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.
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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.