THE ECONOMIC VALUE OF CULTURE

 The question of the economic value of Culture is often raised in a negative context. It is usually discussed in efforts to justify the unavailability of resources for some cultural proposal or to explain away the lack of a proper infrastructure for cultural expression.

 

A typical response by a public administrator might be the following:

 

“The problem with people like Pat Rahming is that they expect the rest of the world to feel the same way they do about Culture. While we all agree that Culture is important, our resources are limited, and we just can’t afford the kind of money they think we should be spending. After all, we have commitments to Tourism promotion, the construction of schools and providing the Police and the Justice system with the best, state-of-the-art infrastructure. Then we must continue to guarantee our people lights, water, telephones, cable and inside toilets, and these things cost money. We’re doing the best we can.”

 

I’m sure we’ve all heard some version of that speech. And being reasonable people, we have accepted the fact that, given the need to prioritize limited public resources, the funding of Culture cannot compete with these apparently essential issues. But are these issues in fact more urgent? The answer is “No!” The funding of both cultural activity and the creation and maintenance of an infrastructure for cultural support is not a matter of fiscal priority; it is a matter of absolute survival.

 

It is a matter of survival on three fronts.

 

First, it is a matter of our survival as human beings. Most of the social scientists that recognize this most fundamental fact are silent on the issue because they are concerned about how they would be received. They would therefore agree, but not make the following statement publicly: Everything we do, period, we do from the position of our self-image. That is, we, as human beings, are incapable of acting in a way that conflicts with how we see ourselves. And how we see ourselves – that is, our self-image – is developed through the influence of our sense of History, our relationship with the supernatural and our identity as a member of a community. Societies institutionalize ways to help its citizens get healthy doses of these influences. They teach history in schools, build museums and monuments, preserve historical buildings and places and celebrate heroes to help their people develop and maintain a sense of their history. They encourage and protect religious practices as manifestations of personal spiritual search. And they find ways to establish and confirm their identity as unique members of a unique society through constant presentation of the evidence of that uniqueness. The primary device for establishing that uniqueness is the presentation of cultural expressions, primarily in the forms of art, food, dress and the presentation of other community traditions. These are not things produced for the entertainment of the outside world. They are the institutionalized devices for the creation of positive personal self-image.

 

But what happens if the society fails in this effort? Does that mean no self-image is developed? Of course not! We all develop a self-image, regardless of the quality and source of the input. If that input lacks reference to a relevant history, we develop a view of ourselves as having no permanence, no value beyond the present. If there is a lack of support for the development of a relationship with the supernatural, we learn to see our own existence only in terms of things we can see or touch. If there is insufficient evidence of the unique expressions of our community, we see ourselves as faceless, and are seduced by any source that offers us an identity, whether positive or negative. In short, we develop a self-image, whether it is one that supports a productive life or one that supports a destructive life.

 

But the value of self-image is not a new idea. The re-birth referred to in the Bible is the discovery of a new way of seeing oneself, one that is suddenly incompatible with certain types of behavior. If you see yourself as divine, then it becomes easier to see your neighbor as divine, and how you behave towards him is proscribed by your respect for divinity. Those of us who have had the good fortune to work with a good coach would acknowledge that the improvement in our performance had little to do with our ability, but everything to do with the change in the way we saw ourselves as a result of that encounter. Our ability to support violence is a function of our self-image, and no amount of legal or physical restraint will prevent the destruction of the society that neglects to provide its members with access to the elements needed to build a productive self-image. To put it bluntly, the young men of theBahamaswill continue to brutalize each other, to rape and maim young women, and to risk everything for a moment’s spotlight so long as we continue to rank the provision of a cultural infrastructure with the building of roadways, civil servants’ emoluments and tourism promotion in competition for our resources.

 

In societal terms, the very measure of the level of civilization achieved by a society is not the amount of money it hoarded, the number of countries it invaded, the number of titles its members adopted, the value of its mansions or even the level of its technological achievements. It is the extent and vibrancy of its infrastructure for cultural support.

 

Secondly, it is a matter of our survival as a community. As can be seen from earlier comments, it is the cultural activity that binds the community together as a unit. While it is certainly shared significant experiences, like wars, natural disasters and liberation events that create the impetus to move a country towards nationhood, it is the cultural activity spawned by those events that allows the sharing of a common experience. For example, it is not the horror of the holocaust that binds the Jews together, despite their wide global dispersal, it is the multitude of ways they have created a cultural response to that tragedy that makes each member connected to that experience. By comparison, it is the paucity of such cultural response by Africans worldwide that has left the African community dispersed, both physically and as a community. There can be no doubt that the song “Run Come See” helped the dispersed members of the Bahamian family to share an appreciation for hurricanes, and to emerge a closer family, despite the widely different experiences, island to island. It is the extent of cultural activity that is needed if we are to move towards the kind of nationhood we all dream of.

 

Finally, it is a question of absolute survival as a Tourist Destination.

 

Survival as a Tourist Destination requires us to establish our unique and special identity, for which a strong cultural infrastructure is absolutely necessary. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it is an incontrovertible fact that the basis of all tourism activity is the wish to experience the unique offerings of a particular place. (I define a Tourist as a Visitor in Search of a Place-Specific Experience) For many years we have ignored the complaint that our Product lacks substance. Our lack of response may be due to the fact that we take its substance for granted, or that our advice comes from sources that are unaware of the depth of the Product themselves. In any case, we seem to feel that it is not necessary to alter the course with which we have led the market for so long. What we are not apparently aware of is that the Product must be presented for it to become available to our customers, to become a part of a business enterprise. Having a dilly tree in your yard does not make you a dilly salesman. Before someone can pay you for the dillies, you have to pick, clean, display, price and advertise them.

 

We have all been guilty of making the following misleading statement:

 

“TheBahamashas no natural resources”

 

First of all, there is the question of what is a resource. The answer is that a resource is anything you can use to accomplish your objective. An economic resource is anything you have that someone will pay you to get. There is no essential difference between selling coal mined in England, oil pulled from wells in the Middle East, the dramatic views of Niagara Falls, a visit to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln or the chance to step onto the beach where the New World began. These items are all given economic value by the willingness of someone to pay for them, and are therefore all resources. TheBahamas, therefore, is blessed with a significant set of natural resources, both in terms of physical phenomena, and in the unique heritage of its people.

 

Unfortunately, we have denied access to that heritage by our customers, first by defining access as either “visitor access” or “local access”, then by convincing our selves that the cost of providing access can only be justified for “visitor access”. The result of this decision is that the visitor’s view of who we are (aCaribbeanIsland) has become our commercial identity. Our “style” has become indistinguishable from a dozen otherCaribbeanislands, with even the same stores on the same kind of main street, and the same native show in the same “two-complementary-drinks” club. And since we are more expensive than most, if not all of them, it has become difficult to maintain our business.

 

This is a rather lengthy way of saying that the unique experience offered by a Tourist Destination is a potent resource, to be respected as much as coal, oil or iron ore. But like coal, oil or iron ore, to benefit from that resource, to offer that unique experience, requires some mining. It requires an infrastructure that allows the discovery, collection, refinement and presentation of that uniqueness. The Destination cannot expect to compete if it does not allocate the resources needed to bring its Product to market. Advertising dillies for sale while they are still on the tree in the middle of the bush is not likely to lead to a successful business enterprise.

 

In conclusion, then, if a vibrant cultural infrastructure is necessary for the development of productive self-images, and therefore the encouragement of productive behavior and for the development of true nationhood, and if it is also critical for bringing the Product for our primary National business to market, a cultural infrastructure  cannot be ranked with public works or anything else that is not considered survival services in competition for our resources. None of the other issues can have any value in a fragmented society, built upon destructive self-images, with no business prospect. It must be considered an essential survival service, and assigned resources accordingly.

 

Pat Rahming

June 21, 2007

 

 

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