The arts are important because they matter to us, and any attempts to further justify them lead to an impoverished and less human life, says Carter Gillies.

A child's hand pouring paint into a palette
No child ever picked up a paintbrush to benefit the economy

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Arts Council England (ACE) is preparing to launch a quality metrics scheme that will be mandatory for England's largest arts organisations. Explaining why, Simon Mellor, the organisation's Deputy Chief Executive for arts and culture, said in his blog: "At the very least, I am confident that in the future we will all be better able to talk about the quality of the work we help create in a more consistent and confident way."

There is a fascination with the idea that quality in art ought to be consistent - but unfortunately, consistent quality for the arts is a fiction. It is a fiction that seems to matter to some people though, so it is important to address the question: "Who, precisely, is this supposed to matter to?"

Our real problem seems to be the need to compulsively justify anything and everything

The people invested in the idealisation of consistency see the world in a particular way, which does not always align with the way that art (and indeed most of our lives) is conducted. The expectation is for things to actually be consistent and to be understood confidently. This is symptomatic of a larger and more complicated issue for society.

Justifying the arts?

We are conditioned to justify the things we feel matter, but this is an attitude that needs to be examined. It’s not that there aren’t moments in our lives where being justified isn't of the utmost importance – it’s just that being justified is not the whole of the story.

Our real problem seems to be the need to compulsively justify anything and everything. Why else would being 'consistent' or 'confident' matter? We have the spurious idea that we can only be confident if we are justified, and we can only be justified if there is consistent and objective support for our judgments. This is a myth we ought to be well rid of.

Underlying the development of quality metrics seems to be the question: "Are the arts justified?" In other words, we are looking for evidence. This is the opening the quantifiers of the world need. Witness the attempts to find the value of the arts in their instrumental benefits to society, to the economy and to things like cognitive development. Not that these things can't or shouldn't be measured. It is just that they are not the reasons for art to exist. No child ever picked up a paintbrush to benefit the economy.

The problem is that we are addicted to the idea of justifying, as though the simple act of being able to measure the value of something were itself significant. It turns every potential value into an empirical question. And quantifying the quality of the arts is simply a symptom of this larger urge.

It’s time to face our need to be justified head on and ask, with humility, whether systematising quality is a reasonable quest or a blind obsession.

In our justification-obsessed society, it is difficult to accept the occasional groundlessness of value. We resist this as though finding consistency were the same as finding the 'real truth'. But the search for ultimate grounds is a miscarriage of our efforts, and there are dangers in the seemingly insatiable need to justify and prove, and in the drive to expunge inconsistency from any proper account of value. We simply need to make peace with the reality that human values don't always rest on justification.

No child ever picked up a paintbrush to benefit the economy

A consistency-fixated quest mistakes the nature of human life. We don't care about all things because we are justified. We are justified, if at all, because this is what we care about. Caring about consistency is merely one among many things that motivate us.

We can't expect that anything and everything will find some eventual, ultimate justification. The arts don't matter because of some instrumental benefit or impact, or that there is any form of consensus. The arts matter because they matter to us. Simply that.

Consistency or exploration?

This is the case regardless of whether quality is somehow deemed to be consistent, or whether we are confident in our ability to asses it. Culture is constructed on the premise that these things matter. In all their plurality and multifariousness, in all their mystery, we behave as if they matter.

That not everyone shares a similar appreciation should not be a cause for alarm. Disagreement can appear confusing, as if it suggests that a flaw has been exposed. Not all our values align, so we often look for justifications - with some warrant.

But if the only value that counts is objective value – a consistent and confident view of value that everyone agrees on – we will be stuck with an impoverished and inhuman life. Abi Gilmore, Senior Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy at the University of Manchester, suggests that quality metrics will "reinforce art forms which are already prioritised by funding”, and in her research has found that "using metrics shores up institutional tastes and values in a way that excludes the potential creation of public value through richer understanding of arts experience”. In other words, by assuming quality in the arts is subject merely to consistent standards, diversity and the potential for exploration are themselves significantly erased.

Looking for quantification and proof represents a hopeful attempt to place an ultimate and independently verifiable source of value at the centre of our lives. Something secure. We can understand the appeal, and yes, there are ample situations where we should expect more than shifting sands beneath our feet. But our current blindness is the result of expecting that we only ever ought to accept things that are justified. We have not learned that sometimes justification is not possible. To understand the arts more fully, and how quality works, we need to embrace plurality, rather than dismiss it in a withering attempt at quantification and consistency.

