Dear Arts Council England, part 2: The idea of consistent quality

(This is the second essay in my argument against the policy proposal of Arts Council England aimed at systematizing quality within the arts.)

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Arts Council England has expressed the intention of instituting a quality metrics based approach in gathering data on peer and audience responses to the arts. The plan is in fact moving forward.

“This toolkit can be used to deepen your understanding of how well your intentions for your work align with the experiences of your peers and your audiences.”

On the face of it, who could argue with this statement? Shouldn’t we strive for a deeper more thorough understanding of the alignment between the intentions behind art and the experiences of artist peers and art audiences? Doesn’t this just make sense? Isn’t this the right sort of thing for us to aim at?

Well, if we are matching intentions to experiences, it is a further question whether the intention behind this endeavor itself aligns with the experience of all concerned. Simply assuming that this form of data collection is appropriate or somehow necessary does express an intention. Unfortunately it has some opposition that we can’t just sweep under the rug without hypocrisy. We risk subverting the very question of why alignment matters. Why should we implement a policy purporting to measure an alignment between artistic intentions and experience that itself potentially fails to align with experiences?

The situation is this: We have a policy proposing a toolkit for collecting judgments as a way of measuring quality in the arts.  As Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive for arts and culture at Arts Council England, puts it:

“At its heart, the Quality Metrics system is about enabling arts and cultural organisations to enter a structured conversation with audience members and peers about the quality of the work they are presenting. It allows them to capture valuable data that they can use to understand how their intentions for the work are aligning with the experiences of their audiences and peers and, hopefully, to use that information to plan future programmes and improve the quality of their work. It will also enable those organisations to provide more evidence to current and future funders about the quality of their work.

(…)

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.”

The agenda, then, “at the very least”, is to talk about quality in the arts “in a more consistent and confident way.” The fundamental object in the crosshairs of this policy is a notion of quality within the arts.

On a case by case basis I believe this is one conversation worth pursuing. There are institutional needs of arts organizations that this would only benefit. But does this intention sufficiently honor all the experiences of actual people within the whole of the arts? People to whom this is supposed to matter and of whom it is supposed to reflect? Is the necessary question behind quality in the arts simply a matter of being consistent or even confident? Who, precisely, is this supposed to matter to?

The impression one gets from this phrasing of the policy is that the arts are some unified thing that can be sorted for consistency and only be properly understood with better degrees of confidence. Is this the experience of all artists and all audiences? From one performance or work to the next? From one moment in an artist’s exploration to whatever comes after? Across the wide and ever expanding vistas of the human creative imagination? The fracturing of our goals and the diverse paths we take in their pursuit? Is that presumed underlying uniformity of consistent quality and confidence the way things really stand and we simply are figuring out the quantified metrical means of getting there? Or is it a bald invention and we are attempting merely to shoehorn the actual untamed things in question to a one-size-fits-all prescription?

Because the intention to talk consistently and confidently about things artistic really does not square with the plurality and multiplicity of the subjects in question. Some things, surely yes, but it is beyond hubris to claim such an agenda speaks for all arts. Not from my experience. The constraining intention behind this policy decision does not align with the experience of the people who at least sometimes judge the quality of what they are doing precisely by how much it subverts the ideas of quality that precede it. Art can be fluid and fluctuating and also stagnant and eternal. It can be bold and also reserved. Demonstrative and taciturn. Tell art it is this one thing only and it will do the exact opposite the very next chance it gets. Where, precisely, does ‘consistency’ and ‘confidence’ live in that, I want to ask.

Art is many things, not all of which add up to anything approaching ‘consistent’. Art can be wild and unpredictable. And that seems like a good  thing, often. Good for Art, that is. Not a disability that needs to be ‘cured’, a dangerous beast that requires domestication. The intention to make issues surrounding art consistent and confident is ultimately disagreeable to art itself. Is there a cost to making art so intellectually tractable?

From within the arts, far from an ideal of consistent quality, you get a picture of disparity. Folks doing different things differently. And unless you account for this diverging/corrupting/transcending attitude within the arts itself you will never appreciate that quality is NOT a consistent thing. You will not appreciate that confidence is sometimes negligible and more often irrelevant for what art is capable of and frequently attempts. Not only is the horizon of art unknown, it is yet to be explored. You can’t pin art down like a bug under a microscope because art has not finished inventing itself. On the frontier of artistic creation the very idea of quality may not properly exist. We just don’t yet know what it will be.

