The eerily quiet campus of Open University was the locale for an invigorating symposium which set about teasing out the knotty tensions in how we understand value in cultural work. Mark Banks (Open) kicked off the day with an introductory paper on ‘What is Cultural Work Worth?’ Banks resisted the model of a totalising economy, instead pointing towards Justin O’Connor’s work to think of the two values of culture and economy as a genealogy entwined, though not collapsed, into one relation. Culture matters, Banks argued, because of the examination of life, the sharing of cultural and social needs, and the generating and distributing of resources (a doubling of value across the cultural and economic). Calvin Taylor (Leeds), who followed Banks, sought to develop these ideas through a tripartite, rather than ‘bipolar’ model, inserting the need for ethics into how we value the cultural. A tour de force of theory from eighteenth-century philosophy (Locke; Third Earl of Shaftesbury; Smith; Hume; Bentham) to contemporary feminist theory, Taylor questioned the foundations of creative value measured according to utility. In foregrounding social production, and not the marketplace, a space was offered for challenging the dominant paradigm that cultural labour is commodified labour, and that we live within a fundamentally economic set of relations. Pointing towards the domestic as a scale of non-commodity or exchange forms for cultural work, the paper resonated with our recent research on localism in community-orientated activity. Alike the petty cultural producer, can non-commodity community cultural work be scaled up and spill over out of the localised context? If a new value regime could become the dominant one at a regional, national and global scale, then it remains to be elucidated how this would be worked through, and benefits distributed.
Excellent other papers included David Hesmondhalgh (Leeds) on ‘Cultural, Aesthetic and Economic Value: The Case of Music’ (including a short Candi Staton interlude) and Kate Oakley (Leeds) on ‘Work, Justice and Mobility: Policy for Cultural Labour’. In the latter Oakley pointed towards a lessening in mobility in recent years in the cultural creative sector (hardly surprising under the Con-Dem coalition) and a spatialised inequality to where cultural workers are clustered (London!). Still, while not exactly diverse, the average worker is 35, female, earns under £20,000, works two jobs and has a degree (and often postgraduate) qualification. Not exactly big returns in spite of – or perhaps because of – an affectual (cultural) economy of passion and sense of vocation.