Dear Arts Council England, part 1: The culture of counting

(This is the uncondensed version of an essay I wrote for Arts Professional UK. The limited space available there for my ideas painted only a partial glimpse of the argument I intend to make, but it was a sacrifice worth making. The published version is more concise and readable, certainly. For anyone interested, this bloated version is the first of several objections I have (See also ‘Dear Arts Council England, part 2‘) concerning the agenda of Arts Council England to systematize quality in the arts.)

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Arts Council England has committed to a ‘quality metrics’ scheme that will become mandatory for England’s largest arts organizations. Many consider this a good idea. The aim is to measure perceptions of quality, and one can see why getting a handle on ideas of quality should matter for arts organizations, artists, and the public themselves. But being able to discuss ideas of quality does not require that everyone is on the same page. What this new policy suggests is that it is somehow appropriate, even necessary, to “develop a ‘meaningful measure’ of artistic quality that yields consistent and comparable findings across different art forms and types of organisation.”

As Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive for arts and culture at Arts Council England, puts it, “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.” Unfortunately ‘consistent’ quality for the arts is itself a fiction. But it IS a fiction that seems to matter to people.

There is a fascination with the idea that quality in art ought to be consistent. “Who, precisely, is this supposed to matter to?” therefor seems an important question to address. 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 that in researching the developmental stages of the ‘Impact and insight toolkit‘ they “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 the diversity and potential for exploration are themselves significantly erased.

But the folks invested in this idealization have more at stake than simply a fictional account of art. They see the world in a particular way, and this does not always align with the way that art (and indeed most of our lives) gets conducted. The expectation is for things to actually BE consistent and to be understood confidently. It is, I think, symptomatic of a larger and more complicated issue for society.

One particular failure is that we are conditioned to justify the things we feel matter, and this itself is an attitude that needs to be examined. Not that there are moments in our lives where being justified isn’t of the utmost importance. Merely that being justified is not the whole of the story. It isn’t simply an issue of choosing appropriate metrics, but a misunderstanding of the nature and role of value.

Broader than simply quantification, 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 a consistent and objective support for our judgments. This is a myth we ought to be well rid of.

For instance, one underlying question seems to be “Are the arts justified?” and we make this out as an empirical issue that we can either prove or disprove from the evidence. In other words, we are looking for evidence. This is all the opening the quantifiers of the world need. Witness the tragic 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 and in some cases shouldn’t be measured. It is just that these are not the reasons for art to exist. No child ever picked up a paintbrush to benefit the economy…..

The problem as I see it is that we are addicted to the idea of justifying, as though the simple act of being able to measure something were itself significant. It turns every potential value into an empirical question. And quantifying the arts is simply a symptom of this larger urge. What we fail to understand is that value is not only that which gets measured. Rather, value also resides in that which we use as measures.

Only some things function for us as empiricalInstrumental value IS something empirical. But it is not everything. We simply need to do a better job of understanding the variety of roles and fundamental plurality that values have in our lives. There are not only things that get measured but the things doing the measuring. The measure functions as a measure without itself needing to be measured, because its role is specifically NOT empirical. It is not in question.

We need to make peace with that before we can truly understand the dangers of overzealous quantification, of our seeming insatiable need to justify and prove, and of the drive to expunge inconsistency from any proper account of value. So what I am proposing is that we face our need to be justified head on and ask with humility whether systematizing quality is a reasonable quest or a blind obsession. Are we even justified in this pursuit? Should we be?

If we can place better limits on what counts as empirical we can start to acknowledge that some things are excluded in practice if not in principle. Some things count for us AS the measures, and need to be respected as such. The arts, in fact, are a way that we measure value. The arts are not simply a thing subject to measurement and in need of justificatory ‘proof’. Rather, the arts are themselves one source of value within people’s lives. We step from the value of the arts out into the world with little more cause than that the arts matter to us. And importantly, we each do this according to our own lights. We don’t even do it consistently ourselves, so how can we ever hope to achieve a secure or universally acceptable footing for broad ideas of quality?

In our justification obsessed society it is difficult to accept the occasional groundlessness of value. We resist as though finding consistency were the same as finding the ‘real truth’. But the search for ‘ultimate’ grounds is a miscarriage of our efforts. We simply need to make peace with the reality that human values don’t always rest on justification. 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 consensus in any form. The arts matter because they matter to us. Simply that. This is the case entirely independent of whether quality is somehow deemed to be consistent or that there is confidence 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 mattered. And it is not a question of us being deceived or not, mistaken or not, but that in our acting this way we give the only grounds possible: A way of life that includes the value of the arts, in whatever form it takes, at its center. Which is not to say that we don’t occasionally get into trouble or that justifying is never important. I am not making excuses, merely pointing out the fact.

And we need to embrace that not everyone shares a similar appreciation. How more obvious does it need to be? But this should not be a cause for alarm. Disagreement can seem confusing, as if there were some flaw exposed. Not all our values align, so we often DO look for justifications with some warrant. But if the only value that counted were objective value that everyone agreed on, a consistent and confident view of quality, we would be stuck with an impoverished and inhuman life. Is THAT the point of our attempts to quantify the arts? Our attempts to find justification? A uniform consensus? I ask again, in what sense are we justified in aiming at that?

Looking for quantification and proof is, in this case, the hopeful attempt to place an ultimate and independently verifiable source of value at the center of our lives. Something secure. And we can understand the appeal. But we should still see the difference between aspiration and reality, between fairy tales and truth. That consistency fixated quest in itself mistakes the nature of a 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….

And yes, there are ample situations where we SHOULD expect more than shifting sands beneath our feet. How could anyone argue otherwise? But our current blindness is the result of expecting we ONLY ought to accept justification. We have not adequately learned the difference. Our obsession tends to put those blinders on, and that is the handicap we need to dismantle before honest work can be done that has a better appreciation of the diverse roles values play in our lives. To understand the arts more fully and how quality works we need to assume the plurality rather than dismiss it in a withering attempt at quantification and consistency.

Arts Council England can do a better job simply by accepting that quality is worth talking about but that we can talk profitably in our disagreements as well as our agreement. Unless we can be shown alternative points of view, unless we can grow in what we understand, 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 Arts Council England should be leading this liberating charge rather than seeking its defeat.