Here we go round the mulberry bush

A repetitive, cyclical dance around a plant upon which mulberries don’t really grow whilst mimicking of everyday actions and chanting ‘This is the way…’  and a response to a blog post on the #culturalvalue initiative website by Daniel Allington entitled Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective.


Walter Crane, Here we go round the mulberry bush, colour printed wood engraving, 1878


The art business, a trade in things that have no price, belongs to the class of practices in which the logic of the pre-capitalist economy lives on… These practices, functioning as practical negations, can only work by pretending not to be doing what they are doing. Defying ordinary logic, they lend themselves to two opposed readings, both equally false, which each undo their essential duality and duplicity by reducing them either to the disavowal or to what is disavowed – to disinterestedness or self-interest.[1]

Who said Bourdieu’s cultural capital and network theory don’t mix? Daniel Allington explains in this post that he finds this unlikely coupling ‘a useful way of studying cultural value from a perspective informed by Bourdieu’.[2] This is not all, he begins by stating that ‘Art for art’s sake… means understanding the value of culture as intrinsically cultural.’[3] Bourdieu, art for art’s sake, and many other words and assumptions in Allington’s essay all sit uneasily with my perspectives of arts and culture (based as they are upon critical theory and my own practise as part of the arts ‘field’), as indeed does the rather insidious term ‘cultural value’.

For me, the antiquated and elitist concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ is circular – self-referential – intrinsic. So too, surely, is the conceptualisation of ‘the value of culture’ as ‘intrinsically cultural’. What is the value of culture? Essentially cultural. What are intrinsically cultural beliefs? Cultural value. Here we go round… For Allington, the answer to this conundrum may lie in Bourdieu’s suggestion that ‘cultural value is a form of belief’; a belief in ‘magical’ and fetishised objects of art and literature that believers consider magical.[4] Citing The Emperor’s New Clothes, ‘It isn’t’, according to Allington, ‘that there are people who have laughingly duped the rest of society into believing in something they know very well not to be real.’[5] Rather, it is about ‘symbolic capital’ in which ‘[t]he making of art for art’s sake is… not about satisfying an audience of consumers, but about earning the esteem of fellow producers, who are also competitors for one another’s esteem.’[6] Allington attempts to legitimise this statement by referencing Bourdieu’s The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods, selecting the following quote: ‘“the conviction that good and bad painting exist” is both “the stakes and the motor without which [the field of painting] could not function’”.[7]

So what’s the problem here? Well, it would seem to me and my somewhat limited knowledge of Bourdieu – limited because I do not find it particularly useful or important from an art historical perspective – that Allington has misread Bourdieu’s intentions. The quote at the beginning of this piece is from the first paragraph of The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods. It clearly illustrates Bourdieu’s disdain for the ‘arts business’. Bourdieu’s entire essay is about the complicit nature of all participants in the field of cultural production who, by refusing commercialism and even claiming to be ‘anti-economic’, actually profit via a ‘disinterested’ game of smoke and mirrors that ultimately creates ‘symbolic capital.’[8] But symbolic capital, as Bourdieu explains:

[I]s to be understood as economic or political capital that is disavowed, mis-recognized and thereby recognized, hence legitimate, a ’credit’ which, under certain conditions, and always in the long run, guarantees ’economic’ profits.[9]

Indeed, Bourdieu goes on to explain that this ‘circle of belief’ ensures that ‘only those who can come to terms with the “economic” constraints inscribed in this bad-faith economy can reap the full “economic” profits of their symbolic capital.’[10] So, this is like The Emperor’s New Clothes. The believers know the ‘magic’ isn’t real because they all dance the bad-faith dance, round and round. Producers, curators, critics, sellers, buyers, even (sometimes) the viewing public, all play the art game – they all know their place, their role in a field where naivety has no place; an arts economy where:

In and through the games of distinction, these winks and nudges, silent, hidden references to other artists, past or present, confirm a complicity which excludes the layman, who is always bound to miss what is essential, namely the inter-relations and interactions of which the work is only the silent trace.[11]

So, rather than ‘conceptualising’ intrinsic cultural value as a form of circulated belief as Allington does in his essay,[12] one could view the production of visual art (taking Allington’s example) as the making of an object of personal choice which is then selected by an institution/ commercial gallery and marketed to audiences by a variety of means (including critics). Only then are values (cultural, economic, social) assigned to it which are then reassigned to the work over and over as it ages and is perceived anew by different audiences.

So my argument with Allington is that he has misread Bourdieu in his attempt to investigate intrinsic cultural value. He has not accounted for the bad faith inherent in Bourdieu’s critical analysis of the art world game – a position I do not hold to personally. Bourdieu made his position very clear in 1972 when he explained:

The denial of economic interest finds its favourite refuge in the domain of art and culture, the site of [a] pure [form of] consumption, of money, of course, but also of time convertible into money. The world of art, a sacred island systematically and ostentatiously opposed to the profane world of production, a sanctuary for gratuitous, disinterested activity in a universe given over to money and self-interest, offers, like theology in a past epoch, an imaginary anthropology obtained by the denial of all the negations really brought about by the economy.[13]

I would recommend interested readers take a look at Brigit Fowler’s essay Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture (Variant, 1999) for more on this subject.[14]

I could expand but I’ve still exceeded 800 words (975) – the limit imposed by the #culturalvalue initiative debating rules.  But I like to break rules.

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.261.

[2] Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.266.

[8] Ibid., pp.261-262.

[9] Ibid., p.262.

[10] Ibid., p.263-264.

