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What Matters?

CHAPTER FIVE

The Language of Value

‘I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.’
Matt Groening, writer of The Simpsons

On the Importance of Not Being an Expert

Language matters. It is our most important tool for thinking and living together. Consider a common scenario. A problem of public importance is raised – in the media, parliament, or by citizens’ petition. The problem might be concrete and directly observable: for example, a lack of inner city housing or the length of surgery waiting lists. Or it may be understandable only in a conceptual way: for example, the youth crime rate or the level of inflation. The problem is then defined, discussed and pronounced upon by experts. Experts vary as much as the problems they address. Some experts draw on practical experience to assert their status. Others are credited through academic or clinical study. Called from their life of expertise into the public eye, they then interpret some aspect of the common world. There is no physical ‘look’ that signals an expert – though middle-aged, white men are well represented. They may dress in a suit and tie or a T-shirt that looks like it’s been used to mop up spilt gravy. What they share, however, is ‘expert talk’. Expert talk is a type of communication that aspires to leave hearers in no doubt they are getting important information, whether or not they understand it themselves. Think of the dialogue in a TV hospital soap opera. What do the doctors mean when they say that a patient has ‘a high-grade fixed artery stenosis caused by atherosclerosis and coronary vasospasm’. We have no idea. Well, actually we have one idea: that they know what they are talking about. And because of this, we defer to them. Their view is more than mere opinion (the ancient Greek word is doxa). It is a judgment (the ancient Greek word is krisis).

The basis of all expert talk is informed comparison. Whether it takes the form of legal opinion, medical diagnosis, critical review or mathematical algorithm, the foundation on which expertise is built is comparative knowledge. Comparison begets measurement, and measurement enables comparison. Faced with two things, or the same thing on two different occasions, we face a need to relate, equate and benchmark. Sometimes measurement and comparison are so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable. To seek expert knowledge about health, wealth and level of reading skill is to seek it about their opposites: illness, poverty and illiteracy. Many things exist on a spectrum of contrasting instances. These are organised under collective nouns – statisticians call them ‘nominative categories’ – and in an almost inevitable sleight of hand, as categories suck in the instances around them like a whirlpool, comparison takes on the authority of broad generalisation: the authority of experts is connected to their use of language.

Yet here a doubt rings out like a ship’s bell. How convincing are these generalisations and what exactly does expert talk prove? Does it inform consent or merely demand it? When should we accede to experts, and when should we demur? In an age of self-seeking elites and caustic populists, these are not abstract questions. What does it mean to be told that we are ‘objectively obese’, ‘a below-average wage earner’ or ‘a typical school leaver’? In passing from instance to category, the single phenomenon to the collective noun, our own personal experience will sometimes stubbornly refuse to pluralise. In fact, the whole edifice of expert explanation hits a wall when it comes to what happens on an individual level. No-one cares about their conformance to a Gaussian bell curve of normal distribution if they do not feel fat or poor or a typical anything.

People’s states of mind determine certain issues, and while these can be sensibly framed, they cannot be settled by expert fiat. In one pre-Brexit meeting organised by the UK’s Remain party, a Treasury spokesperson pointed to the country’s rising GDP, whereupon someone from the audience shouted ‘that’s not my GDP’. Here expert talk fails, and the categories used to organise the instances around it are exposed as hollow fictions. The further you go into the personal realm, the more things resist expert generalisation. What is a typical dream? A normal love affair? An average poem? Knowing that there are many metrically similar sonnet lines to ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ tells you something. But not a lot.

Expert talk is limited in these areas because it abuts onto a mysterious continent we might call, for the sake of brevity, ‘being human’. Here, being healthy, wealthy and wise is a matter for inner adjudication rather than external calibration. Some judgments we have to make for ourselves. No-one can tell us we are happy if we don’t feel it, or offer more than generic advice when it comes to the direction of our own lives. We can listen to the views of others, but cannot outsource our problems to them. The recalcitrance of individual experience is especially relevant to the evaluation of culture. The building of bridges may be a matter of dispassionate knowledge, as they need to stand up more than they need to be aesthetically pleasing. But cultural experience is ‘always already’ personal. You might go to the theatre often, but each occasion is different. Even re-reading a book or re-watching a film are new events compared to first exposure. Moreover, because culture is both all around us, defining our way of life, and a discrete set of arts practices, it prompts our widest responses. Some aspects of culture can be compared, measured and generalised. Others can’t, and the challenge is to evaluate them by carefully discerning their place in our own hearts and minds. Expert talk has a role to play, as guide or provocateur. We can read reviews and blog posts with profit and pleasure. But the arguments they marshal are always extruded through someone’s personal understanding. As in our democratic political realm, where each citizen has a right to one vote, the cultural realm is predicated on a presumed equality of individual response. These many, notionally equal points of judgment are where the evaluation of culture occurs. If we think someone’s opinion of a bit of art is wrong, we can’t take them to the High Court. Many people hold Shakespeare to be a great writer. But if someone disagrees, we can’t point to a bar chart of statistical proof. We have to tackle their view head-on, talking it through and trying to change their mind.

