourselves and others,
  • challenge us intellectually,
  • inspire and emotionally charge us,
  • create cultural diversity and resilience.

However, there is a disconnect between how people perceive extrinsic-focused and intrinsic-focused productions in terms of value.

Putting a price on art

Artists (in the wide sense including visual artists, performers, musicians, writers, designers etc) often struggle more than others to make a living because their work isn’t valued in financial terms. Yet in cultural terms, it is priceless. Artists often have to rely on the support of loved ones, or on doing work they would rather not do – work that is valued higher in a financial sense than their art.

Artists provide profound cultural value in our society. In a sense what artists do is invaluable, and because it is less tangible it is hard to commodify. Which is exactly why capitalists steer clear of it, there’s just no way to control it, mass-produce it and profit from it.

I tend to agree with those that say art should be kept away from commercial imperatives, but artists have to eat. And is it really fair that artists struggle whilst subsidising our cultural well-being, at the same time businesses are doing their damnedest to turn our culture into a completely commercial operation?

In stark contrast to the undervaluation of art, is the fact that you can buy a pair of jeans for $1000. We live in a topsy-turvy world when a pair of jeans can cost more than most paintings, poems or songs.

The Benefits of the Cultural Economy

To summarise, the benefits of a Cultural Economy include:

  • It is more environmentally friendly using less resources – both material resources and energy resources – than other sectors of the economy.
  • It is often concentrated in large metropolitan areas, frequently employ highly skilled workers, and relying deeply on informal cultural systems, processes and institutions.
  • Outputs are symbolically and ideologically charged in ways that most other products are not and challenge social and political mindsets unlike other sectors of the economy.
  • Participants are not generally driven by financial imperatives but by the innate need to express and experience human intrinsic values such as relatedness, creativity, expression of talent, intellectual stimulation and personal fulfilment.
  • The Cultural Economy provides benefits that are not measurable by market prices, but rather express the distinct identity of the places where they are developed and where they cluster, thereby improving the conditions of society and the lives of those in it, as well as enhancing local identity, image and prestige.