Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

What Matters?

CHAPTER ONE

Some Definitions

‘Remarks aren’t literature.’
Gertrude Stein

They aren’t systematic analysis either, and this short book does not present a comprehensive academic treatise on assaying the problem of culture’s value. Nor is it a how-to guide, a Culture for Dummies, giving tactical advice on grant submission or the use of quantitative data in policy-making. Rather, it offers what Howard Becker in his seminal work Art Worlds calls ‘a complication’,1 a series of commentaries on the question of value as it appears in a technologically advanced, socially diverse culture like Australia. The impetus to write it comes from the belief that the act of valuing culture, as opposed to the act of creating it in the first place, is one that modern democracies do very badly. The tables, targets, and tracking we typically employ do not help, and probably hinder, a true understanding of what culture means to us and the decisions we need to make about it. It sounds provocative, but is a good place to start, to ask whether, objectively speaking, the evaluative strategies favoured by governments today are so counterproductive that it would be better if they did nothing at all to assess how their money is spent. The results are not just a waste of time. They actively mislead because they suggest they are definitively measuring something when often they reveal only the ingrained belief that anything can be definitively measured. Metric power is ascendant in large part because people assent to its seldom-tested assumptions. Though perhaps that assent may be finally weakening.

There is a way ahead, but it is not by spraying out numbers in the belief they speak for themselves. They do not. They are made to speak by the words around them and the rhetorical purpose for which they are arranged. They can be deployed honestly and forensically, or distortingly and duplicitously, and to many other ends. Hence, the relationship between words and numbers is a crucial axis of attention in evaluating cultural activities and discriminating between them with regards to their public support. This sets useful limits on the over-claiming of quantitative data by demanding relevant context around its application. What does a number mean? is the most important question anyone can ask in an era which is able, like ours, to snow citizens with unlimited formulas and figures.2 Restoring a balance between how we describe culture verbally and how we count it numerically is an intrinsically important goal. Right You Are (If You Think So) is the title of a 1917 play by Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello in which two people accuse each other of being mad and a group of citizens have to discover which one is telling the truth. Evidence is refuted by evidence, explanation by explanation, in a plot that has no final resolution. Truth is elusive, but the quest for it triggers growth. Some things don’t have easy answers, ‘just’ a capacity to generate important questions. So it is with culture. Asking ‘What value does culture have?’ is an act that can add value in itself. It will not lead, via big data, to an algorithm that will make our judgments for us. Instead, the process of evaluation can assist engaging with culture in a more meaningful way. All the more reason not to leave matters where they stand, with data replacing experience, and the widespread but erroneous belief that culture can be properly measured without first being properly understood.

The Culture of Culture

Certain words denote certain things. Other words denote things other than themselves. ‘Culture’ is a word that carries meanings of all kinds. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson show how some words we use on a daily basis structure our understanding of quite different phenomena. They give examples. Argument is war. Time is money. Love is a journey. ‘The essence of metaphor’, they say, ‘is understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another’.3 Their book is now 35 years old, which probably explains why the meteoric rise of culture as a metaphor for almost every area of contemporary social life is not included. Today, culture is everywhere, not because everything is culture, but because the word itself is used in a seemingly limitless range of situations to cover an unruly tribe of ideas and instances. We have the culture of sport, the culture of education, and the culture of business. The culture of lending in the banking industry is under the microscope, as is the culture of misogyny and sexual harassment in the corporate sector as a whole. There is a culture of bullying in schools, a culture of binge drinking outside them, and a culture of fear in our CBDs as a result. Interaction between genders is a matter of culture, as are relations between religions and between academic disciplines.