All this highlights the centrality of language to the evaluation of culture. There are a number of types of expert talk that make an appearance here and, like the dialogue in a medical soap, we may recognise their tone even when we don’t know exactly what they’re saying. The oldest is ‘high culture talk’, where venerated critics deliver their verdicts on Matthew Arnold’s ‘best that has been thought and said in the world’. The newest is ‘creative industries talk’ and its spin-offs ‘creative cities talk’ and ‘creative classes talk’. These mix analysis of cultural practices with discussion about urban regeneration and economic development. In Western countries where a substantial part of the manufacturing base has been lost, culture is often put forward as a solution to post-industrial reinvention, with the arts linked to emerging businesses in advertising or software design. A third type of talk is the functional vocabulary of government policy, seemingly designed to leach out the human qualities of cultural activities by sweeping them into categories so bland as to lack descriptive force entirely. The federal government’s Budget papers, for example, refer to ‘the cultural function’ and ‘the cultural subfunctions’. For anyone not inducted into the policy club, what these dispiriting catch-alls include is impossible to guess.

Each kind of expert talk about culture is useful in one context or another, and tells us something about how to approach our own evaluations. What they do not do, however, cannot do, is do our thinking for us. However erudite an expert might be – and some are deeply knowledgeable and perceptive – they cannot claim that their experience of culture is better than ours. Command of objective data is no substitute for depth of personal response. Our separate cultural experiences mean we will arrive at separate judgments about them. These judgments will be shareable and defensible only if our common language allows for wide-ranging and deep-rooted discussion. Where talk about culture is both informed and aware of culture’s true nature, discussion will achieve a proper scope, intensity and register. It will be a dialogue that accumulates insights over time. But these insights will not aggregate nor be eternal.

How to achieve this desirable outcome? The aim here, it is important to remember, is not to agree about culture, but to get better at disagreeing about it. All participants, professionals and ‘mere’ citizens must learn to talk better as enthusiastic and well-informed amateurs: as non-experts. To bridge the personal and the political, culture talk needs a robust pluralism of positions and tones. This requires language skills as arduously acquired and profound as any expert talk.

Buzzword Bingo

‘The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way … strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.’ Jane Austen, Emma

The chicken was memorably inedible; rubbery and insipidly seasoned. The quality of the talk was not much better. This is no criticism of the veterans of the Adelaide arts community, roped-in to a Council for Economic Development (CEDA) lunch on ‘Innovation and the Arts’ in April 2016. They were doing their best with wearisome material. Cornered by language that had no place for the real purposes of the arts, they were bravely bullshitting to protect their organisations and the cultural sector. They responded as leaders should to a call for public discussion of the term de jour. But it was still indigestible. Bad faith, even in a good cause, is hard to hide.

What brought them to this pass? A year earlier George Brandis had turned arts funding on its head by carving away the Australia Council’s funding for his NPEA. The sector recalibrated its rhetoric to talk of excellence and only excellence. For all his manifest problems, Brandis was a minister with a genuine passion for the arts. It was obvious why he had thrust excellence into the policy limelight, and what he meant by it. Few people in arts and culture shared his view, but government money is always scarce, and anyone who could play the ‘excellence card’ with a moderately clear conscience did so. In the 2,719 submissions to the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the arts cuts, ‘excellence’ appears 3,406 times, well ahead of ‘industry’ (2,056), ‘access’ (1,731), and ‘innovation’ (a paltry 742). But then Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister and Brandis was relieved of his arts portfolio in a cabinet reshuffle. The bland Mitch Fifield took over a reconfigured Ministry of Communication and the Arts. Peace (a sort of low-level hostile neglect) settled on cultural policy, as Fifield set about anaesthetising the sector and quietly dismantling Brandis’s changes. In November, he subsumed the government’s arts priorities into those of communications, changing the dominant rhetoric to ‘innovation and participation’.89

‘The last shall be first, and the first last’ (Matthew 20.16). Cultural leaders spent their summers clearing ‘excellence’ from their documents and replacing it with the word ‘innovation’ in the game of Buzzword Bingo. The lunch of the rubber chickens was the fruit of that work. Now everything from rehanging art galleries thematically to putting orchestra musicians on part-time contracts was dressed as ‘innovative’. Rupert Myer, giving the keynote as Chair of the Australia Council, did the big picture alignment with the federal government’s agenda, as reported in the next day’s Adelaide Advertiser :

