Art as Cultural Capital by Sandra Braman
As symbolic forms and the use of symbols expand exponentially, and the manipulation of symbols becomes so easy that its exercise becomes trivial, the general stock of cultural capital is declining... In the special case of minority cultural communities seeking to survive under today's conditions, art may, however, provide a critical survival resource. This role in community formation -- though difficult to quantify -- is increasingly acknowledged, while its impact on policymaking continues.

While the forms of art and the number of art commodities available have multiplied and the information economy as a whole has grown, cultural capital has declined. Increasingly, art is valued less for how it speaks to the past, and more for how it speaks to the future; less for its role as a static product in a commodity-driven market, and more for its ability to stimulate innovation and contribute to production processes in an economy governed by harmonized information flows; less for what it requires in terms of knowledge and sustained attention, and more for its ability to simply do something different; less for its ability to exalt, and more for its ability to solve problems.

Art has always involved both a reconsideration of the past and innovation. Among the factors affecting the relative balance of each during a particular period or in the work of a specific artist have been the constraints upon and the resources available for different aspects of the creative and distribution processes. It is a particular feature of this stage of the information society that there has been a radical shift in the relationship between the transportation and the storage of symbols: While historically it was easier to store information than to transport it, today this relationship is reversed. The shift, in turn, has contributed to a shift in the balance between the roles of the past and of the future in a particular culture, and in specific works of art.

Both of these shifts in significant parameters of the information and communication environments require a significant rethinking of pertinent policy issues. Those who are taking part in the effort to rethink accounting systems in such a way as to take account of the various forms of intellectual capital approach some of these issues, but need to do so in a more explicit and self-aware way. There is other work to be done learning how to place a valuation on cultural goods created by communities working within their own specific tradition; surely, in an environment in which it is acknowledged that every time information is processed, value is added, there should be some way to take into account, for example, the thousands of years during which traditional information has been processed, and the thousands of people who each performed that information processing as both tellers of tales and as participants in the communities in which the telling and hearing of such stories served to hold the world together.

On a different level, the problem of the loss of cultural capital needs to be addressed not by accountants but by civil society. Here the insights into the relationship between the decline of the state and the loss of cultural capital are invaluable. As the state becomes less important and other social forms are constructed, the contributions of art need to be deliberately considered.

Sandra Braman is Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This excerpt is from an essay, "Art in the Information Economy," originally published in the Canadian Journal of Communication (1996, volume 21, #2).
Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).