The French government had the idea to give teenagers a 300 Euro credit (through a phone app) to spend on “culture”. A few limits were placed upon it – a 100 Euro maximum on online subscriptions, and any video games had to be French (trade protectionism is a given in any French cultural policy) – but otherwise the youths had a pretty free hand. And with those free hands they spend roughly half their totals on Manga. The New York Times reports:
As of this month, books represented over 75 percent of all purchases made through the app since it was introduced nationwide in May — and roughly two-thirds of those books were manga, according to the organization that runs the app, called the Culture Pass.
The French news media has written of a “manga rush,” fueled by a “manga pass” — observations that came via a slightly distorted lens, since the app arrived just as theaters, cinemas and music festivals, emerging from pandemic-related restrictions, had less to offer. And manga were already wildly popular in France.
But the focus on comic books reveals a subtle tension at the heart of the Culture Pass’s design, between the almost total freedom it affords it young users — including to buy the mass media they already love — and its architects’ aim of guiding users toward lesser-known and more highbrow arts.
So lets dig deeper into that “subtle tension”…
I’m going to start with John Rawls A Theory of Justice (don’t worry, this will only take a minute). In Rawls’s liberal egalitarian ideal, equality in individuals’ “primary goods” is paramount: those goods like wealth, freedoms, political participation, that allow us to get on in the world. But he strongly rejected what he called “perfectionism”, the idea that the state ought to encourage some ways of getting on over others. It is up to each of us individually to determine for ourselves what would constitute a life well lived. A consequence of this (on which he is quite clear), is that, beyond what would be covered as a part of basic schooling for young people, there is no justification for state subsidy of the arts. It is important for people to have as equal resources as we can manage, but it’s not up to the state to direct people one way or another in terms of how they use those resources.
Well, so what? But even if you want nothing to do with his moral philosophy, he raises something very important for arts policy: if we are going to depart from a world of pure consumer sovereignty when it comes to the arts, then the state is making a statement: the arts matter in a way that justifies the state trying to steer people towards it. We are not as squeamish about perfectionism as he is.
Now there are many, many reasons that have been put forward about why the arts deserve public sector support: economists with their externalities, and all manner of what came to be known (maybe unfortunately) as instrumental and intrinsic benefits. But, whatever argument might be your favorite, it will provoke the question, “what sort of arts best serve the goals I have outlined?” Is life more fulfilling with an engagement with what in days of yore were referred to as the high arts? Are externalities greater for classical than for pop music?
Or is it all the same, and the only thing that matters is what people like: prejudice apart, pushpin is as good as poetry; Manga is as good as Flaubert. If pleasure is the only thing that matters, then we have to ask: why restrict a transfer of funds to teenagers to culture in the first place? What if they would rather have 300 Euros for railway tickets, or some new clothes, or for some proper kitchen utensils for their first apartment? If the concern is that only teenagers from wealthier and/or more formally educated families will take part in culture, what of it, if other teenagers would really rather have funds to spend on something else?
And this is the narrow path arts policy must tread: on the one side it wants to say the arts matter in a very specific way to people’s wellbeing. But it also as far as possible wants to avoid being too prescriptive. (I’ve always thought that part of the evil genius that is the arts “economic impact” claim is that it says the arts matter while avoiding any judgment over the art itself – all that matters is that money was spent, and a dollar is a dollar is a dollar).
We see this tension in the Times’ story:
Jean-Michel Tobelem, an associate professor at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne who specializes in the economics of culture, said that it was a laudable effort but that it would largely benefit the mainstream media.
“You don’t need to push young people to go see the latest Marvel movie,” he said. There is nothing wrong with pop music or blockbusters, he stressed, acknowledging that “you can enter Korean culture through K-Pop and then discover that there is a whole cinema, a literature, painters and composers that go with it.”
But Tobelem said that he was unconvinced that the no-strings-attached approach of the Culture Pass would do that, and that the app gave few incentives to engage with “works that are more demanding on an artistic level.”
We can certainly make the judgment that Manga is just fine, and if young people prefer it to other literature, well, that’s what being young is (my own seventeen-year old tastes were not any more sophisticated). But it leaves the question: why subsidize Manga? What is meant to be accomplished here?