The intersection of the arts and innovation was at the heart of the products [Steve] Jobs produced and a key to Apple’s success. The arts embrace broad expressions of human creative skill and imagination. And while innovation is commonly seen as technology driven, it is present in all human endeavour – in science, medicine, social development, the environment and the arts. Innovation expands our understanding of the human condition, furthering our insights into cultural systems and values, who we are as a people and a nation.90

Such language is not entirely wrong or dishonest. It just doesn’t mean much, and the contributions to the CEDA discussion of ‘Innovation and the Arts’ told us little about creative arts practices or cultural development. Rupert Myer may have been speaking to the sector, but he was not speaking in terms ordinary practitioners or audiences could understand. The collective nouns through which so much policy discussion about arts and culture gets channelled are more of a distraction than an aid. The three most enduring – ‘innovation’, ‘excellence’ and ‘access’ – often seem to cycle through on a mental Lazy Susan. Others, like ‘impact’, ‘sustainability’, ‘vibrancy’ and ‘disruption’, have seasonal vogues. The difficulty is the misleading belief that a word meaningful in concrete situations (an adjective or specific noun) can generate a general category that transcends concrete instances in a varied field. With our rising faith in big data comes the accompanying assumption that differences in form and context wash out with big numbers. But because of the personal nature of cultural experiences, differences actually multiply rather than diminish, with the result that the words of largest scope have the least meaning. ‘Innovation’ can be attached to nearly anything, and in Fifield’s domain it generally was.

Consider the problem in the adjacent space of government-funded university scholarship. Australian universities have been dogged for decades by the search for a quick way of measuring the benefit of their research. Certainly, this has many ‘impacts’ and any competent government will be concerned to assess these. It does not follow that every example of good research suggests a general term of evaluation. Even where it does, it may not be measurable. CSIRO scientists invented wi-fi and Monash University medics invented the bionic ear. These had important consequences, but they are not comparable, and it is meaningless to put them on a scale of 1 to 10. Even if such a scale were constructed, it would tell little about where to award the next grant. Bionic ear researchers always aimed to help the deaf. CSIRO invented wi-fi as a side-benefit of a failed experiment in particle physics. While it may seem just to reward such luck, there is little rationality in investing in it happening over and over again.

In the language of assessment, loss of meaning can happen at any step, but because it often happens incrementally it may escape attention. An excellent cup of coffee is a real, singular experience. An excellent coffee shop is a place where a lot of excellent cups of coffee are made. Excellence in coffee-making is starting to lose touch with any concrete meaning of excellent, especially if we generalise it across different styles and markets (excellent coffee looks very different in Minneapolis, Melbourne and Medina). By the time we reach ‘excellence in food and beverage provision’ we are telling ourselves nothing useful about the quality of coffee, or whether a café is open on Sundays. There are further levels of abstraction government language will push, etiolating context even further. But a little of this goes a long way, and a little more leads to the evaporation of meaning entirely.

To be committed to ‘excellence’ or ‘innovation’ would be no more than irritating motherhood statements were it not that the policy process deploys such general terms to justify its decisions when resources must be allocated between unlike things. Don Watson has written a number of books criticising this wooden, reductive and alarming use of language. In Death Sentence (2003), he invokes the spirit of George Orwell to warn against its numbing effects:

No doubt in the place from which these words came they were judged competent. But they are not competent in the world at large. They are not competent as language. They represent an example of what Orwell calls anaesthetic writing. You cannot read it without losing some level of consciousness. You come to, and read it again, and still your brain will not reveal the meaning – will not even try. You are getting sleepy again.91

Watson points out the problem, and we all laugh. But the objects of ridicule refuse to melt away. Children born when Death Sentence was first published are now in secondary school. In arts and cultural policy, it would be hard to find anyone who believes language has improved in the last 15 years. Why? It is tempting to see it as a power play by bureaucrats, bending free spirits to their bleak and narrow will. But Watson puts it down to habituation, suggesting that ‘corporate leaders have good reasons to twist their language into knots and obscure the meaning of it, but more often it is simply habit’.92 People write and demand anaesthetic prose less because they are driving towards clear targets than because they are trying to control risk. James Button’s brief, unhappy experience in Canberra as a frustrated speechwriter for Kevin Rudd led him to the conclusion that ‘the paradox of bad public language’ is that ‘what looks to outsiders like an exercise of power, an intent to shut others out, in fact expresses a kind of powerlessness’.93 Anaesthetic prose gestures at getting things done, but its baroque vagueness reflects an anxiety of being caught saying something unambiguous that could prove wrong. If you add the overuse of managerial terms to basic human fear, you have the ingredients for a tsunami of bullshit.94

Of purveyors of anaesthetic language, Watson comments that ‘they have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean’.95 It is an arresting proposition; the way of speaking our state arts leaders called for at the first Laboratory Adelaide lunch. They should be able to talk to government about what really matters rather than laundering their talk through nebulous abstract nouns, passive verbs and opaque categories. They should be able to stop worrying about elaborate attempts to demonstrate ‘strategic’ value that descend into bathos, and to focus on meaningful descriptions of how cultural organisations actually work. Anyone can align to the current clutch of collective nouns, and tack to reflect changes in policy priorities when they occur. The undignified rush to ‘innovation’ at the CEDA lunch showed this clearly.

Meaningful judgments about culture’s value cannot be rendered in anaesthetic prose. Anyone can write defensively when they fear criticism (and probably will). Nevertheless, the Safe Zone of Blah should be resisted. Watson is right to insist that this type of expert talk (the worst) drains things of their meaning and resonance. However, we are not about to enter a world where this language disappears entirely. It is handy for persiflage and sometimes functionally useful. So how can we tame its abstractions for arts and culture? Laboratory Adelaide has developed a handy nine-part writing guide:

Box 7 A Guide to Writing about Value

1. Good writing skills are not peripheral to the provision of evidence: they are the key to it. The first principle in any evaluation strategy is that rhetoric and the use of rhetorical skills are unavoidable, even in the most data-driven or bureaucratic document. Words can be used well or badly, but they are always required to make some sort of case. Evidence for value in culture does not exist independently of the words used to frame and describe that case.

2. Because writing is part of making a case, it should not be entirely outsourced. By all means get capable advice on writing and editing. But the bland polish of consultants will not make your case well. Write yourself if possible, or in close connection with a ghost-writer if necessary.

3. Write to communicate not to obfuscate. The language you use should be as simple and direct as the evidence will permit, without being reductive.

4. Be specific. Avoid abstract nouns as far as possible. Talk of ‘excellent paintings’ or ‘excellent films’, not of ‘excellence’. Be concrete in all descriptions.

5. Carefully attend to the story you are telling. Present clear narratives, both in anecdotes and in the overall framing of documents. (See the next chapter ‘Narratives of Value’.)

6. Keep bullshit to a minimum. Only engage in bullshit when there is a clear danger in not doing so. It is a dangerous habit to insult the intelligence of your readers. If we talk to others in a distracted tongue, we will soon start talking to ourselves the same way.

7. Be truthful. It is better to go down saying what you truly believe than in a flailing manipulation of fashionable clichés. Culture is a field of endless creative potential, so there will never be enough resources to fund everything worthwhile. It is better to win support honestly when it is won at all.

8. Be credible. Build trust over time by presenting credible and consistent narratives, ones that speak of an artist’s or cultural organisation’s core purposes. A bit of ‘alignment with priorities’ is acceptable, but a sector that develops a reputation for saying anything for money will not prosper in the long run.

9. Read as carefully as you write. Reading is important and, though last in this list, should be first in practice. We expect the documents we write to be carefully read by others, so we should give their documents the same attention. The only real training for good writing is extensive reading.

This list sounds like no more than useful health advice (eat well, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep). Yet in Laboratory Adelaide’s view, communicating well about the value of culture is overwhelmingly a matter of clarity and honesty. Successful evaluation strategies require eloquence not just an abacus, and the eloquence that succeeds comes from truth and precise expression. The above points do not provide a boilerplate for how to talk about culture, though. Every time we make an industry presentation, someone asks us if we have a ‘new language of value’. There isn’t one. There is no expert talk that will demonstrate definitively what nearly everyone knows intuitively: that culture has a personal value that exceeds its general proofs. Arts managers and practitioners can, however, follow some simple language principles for having a better public conversation about it. It is the business of rational persuasion, as old as Aristotle and as new as the impassioned responses to the 2015 arts cuts Senate Inquiry.


89Australian Department of Communication and the Arts, ‘Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund’: www.arts.gov.au/what-we-do/performing-arts/catalyst-australian-arts-and-culture-fund.

90Rupert Myer, ‘If You Really Want to Lead the World in Innovation, Then Hire an Artist and Let Them Inspire’, The Advertiser, 29 April 2016, 22.

91Don Watson, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language (Milsons Point, NSW: Vintage Australia, 2004), 7.

92Watson, Death Sentence, 35.

93James Button, Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business (Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 2012), 168.

94For a philosophical perspective, see Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005). 95 Watson, Death Sentence, 36.

What Matters?

   by Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett