Evidence based support for the arts

The modern scientific framework explains things from cause to effect. Causes explain effects. Something happens as the result of something else. The tree grows from the seed. There are observable consequences. There are sequences of events, one following from the other. Each thing is explained by what preceded it: What happened first explains what comes next. The fire caused the house to burn. The lake is full because we got so much rain. Cause and effect. Thus also, the laws of nature explain why things happen. We have found the universe to be subjected to natural laws. Gravity causes the apple to fall. Heat causes the water to boil. It’s all very mechanical, one thing to the next.

So where does human value fit in all this? The physical universe gets on just fine with cause and effect. All our evidence is from causes to effects. So why do we care? Why do things matter to us? And why does instrumental evidence matter in explaining our values? If causes are what nature is ‘interested in’, does that explain our own interests? Before human interests (or perhaps biological life) arrived on the scene, the universe spiraled out uncomplicatedly from the Big Bang in a deterministic seeming stream of causes to effects.

Humans actually work backwards. The effects are important and the causes are mysterious. Causes need to get investigated. We see effects that make a difference to us, that is, effects that matter to us, and investigate the causes. The seed grows better in one location than another, but why? What is the difference that makes the difference? Too much sun or too little? Not enough water or a surplus? If we can find the causes we can promote our interests. We can promote the effects we want.

And importantly, we can imagine things that do not yet exist. Human culture is a testament to human innovation and creativity. It exists only because we cared enough to make it happen. Human value works with nature, but it makes the world a different place. And it isn’t always important that things have been engineered and made tractable and predictable. Consequences don’t always move us. Sometimes we do things for their own sake. The arts are especially important to us because they surprise us and show us the unexpected.

Kanno Hisao

Things like the arts don’t just solve existing problems, they help invent the questions. They are a guide in how we face the world. They also strain against the bonds of our reality. They are a different insight into the world from science and technology. The arts demand different things from us and from the world. Tracing out causes and effects sometimes just gets in the way. We don’t always need to know the mechanism of how things work. Sometimes, yes, but more things matter to us than simply what we can trace through the compulsions of causes to effects.

So that is the way value works, roughly. Human value cannot be fully explained merely by the cause and effect principles of the natural world. People are interested in things and there are means of achieving them, some worse and some better. There are tools we can use. What we are interested in are our own ends. We are interested in achieving them. We are drawn toward the ends like a seed is drawn toward the tree it will become. That is the purpose behind what we do and why we do it. The ends motivate us. Not the means. The ends. We can dream of a better world and figure out the means of achieving it.

But notice what happens when we move from the values of our motivation to the values of our justification. When we say that the arts are “good for” this and that other value, that the arts are instrumental in achieving our various purposes, things like a better economy, improved cognitive development, positive social impacts, and increased wellbeing, we are saying that the arts are causes of desired impacts. We are saying the value of the arts is derived from those things they benefit. We are saying the arts are a means. But in what way does this justify or even explain their value? We are attributing the value of the arts as something subservient to the effects it has on other values. We are excluding it from our ends. We have traded out the value the arts have as motivation, as belonging to our ends and our purposes, for the value the arts have as means, as the tools we use to achieve other ends. Do we even know what we’re doing?

When we attempt to justify the arts as an instrumental value we are no longer admitting the motivating value the arts have. We have traded that out for a domestic’s role, a servile and dependent role, and the truth is that we are never motivated in the same way by doing that. When we ask for art’s justification we are looking for permission. We are telling the story that art needs to first pass muster and only then will it get sanctioned. If it isn’t good for anything, the reasoning goes, it can’t be any good. And if it isn’t good it isn’t worth doing. Justifying the arts has actually threatened to push the arts themselves out the door as something conditional on our approval. It has forced a wedge between art and our motivation to be with art, to make our home and our lives in the presence of art. By turning art into a tool we have made art essentially, and paradoxically, useless.

The hammer does not motivate building the house. The car does not motivate us to drive. We have tools in our lives so we can do other things. The tools are either useful or not for achieving our goals. The goals are what counts. And when we look at the arts as merely a tool we forget that the arts are not in our lives simply to address other interests. No matter how well the arts ‘fix’ things for us, because they do have benefits, they are not important in our lives just as the result of how well they achieve results. If the economy is supposed to justify the arts, it surely does not motivate them.

The thing we have somehow forgotten in our zeal to justify our interests is that the ends justify the means. So it matters what the ends are. And turning the arts as an end into the arts as a means is catastrophically self defeating. It’s asking the hammer to justify the house. Our ends and our purposes motivate us. All else depends on that. We have moved beyond the cycle of causes and effects to purposes. The means (as a means) are without human value in the absence of our ends. A tool without a purpose is not even a tool. Hammers wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have things to do with them.

Are the arts so feeble to us that they need an outside purpose? Did we invent the arts entirely to serve some other end? I doubt it. The only evidence of people treating the arts as a means comes in the last few centuries at most, and then even it seems an outlier. So we had better adjust to the idea that ends have a value worth considering. Not everything hangs on being justified. And unless we can see the arts as an end themselves we will be trapped in the justificatory excuses that the arts are merely ‘good for’ this or that.

The value of the arts is not explained by what they are good for. The arts are what explains the value and meaning of doing what we do, because the arts frequently are our motivation. Reasons stand on the opposite end from causes. We see a concert because the arts motivate us. The role of the arts in our lives is the reason we do what we do. We paint and sculpt because making art motivates us. That is our purpose. Not the economy. Not cognitive development. Not social impacts. Not even our own wellbeing. The fundamental place of the arts in human lives is that they stand for us as a motivation.

