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Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Market Failure Argument

I was at the Arts Council Groningen this week, to talk a bit about their role in arts funding. I had decided some time ago that I would not meddle into cultural policy making any more, but what is meddling? They asked me to tell a story, and as I love telling stories, I accepted.

As usually I tried to make the point that arts funding policy should look at a more inclusive way towards everyday life out there in the ordinary life world. Arts funding policy is, due to traditions, unnecessary exclusive. Decision making, for example, is often exclusively in the hands of a very homogeneous group of 'insider specialists'.

I suggested that it might be nice to include some people picked randomly from the street in meetings where funding decisions would be taken. A cherished colleague informed me that in the past experiments had been carried out in this vein, and that it showed that randomly picked outsiders were reasoning even more exclusive than the specialist insiders. I think that is hardly surprising; it only shows how persistent and dominant the 'arts-as-specialism'-discourse is; and of course the next step is not only picking people randomly from the street, but also telling them that they can be themselves in the meeting rather than that they have to behave as-if they were specialist insiders (a role they know very well thanks to the persistence with which it is transferred through our education system, television, radio, journals) only because they were invited to attend a meeting of specialist insiders.

The nicest thing happened in the end. Another esteemed colleague played the 'market failure' card: arts policies are by nature exclusive because they only need to fund those matters which regular markets do not take care of. In music terms: pop and rock can take care of itself; but some 'good' pop and rock may deserve funding because it cannot exist in 'the market', and symphony orchestras should be funded because 'the market' does not take care of it.

I always have two problems. One is: so what if 'the market' does not take care of something? 'The market' does not exist; it is you and me and everyone. So if you and me and everyone are not prepared to take care of something by for example financing it, then maybe it deserves to vanish unless it can attract enough support from you and me and everyone to survive? We have become fans of change and innovation but at the same time have become enormously conservative in the literal sense: we want the permanent new ánd we want to keep everything we once had (check the discusssion about musea selling parts of their collections and the emotional reactions).

(And now, of course, I have to make clear that personally I am a big fan of symphony orchestras and that I feel that they should exist into infinity, in order to prevent being seen as a barbarian by my peers, something which they are liable to think anyway because I enjoy the membership of a shanty choir and playing the 5-string banjo - but I want to add that it is not straightforward that the fact that I, or my peers, feel that way necessarily means that symphony orchestras must be funded. We are not alone in this world.)

The other problem is that 'market failure' seems so objective as a criterion but it is not because the definition of what 'failure' is contains so much ideology. So I suggested the following. I know that Dutch schlager singers often sing with an 'orchestral' (synthetic) tape rather than with live musicians. If you talk with such singers - something 'we' don't tend to do - it turns out that they would rather play with live musicians but they cannot afford that, nor can their audiences. Are we, if only just for the argument's sake, capable of defining this is a form of market failure and therefore as a basis for funding them to play with live musicians?

Or: suppose that  I find out that the value of singing in a shanty choir for the choir members is existential . Are we prepared to argue that therefore everybody should have access to singing in a shanty choir, and the fact that that is not the case (too few conductors, too few venues, too little knowledge about shanties, too little appreciation for it in certain social strata, et cetera) is a reason to aim for fostering the singing of shanties in choirs through educational programmes, through state funding, and through shaping experiments in which we inject the so valuable shanty choir repertoire into e.g. the programmes of our symphony orchestras?

Just for the argument's sake.

I wonder how you feel about all this.

Enjoy Christmas! Maybe this song helps...

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