Friday, October 27, 2006

Kultur über alles

After spirited debate and avoidance by challengers and the incumbent respectively on the subject of property taxes and municipal debt at Wednesday night's televised mayoral debate, neither Joe Fontana nor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best were eager to commit themselves to immediately start digging a $70 million hole for the triumphal cornerstone of London's Creative Cities Task Force, the Performing Arts Centre. Nonetheless, both frontrunners jerked reflexively forward to the stimulus-prod of Creative Cities when it was introduced by a panelist: after Fontana criticized the mayor for the slow implementation of the task force's recommendations, DeCicco-Best boasted that the city had in fact already implemented many of the recommendations — "putting its cultural infrastructure in place," so to speak — including the creation of yet another permanently entrenched layer of bureaucracy, a culture division at city hall. Innocuous and unassuming as the bureau may be now — the Culture Office cannot be found on the city's directory at least as yet — its vague and improbable jurisdiction will certainly expand to include at least more discretionary spending funds as long as Londoners continue to elect politicians like DeCicco-Best who in the matter of policy defer utterly to the caprices and instructions of unelected administrators…

…administrators who enjoy not only receiving and dispensing perquisites for which they are barely accountable but also unchallenged acceptance and expansion of their own justifications for existence as economic and social managers of Londoners. Politicians like DeCicco-Best and Fontana, in return, expect to reap credit for endorsing popular sentiments at no cost to themselves, relying on a generally passive lack of scrutiny and acceptance on the part of voters for ideas like "creativity" and "culture." After all, who's opposed to those? But lost in the game of politicking is the very active sense in which city hall employs these ideas: i.e., to take money out of the productive economy that spontaneously and creatively delivers the cultural goods and services that all people freely choose, and to redistribute it instead into bureaucratically-delivered projects and services that compete against the free market and benefit only those handfuls of Londoners to whom it is politically expedient for politicians to pander. The rest of Londoners find not only that their city of residence is no more "cultural" or "creative" than it had been before, but that their own opportunities to pursue their own cultural preferences and support creativity has been artificially impoverished.

Of course, the premise of the Creative Cities concept is that centralized pursuit of cultural amenities and attitudes increases rather than depresses economic well-being by luring sophisticated entrepreneurs and workers to cities. Since it was introduced a few years ago by American professor Richard Florida, the vision has enthralled and been enthusiastically promoted by politicians everywhere — not coincidentally in proportion to their propensity to have their pretensions to sound economic and social management flattered, contrary to all historical evidence. But the Creative Cities concept puts not one but two carts before two horses: first, that economic productivity is a product of cultural affluence, rather than the other way around; and, second, that competitive tax and regulatory advantages are secondary, if at all relevant, to successful entrepreneurs and workers. Simply put, the premises of the Creative Cities concept do not work logically, and they do not work in practice. Steven Malanga elaborates and illustrates this in a City Journal article from 2004, forwarded to us by reader Matthew Clarke: The Curse of the Creative Class.

The Money list illustrates an underlying problem with Florida’s whole approach. Not only does he believe that marginal attractions like an idiosyncratic arts scene can build economic power, but he thinks that government officials and policymakers like himself can figure out how to produce those things artificially. He doesn’t seem to recognize that the cultural attributes of the cities he most admires are not a product of government planning but have been a spontaneous development, financed by private-sector wealth. While Florida’s writings denigrate efforts of cities to power their economies by building sports stadiums and convention centers, the professor thinks that he, by contrast, has found the philosopher’s stone that will turn public spending on amenities into economic-development gold.

It is exactly because Florida is an exponent of this kind of aggressive, government-directed economic development (albeit with a New Age spin) that liberal policymakers and politicians have latched on to his theories so enthusiastically. To them, an expanding government is always more interesting than an expanding economy—especially if economic growth depends on something so very uninteresting as low taxes and small government. But it is just as likely that the Floridazed brand of aggressive governing will get things as wrong as the builders of sports stadiums and convention centers.
Read the rest here. Lost in the rush for populist credentials between Fontana and DeCicco-Best was mayoral candidate Arthur Majoor, who made precisely these points in the debate and two months ago on his website:
Quality of life is achieved by being able to make choices, and the ability to make choices comes from having access to your own resources. London’s arts community needs an audience with the resources to choose to patronise the arts in all its forms. Loss of that base not only hurts artists, but also the support industry that is built around the artistic community; distributors, art suppliers, galleries and venues. Channelling even more tax dollars into extravagant projects like a $70 million dollar performing arts centre hurts the London arts scene in several ways. A large performing arts centre will have to concentrate on blockbusters in order to take in enough revenue to be even partially self supporting. Imported acts and artists will drive out local talent. The constant flow of tax dollars to subsidize the cost of the performing arts centre will pull funding away from other artistic endeavours, and indeed draw funds away from other civic mandates. Finally, even though most Londoners will not be able to afford the extravagant ticket prices, they will be paying for the centre for years to come through their tax dollars, limiting opportunities to patronize other forms of artistic expression and narrowing the choices of what artistic expressions get supported.

The Creative Cities Task Force worked on a flawed premise. Cities which were artistic and cultural centres in the past became that way because they were first economic and political centers. The ahistorical view of the arts community adopted by the Creative Cities Task Force supports a view of art and culture which is disconnected from the underlying culture of the city, and in effect creates a “Disneyland” for the arts, not a creative and self supporting artistic community.