[11] Ibid., p.291.

[12] Daniel Allington, Op. Cit., describes this process as: ‘the value of (say) a visual artist’s work (essentially produced through interactions among cultural producers) flows out into the wider social world through the disseminating agency of (say) a retrospective exhibition in a major public gallery, which plays a direct role in reproducing belief in that value among members of the public who attend the exhibition, as well as an indirect role in reproducing belief among those who hear about it from acquaintances and/or read about it in (say) a newspaper critic’s review (and which in turn impacts back upon the field by cementing the artist’s reputation , though this closure of the feedback loop is left out of the diagram for simplicity’s sake).’

[13] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 [1972], p.197.

[14] Brigit Fowler, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999, pp.1-4.


Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013,

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 [1972]

Bourdieu, Pierre, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980

Fowler, Brigit, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999

When I was a lad, libraries were where you went to lend books for free…

Libraries of the future

Image from ‘The Future of Libraries’: Interview with Thomas Frey

This post is a direct response to a recent contribution to the Cultural Value Initiative blog entitled ‘A view from one of them econocrats: Efficiency and public libraries in England’ and written by economist Doctor Javier Stanziola.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Dickens, Charles, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Chapter 1, 1859

There was a time when life seemed simpler, when public services were dull grey and reliably quiet. Our libraries epitomised this sense of safe social security. They were ubiquitous; full of books that were falling apart, impossible to find because they were often misfiled, not a computer in sight, and the silence was deafening. It was a case of ‘seek and ye shall find’ (or not) and that made going to the library, whether local or city central, like an expedition – one where you’d always leave with a sports bag full of brilliant books and a dog eared card stamped to within an inch of its literature-lending life. Intrepid days like this brought me into contact with Blake, Wilde, Huxley, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Jung and many, many more. I often kept the books too long. I got fined but even the penalties were manageable.

Library life has changed. There are now two types of library: run-down local ones, staffed by well-meaning volunteers and open a couple of hours a day; and big, high-tech central ones, where computer space and coffee shop seems more important than books on shelves, where exhibitions and events and workshops attempt to lure ‘new customers’ who presumably aren’t just tempted by the prospect of ‘borrowing’ books for free. Twenty-first library life is remarkably similar to the beginning of Dickens’ seminal ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Austerity is the name of the game. A game of two halves: the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Little libraries are closing in poor areas, being taken over by the ‘great and the good’ volunteers in well-off places, and being ‘enhanced’ in central mega-libraries where local councils seek to nestle all their literary eggs in one big, fancy glass-fronted basket – ‘learning zones’. In this time of austerity, economics has been crowned a new cultural king – a vestige perhaps more akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Libraries have a new mission: to maximise profit and efficiency and diversify sources of income. They are apparently privileged because, as Stanziola claims, ‘statutory funding allows local authority libraries to work outside the market’. But what if public libraries and indeed public services in general were not and should not be perceived as being part of ‘the market’? What if this drive for libraries to declare their value and, in so doing become part of ‘the market’, is a drive towards a homogeneous service that attempts to define itself in terms of ‘maximising provision’ and ‘distribution’? Perhaps then libraries are not really about lending books anymore?

These are challenging times for libraries, arts, culture, and indeed every aspect of our lives. We are still struggling to escape the gloom of a deep economic recession. To do so we are told we must make drastic financial savings wherever necessary. Only then might we usher in a shiny new economic future. Doctor Eleonora Belfiore is right to point out that we face ‘awkward questions’. The DCMS and Arts Council England are apparently looking for ‘sensible answers’. Where? In reports by economists. But don’t worry, says Stanziola, we’d be wrong to think ‘cultural policy making has been hijacked by economists’. Really? ‘Cultural policy’ in the UK was created by Keynes – an economist – and Arts Council England was created to deliver this policy. Indeed, it may be fair to suggest that every aspect of our lives has been ‘hijacked by economists’. So it is that we pray before the same alter of economics that created our current ‘season of Darkness’ in the hope that economics will breathe forth a new ‘season of Light’.

So, back to libraries. They’re not apparently places where you lend books or read books, they’re places of ‘co-production’. This is where their value lies: in the ‘provision of public services as a participatory process where users play the role of co-producers’. Indeed Stanziola assumes that the ‘social and educational outcomes libraries can produce are unlikely to happen without the active co-production of the intended users’, especially volunteers. Let me be clear, I do not doubt that involving people from all areas of our communities in developing and delivering publicly funded library services is key to ensuring we meet the needs of ‘service users’. I also know that the value of volunteering is immense and can always show positively in terms of economic efficiency – not least because volunteers don’t get paid and therefore offer real savings over staffing costs. I am just a little concerned that the coarse language of economics and its fetishisation of ‘measurement processes… courageous assumptions and disappointing datasets’ IS invading our cultural landscape, ‘remapping’ cultural activity to create a hyperreality so convincing that we all believe that economic data is our culture. Stanziola (living in ‘the epoch of belief’) suggests that ‘this should not stop us from engaging with different measurement techniques to explore the complex dynamics behind cultural provision and use.’ I live in ‘the epoch of incredulity’. I understand economics but I don’t believe such over simplistic and reductionist approaches will ever ‘play a key role in ensuring awkward questions about cultural provision could be finally tackled.’

Perhaps we should look for the answers in books, in libraries? Ask people, listen to protests about cuts, and provide adequate funding. Maybe public libraries are last bastions of ‘the best of times’? Places where we found ‘the age of Wisdom’. Let’s not lose them under the economic snow of another cultural ‘winter of despair’.