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Ranking the Arts By How Much They Contribute to America’s GDP

A government report on the arts invites a shouting match. Also: video games.

by Ben Richmond
Dec 10 2013, 1:50pm
via Wikimedia Commons

Now, obviously the value of an art form isn’t best described by its contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product. But if we wanted to compare them based off of that—for laughs, or maybe to defend the arts from cuts or something—it’s now really easy to do.

Last week, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts released the first in-depth analysis of what “arts and culture” contribute toward the American GDP up to as recently as 2011. According to these new estimates, 3.2 percent—or $504 billion—of current-dollar GDP in 2011 was attributable to arts and culture.

“The positive value of arts and culture on society has been understood on a human level for millennia. With this new effort, we are now able to quantify the impact of arts and culture on GDP for the very first time,” said US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. The contribution to GDP estimates consist of “nominal industry output, direct and indirect employment (salaried and self-employed), compensation of employees, and 'value added' by industry.”

The whole conversation is a delicate one—note that you can kind of read Pritzker as saying that the GDP is distinct from the “human level” of value. Just deciding what to include in the report invites those endless Duchamps-related questions. The question-begging definition they used to cut off this discussion was: “Arts and culture is narrowly tailored to include creative artistic activity, the goods and services produced by it, the goods and services produced in the support of it, and finally the construction of buildings in which it is taking place.”

Got it? Arts and culture is “creative artistic activity.” Does this include, say, carpentry? Only if it’s in service of a college arts building, it seems. This definition does include “landscape architecture services”, which is neat, and contributed $3.7 million to the GDP.

To assuage any purists out there (if any exist anymore), I’d invite them just to consider this a report on economics, not art, so really what does it matter? No one’s saying this is the final say on the value of the arts; it’s just a way of at looking at the way the arts impact the nation’s economics.

But, hey, if we are looking at the arts through this lens, which art is the best art? Well the biggest grossers are on this chart:

Movies are the walk-away winners there. But the chart's a little lacking in nuance. You have to break it apart (in this PDF) to get to all the interesting stuff hiding below.

First off, circuses, which at one point were so appealing that they, along with bread, brought down the Roman Empire, come in near last, only contributing $617 million. I've highlighted what really jumps out at me, “Software publishing,” which is restricted to video games and art-related software—photo editing and CAD design.

By contributing $13.3 billion to the GDP, video games and arts software contributed nearly as much as the whole of performing arts—if you exclude the “other section of musicians which is made up of “jazz, rock, and country music bands and artists; choirs; and bugle corps,” then they’re about the same.

In spite of a tenuous grasp on being included as one of the arts, software publishing has passed regular book publishing, sound recording, museums and even internet publishing (sorry, fan-fic!).

Again, it doesn't prove anything about the quality or validity of the art form, but it is indicative of the long cultural shadow cast by video games, which directly and indirectly employed over 120,000 people in 2010, and was experiencing surging growth. Video games might not be depicted as a pretty dancing lady muse in Renaissance art, but as an art form they're vital. Much more so than Renaissance painting even.