The ways we recognise and value ‘culture’ is complex, contested and shifting
Through this Cultural Adaptations project, we seek to both influence cultural organisations and institutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change, but also to explore how culture can make a valuable contribution to societal-scale adaptation. It is necessary to convey how and why cultural organisations and actors can contribute, in part to help justify its inclusion in discussions and activities outside of the immediate cultural sector.
This resource explores the concept of ‘cultural value’, the different ways that culture can be understood to have an impact on society, and how this relates to the Cultural Adaptations project. It is particularly aimed at those unfamiliar with the cultural sector, and interested in understanding the role culture may play in society.
Defining culture is not easy, particularly in finding a definition which traverses different countries, languages, experiences of culture and intangible cultural heritage, class or different understandings of public or commercial artistic work.
Importantly, there is no universally accepted definition of culture, it is developed between valuer and what is valued, and so all understandings of cultural value are therefore also relatively vague, and better understood at a local level. Cultural Adaptations considers culture in the narrower characterisation of the physical manifestation of culture – the ‘arts and letters’ of visual and performing art, literature, film – but these boundaries are often context specific.
“In today’s interconnected world, culture's power to transform societies is clear. Its diverse manifestations – from our cherished historic monuments and museums to traditional practices and contemporary art forms – enrich our everyday lives in countless ways. Heritage constitutes a source of identity and cohesion for communities disrupted by bewildering change and economic instability. Creativity contributes to building open, inclusive and pluralistic societies. Both heritage and creativity lay the foundations for vibrant, innovative and prosperous knowledge societies.” UNESCO
Understanding cultural value
There have been historic and contemporary debates on how to value art and culture, and how to define intended purpose and outcomes – in philosophy, in politics and in the cultural sector itself.
One simple way to understand the different potential approaches is outlined by John Holden in ‘Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy’, with the identification of three intersecting types of value: intrinsic, instrumental and institutional:
- Normally discussed in reference to the impact of a cultural experience or work on an individual, this is value experienced at the emotional, intellectual or spiritual level – the transcendental experiences people describe when connecting with a historical, symbolic, aesthetic or social aspect of culture, normally in a positive way.
- In particular this understanding of value suffers from inconsistent language (language itself being a cultural product), and a historical divide which has framed ‘art for art’s sake’ and intrinsic meaning in opposition to other forms of value.
- Changes resulting within an individual (for example, increasing empathy) are difficult to understand when scaled up to a local population level, with different individual life factors (age, gender, education, class, exposure to cultural experiences) making each response quite unique.
- Instrumental value focuses on the effects of culture in relation to a social, political or economic purpose. As it can be difficult to ascertain true causation (i.e. did cultural exposure lead to a particular outcome), it is often judged on potential impact
- Often, the instrumental value of culture can be expressed in figures – the number of jobs created, the amount of wealth generated, the change in school attendance statistics, the recovery rates of hospital patients – which can be linked to the cultural intervention.
- This emphasis on moral or societal purpose of culture is particularly linked to public funding of the arts, and cultural organisations often
- A less developed (or understood) aspect of cultural value is the ways in which cultural organisations engage with the wider public, and their resulting value to the population. In their established place in society – physically as buildings in our public realm, and conceptually, in consistent interaction over time – they have the capacity to build citizen interaction and trust through shared experiences. For example, the United Kingdom’s BBC (British Broadcasting Company) is an example of an organisation whose institutional value is recognised nationally, and increasingly internationally.
- Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has also suggested a link between cultural engagement and participating in civic democracy, creating ‘vital spaces for sympathetic and reasoned debate, helping to build democracies that are able to overcome fear and suspicion and, ultimately, creating a world that is worth living in.’ Cultural methods and experiences can use their institutional value to explore difficult topics, which might otherwise not be socially permissible.
Who is the audience?
For many cultural practitioners and cultural organisations, emphasis of value will often have to reflect the priorities of their major stakeholders, and where the biggest demonstration of created or maintained cultural value is needed: private funders, audiences, collaborators, other artists, and the taxpayer will all have different conceptions and expectations of different types of value. Cultural value cannot be created in isolation, but the contexts in which value is created is always changing, with different demands and agendas.
"...embracing the licence to be curious and honest, to think outside the institutional and sectoral silos, developing more reliable methods and having more transparency about how the decisions about cultural value are made, all carried the promise of making the stakeholders in the debate more stable, resilient and sustainable. Sustainability in this context does not mean the preservation of the status quo, but becoming more surefooted and adaptive." Dr Patrycja Kaszynska, Cultural Value Scoping Project, AHRC
The role of Cultural Adaptations
Cultural Adaptations is an action-research project, part of which is exploring how culture can contribute to how cities and regions adapt to the expected impacts of climate change. In this, we are exploring new potential areas of cultural value.
Exploring how creative practices and approaches can enable us to engage with climate change adaptation in a new way. In each of our four partner countries, and selected city-regions, one artist is embedded in a climate change adaptation context, working with key stakeholders.
Working with cultural organisations and actors to explore new business models to contribute to city-scale adaptation. With society on the precipice of huge change as a result of climate change, culture has a significant opportunity to use its tools and methods to help shape how we respond.
Using the existing role and profile of cultural organisation to explore our response to climate change adaptation. Cultural organisations are often keystones in their community, and in adapting themselves, they can have a central role in hosting the discussions, debates and mechanisms which support how the rest of society adapts to the coming changes.
“Politics is concerned with mass social outcomes: it is about simplification and decision-making on a large scale. Art by contrast is about the individual, about complexity and subtlety.” John Holden, 2006
Further resources on cultural value
Cultural value is a dense and contested topic, and illustrated examples are often the best way to understand how the value of culture is being assessed. The various links below will take you to websites, guides and tools to add to the information outlined above.