We have cultures of victimhood, cultures of blame, cultures of forgetting, cultures of safety, and cultures of risk. Being innovative is a matter of culture (‘a culture of innovation’), as is being excellent (‘a culture of quality’). There are cultures of peace, cultures of violence, cultures of silence, and Robert Hughes’s well-known cultures of complaint.4 Stick the word ‘culture’ into Google search, and it will return 1,680,000,000 results in 0.43 seconds. ‘Truth’ returns just 627,000,000, and even ‘God’ only 1,280,000,000. A vast number of books have ‘culture’ in their title. The National Library of Australia lists 1,827 in its main catalogue, plus a further 80 journals. In 2014, ‘culture’ was the most looked-up term in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Confusion about culture, the New York journalist Joshua Rothman observed, ‘is just part of the culture … The problem is that the word … is more than the sum of its definitions’.5

Culture’s complex metaphorical application means the word is often at odds with the factual face peering into the research mirror. ‘The shoe of shoe’ is a sort of philosophical joke, a rumination on the tension between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’, perhaps. ‘The culture of culture’ is a statement that at first glance makes sense. It seems to say something, at least potentially. It offers not a subject of contemplation but an object for investigation. What kind of culture does culture have? Are there things that make some kinds of culture cultural as opposed to other kinds that self-evidently don’t? Anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and critical thinkers enter here, with their theories, models, surveys, comparative analyses and statistics.

Like the Magic Pudding, culture is endlessly divisible along disciplinary lines, and yet, hey presto, there is always more of it to go round. A master-theory of culture would already exist if it were soluble by incremental research, given the person-years devoted to it but, like ‘the answer to Shakespeare’, it is not that sort of question. This remains true even if you narrow your investigation to the older senses of culture anchored to the arts and humanities. Is it an object? A process? A relation? Is culture something that exists in the world or in our heads? If a bit of both, what are the boundaries and the arrows of causation? Is culture a singular or a collective experience? Can I decide when something is culture or is general consensus required?

If I read a book that everyone hates but I like, am I culturally in the wrong? Are cultural opinions a matter of demonstrable proof, like scientific opinions? Or plausible belief, like legal ones? Or are they simply expressions of consumer preference, such as a taste for mustard over tomato sauce, or blue walls over green? If the last, then the significance of the word hardly seems to justify the ink spilled over it. Yet clearly culture plays an important role in our lives. How to understand that role and improve it? One response is ‘Should we even try?’ If culture is a term of flat description, then there can be, logically, no improvement in it, only what the Reserve Bank calls ‘quantitative easing’ – the provision of more or less of certain cultural goods and services. But here, like a draught of cold air from the floorboards, comes a nagging reminder this is not all that culture stands for, that it is, in the words of the half-forgotten American literary critic Lionel Trilling,

an idea of great attractiveness and undoubted usefulness. We may say it begins in the assumption that all human expressions or artifacts are indicative of some considerable tendencies in the life of social groups … and that which is indicative is also causative – all cultural facts have their consequences. To think in cultural terms is to consider human expressions not only in their own existence and avowed intention, but in, as it were, their secret life, taking cognisance of the desires and impulses which lie behind the open formulation … The concept of culture affords to those who use it a sense of liberation … for they deal less with abstractions and mere objects, more with the momentous actualities of human feelings as these shape and condition the human community, as they make and as they indicate the quality of man’s existence. Not the least of the attractions of the cultural mode of thought are the passions which attend it – because it assumes that all things are causative or indicative of the whole of the cultural life, it proposes to us those intensities of moralised feeling which seem appropriate to our sense that all that is good in life is at stake in every cultural action … We can … no more escape from the cultural mode of thought than we can escape from culture itself.6

There is Culture as Thing, but also Culture as Category, what Trilling calls ‘the cultural mode of thought’, and for him at least there is no escaping its normative implications.7 Culture has about it a quality of ‘ought’: what we ought to be reading, watching, listening to, experiencing, at least part of the time. For some people this is already fusty elitism, an indefensible elevation of certain activities above others, when choice should be individual and free. Why should books be preferred to baton-twirling, opera to soap opera, interior design to tattoo design? But this is not what Trilling is saying. The cultural mode of thought pulls towards deep and common (if not necessarily universal) experiences. It allows us to talk and speculate about the biggest of big pictures – Life with a capital ‘L’. Arguably, Tolstoy, George Eliot and Samuel Beckett do just that. Arguably so do Ella Fitzgerald, Margaret Atwood and Snoop Dogg. The point is not who or what is at the top of an imagined cultural league table – the respectable term is ‘canon’ – but the fact that we can’t help making such discriminations ourselves. If we didn’t, all CDs, books, and films would sell equally, or reflect changes in exogenous factors only. But they don’t, because we don’t buy them on the basis of a price x quantity algorithm. We buy them on the basis of liking some things more than others, and knowing full well this reflects surges in the collective consciousness. We also judge some things to be better than others, and find various ways to talk to others about that, in terms that used to be called cultural criticism.

