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“The most important contribution of the arts is giving identity to a country or region”

John W. O’Hagan, Trinity College, Dublín;

How can the arts and culture contribute in a way that benefits the public? According to researcher John O’Hagan, the most important contribution made by the arts is giving identity to a country or region, improving social cohesion.

The social benefits resulting from investment are also highly significant, because if the state invests in innovative arts, then the commercial arts also benefit. National prestige and economic repercussions perceived directly or indirectly by different sectors are other benefits stemming from state investment in the arts.

Researcher John O’Hagan also talks about differences in attendance at subsidised art events according to education levels and reflects on whether state funding of the high arts is regressive.


What contributions can the arts make to benefit the public?

The most important contribution is in giving a country or a region identity. So, where would Spain be without Cervantes or Velázquez? I think that’s the most important contribution. And identity brings social cohesion. Spanish people can identify with great works of art and that brings about social cohesion for the country.


What are the social benefits of investing in arts and culture?

There are four major benefits in my opinion. The first is they create a sense of national identity for Spain or Ireland, where I come from. People associate Spain with Cervantes or with Velázquez, when in Ireland we associate Ireland with things that are artistic, so that’s the most important thing: the identity of a country.

But the second thing is the social benefits from investing. If the state invests in innovative arts, then the commercial arts benefit, because the cinema and the commercial theatre need the subsidized sector to bring new ideas and experiment. So, in that sense, the commercial arts sector in Spain depends on the subsidized sector for its success. And the two other benefits, there’s national prestige, so we were talking about soccer earlier today, it’s the same with the arts. If Spain does very well in the arts, then that brings national prestige and benefits for everybody. And, of course, there’s economic benefits. If people are coming to Madrid to see the Prado or to Paris to see the Louvre, there are spin-off benefits for the rest of the economy. So these are all the benefits from the state investing in the arts.


What does the evidence say in relation to the patterns of attendance based on educational level at arts events?

All of the evidence shows that there is a very uneven pattern. So, the more educated people are, the more likely they are to attend the state arts. That’s true, not just in Spain, but in every country in Europe, and it’s been true for at least 60 years; there is a marked variation. As I’ve said, people with low levels of education simply do not attend the “so-called” high arts: the arts that are subsidized by the state.


What are the barriers that are preventing greater access to attendance at the high arts for those with low educational attainment?

Some people talk about the price, and some people talk about that people are afraid to go into the grand opera houses, and so on. But all of the evidence shows that people from lower educational classes are simply not interested. So, even if there’s free entry they will not go. That means that people’s preferences and people with lower educational levels simply have no preference for the state-funded arts.



Well, not none, much less than the people with a higher educational level. One of the arguments is that to appreciate a difficult drama, or a difficult opera, or difficult music you actually need to be a well-educated person. You need the cognitive skills to be able to understand them and that’s why only people with higher education, or so this argument goes, tend to attend the higher arts.


Is it correct to say that public funding of high arts is regressive and diverts money from the poor to the rich?

In my opinion no, because if there are these public benefits… You don’t have to be attending the high arts, but let’s assume that people are coming to Madrid eating in cafés and so on because they go to the Prado - everybody’s benefiting then. Or if the Spanish soccer team is doing well, it’s not just the people who are attending the Spanish football matches, everybody gets a benefit from that… So, I don’t think it’s regressive. It may be slightly regressive, but it’s not regressive if everybody’s benefiting from this sense of belonging, from Spanish achievement.


How does cultural participation contribute to more inclusive societies?

If you take festivals… I was involved in festivals in Ireland - it was an opera festival, and almost nobody in the town would have gone to the main festival. But they were all involved: there was an amateur choir, there were hundreds of people involved in volunteer work at the ticket office, and so on. There was a fantastic sense of community, even though they weren’t attending the actual opera. There were a lot of other fringe events. Spain has a lot of festivals and I think that creates a sense of inclusiveness, provided everybody is included. But that’s not the high arts. The high arts don’t create that sense of inclusiveness, unless over time…I mean Cervantes is a star in Spain now, but at the time nobody would’ve known about him. Or Velázquez only worked for the royal family but every Spanish person now is proud of them, I think, whether they’re poor or rich. Maybe that’s wrong, but I think so.


What are the main differences with respect to other events, such as sports?

Well, sport is very similar to the arts, really. There’s also people with a higher education level who tend to go to sports events more than people with lower educational level. Sports also create a sense of community and a sense of national pride. This is also a different question, but, certainly, in Ireland sports are heavily subsidized by the state. Some of the arguments I was talking about, like prestige, apply to sports just as much to achievement in the arts. So they are very similar, and some people might say, “Sports is even more important, because they’re good for your health”, which the arts may not be, but the profile of an attender is quite similar at both types of activities.


Okay, so you think sports joins more people than arts, but actually it’s more visible.

Yes, definitely, but it’s a commercial activity that doesn’t really need any state support. Spanish music, popular music may unite people, but it doesn’t have these innovative benefits that I’m talking about. Popular Spanish cinema may unite people, but popular Spanish cinema may not do well if they didn’t have the subsidized sector from which talent comes. So… But you’re right, I mean…


Do you think that creativity can be contagious?

Not only do I think it, all of the evidence shows that it is. Most of my work has been looking at composers and visual artists and philosophers where they worked over centuries and it’s incredible…they’ve always worked together. The most important activity was where it happened: Italy, Florence, Rome, Paris. And it’s the same in the software industry today. Creativity is definitely contagious. People say it’s because of tacit knowledge. If you’re working with a group of people that are very creative, you learn from them what you cannot learn through a computer and also there’s competition between you. All of the evidence shows that it is contagious. In other words, it benefits everybody to work together.


How do you think that Economics (the way economists think) contribute to a better understanding of cultural engagement and cultural production?

I think economics can bring a logic. Economics can ask all the questions. You know…Why the Spanish film industry is subsidized? Economics is a way of thinking about that question and answering that question.

It helps you to ask the question and answer the question. So, why subsidize Spanish filmmaking? Economics gives us a framework for thinking about that question. Also, economics asks for evidence. One of the most important things of economics is to say, “What is the evidence for making an argument?” I think in two ways it provides a basis for argument and reasoning, and also economics is very strong on providing evidence.


Which topics do you think could be of interest for young researchers starting their careers in the coming years?

I think probably industrial organization. I’ve just looked at a paper on the film industry, which is part of industry. I think the emphasis should shift away from the high arts to the industrial and creative arts and to the importance of cities, to creative cities for tourism and industry. That means going into a branch of economics, cultural economics, that haven’t been in much… It’s called the industrial organization period and urban economics. I think those are the interesting areas for development. A lot of Spanish people working in the cultural area, economists, now work in that. In some ways, they are leading the way.


Do policy makers and others stakeholders take into account the research produced by universities and research centres?

They do if we try to take account of politics. Economists very often come up with solutions, but they’re politically impossible. One of the issues today would be immigration in Europe. There’s no point in coming up with a solution unless it can be politically acceptable and get through the Spanish Parliament or the Italian Parliament. I think economists and researchers are listened to, provided they take into account the reality of politics. I always tell my students, “You cannot study economics separate from politics.” The politics and economics of Spain or Ireland, where I come from, are inextricably linked. But once we recognize that, then I think that we can contribute.



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