Tafterjournal n. 95 - LUGLIO AGOSTO 2017

Quantifying Dance in a Capitalist Society


Rubrica: Gestire cultura

Parole chiave: , , , , ,





Looming cuts (or potential closure) to the USA’s primary arts funding body, the National Endowment for the Arts, has hastened the desire for clear accounting of the arts’ culture capital. Proving value often comes in the form of defining metrics, and for dance, this is a question continues to be a rich debate.




The ongoing debate on the social value of art and culture has been with us for some decades now. In the United States, this debate has taken place mostly within the art world itself, and in related political and administrative circles. In the mainstream, writes economist Marilyn Warring, any economic movement has always been towards the “market.”


That is, there continues to be the assumption that the only way in which work can be visible or valuable, is if you treat is as if it were a market commodity, or a market service you attribute value to. This underlying need to pass goods through the GDP makes the intangible performance art even more challenging to quantify.


What is striking about the current debate is how the underlying assumption, that the added value of public expenditures on art and culture, is negative. For many, government support for the arts and culture is not considered a valuable investment for either economic or cultural development; rather, it is perceived as a leak in the economy.


Any empirical evidence of a positive spin-off for culture or the economy is simply neglected. Perhaps one of the reasons why this assumption has remained unchallenged, is in fact rooted in attitudes within the art world itself: proponents of creative and artistic endeavors are reluctant to embrace the argument fully, since the dominant discourse is still based on an antagonistic relationship between culture and economy.


Therefore there is an urgent need to open up the debate, in order to better understand the contemporary dynamics within the arts, the creative industries, and cultural policy.


As arts funding is at risk of shrinking from federal granting agencies, the question of arts valuation extends to two very differing camps regarding metrics: quantify so that value can be assigned and worth can be determined, this is a viable way of assessing funding opportunities. This approach believes in the quest for an infallible metric system, and while we might not be there yet, the holy grail does exist. And the latter, intrinsic value is both indefinable and ultimately damning.


Consumption does not necessarily denote creative capital. While this is a multilayered question from the onset, performative art, and specifically dance, has a harder time justifying that experience on paper for reasons we will discuss below.


How is Dance different?


Visual Art offers a tangible product, performance, or as I will label it here, time-based art, offers live experiences.


The purpose of this paper is not to discuss the value of each art form, but rather to illuminate the vast differences in creation costs, performance costs, and how that does, and does not ultimately affect the “sale” of the final product.


With dance you are asking for two different value sets: one the work itself, and two the communal and/or performative experience of that work. Dance, as a time based art form, brings another layer to the debate.


With most dance work living well outside a codified system of notation, the additional question of valuing the work itself when it is ephemeral adds to the debate.


Recently museums have begun to acquire dance works: While the easy answer is to lean on the museums’ curatorial staff for systems of valuation, I believe they can speak only to an existing framework of valuing performance, but not necessarily its validity or efficacy.


In 2008 New York City’s MoMA acquired Sehgal’s Kiss in which two “interpreters” re-enact kiss scenes from famous works of art, for $70,000.25 This sale does not involve the transfer of any material object. This is central to Sehgal’s work: “What my work is about is: can something that is not an inanimate object be considered valuable?”


The library of Congress houses an original ledger of estimated costs for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s creation and performance of Night Journey, at Harvard May 3, 1947. In it, the estimated costs come to $6408.46.


Today the company performs works at varying prices based on the scope of the piece but often in the $12,000-$50,000 range. Production funding, including dancer salaries, costumes, music composition, rehearsal space and technical staff all feed into an often separate production budget.


Assessing cost, when you consider the creation, performance and finished work as an artifact, because of these differing elements time based art cannot be looked at in the same way as a piece of visual art.


Artists within the dance community have been battling with the tension between art and economic valuation for decades. In 1965, American Modern Dance pioneer Yvonne Rainer published her ‘No Manifesto’ in an effort to demystify dance and to break away from historical clichés and capitalism. Rainer’s anti-spectacle manifesto is echoed in theorist and filmmaker Guy Debord’s 1967 work Society and the Spectacle.  Debord claims that capitalism’s constant stream of production and consumption has anesthetized the public.