Many people have written on the meaning of the word culture, of which perhaps Matthew Arnold is the oldest, and Raymond Williams the best known. Arnold, poet, polemicist and school inspector, published his famous book Culture and Anarchy in 1869. In it, he called culture ‘a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best that has been said and thought in the world and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’.8 Here, culture is implicitly associated with certain things, ones we tend to call, and which they call themselves, ‘the arts’. It is a restricted definition and leaves out many of the activities that a broader interpretation would see as having a legitimate cultural dimension to them. It is also limited in the consideration it shows matters of class, race and gender. With this in mind, Williams published an influential essay, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, in 1958, in which he observed that

When I now read a book such as Clive Bell’s Civilisation, I experience not so much disagreement as stupor. What kind of life can it be, I wonder, to produce this extraordinary fussiness, this extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work? At home we met and made music, listened to it, recited and listened to poems, valued fine language. I heard better music and better poems since; there is the world to draw on. But I know, from the most ordinary experience, that the interest is there, the capacity is there … Culture is ordinary: through every change let us hold fast to that.9

This is a different view. Though Williams had time for Arnold, he disagreed with the premise that culture should be identified with the high arts, and that these could be hierarchically ranked like an army regiment.10 Williams’s understanding of theatre and film was detailed and extensive. ‘Culture is Ordinary’ is not a lazy, ‘anything goes’ response to Arnoldian claims for art-as-culture. Nor is it flatly materialist like economic rationalist approaches. There is still an ‘ought’ in Williams, but it is of a different kind from Arnold’s: a life-as-culture ‘ought’ that is no less imperative and which is strongly opposed to the deadening mechanisation and social stratification of twentieth century capitalism. From Arnold, we get formalist schools of aesthetic inquiry. He had a profound effect on FR Leavis, the literary critic, who in turn influenced generations of English teachers, and Williams himself, in the techniques of close textual analysis. Williams, after he broke with Leavis, allied himself with Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall from the Birmingham Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies, whose approach to culture was informed by sociology and social theory. From these two disciplinary traditions – there are others, but they have been the most influential in Australian intellectual life11 – arise what might be called the narrow and the broad understandings of Trilling’s cultural mode of thought.

Over the last 50 years, these two schools have spent considerable time and energy bagging each other. The rise of cultural studies, in Australia and elsewhere, would have been a non-event without this antagonism, and there are echoes of it in the recently established Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, with a generous endowment to support the Arnold end of the debate. We do not re-engage the debate here. There are strengths on both sides, and important areas of shared concern. Instead, we accept the fact that culture is simultaneously everywhere and somewhere. It is found in particular objects and activities, and also in everything human beings encounter on a daily basis. Culture is a part of what philosophers call ‘the commons’. Indeed, it is their emotional core and psychological ground. The pervasiveness of culture means that, like gravity, it is both ‘weak’ (hard to define and measure) and all-powerful (the thing that holds other things together).

