Reviewed: Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, Culture Is Bad for You: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries, Manchester University Press
Brian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor’s new book certainly has an arresting title. Culture Is Bad for You, it proclaims. For a certain type of person—perhaps the sort of person who reads Meanjin—the statement will be provocative, even enraging.
For years the idea of ‘culture’—as well as its sexier synonyms such as ‘creativity’ and ‘the arts’—has enjoyed a rising reputation. Supporters of culture have engaged in ceaseless sloganeering for their hobby horse, proclaiming the economic value of the creative industries, promising run-down neighbourhoods they would benefit from ‘culture-led regeneration’, and championing the social benefits of the arts for everyone from school children learning musical instruments to sufferers of mental illness enjoying art therapy. In some quarters the word has become something of a panacea, at least on the left.
I once watched the former federal minister for the arts, Mitch Fifield, give an impromptu speech at a suburban art gallery. Over a couple of warm Pinot noirs, he promised to put an ‘A’ in ‘STEM’ and make it ‘STEAM’. By this he meant that he would insert the arts into ‘STEM’, the faddish acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. No formal policy came of this off-the-cuff announcement, but it was very well received by the gallery attendees. I have little doubt that the arts minister and the art lovers in attendance would have been dismayed to discover that a group of academics now think culture is a Bad Thing.
The argument of the book runs something like this. Inequality is bad for you. Culture is unequal. Therefore, culture is bad for you, too. As the authors write early in the book, ‘If producing, consuming, and even defining culture is closely related to inequality, perhaps we should be asking whether culture is bad for you?’
Before we dismiss this syllogism as a logical infelicity, we should acknowledge that the authors know their stuff. All three are distinguished scholars in their native Britain; O’Brien in particular is regarded as a rising star. As we would expect from such capable researchers, the book is chock full of statistical data and graphs, supported by several hundred interviews with artists and creative workers across the British industries.
Does the ‘culture = inequality = bad’ equation hold up? Empirically speaking, yes, it does. There is a vast literature now on the deleterious effects of social and economic inequality, perhaps best summarised for the general reader in recent years by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level. Culture Is Bad for You riffs off this literature, and the substance of the book is devoted to demonstrating, over a couple of hundred pages of convincing detail, the rampant inequality of the cultural sector.
Britain is a useful country for a study like this, because it is in Britain that much the best statistical data on culture exists. Driven by the enthusiastic neoliberalism of the Blair and Brown years, the British government has been assiduous in funding and collecting all sorts of good empirical data on culture. When analysed carefully, as the authors have done, this evidence base shows that culture in Britain is very unequal and extremely elitist.
A few statistics in this book illustrate this vaulting inequality and its damaging effects. Take cultural attendance. Leaving aside the cinema, which 60 per cent of the British population attend in any given year, every other form of culture in Britain is a minority pursuit. Just one-third of Britons attend even one popular music concert in a year; only one-fifth go to the art gallery, only one-twelfth to a classical music concert. Art forms that we think of as vital and important are barely rounding errors: ballet, 5 per cent; opera, 4 per cent; contemporary dance, 3 per cent.
British data for cultural participation is even worse. The most popular pastime of a cultural nature is drawing, painting or otherwise making visual art—but only 17 per cent of Britons partake. Sixteen per cent make textile crafts, 12 per cent play an instrument and just 8 per cent dance. Cultural attendance, participation and activity are all highly skewed by class background, and much more likely to be favoured by rich people who are also high in social and cultural capital. Such culturati are likely to be geographically concentrated in London and a few major cities. By almost any sensible definition, people who like culture in Britain are an elite.
The cultural workforce is also extremely stratified. One of the best chapters in the book deals with the gaping chasm in career prospects between artists and creative workers from the working class, compared with children of the elites. ‘People with higher managerial and professional social origins have about four times the odds of at some point having a cultural job, as compared with working class origin people,’ the authors conclude, after crunching the demographic data. Moreover, matters are not improving; they may even be getting worse.
The authors propose two possible models of cultural inequality, which they label ‘weak’ and ‘strong’. The weak version is basically the argument that cultural audiences and workforces are unequal, and that this is a problem for those audiences and workers. The strong version is wider ranging, and potentially more insidious. What if social and economic inequality is not just reflected in cultural inequality, but is driven by it? Towards the end of the book the authors quote Victoria Cann, who argues that ‘taste cultures may appear trivial and inconsequential, but … they are not innocuous; regulating and limiting the parameters of who and what young people can be’.
Does any of this matter? Yes, it does. If inequality is a social problem, and if culture is part and parcel of that inequality, then perhaps the structure of our cultural products and tastes is one of the causes of the inequality that is having so many damaging social impacts. In sum, the book mounts a serious challenge to artists and culture-lovers the world over.
Yet for all its analytical rigour, Culture Is Bad for You cannot quite pull off the bravura polemic implied by its title. That’s because this is really a book about inequality, not culture. The authors do not, I suspect, want to abolish cultural production tomorrow. Their goal is a reformed culture, in many ways harking back to the demotic and populist interests of the Birmingham School scholars of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Richard Hoggett and Stuart Hall. They think culture should be made fairer and more equal for its workers, its consumers and in its everyday experiences for ordinary people. ‘Audiences will have to make affirmative and radical demands of institutions,’ the authors conclude. ‘States will have to take responsibility for regulating labour markets, even where no and low pay seems intractable’.
I wholeheartedly agree with these propositions. But do they collectively imply that culture is ‘bad for you’? I’m not so sure. An argument by way of analogy might be helpful here. Let us take health care, an industry and a profession that most people would consider to contribute some positive value of public good.
Like culture, health is also a stratified industry in which there are significant inequalities in the workforce, and in which class barriers keep out poorer and less privileged labour market entrants. As we know, health-service consumption and general indicators of health such as mortality and morbidity, are highly correlated with wealth, privilege and opportunity. Many public health experts, including Wilkinson, Pickett and the epidemiologist Michael Marmot, have long argued that health inequality is a major social problem that cannot be solved merely by better health provision. Are we to conclude from this evidence that health care ‘is bad for you’? This proposition seems intuitively suspect, even for a country as unequal as the United States.
Except for the unlucky victim of a medical blunder, health care is still in most cases a good thing for the individual receiving it. Even in the aggregate, unless the prevailing system is truly inefficient and counter-productive, more health care is generally better for the health of a population than less health care. We may agree that American health care is ruinously unequal. We may decry the vast sums of money that US hospitals and drug companies charge patients. But careful demographic and population health studies seem to suggest that where Americans are receiving adequate and appropriate health care, it is helping them.
As the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have argued, falling US life expectancy is being driven by so-called ‘deaths of despair’ by drug overdoses, suicide and alcoholism. Despite this, younger and older Americans are seeing improved life expectancy, possibly because of better access to Obama-era reforms to health insurance. Most health reformers would argue that health care is not the problem, but that what should be changed is the way it is delivered and distributed. Rich people have too much of a good thing; poor people hardly enough of it.
A similar critique could be made of Culture Is Bad for You. I think it can be argued that what is really ‘bad’ is not culture, and certainly not the manifest social benefits that the authors themselves admit culture provides, but rather the unequal distribution of culture, and the highly unequal
structure of cultural labour markets.
So, is culture really the problem here? I think we need more culture. Yes, it must be better distributed and fairly produced. But we also need to hold on to the value of the thing itself. •
Ben Eltham writes regularly about Australian politics and culture. He is the National Affairs Correspondent for New Matilda and a lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University.