Alternative points of view

ACE could do a better job simply by accepting that quality is worth talking about, and that we can talk profitably when we disagree as well as when we agree. Unless we can be shown alternative points of view, unless we can grow in what we understand, and change our minds, a human life becomes hidebound and caged.

Art should free us from these dangers rather than seek to trap us there, and ACE should be leading this liberating charge rather than seeking its defeat.

Carter Gillies is a potter, teacher and philosopher, working in the US.

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I too am alarmed by the ACE quality metrics scheme. However, don't forget that most arts activity is not publicly funded, and doesn't have to answer to a quality metrics system. It is free to be what it wants to be, as it were. If on the other hand you take the kings shilling, don't be surprised if you are asked to justify how you have spent public money (regardless of which evaluation system is imposed). Unless you can self-fund your work, the alternative is to answer to the box office, the publisher or the gallery owner - and their measures of success may be far more blunt than the ACE quality metric system.

Andrew has misunderstood the question about arts metrics - it is not (should not!) be about measuring the value of arts, but of how best to allocate arts funding, which is a completely different question. In general, we have no need to measure or even define arts - let's be as varied and creative as we like. But when allocating millions of pounds of money (our money!) any funding body must attempt, as best it can, to show why it has chosen this art form over another and this organisation and not another one. Quality metrics is beset with problems but the old system of a group of insiders sitting around allocating money to the stuff they liked was entirely anti-democratic and corrupt.

I think both responses thus far highlight exactly what is at stake in this conversation: To what extent are we willing to let policy and funding decisions be driven by the WRONG idea of what art is? Does an agenda driven policy take precedence over the thing in question itself? Are we comfortable with that? Because it seems to me that in all the counting Arts Council England has proposed they have not really counted the cost of following through with this homogenizing intention. The point of my essay was an attempt to demonstrate that we will fail the arts themselves if we base our decisions only on a false impression of what art is and what art does. If we can wean ourselves from the idea that the arts are merely consistent or somehow necessarily need to be consistent in some measurable way we might just be able to honor both what art is good at and what bean counting is good at. It seems a terrible mistake to treat art as if it were exclusively or essentially measurable for purposes of quality rather than a pluralistic way that humans manifest the diverse value and meaning of their lives. Art shows us what things matter, not for all people, but always for the artist and often for the community in which it gets shared. Art is fundamentally a measure in that sense, not a thing whose value is derived from or decided by having been or needing to be measured. There is an ancient Greek Myth that shows the dangers of confusing our measures with something subject to measurement. In it Procrustes guarantees that the visitors to his inn would fit their beds perfectly. Normally we assume that the fit of a bed is measured by the size of the person, so the bed would either shrink or expand to make the fit perfect. But Procrustes turns the situation on its head and instead measures the fit by how well the people are measured *by* the bed. In other words, the people are stretched out if they are too small or chopped down if they are too long. Gruesome! By squeezing the arts into a Procrustean bed of consistency and fitting perfectly to our measures we end up with a mean sort of butchery. The arts are no longer themselves, but a hack job of lopped limbs, attenuated appendages, and in general of violated values. By pushing the arts into an unnatural idealization the concern has to be how much damage we are willing to inflict for the horrific purpose of making things fit perfectly and consistently. That is the question. Do we let art decide for itself what it should be or do we impose an unnatural and ill fitting constraint? Do we strap the arts into a framework that satisfies specifically non-artistic values, force a conformity that exists only in conformity obsessed minds? Do we sacrifice all that art can be merely to satisfy a diminished version that is neat and tidy, but itself merely a butchered example of what art does and what it should aim for? If Arts Council England wants to impose a quality metric for the arts, they have a bureaucratic right to do so. Unfortunately. What they do not have is a right to speak for what things count as quality in the arts, or by extension what the arts themselves are or should be. If they want to take on the role of Procrustes let them be honest about it. But don't let them tell you that what they are imposing is really what counts as the arts. They lose that privilege and all credibility as soon as they intellectually chop off unwanted parts and stretch out the ones they wish to keep. If anything inconsistent survives, by their own admission, that was not their intention. It has been erased. Do we stand for that? In the ancient Greek myth Procrustes escapes punishment only until Theseus arrives and subjects him to his own tortures. Arts Council England is imposing a false measure for the arts, but they themselves can be measured too. We can condemn this policy decision precisely because it does not fit with reality. It is merely wishful thinking backed by bureaucratic muscle. We can stretch Arts Council England to fit the reality of art. Do we need a Theseus to sort this out?