This is a state of affairs we choose. With Trilling, we choose to use the word ‘culture’ to refer to ‘actualities of human feelings as these shape and condition the human community’, and a lot more besides. We could use different words for different things, but we don’t because we are interested in what they share – the having of a thing called culture. And if this creates problems because culture’s meaning is so elastic as to suggest few concrete traits and no precise range, that’s a choice too. We choose to be vaguely right rather than precisely wrong, sensing that calling something culture is not like awarding a sports day rosette, but is the first step in a longer process of investigation and assessment. The cultural mode of thought is a broad affiliation. What we lose in semantic purchase we gain in cognitive flexibility. Things we would struggle to describe can attract this handy term. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) identified what it called ‘breaches of the financial services culture’ in the Australian banking sector.12 Opposing ASIC’s extension of the criminal code to the Corporations Act, John Colvin argued that culture is ‘a nebulous concept and has evaded a comprehensive definition’.13 Well, yes. But ASIC’s deployment of the word was less concerned with proposing definitions than highlighting problems. The meaning is the use, in Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, and our use of ‘culture’ today is of the broadest and most fundamental kind.

The Value of Value

The equation of the value of a thing with its market price is the subject of strong and repeated censure in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In the Book of Job, we find the following:

Where shall wisdom be found? …
Man knoweth not the price thereof …
It cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall

silver be weighed [for] the price thereof. It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire. The gold and the crystal cannot equal it: and the exchange of it [shall not be for] jewels or fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom [is] above rubies. The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold. Whence then cometh wisdom? and where [is] the place of understanding? … Behold, the fear of the Lord, that [is] wisdom; and to depart from evil [is] understanding. (Job 28, 12–20 and 28)14

While ‘culture’ has been rapidly conquering new semantic territories in recent decades, the word ‘value’ has declined in its associations and significance. Historically, what was a rich, multidimensional term evoking a range of thoughts, feelings and perspectives has been stripped of its layers of meaning and increasingly used to signify one thing only: financial value. This has been a matter of shrinkage, of ever-narrower and less qualitative constructions of value. The point is made by David Throsby, one of the world’s leading cultural economists:

[In] the twentieth century … in economics, theory acquired a new axiomatic rigor. Price expressed in monetary terms was identified with the impartial result of all the subjective and objective variables that impinge on any transaction. A new hierarchy was established wherein price and value became synonymous; in this logical universe, cultural and artistic value were seen as a subjective category, beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. In Debreu’s (1959) canonical version, value [was] defined as ‘market price times commodity volume’.15

Value was once something to be discriminated; that is, discerned according to critical judgment. Today, we are happier when it can be counted. Where numbers really are meaningful, this constitutes progress. But that is a heavy proviso, and culture is a zone where metrical proxies are frequently tendentious, used to mask opinions rather than inform them. That masking takes the form of a spurious hard-headedness that reduces value to limited instrumental outcomes, classically a dollar figure. The cartoon by Jon Kudelka on the front cover of this book captures the problem perfectly. Liberal Senator James Paterson reacted to a valuation of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles at $350 million by suggesting the government sell it to retire debt. Any ascribed dollar amount is a minor part of the value to the nation of this controversial and collection-defining work of art. When assessing it, you cannot assume it is equivalent to 210,853.535 troy ounces of gold.16 Gold exists in an economic market; a work of abstract expressionism exists in a history of meaning. It is arguable that the Ned Kelly series by Sidney Nolan or the ‘Aboriginal Memorial’ that haunts the foyer of the National Gallery of Australia are even more valuable. But it is arguable because it is part of a story through which we understand ourselves, not because we can charge ‘what the market will bear’.

An important discussion of the evolution of the idea of value (the value of value) can be found in Jane Gleeson-White’s 2014 work Six Capitals. This is the sequel to her history of financial accounting practices, Double Entry,17 which appeared a few years previously. Together, the two books provide a readily accessible exploration of the relationship between value and monetised metrics. Gleeson-White discusses the challenges facing those who strive to measure the value of intangible things, such as intellectual ideas, or non-renewable ones, like natural resources. For accountants, these present as problems of asset valuation, which are usually transposed into financial terms. The double entry accounting system expresses liabilities in the same way, so that firms (or nations) can align assets alongside liabilities and ‘see’ whether they are running at a profit or a loss. Since the fourteenth century, accounting practices have become a deal more sophisticated, allowing for deeper understanding of fiscal operations. But accounting’s idea of value has not undergone radical reform, and remains in essence that which can be expressed financially on a balance sheet. Some things lend themselves to this calculative approach more than others, so accountants have developed different conceptions of ‘capital’ to reckon the manufacturing, human and social dimensions of economic life as these complicate the process of wealth accumulation. In Six Capitals, Gleeson-White discusses two international reporting frameworks that have recently emerged as a way of better accounting for the value of factors that elude quantitative measure.