The National Endowment for the Arts & Quantification


Currently the largest proponent of an arts efficacy valuation metric in the USA is the National Endowment for the Arts. The 35th president of the United States, John F Kennedy is often heralded as the founder and largest presidential advocate for the arts in the US. However, in David Smith’s “Money for Art” he states that Kennedy “introduced no new legislation, nor took any bold or novel steps to invigorate the nation’s cultural life.”  That task fell to Lyndon B Johnson, who broke ground not only on the nation’s national arts center (Kennedy Center) but also put into law the National Arts Council. But the two presidents had very different conceptions of the arts, and in the end it was Johnson’s view that prevailed and remains regnant in the arts policy circles. Understanding the ethos of the nation’s leading cultural institution at its inception is key to seeing how metrics play out in today’s funding landscape. While Kennedy believed the arts were an arena for excellence that could raise American civilization, Johnson thought more in terms of arts access, and spreading basic arts literacy. At the signing ceremony for the creation of what would be the National Endowment for the Arts Johnson boomed “It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born.” Ringing true today, a defining pillar of arts’ success under the NEA is still metrics on engagement and outreach.


The NEA released new data in February 2016 from its ongoing partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Statistics to analyze the arts and cultural sector’s contribution to the economy through the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account. Results for 2013, the most recent year that information was available, showed the arts and culture growing at a faster pace, contributing $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy, a 32.5 percent increase since 1998. Another key finding was that consumer spending on the performing arts grew ten percent annually over the 15-year period. In this report numbers on creative capital and social value were not included.



In favor of Quantifying Dance through Economic Value



Currently the USA uses value metrics by the NEA and other funding institutions to ‘democratically’ asses funding awards, however, it’s in the UK and Australia that new research has been done on both sides of the valuation argument.



For those interested in understanding and rating the value of live dance performance, new metrics for quantifying value have been met with open arms. Researchers believe they have hit on a robust way of quantifying how much peoples’ lives are improved by arts and culture. They hope their techniques will help arts organizations to better demonstrate their value and policymakers to make better decisions, leading to a more efficient use of resources in the sector.



In a new report, British researchers from the Cultural Value Project outline how a monetary value can be attributed to the work of cultural institutions. “We no longer need rely on just implicit judgments on the social value of culture,” said researcher Hasan Bakhshi. “Our study shows that, despite the many challenges, economic valuation techniques that are commonly used in areas like environmental policy, through willingness to pay and subjective wellbeing, can be applied successfully to cultural institutions.”



The report considers the ‘contingent’ and ‘wellbeing’ valuation methods – both of which are endorsed by the United Kingdom’s HM Treasury’s Green Book on cost-benefit analysis – as well as a hybrid approach. The researchers concluded that the contingent and hybrid methods worked well, but that the wellbeing approach does not yield meaningful results in the test circumstances. While they admit there are “valid questions” about whether monetary values should be applied to cultural activities, doing so, they say, will increase the chances of culture being considered by policymakers when making economic decisions.



Different aspects of a live performance, including the social context, the performers, and the extent to which a work provokes “thoughtfulness”, tend to be combined when audiences form judgments about a performance, and for many spectators, a performance being “entertaining” is quite compatible with it being “intellectually challenging”. This is one of the key findings from a research study led by the University of Warwick, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of its ‘Cultural Value’ project, exploring how audience members value the experience of attending live performance.



The study, Critical Mass: Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution, has found that for many audience members, their evaluation of a performance is highly dependent on their social interactions related to the event, including discussing the experience with family and friends. It is also closely related to any personal connections they have with the ideas and feelings generated by the performance, and their long-term reflections on the experience as they process their thoughts and feelings about it over time. The research was carried out in collaboration with Royal Holloway University of London, Manchester Metropolitan University, and The British Theatre Consortium.



While the UK has a very different funding scheme than that of the US, the need for clear metrics when assessing value seem to ring true in the United States as policymakers scramble for a clear understanding of the art’s cultural capital. But the next question is then: should federal funding agencies look to the individual art consumer to define the value of an art experience?



