Measuring the intrinsic value of culture

Measuring the intrinsic value of culture

By Hasan Bakhshi
Alan Freeman
Graham Hitchen


This paper argues that the reluctance to use rigorous economic methods has hindered, rather than helped, the case for the arts. It seeks to demonstrate how economics can provide the tools to 'measure' and validate the intrinsic value of art.


This paper seeks to transcend entrenched misunderstandings between economists and arts policymakers, leaders and funders. These misunderstandings, which have long dogged discussion on arts funding in the UK, are most evident in the long-running debate about ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ approaches to public expenditure on culture and the arts. Our argument here is simple: bad economic decisions are the outcome of bad economics. If, economic decisions have therefore failed to take account of the intrinsic benefits of the arts, the solution is not to exempt arts spending from economic criteria, but to improve the economic practice used to judge such spending.

Nobody says we should get rid of the arts because there are many bad paintings in the world. This is because the arts do not cause bad art: bad artists do. Likewise, ‘economics’ does not lead to bad funding decisions: bad economics does. Both camps will therefore benefit from an engagement, which can improve the economics used to reach decisions about how to spend public money on the arts. Most critics of instrumentalism have bypassed, instead of engaged with, the economics used to make these decisions. It is time this changed.

‘Good Economics’ includes what Bruno Frey (2004) calls ‘the economic approach to the arts’, which, for brevity, we will refer to as ‘cultural economics’. This body of theory makes a distinctive, and vital, contribution to the theory of public choice and its relation to consumer preferences. To dispel superficial prejudice, Frey distinguishes this from ‘the economics of the arts’ – the routine macroeconomic measurement of employment, output, and productivity, associated with the ‘creative industries’.

Cultural economics has not figured in the UK debate on the value of the arts. The arts community is the loser, because cultural economics squarely addresses the issues raised by instrumentalism’s critics: it shows how one might estimate the intrinsic value of art. Properly-conducted investigations informed by its approach find that the public places a considerable value on art and its availability, a value often greater than the public funding actually allocated. This fills an undesirable gap: it offers authoritative estimates of the ‘public value’ of art which permit fair comparisons with other uses of funds.

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Resource type: | Published: 2013