We return to Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Integrated Reporting (<IR>) later in the book to examine their potential for culture. For now, what matters is that the ambition to turn all that we do and have into ‘an asset’ of one kind or another is extremely contentious. It puts forward not only a process of value, but also a metaphor for it. By treating each entity in a way that makes it exchangeable with another – economists talk about ‘substitutability’, accountants about ‘fungibility’ – it places all phenomena on a plane of theoretical equivalence. A native forest could be valued ‘the same as’ a local golf course, or a family friend ‘the same as’ a family home. We recoil at such equivalences as intellectually and morally dubious. Yet modern society makes such calculations on a daily basis. Actuaries and insurance brokers regularly put a price on objects, persons and relations we would regard as irreplaceable but which are treated as things that can be weighed and measured in standardised units, and thus compared. In 2016, the Art Gallery of South Australia announced that its collection had been valued at over a billion dollars and was the largest asset in the state18. It is a spurious figure, both because the collection will never be put on the market, and because it would create a glut of artworks that would never return this hypothetical book value if an attempt were made to sell them. Even flat-broke US cities like Detroit and Buffalo have rejected the idea of selling great public art collections gathered in their glory days. Under stress, citizens and politicians still believe art has more than a dollar value. They are surely right.

Weighing and measuring is necessarily an act of comparison. Things that are not other things are placed in a common category of description, compared and counted together (or contrasted and excluded from the count). Categorisation must happen before measurement can take place and carries with it the implied belief that a thing both can be measured and should be measured by way of accounting for its value. This belief can be wrong. The film Schindler’s List is in part a study of corrupt calculative practices, of how the counting of something – the nominative category of being Jewish – can be harnessed to immoral and criminal ends. The equation of value with price seems more innocent, but there are dark undertows.

Gleeson-White suggests that George Monbiot, the journalist and environmental activist,

regards the very idea of giving the natural world financial value as a sign of defeat, a way of framing an argument for the inherent value of nature and its preservation in the terms of … those who seek to destroy it in the name of economic development. He [Monbiot] writes, ‘Costing nature tells us that it possesses no inherent value; that it is worthy of protection only when it performs services for us; that it is replaceable. You demoralise and alienate those who love the natural world while reinforcing the values of those who don’t.’ Monbiot’s argument … stopped me in my tracks. It fed into my growing misgivings about how would nature benefit from its reconception as natural capital and sparked a dawning realisation of the full implications – moral, aesthetic and spiritual – of these persuasive … moves to price nature in order to save it … It brought home to me the full force of Keynes’ 1933 remark ‘once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilisation’, and of the true bankruptcy of a civilisation which has so lost its bearings in the universe that its only apparent common measure of value, and of right or wrong action, is the rule of money.19

What Monbiot and Gleeson-White say about costing nature is transferrable to arts and culture. Trying to speak ‘the language of government’ confirms their instrumentalism and ‘demoralises and alienates’ those who love the arts (including oneself). To win funding battles, the whole terrain of meaningful evaluation is conceded.

The basic premise of cultural economics is that a distinction can be made between culture’s economic value and its other forms of value and that these can be estimated in monetary terms separately. This allows some push back against the dodgy equivalences of financial accounting. Yet, as Gleeson-White suggests, despite the fact that we have developed sophisticated ideas of return in different areas of the economy, capital keeps slipping back to an identification with money, and money keeps slipping back to an identification with value. Like the environment, representing culture as a problem of value reveals dissatisfaction with the neo-liberal beliefs of Western society over the past 30 years. These beliefs are still dominant, but are beginning to show wear and tear.20