The camp against quantification



Similarly invested in the outcome of this decision, the opposing camp sees metrics-based approaches to assessing cultural value an  “invitation for political manipulation and a time demand. It takes money and attention from cultural organizations without proven benefit,” according to a new paper, published in the academic journal Cultural Trends. In it, researchers deliver a damning assessment of the type of standardized system for measuring artistic quality that Arts Council England (ACE) is currently preparing to make compulsory for many of its National Portfolio Organizations.



Their paper, ‘Counting culture to death’, refutes the “widely held belief” that “a set of numbers can provide vindication, or at least insurance, in the constant struggle to justify public funding”. They conclude that attempts to quantify cultural value are not delivering on their promises, and bring “destructive” unintended consequences.



The paper states that using indicators and benchmarks to assess cultural activities, “which exhibit no obvious capacity for scalar measurement”, is a “political act”. The “ostensible neutrality” of this approach is, they say, “a trick of the light trying to launder responsibility for judgment in the competition for scarce resources”.



This research, conducted by Robert Phiddian, Julian Meyrick, Tully Barnett and Richard Maltby from Flinders University in Adelaide, was funded by the Australia Research Council as part of the ‘Laboratory Adelaide: the Value of Culture’ project, which is examining issues around the assessment of culture.



Culture Counts



The researchers focused on the use of Culture Counts, the metrics-based assessment system that originated in Western Australia and was adopted by the state government as part of its Public Value Measurement Framework. It is the same system that ACE used in its pilot Quality Metrics scheme in 2015/16, which involved 150 arts organizations across England.



The researchers warn that the effects of using Culture Counts in Australia “are worth considering in places pointed in the same direction, such as the UK”. Following trials in Australia, the state of Victoria has decided not to continue with the system, and the Australia Council, the national cultural agency, does not intend to implement it either. The research findings add further fuel to controversy over the forthcoming roll-out of this scheme across England, participation in which will be a condition of funding for larger National Portfolio Organizations from 2018. The scheme will see arts organizations ask audiences to rate their artistic work on a numeric scale in relation to a set of standardized metrics of quality, and triangulate this data with self and peer assessment.



Despite concerns expressed by many who took part in the pilot in England, a £2.7m contract to deliver the Quality Metrics scheme has been put out to tender. Although ACE has not yet committed to using the Culture Counts system, it is unclear how any other system would be able to meet the criteria for delivering it.



The researchers describe Culture Counts as: “A sophisticated and entrepreneurialized version of the misguided belief that everything that matters in culture can be counted, and that doing so will secure the sector’s social and political base.” The metrics it uses are, they say, “essentially marketing analytics rather than a window on artistic value” and “there is simply no numerically valid way” of valuing one art work over another.”



Attention is also drawn to the potential misuse of quantitative data generated in this way. They point out: “It is politically naïve to think that metrics such as Culture Counts can be quarantined for practitioners and policy officers who will use the numbers with care, as indicators of well-understood value-generating creative processes.” Rather, they will be “used as weapons, both of attack and self-defense. Artists competing for funds to realize a vision will not resist the temptation to trumpet ‘a 92 in the ACE metric’ any more than vice chancellors have refrained from boasting of their rankings in university league tables.”


ACE was due to announce the winning bidder for its Quality Metrics contract in April, although this has been delayed.




Many years ago Meyer Schapiro argued that there was a radical difference between art’s spiritual value and its commercial value. He warned against the nihilistic effect of collapsing their difference. I will argue that today, in the public mind, and perhaps in the unconscious of many artists, there is no difference.


The commercial value of art has usurped its spiritual value, indeed, seems to determine it. Art’s esthetic, cognitive, emotional, and moral value — its value for the dialectical varieties of critical consciousness — has been subsumed by the value of money.


Money supposedly has no value in itself, that is, it is valuable for what one can exchange it for, but I will suggest the surge of art buying is money’s parthenogenetic way of saying that it is valuable in itself, indeed, value distilled to purity, the quintessence of value in capitalist society.


Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard says “Money is nothing other than time placed in reserve,” and I agree.


I believe we vote with our time.


We might check a box in the polling booth, or spend dollars in one store or another, but the smallest unit of measurement, and what I believe is the most telling, is the expenditure of our time.


What I consider both the most measurable and the clearest determinate of value sets. Not as a means to asses funding but rather as a means of assessing reach/scope. Should the arts be free of quality metrics?


The debate continues.










Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License