The cultural quasi-economy of esteem transactions is underpinned and permeated by the real economy of financial transactions

This is the approximate text of a short talk I was invited to give at the Cultural Value Scoping Workshop organised by Patrycja KaczyƄska at Edinburgh College of Art on 18 January 2017

I’ve been asked to talk about what we’ve learnt about the ‘transactions’ underpinning ‘cultural ecosystems’ as part of this discusion on whether scholarship on cultural value has been advancing. I’m really glad about that – especially about the word ‘transaction’, because one of the principal things that I think we’ve learnt is that, while the metaphor of ‘ecology’ can be useful, the reality of cultural production in our society is fundamentally economic.

The cultural value project that I led took for its starting point what appeared to be a non-economic transaction: the public expression of one person’s esteem for another person’s creative work. But esteem has been influentially theorised by Pierre Bourdieu in quasi-economic terms, i.e. as a form of capital that accumulates through investment and whose accumulation can lead to material reward for precisely the same reason that money’s can, i.e. because we collectively and implicitly agree to treat it as valuable. If this premise is accepted, then cultural value under capitalism operates on an economic model even when no money is involved.

However, one of the main problems with this account is that it takes the claimed autonomy of the cultural world at face value. One of the most striking things that emerged from the qualitative and quantitative sides of the work that I’ve been involved in was that what we might call the quasi-economy of esteem transactions is underpinned and permeated by the real economy of financial transactions. In fact, that statement doesn’t go far enough: I’d go so far as to say that almost whenever we observe cultural production, we are observing business activities.[1]

Despite this, there is a huge cultural – small ‘c’ – difference between the cultural industries and more conventional industries, to such an extent that, often, people seek to enter the cultural industries specifically to avoid what they think of as the ‘business world’, the ‘corporate world’, the ‘straight world’, etc. This is a paradox. The characteristic aim both of the art student and of the aspiring DJ is professionalism. Being a freelance cultural professional is desirable for both because it represents independence from a day job ‘working for the man’, i.e. for capitalists and/or the state. But becoming a freelance cultural professional involves becoming a successful capitalist within a state-supported sector of industry.

This is where inequality becomes impossible to ignore, because becoming a successful capitalist within the cultural industries turns out to be a process governed by many of the same privileges and exclusions operative in the rest of the economy – often in exaggerated form. The work that I was involved in focused on the massive geographical inequalities involved. Dave O’Brien and colleagues have highlighted the class basis of opportunities in the creative industries. Gender, ethnicity, and sexuality play similar roles that were hinted at by the research subjects I was involved in studying, but which we were not able to explore systematically.

In order to understand all of this, we need a focused programme of qualitative and quantitative work investigating the micro-economics of the professional life of cultural workers and entrepreneurs and, at the same time, the aggregate effect of those micro-economics at the level of the production of what we think of as regional, national, and international cultures, as well as of the systematic inequalities that structure those cultures.


1. Of course, there is such a thing as amateur production. But it’s remarkable how quickly amateur production moves towards monetisation, even if it’s only to cover costs or to raise funds for charity. This involves beginning to run one’s hobby as a business – and almost nobody seems to regard that as a bad thing.

2 thoughts on “The cultural quasi-economy of esteem transactions is underpinned and permeated by the real economy of financial transactions”

  1. “However, one of the main problems with this account is that it takes the claimed autonomy of the cultural world at face value.”

    Actually, for Bourdieu, different cultural producers have different degrees of autonomy from economic and political pressures. A few are highly autonomous, most are not. See, for example, the section ‘Two economic logics’ in The Rules of Art, where he describes how different book publishers specialise in more heteronomous (‘mass-market’) or more autonomous (‘literary’) works. The former have a ‘short cycle of production’, in which the publisher aims to get an immediate return on investment, while the latter have a ‘long cycle of production’, in which many works will never be profitable, but a few will be because they’ll become classics.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment! And yes – that’s how Bourdieu understands the field of cultural production, and is the framework that I used until fairly recently. It was a short talk and I didn’t have time to fully expound Bourdieu’s theory of fields. But my current view (and the one I was pushing in the above) is that even producers at the ‘highly autonomous’ pole of the cultural field are centrally engaged in what are fundamentally business activities. I don’t get much of a sense from Bourdieu of the sheer amount of hustling in which even very uncommercial artists are engaged. He’s a remarkably insightful thinker, and one could point to passages in which he acknowledge that side of an artist’s working life to some extent, but my view is that he de-emphasises all of that in favour of the struggle for specific capital. It seems to me that Bourdieu’s perception of the art world was strongly conditioned by his experience of the academic world, which has a very different economic basis.

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