Just as you cannot solve the problem of culture’s meaning by haggling over definitions, you cannot solve the problem of its value with more measurement techniques. The proposition that a better index of measurement by itself furnishes a better idea of value is not only false, it imparts falsity to the propositions around it, creating a bank of spurious knowledge, a phrenology of culture. Epistemological questions (questions of knowledge) come second to social ones (questions of collective belief), since there is always a social context to the measurement techniques we deploy. That social context provides a consensus that something of value exists prior to it being investigated more systematically. This is important when studying things we cannot see, like quantum particles, or which have no corporeal existence, like the national economy, or exist as abstract concepts, like justice. Arguably, culture falls into all three camps. We can say ‘we aren’t measuring culture well enough’ or ‘our idea of value is too instrumental’, but the issue is more fundamental.

The truth is there isn’t enough substance on the problem when it arrives in the public domain.

There seems to be a growing awareness of this unsatisfactory state of affairs, even among major accountancy firms like Deloitte and KPMG, both of whom have approached Laboratory Adelaide to discuss these issues. The way forward lies not in synthesising a humungous metrical model for computing culture’s absolute value, but in finding a better balance between concrete examples and analytical concepts. On this score, Bruno Latour has some sharp things to say about the social sciences:

You never have a chemistry class that starts with the methodology of chemistry; you start by doing chemistry. And the problem is that since the social sciences don’t know what it is to be scientific … they imagine that they have to be listing endless numbers of criteria and precautions before doing anything. They usually miss precisely what is interesting in natural sciences, which is a laboratory situation and the experimental protocol.21

This suggests that approaches to measuring culture’s value today, which often rely just on methodological self-consciousness, are ineffective; that while they may bolster our sense of mastery over a tricky area, they do little to illuminate it. But no-one is off the hook. Governments, artists, journalists and researchers all face the same crenelated landscape, where proving culture’s worth to any but an immediately sympathetic cohort is difficult. Thus, while we all know that culture has an important inherent value – consider the global outcry to the horrifying Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, or the terrible destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra22 – we have no means of anchoring it in our public consciousness. Talk about inherent value ends up either so broad as to be specious, or so particular as to sound like special pleading. It is not that we don’t know what we are saying when we make a case for culture’s culture, it is that we can’t ground it in a deep enough understanding of value’s value. This is why our evaluative strategies keep collapsing into the measurement of economic and social effects. And that is unfortunate, since the problem of culture’s value is a subset of the larger problem of value in society, and properly understanding it is key not only to better cultural policy but to a better life. In this book our focus is not on measurement methods but on how culture is talked about and how it talks about itself. It is in the histories and patterns of sociability around measurement processes that we may find a way to combat what Michael Pusey in his book Economic Rationalism in Canberra (1991) calls a ‘transcontextual commensurability of reference’.23 This accommodation may not satisfy Monbiot, but it will allow more detail to inform evaluative strategies, complicating but also improving our idea of culture’s value and its assessment.

Box 2 Parables of Value

Anecdotes are slippery things. A well-chosen anecdote can give a politician or an artist a peg on which to hang a commitment many times larger and more complex than the simple story that has ‘sold’ it. By contrast, dismissing something as ‘anecdotal’ can consign the arguments around it to oblivion. Is there a more stable way of anchoring the value of arts and culture than the rhetorical roulette of whether an anecdote hits its target?

We propose bridging the gap between ‘objective’ evidence and ‘subjective’ opinion by using what we call ‘parables of value’ – narratives that illuminate the issues at stake in a way abstract data cannot. A transformational childhood experience of reading in a public library speaks powerfully to the value of libraries. It is a story of a single person’s experience, yes, statistically indistinguishable from the child who visited the library to find the photocopier broken and nothing useful for her school assignment. But it is exemplary of the library’s purpose. The narrative has to be there, beside the numerical tables on footfalls and productivity measures, to explain what a library actually does. Evaluation must balance abstract, aggregate measures of frequency with personal experience.

There is considerable overlap between academic researchers’ use of case studies and our conception of parables of value. Any competent case study will have a parabolic dimension to it, as it must tell a story exemplifying a wider set of relations or conditions. Such an approach is not an exercise in make-believe, but a discipline of framing evidence meaningfully and holistically so readers get a sense of what is at stake in human terms without being in a particular situation themselves.

For assessment processes, parables of value can also enhance (or even eliminate) the rote mission statement. A handful of parables can reflect a cultural organisation’s commitments more profoundly than a list of abstract nouns. They can give a window into the artistic experiences an organisation aims to foster.

There are limits to storytelling, and the potential for mis-framing as well as for elucidation. For parables of value to be more than an invitation to bullshit, they must have principles of both form and function. These principles require good faith and must be policed by a degree of critical awareness.

To be used in assessment processes, parables of value should be:

Truthful. Parables should describe events that happened and can be verified in their basics.

Apposite. Parables should relate narratives that bear on the core purposes of an organisation, program or project, and that connection should be easily shown.

Significant. Parables may relate peak events or typical experiences, and need not be representative of an organisation’s whole profile. But they cannot refer to outlier occcurences in what they describe.

Concise. Jesus set an impressive standard in the Gospels that few organisations today can equal. Parables should draw their meaning from the context around them, and not spend much time in scene-setting. They need to be graspable in a couple of minutes, and might reasonably be given strict word limits in official assessment.

Relevant. Parables should explain and explore features that are material to the evaluative questions at hand. They should aim to get to the point and to illustrate the point vividly.

Intelligible. The prose of parables should avoid boilerplate yet be understandable at the level of everyday language. A parable should be simple, direct and credible (see Chapter Five, ‘The Language of Value’.)

Three extended parables of value structure the middle chapters of this book, and there are shorter ones throughout. It is important to reiterate that a parable of value is a dynamic set of writing principles, not a template to be copied.

If you are an artist or cultural organisation, you might think of a case that reflects your core purpose. What is it like to talk about the experiences you actually create, rather than provide a shopping list of all imaginable positive outcomes ‘in the language of government’?


1 Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), viii.

2See Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (New York: Crown, 2016).

3George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 5.

4Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

5Joshua Rothman, ‘The Meaning of “Culture”’, The New Yorker, 26 December 2014.

6Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 173–75.

7See also Lionel Trilling, ‘Science, Literature and Culture: A Comment on the Leavis–Snow Controversy’, Higher Education Quarterly, 17, no. 1 (1962): 9–32.

8Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. Jane Garnett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5.

9Raymond Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, in Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso Books, 1989), 94.

10See also Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780–1950 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993).

11See Peter Goodall, High Culture, Popular Culture: The Long Debate (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995).

12‘O’Dwyer Backs ASIC Action on Bank Culture’, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 March 2016.

13‘Culture Is Too Hard to Regulate’, Australian Financial Review, 7 March 2016.

14The Bible: the-holy-bible-king-james-version.soft32.com/free-download.

15Michael Hutter and David Throsby, eds, Beyond Price: Value in Culture, Economics, and the Arts (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 2 (original italics).

16The spot-price for $350,000,000 of gold on 6 November 2017.

17 Jane Gleeson-White, Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Shaped the Modern World – and How Their Invention Could Make or Break the Planet (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011).

18‘Call for new site as Art Gallery of SA collection revalued at $1bn’. Adelaide Now, 26 August, 2016.

19Gleeson-White, Six Capitals, 88–89; see also George Monbiot, ‘Can You Put a Price on the Beauty of the Natural World?’, The Guardian, April 22, 2014.

20See, for example, William Davies, The Limits of Neoliberalism (London: Sage, 2014) and Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Allen Lane, 2015).

21 Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and Peter Erdélyi, The Prince and the Wolf: Latour and Harman at the LSE (London: John Hunt Publishing, 2011), 79–80.

22For an analysis of the Charlie Hebdo killings, see Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Richard Maltby, ‘The Mocking of the Modern Mind: Culture and Cartooning in the Age of Je suis Charlie Hebdo’, Australian Book Review, April 2015, 47–49.

23 Michael Pusey, Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation-building State Changes its Mind (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 11.

What Matters?

   by Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett