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What Matters?


Over the four years of Laboratory Adelaide’s life we have followed debates about value wherever these have led us. We have talked to artists, academics, economists, CEOs, consultants, statisticians and artists again. Our conclusion is that government policy has reached a strange moment when quantitative measures have achieved dominant power over the least quantifiable area of human endeavour – culture. If that were all, it would be serious enough, but the inadequacy of such methods for assessing culture is only a symptom of a deeper failure to articulate what matters in many domains. Why? Answering a question of this magnitude inevitably involves speculation. But Laboratory Adelaide has these thoughts to offer by way of concluding our short book.

Thought 1: Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

There’s an old joke about some tourists who get lost in the countryside, and stop at a farm to ask for directions. ‘Well, if I were you’, the farmer tells them sagely, ‘I wouldn’t be starting from here.’ Historically and geographically, we are where we are in the value debate. Periods and places have their outlooks and ideas, which are invariably presented as if they are facts of nature. Whether the ideas are political, philosophical, legal, scientific or culinary, they constitute ‘the background’, the assumed knowledge we use on a daily basis. Like any background, their fixative power arises from the fact we don’t notice them much. That is not necessarily invidious. If we had to constantly reflect on the structure of our own thinking, there would be no time for doing anything else. Perhaps it is enough to trust that, when the moment comes, ideas that have outworn their welcome will wither in open debate.

Or perhaps it isn’t. As the joke above suggests, some ideas are just no place to start. Flawed in themselves, they also block better ideas. So it is with the contemporary belief that anything can be measured. Or to be accurate, with the belief that anything can be meaningfully measured, that a metric can be generated for all objects, events, relations and processes, and that these can be ordered in statistical graphs and tables to show the truth of the phenomena under examination. In this way, numbers assume the numinous, indwelling logic they had in the days of the Pythagorean brotherhood, back in the sixth century BCE. If our desired destination is proper public discussion about arts and culture, then the sign beside our farm reads ‘Shire of Metrical Overreach’. A big part of the issue is the wrong approaches being peddled for the wrong problems. Thus rationality becomes rationalisation, a skein of consistency and sense laundering what is often no more than prejudice and gut feeling.115 The recent decision by Arts Council England to adopt a ‘quality metrics’ dashboard is but the latest attempt to numberise aspects of culture that do not lend themselves to any quantitative index. Its Manchester pilot claimed it was:

very clear that ‘excellence’ as an outcome measure is definable as an absolute standard (‘the best of its type anywhere’) … Taken together, the dashboard of measures [we] have generated for the quality of creative product and experience (and indeed for quality of creative process and cultural leadership) constitutes a rigorous and robust way of measuring ‘excellence’ across the arts and cultural sector … It is comparatively easy to see how the dashboard of measures suggested scan effectively against the evaluation requirements of key public funders (including ACE and local authorities) and major trusts and foundations.116

The last point is the not-so hidden catch: ease of government use. At the front is a ridiculous statement about absolute standards. ‘[T]he best of its type anywhere’ begs all the questions it pretends to foreclose. Unless ‘type’ is defined so narrowly as to be vacuous, the tendentiousness of the approach is hard to distinguish from outright cultural imperialism. More than other areas of life, culture reflects the diversity of society, and the plurality of expressions of which we are all capable. To evaluate even a portion of this is the work of a lifetime. People spend years as film critics, book reviewers, art historians, and musicologists, to mention only the most obvious and traditional of assessment roles. Distinctions between different kinds of cultural offerings, of which the most basic is between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, are both arduous and mutable. Culture does not stay still, nor does it upgrade in the way that our computers and washing machines do. Culture in the twenty-first century is not better than culture in the fourteenth century, though it is certainly different. There are no common categories we can use to rank the value of a Castilian polyphonic motet against the value of a funk dance flash-mob, and asking a random sample of people to score them on a Likert scale tells us little about either. Faced with this multiplicity, it is depressing when those charged with ‘managing’ culture seek to retreat into the simplicity numbers seem to represent. The reality that not everything that counts can be counted is lost in the push to reduce the variety of culture down to bureaucratic formulae claiming to demonstrate that excellence (or innovation or access etc.) has been achieved.

Forcing important questions of value into a narrow methodological register is both damaging and politically suspect. It is context – historical, social and political – which numbers are apt to leave out. In our overweening desire for benchmarks, KPIs, output variables, and other paraphernalia of ‘evidence-based, decision-making’ what is lost is the big picture that makes such data meaningful in the first place. A measure of value is mistaken for a means of acknowledging it. This seems to be the awareness behind the Myer, Keir and Fairfax foundations’ philanthropic collaboration when they sought tenders for ‘A New Approach for Australia’s Cultural Sector’ in 2016 and put $1.65 million on the table. A new approach to questions of value, not just a better algorithm, is indeed what we need.117

But culture is only a limit case, and many other areas of public life are suffering similarly. Talking with a labour economist about the erosion of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s greatest natural resources, we were asked, ‘but what input price would you put on that?’ It is a question both absurd and morally culpable. There is no ‘input price’ for the Great Barrier Reef because it cannot be replaced by a good of similar kind, or reduced to a money amount with which to compensate people (including, somehow, people in the future), for its irrevocable loss. Our environment is full of ‘non-renewables’ and culture’s objects are often similarly fragile. Their value does not scale numerically. Two mediocre online role-playing games do not add up to one good online role-playing game. Twelve pieces of music remain twelve separate musical experiences. If they cohere into a bigger whole, it is through absorption into an entirely different conception of order – ‘an album’ or ‘a body of work’. Our experiences of culture, like our experiences of the natural world, remain indefeasible.

Again, why does culture get treated in this unilluminating and unreal way? The problem arises from our impoverished sense of value that offers little by way of inner resonance to guide judgment beyond the shallow arbitration of consumer choice. The problem crosses many scholarly disciplines. But it is very urgent. If we value only what can easily (i.e. cheaply and accessibly) be counted, we will slight everything that cannot. And much of that everything is what matters in culture. How can the problem be addressed?

Thought 2: A (post-)Functionalist Society?

Ever since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought a utilitarian creed to the fore of public policy-making (‘the greatest good for the greatest number’), Western populations have lived in increasingly functionalist societies. In such systems, the value of things is equated with the useful effects they produce, with their practical contribution to a differentiated social order: with their function. From iPads to igloos, road signs to rumpus rooms, pacemakers to skyscrapers, function (with its dominant metaphor of the machine) determines the worth of everything. And if this is not how people feel – thinking, for example, that a certain building is ugly, or a new phone service unnecessary – then that view has to be argued out in functional terms or dismissed as purely personal taste.

It is not just things that attract this evaluative view. People do also. In a functionalist society, you are what you do, and when you stop doing it – through illness, unemployment, or retirement – you cease to matter. You no longer perform your function; or you are downgraded – as disabled, jobless or ageing individuals, labels that mark some as ‘leaners’ in a society that valorises ‘lifters’. In this way, people are reduced to things with functional outcomes. Alternative ways of valuing are not entirely vanquished, of course. They remain at the edges of our social vision – the religious, moral and civic codes that guided us in days gone by, and retain a vestigial presence as ‘ghosts in the machine’. They can have a mitigating effect, as when people feel that the way banks behave is ‘just plain wrong’. But rarely do they have a dominant voice.

The central operating principle of a functionalist society, its chief manoeuvre, is substitution. In the modern world, everything is replaceable by something else, from pagodas to prime ministers. There is nothing absolute, and the relativism that results from this is less moral than administrative. The assumption is that if something or someone in our lives doesn’t ‘work’, doesn’t perform the role we expect of them, then we can put something or someone in their place. This gives rise to a logic of substitution that is independent of any particular reasons people have for making a particular switch. Replacement is simply what we do, always looking for something that is better, faster, cheaper, cooler, or merely different. We don’t repair clothing or appliances because it is easier to buy new ones. This is in part because many related costs – economists’ ‘externalities’ – are left out of the evaluation process: the ‘$200 hamburger’ retails for $9 at the point of consumption.118

Living in a functionalist world according to a logic of substitution is not something that keeps most people awake at night, though it does spark some to political dissent and religious revulsion. We mostly become aware of it when we are subject to a functional operation: when we are made redundant in a ‘management restructure’; when we are deemed ‘an undesirable alien’; when our home is subject to compulsory purchase ‘for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has power to make laws’, as the Australian Constitution has it. In these instances, we are the target of a cognate functional procedure: reclassification. Subject to different criteria, we acquire a different social definition, and the whole way we are valued changes. We may feel that we are still the same person, that we have not done anything different. But our lives are upended nevertheless through a change in functional status.

Such functionalism provides many benefits, especially material ones. Some, perhaps even many, things suit such a substitutive approach. But some things do not, and it is a particularly bad fit for culture. Here we need an alternative evaluative strategy, one that is not simply another method of counting but a different way of seeing and understanding, built round different operational principles. So what might these be? A central one must be purpose. To look at things and people in terms of their purpose is to cast them in a wider frame of reference than just consideration of their useful effects. Thus we attend to their aims, missions, visions and hopes – their whole ‘world’: all the factors that are left out of a functionalist approach to value.

The recent return of aggressive political populism has given salve to those alienated by functional ideas. A technocrat sees only irrationality in the Trump presidency and the Brexit referendum. But they are bad answers to real questions. It is time to imagine a ‘post-functionalist’ society; a society where function contributes to, but no longer defines and limits, ideas of what matters.119

This is a Big Thought, and takes some digesting. A post-functionalist society is not one in which function is irrelevant. It is one that looks beyond useful effects as the sole mark of value. It is one that factors in the broader picture and the longer term. This requires close attention to narrative as well as data, to purpose as well as method. Holism and credibility rather than detail and demonstrative proof must shape our evaluative strategies. A driving question must be ‘What is something for?’ not just ‘Where’s the profit?’ In moving away from an outmoded functionalism, from a morally deplorable and socially selfish ‘Who cares?’, we should move towards an engaged and engaging ‘What matters?’

Arts and culture are good domains to do this kind of blue skies thinking because they fit substitutive logic so poorly. After all, a life in the arts is driven more by a sense of vocation than a desire to rationally optimise employment options. It is a value in itself. Treating it as a functional choice misses the point – replacing culture’s market value for its public value, its consumer impact for its civic influence. To grapple with the problem of culture’s value, as an artist, audience or administrator, is to grapple with the problem of value per se. This has the potential to be politically transformative at a critical time. So below are some cues for further thought.

Questions to Ask of Evidence-based Approaches

Is the quantitative data available valid and pertinent evidence for the purpose?

How much of the experience analysed does the collectable evidence speak to? (i.e. is it a good, bad, or indifferent proxy of value?)

Does it force quantification of things that are not readily or validly quantifiable?

What is the opportunity cost of gathering the quantitative data? (i.e. is what it can tell us worth the trouble and expense of gathering it?)

Will it tell us anything we don’t yet know but need to know? • What practical, political, and marketing uses will the quantitative data be put to?

Will it lead to a situation where people are likely to manipulate numbers-based evidence as an end in themselves (i.e. game the metrics to gain a ‘strategic’ advantage)?

Does the pursuit of commensurability erode meaningful judgement?

If we decide that it is appropriate to use this quantitative indicator or data collection, do we need to include it every time, in every year, every report, every articulation of value?

Thought 3: Sticking with the Problem (of Value)

Recently, Laboratory Adelaide approached a senior public servant with a proposal for a roundtable discussion with administrators, academics and artists on the value of culture. She was enthusiastic about the panel make-up – but not the topic. We needed to ‘move on’, she argued, as we ‘have talked about the problem of value on a daily basis’. In culture it is probably true to say that anxiety about this is at the forefront of everybody’s mind. But are we all talking about the same thing? And are we talking about it well? The implication of the conversation was that the debate was exhausted and the ‘players’ should now talk about something else. But the problem of value is not a three-year university research project. It’s not something that can be addressed as a matter of bureaucratic procedure, and certainly not resolved that way. It lies at the heart of every experience in arts and culture. Rather than trying to methodologise the problem away, it is question of living with it better.

The historian of science and theorist of the human condition Donna Haraway has written about not moving on from difficult things. She asks, ‘what happens when human exceptionalism and bounded individualism, those old saws of Western philosophy and political economics, become unthinkable in the best sciences, whether natural or social? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with.’120 She is talking about species and organisms, but the warning is pertinent to other domains. Is our philosophically eroded, politically manipulated understanding of value a concept now unavailable to ‘think with’ in the contemporary moment? Rather than shirking this confronting thought, we should ponder its consequences more deeply. Haraway argues that ‘Our task is [also] … to stir up potent responses to devastating events, as well as to … rebuild quiet places’.121

Much of the value of culture inheres in one sort of trouble or another. Homer starts the Iliad with the rage of Achilles, and culture today grapples with the fury of marginalised and affronted groups and classes. Questions of value circulate, but they do not go away. How can we be attentive to the problem of value in culture, and beyond culture?

Thought 4: Crisis? What Crisis?

It is easy to claim we face a crisis of value. Perhaps it is a statement that is always true. Nevertheless, a crisis is what Laboratory Adelaide feels it has walked into. When we began in 2014, our only aim was to contribute to the way South Australian artists, cultural organisations and governments talk about what they do, and to extend the national policy conversation beyond a limited creative industries vocabulary. But strange things started to happen: to arts and culture in the form of George Brandis, and to a seemingly settled world order in the form of Brexit and Trump. Attitudes to the future that presume ‘more of the same’ now seem unconvincing, yet still we meet people who believe the only way forward is data-driven reports and arguments about ‘investment return’. Not only should this change, it is changing. It is an irony of history that the high tide of instrumentalism has reached culture just as homo economicus is losing ground elsewhere, that affectless rationalising robot who seeks fulfilment as a sovereign consumer and nothing more. It is the time for everyone who cares about arts and culture to get out of the brace position, and come alive to the dialogue about their inherent value.

But to do this, and to navigate the crisis, we need perspectives, ideas and words that provide an expansive conversational space. We need to attend to things of longer duration and deeper intensity: to meaning, memory and time. When value is expressed in narratives both practitioners and their publics can avow, it may not be objective universal proof, but it is more than subjective opinion. Statistical analysis without critical understanding only gives us consumer research. And consumer research in culture is a useful servant but a bad master. Focus groups would have scuttled the National Gallery’s purchase of Blue Poles at the first step.

Until change actually happens, it always seems an unrealistic dream. The most common feelings we have observed in the course of our researches are ones of outrage, frustration, and cynicism. These can contribute to a stance of intellectual defeat that is a greater obstacle to reform than any external oppressive force. For this reason, it is vital to imagine an alternative, however imperfect and provisional. The act of contemplating how things could be different is the beginning of ensuring that things are different. This book seeks to contribute to that process. It does not present another slew of snappy ideas and executive summary cut-throughs in the manner of contemporary ‘thought leaders’. It is not in the business of promulgating handy methods and models. It aims to wake us to problems of value, to stimulate the sense of value we need to have – do always, in fact, have, in our own hearts and minds – to grace and inform not only our choices in arts and culture, but in the world beyond.

Box 10 In Their Own Words: Artists Talk about Value in the Senate Inquiry

This section contains select quotes from the hundreds of submissions to the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the Brandis arts cuts. It is a sort of word cloud of what matters in Australian arts and culture now. We have chosen the quotes as representative of how people talk when unaffected by bureaucratic protocols and buzzword fads. The Senate Inquiry was a high-stakes situation, where many individuals and organisations were literally arguing for their survival. At this unlooked for and unwarranted moment of stress, the words they spoke sounded to our ears entirely different from the language of ‘the funding game’.

We identify quotes only by their submission numbers. Full information, including all 2,719 submissions, can be found at Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Arts_Funding/Submissions

‘And yet we are told, via the minister, that one of the NPEA guidelines will be “popularity” – popularity with whom? Again, the numbers show us that opera is not so popular, minister. But is it deemed worthy? Apparently yes, and fair enough because great art should be given exposure. But let’s take that point further. While we argue that Australians don’t value art, it’s now becoming apparent through the NPEA that art is indeed valued to the extent that it will now be a privilege to see art, and mainly the privilege of people who can afford the big ticket items and subscriber season tickets.’ #677

‘We as a nation that so proudly values equality and transparency need to ensure that artists from all levels of the arts sector in all stages of practice have equal access to grants. We as a public have the right for these grant guidelines and outcomes to be transparent. I am concerned that if our artists are forced to go cap in hand to seek funding from private organisations, corporations and companies Australian art will become solely funded, defined and controlled by an elite group that do not necessarily represent the broader diversity and experiences of the Australian society.’ #685

‘One cannot help but wonder if his withdrawal of support for this model was timed to inflict the most possible distress upon the sector? Everyone is now scrambling to regroup and rethink our futures, if indeed we have one at all … In terms of the ecology of the arts sector, individual artists and youth arts companies are where everything begins. In this new paradigm we are the most fragile, and have everything to lose. Western Sydney young people are the most vulnerable young people in the country. The support of arts programs in this area not only shows that their lives matter, but that their stories and experiences are important and valued in the Australian cultural context.’ #242

‘When significant arts funding goes, then the making of artworks goes. And finally the artists go. And with them the stories of place, the celebration of Australian life and culture, the chronicling of these times, on this continent. It is an important commodity, and one which I fear would be noticed most tangibly in its retrospective absence.’ #248

‘The changes proposed by Government to remove funding from the Australia Council for the Arts will adversely affect our ability to continue building a city where culture and art is possible for everyone.’ #250

‘To think that young musicians, like myself and hundreds of others, won’t have access to the same opportunities is a scary prospect. It will result in many young musicians either quitting their trade before their time, or seeking better opportunities overseas. Australia will, as a result, see fewer and fewer world class musicians. And where will that leave the Australian arts community?’ #2344


Figure 2: Still from Song of the Wandering Angus, based on the WB Yeats poem, devised as part of a Masterclass with Eric Bass 2008, photograph by Jeff Busby, puppet by Rachael W Guy, fish puppet by Tim Denton.

‘It is currently scarcely viable to operate within the cultural sector as a small company or individual practitioner and I firmly believe that smaller operators generate innovation and diversity. I fear that with the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget will be a profound loss of diversity within our cultural “ecosystem” and that we will see the proliferation of a politically driven cultural “monoculture” that does not support or encourage critical enquiry, diversity of opinion or true innovation within the arts.’ #2342

‘Any suggestion that the NPEA is a potential solution to the problem that excellent Australian art is not being funded is misguided – the problem of “unfunded excellence” has long been recognised by the Australia Council. The solution to the problem of “unfunded excellence” is not to move funding around, but to increase the amount of funding available through the Australia Council.’ #1168

‘She was not always successful and it has taken five years persistence to bring this work to fruition. Five years in which she and I and the creative team have grown as artists together in cross-cultural understanding.’ #1167

‘As can be deduced, embarking on a career in community music making is not for the ambitious. Practitioners need to have passion and a clear-sighted understanding of the intangible outcomes, as well as the technical musical proficiency required to grow and nurture musical communities. Even though there has been no tangible financial advantage to having chosen a path in music and scholarship, I continue in the field sustained by seeing and understanding what it means to belong to a civil society that values culture in a creative age, even though this is consistently misunderstood, undervalued and misrepresented.’ #1166

‘We want to continue KYD’s contribution to Australia’s literary community, support our established writers, and help new Australian voices find their readers. We want to do our bit to ensure Australia has a vibrant, healthy arts culture that not only looks after its artists but sustains the wider public too.’ #1165

‘All of these areas illustrate a deeper problem that this submission does seek to elucidate, namely that the decision has an impact to a major part of Australian cultural life and the Australian economy and that has been made in such a way as to cause panic, dismay, destabilisation of the sector, loss of productivity, loss of jobs and loss of the development of arts and cultural content.’ #342

‘Secondly, this pernicious move is directed at the Arts for its perceived opposition to the conservative ideology of the Abbott Government. Senator Brandis’ cuts to the Australia Council and the proposed creation of the NPEA is completely impractical and visionless – a hand grenade thrown wilfully into a sector that deserves much more. Confidence is essential to the growth of any industry, and right now the medium-level organisations who support up and coming artists are reeling. Without some certainty they will find it near impossible to invest in emerging, developing and established Australian talent. And all of this as some kind of political, cultural punishment.’ #342

‘The market does not reward art in a rational manner; that it might is a neo-liberal fantasy that has the same relationship to reality as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.’ #344

‘The small to medium sector is home to the life’s work of thousands of independent artists.’ #466

‘Excellence doesn’t always mean success. Sometimes it means trying really hard and failing, then trying again, failing a bit more, and getting better.’ #467

‘Excellence is not determined by location or reputation. A competitive and productive arts environment needs to be subjected to vigorous and searching debate about excellence. Independent, arms-length decision making helps us tackle this debate.’ #1131

‘I object to these utterly fruitless changes on every level, and I fail to see the reason for this whole shift. The arts are cheap – they generate a significant amount of economic activity for low cost. If a nation as wealthy as Australia decides to go down this path, I feel very sad for our country.’ #1479

‘George Brandis should be ashamed of himself – taking away funding from the grass roots arts sector. Where does he think the bigger organisations originate??’ #1575

‘We spend our entire lives WORKING to perfect our craft, so that we can give something to our fellow humans in ways that only art can: it is crucial for our collective emotional and psychological wellbeing.’ #1580

‘I would have loved to have brought the Australian Ballet to Swan Hill, or even Bell Shakespeare, but the reality is for regional venues like myself, they do not fit.’ #2352

‘The social, cultural and political ramifications of a Minister determining who has a voice and who is silenced is a profound departure from what we have come to regard as best practice, that being arms-length peer assessment. This move is reflective of an authoritarian approach to cultural and creative diversity and does not serve the shared ideals of a multicultural democratic state.’ #1652

‘Most importantly – these experiences have a lasting impact on children that is unquantifiable and immeasurable.’ #2354

115For a deeper account of metric overreach, see Jerry Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

116John Knell, Manchester Metrics Pilot: Final Report of Stage One, 2013, 31: www. One_Report_Dec_2013.docx


118See Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (New York: Picador, 2009); see also

119See Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Allen Lane, 2015) is one extensive guide to what this might look like.

120Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 30. 121 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 1.

What Matters?

   by Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett