It’s not just about the Getting but the Giving: Contributive Justice in Arts and Culture

At Fun Palaces we are in the business of making Arts and Culture better, fairer and more fun, and think a lot about how it all works. Mark Banks is an academic working in the area, and we think you’ll be interested to hear how he thinks about it too. We find the idea of Contributive Justice really helpful! He has written us this blog to explain:

Mark Banks

In arts and culture people often compete for jobs, commissions, grants or funding, as well as for promotions, prizes and other kinds of opportunity. How these opportunities are allocated tends to rely on what are widely assumed to be  ‘fair’ assessments of ‘quality,’ ‘talent’ or ‘merit.’ The best person is awarded the job, the best proposal is accepted, the best entrant wins the prize. Or so we might think.

We know, of course, that this doesn’t always happen. The distribution of opportunity in the cultural sector is often unfair – and unequal. Who gets the best (or any kind of) grant or job, or who gets funded or supported tends to reflect existing social inequalities and patterns of discrimination, often based on factors such as class, race or gender.

This inequality can of course be challenged. Many people and organisations (including Fun Palaces) are working to ensure that greater numbers of marginalised or socially-excluded people are provided opportunity to participate or work in the arts. In the language of social science, this issue is understood as one of ‘distributive justice’ – ensuring that what people get from society is fair, reasonable and just.

Challenging distributive injustices is certainly important. But there are also limits to thinking about the issue of arts and cultural opportunity only in terms of distributive justice. I argue we should think about opportunity also in terms of what people are allowed to give to arts and culture – and, by extension, to wider society. 

Here, the idea of ‘contributive justice’ offers a different way of approaching the issue of equal opportunity. As its name suggests, contributive justice is concerned with ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to make some kind of social contribution – that is, an equal opportunity to give something positive to society. Aristotle first argued that we can become a more fully-developed person (and enjoy a higher quality of life) when we contribute positively to society, and people value us for it. If we assume therefore that people can only develop to their fullest potential when they are able to receive and to give in society, then we can say that they are discriminated against when they are unfairly prevented from doing so.  

How might we apply this idea to arts and culture? In a recent article I argued that the publicly funded arts might do well to embrace a principle of ‘universal contribution’ in the allocation of its resources – that is, seeking to maximise the number of people who have access to opportunities in arts and cultural production. Firstly, this is because the chance to take part or work in the arts is not only a way to develop personal goods – such as artistic skills, or creative and intellectual development – but also social goods such as the social esteem, recognition and community that can be gained from having positively contributed to a collective or shared activity. The opportunity to obtain these different goods should not be restricted to a privileged social class or limited social group, I argue.  But also, secondly, there are some further public goods that might derive any system of ‘universal contribution’ in the arts. What might these be? 

For example, under a system of universal contribution not only might more people be given chances to make a living in the arts, but other economic benefits would come in the form of the expansion of the range of skills and abilities, related to the arts, which could be used in cultural production or else applied in other economic or social sectors. To give another example, universal contribution in the arts might allow for a much wider array of cultural representations, experiences and interactions to flourish and develop in society – so helping to challenge unfair discriminations for the good of all. Finally, the possibility is also there for new and unforeseen political connections and contributions to be made through the expansion of public participation in art and culture making, helping to re-energise our democratic systems and processes. In short, it is possible to argue that under a system of universal contribution in the arts, everyone contributes and everyone gains. 

A strong system of universal contribution would therefore require that public arts organisations ensure the maximum number of people could take part in the arts and, in doing so, widen opportunities to contribute to the public good. This would not just require increases in funding – but a radical abandonment of the principles of competition, discrimination and ‘merit’ in the distribution of resources. So, what if – as a first step – we abandoned current systems of competitive application for allocating some of the opportunities in the publicly-funded cultural sector? What if opportunities and job roles in publicly-funded arts and culture were shared amongst a larger number of persons, and those positions themselves were also compensated in other ways – such as through a living cultural wage or some form of Universal Basic Income? Then both the number of positions and the ways they were shared out might allow for a more widespread social distribution and contribution. Not only would more people be afforded the opportunity to contribute – if they chose to – the value of their contributions could also be recognised in different and diverse ways; not just culturally or aesthetically, but also socially, economically and politically.  

We might seem a long way from any such system. But it is always important to suggest possible alternatives – however unlikely they might seem. And there are real precedents for a system of ‘universal contribution’. The history of arts and culture shows us that opening opportunities to historically excluded populations has had many positive effects on artistic innovation and quality and on the general public availability of pay, jobs and rewards. For example, we can cite the rapid expansion of arts and cultural production under US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the 1930s, the post-World War II expansion of access to higher education in the form of UK ‘art schools’, and the more general publicly funded expansion of working-class and women’s arts participation and education in the same period. These developments were far from perfect – but many new progressive ways of living (and art-making) were also invented (or ‘contributed’) from within their midst. 

Of course, even if achieved, ‘universal contribution’ would not solve all the problems of injustice that are stubbornly ingrained in arts and culture – and some new troubles might arise. However, fundamentally, I would argue that we should regard tackling these problems as involving questions of both distributive and contributive justice: they are a matter not just of what people are allowed to get, but also what people are allowed to give.


Mark Banks is Professor of Cultural Economy at the University of Glasgow. He has written widely on cultural industries, arts and cultural policy and is the author of Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work and Inequality (2017);