And this is a story that is constantly unfolding. We cannot afford to be either too confident or too consistent. We might just forget that the script has not yet been fully written or how wide and truly diverse the subject matter is. Quality in art is not something written once and for all time. Believing otherwise we might lose sight of the human fact that surprise and discovery often matter more than the assurances of confidence and consistency, and that it is often the job of art to remind us of this. To keep us guessing. Surely the intention to hem serendipity and discord into the tiny cage of quantifiable conformity is the last thing any art based decision should attempt? It simply does NOT align with experience.

As the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it, “Clarity of thought often replaces vague confusion with bewildering complexity. Better understanding just leads to a better class of headache.” Understanding the arts and the idea of quality doesn’t call for a number-crunching white wash towards consistency and confidence. No. What we need is simply a better class of headache. The bewildering complexity of things human beings do under the banner of Art can be respected. It can be respected for the breadth of terrain it explores and the inconsistency it delivers. It can be respected for the lack of confidence with which it enters the world and the lack of confidence in the home it finds there. It can be respected for its own fragility and tentativeness. No excuses needed. We do not need to apologize for a lack of consistency or a lack of confidence…..

There is a reason bean counting number crunchers have so much authority in the arts, and mainly it is for the good. The arts are a business and need to function as such. But it is also important to not let that world view overreach itself. We need to be careful in not putting the cart before the horse. In many ways the arts are the exact opposite of what the counters are, and see, and value.

The ever impish and ironical Oscar Wilde understood this predicament:

“When Bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When Artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”

There is a mutual interest, in other words, but neither does it mean a banker thinks of art as an artist does, values it for the same things in the same way, and equally true of artists’ attitude towards money, but especially that this does not mean they should be left in charge of one another’s concerns. A ‘dinner table’ acquaintance is insufficient for the real work that needs to be done. Whatever insight the other has is small potatoes in the bigger picture.

This Culture Counting policy has been adopted from real concerns, but concerns that nonetheless are only tangential to art itself. They are political and business/financial concerns, assuredly, just not specifically artistic ones. The intention owes a debt to the culture of counting that is willing to reduce things into manageable terms. This works so well so often in so many facets of our lives. But no matter how persuasive this is in some respects it is not a guarantee that the world only conforms to that way of examining it.

In fact, you could make the case that art is engaged in precisely the opposite endeavor, that of exploring differences, highlighting nuance, making us more sensitive to the places where things fall apart. When we take aim at the world as a function of counting, things have to line up just so to be amenable. When we take aim at the world as a function of creation, it is at least sometimes the case that we trade out instances of ‘lining up’ consistently for the extravagance of imagining something different. While counting aims at continuous features, art and other creative acts aim more precisely at fracturing continuity, or breaking it just enough to extend the boundaries in unexpected and disharmonious directions.

There is another issue that haunts this policy proposal: How far do we really need to invest in the idea of alignment? We perceive misunderstanding as a problem, as a burden of failure, but a serious question is whether art necessarily marches in time with its audience.

If we have to look back this far, one only need be reminded of the public and critical reception of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 to recognize that the intentions of an artist and the experiences the performance inspires cannot always be aligned, should not always align, if only for the fact that an artist’s job is sometimes to exceed the expectations of an audience and even of its peers. This means it is occasionally the proper job of a serious artist to educate, to sometimes lead into the unknown rather than follow the familiar.

The Rite of Spring is one of the most recorded pieces of music, now, but consulting its initial audiences would have only paved the way for the dust bin of forgotten history. The failure of alignment, temporary or otherwise, is not always a failure of Art. Not only is this disconnect excusable but a thing we can actively strive towards….. Sometimes in life as in art, the greater the challenge the greater the advance.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it,

The other terror that scares us from self trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Out upon your guarded lips! Sew them up with packthread, do. Else if you would be a man speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today. Ah, then, exclaim the aged ladies, you shall be sure to be misunderstood! Misunderstood! It is a right fool’s word. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood….

So, yes, we should aim for a world where the values of art are in open discussion. That part is right and laudable. But it does not mean we are left only grasping at timid and poverty stricken agreements rather than fruitful and blazing disagreements. And it does not mean that the conversation will bear immediate fruit. Misunderstanding is essential to human discourse. It is how we grow. Sometimes it takes generations of bias to be depleted for new understanding to flourish. We need humility  and patience to see the other sides and beyond ourselves, not confidence. We need to embrace the plurality, not whittle it down to the merely consistent.

The better class of headache Julian Baggini urges us toward should include not only that consistency is neither implicated nor required, but also that it is normal and appropriate to have differing and contradictory opinions. Alignment is a pernicious obstacle to the flowering of creativity. The future that Simon Mellor paints and this policy aspires to is one in which ‘art’ is understood, as at the dinner table of bankers, but it is no longer art at all.