The things we justify the arts by are never sufficient to motivate us to engage with or participate in the arts, and that is because the arts as an instrument are merely a means. We are motivated by our ends, not our means. So isn’t it odd that no child ever raised a paintbrush in the name of positive cognitive development? Even if this is the effect on kids painting, it is not the reason they paint. The justification is not the motivation. As good as the arts are for the economy, and they are, you cannot tell an artist that they either are doing or should be doing what they do just to serve the economy. That is nonsense. Treating an end as a means only makes sense if you are inspecting justifications, however legitimately or illegitimately that is undertaken. As an insight into motivation it is fails utterly.

Treating something as an end is radically different from treating it as a means. And until we can wrap ourselves around that distinction we will continue to fail the arts by fundamentally misunderstanding them. The appeals for justification have led us astray. The arts are only justified as a means, not as an end. Ends don’t rest on being justified, because they don’t themselves serve: They are what the means serve. The arts, in other words, are not something in need of being justified, they are what justify us. At least for the most part. And it is time we made peace with that.

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Conversations about the limits of art as an instrument of value

Ahoy Di!
I’m still plugging away at these issues we’ve talked about, maybe getting somewhere after all 😊
I think I understand that I may have been wasting much of my effort attempting to explain an alternative to instrumental value when there is no (official) sense of urgency for why we might need one. It is as if the matter were officially settled. It is almost a fact of the contemporary mindset that instrumentalism is the go-to source for the explanation of value. Did we arrive at this conclusion, and if so from what and how? Where/when was the shift, and who embodied it?
As you pointed out in your blog post on artistic leadership in Feb 16th of 2017, the field now seems dominated by business oriented mindsets:
“Consider the driving emphasis on instilling arts institutional leaders with business skills since 1960; the now mandatory requirements of a track record of raising money and delivering box office hits (that will fill Broadway-sized venues) to attain the job of artistic director at a major theater; the lack of artists on nonprofit boards, or even many individuals with an aesthetic sensibility; and the dramatic power shift from artist-leaders to business-leaders, generally.”
This seems to have consequences beyond the artistic direction you questioned in your post. It also, perhaps, has an effect on how we make our case for the arts to the public, to funders, and to policy makers. That is, the perception of what art is and what art does comes into a different focus. MBAs may simply be more comfortable counting beans and assessing instrumental relationships, as if the arts’ primary value were as a tool for ‘solving problems’.
If there is no urgency in finding an alternative to this view, has it always been that way? Or are we now merely secure in knowing that the alternative that instrumentalism overcame, supplanted, or simply superseded is easily dismissed? When MBAs rode in during the 60s did they clean house on arts advocacy as well?
The other day I poked my nose in one of Arthur Danto’s essays, and while I’m not so sure I fully trust him, I think his heart is in basically the right place. He makes a suggestion, and I wonder how truly it reflects any actual history of arts advocacy. If you have a sense, or could direct me to someone who does, I’d appreciate it. Danto says,
“This thumbnail run-through of the table of contents of the standard undergraduate anthology of aesthetics yields an answer to the question anyone, a philistine, say, might wish to raise about art (testimony philosophers might offer when the National Endowment of the Arts comes under fire), namely what good art is, what use art has: its goodness consists in its not being good for anything, and its use consists in having none, so the question is misapplied. So that poetry makes nothing happen flows from the philosophical status assigned by philosophy to art: and this is a matter of such overwhelming philosophical consensus that it ought to give us pause.”

“Art schools can oppose the current educational system with its focus on competitiveness by meticulously cultivating uselessness.”

As someone who earned an MFA in 1997 I am very familiar with the art world mandate that art be useless. Pottery was, for most of the snobbish persuasion, a ‘craft’ not art, and it has been rare that museums and high end galleries countenance pots in their displays. I heard one gallerist even describe putting boxes of Picasso’s pots in the closet during the 70’s or 80’s because the audience refused to assign their value as actual ‘art’. The absurdity and presumption of the necessary uselessness of art has dogged the field in uncountable ways.
But that isn’t my complaint today. I’m asking whether the case has ever been made in the name of advocacy that the value of art is that it doesn’t do anything. It seems like a naive approach that would get laughed out the building, and I suspect it is more an invention of Danto’s than an historical example of selling the arts. But however the arts used to promote themselves, with the turn toward MBAs in arts leadership positions I can see the instrumental attitude riding to the rescue of not only how arts organizations get run but how the arts are advocated for in general. There is an urgent need to prove the value of the arts, and instrumental reasoning is exactly how the search for evidence will seemingly best be conducted. It is a simple step from asserting the arts’ value in non-utility (if that was ever the case) and rejecting that to finding the value of the arts specifically IN utility.
Danto also says,
“Perhaps what it is unexciting to observe is all there is to observe, though the example just canvassed has the danger of suggesting that art makes something happen only adventitiously, when it is put to an extra-artistic use: and that leaves the familiar thought that intrinsically it makes nothing happen as art.”
“Adventitious” is the perfect word for how we officially recognize the value of art these days. If the MBAs thought they were rescuing the arts from themselves and the art world’s blind faith in the uselessness of art by showing us all that, “Hey you dummies! The arts really DO have uses!”, then both sides have been guilty of a misperception of what art is and what it does. We have fallen for a simplification that only underestimates what art is and what it does.
There is a value besides extrinsic utility that still does something. The alternative to extrinsic utility is not simply useless things. There is a category distinction we have evaded by framing the question solely in terms of ‘usefulness’ and suggesting that ‘doing something’ was its synonym. This presents us with a false dichotomy.
Leaving aside the idea of things that are purely useless, what I’m suggesting is that things have extrinsic utility as the means for ends. Every means is defined by the extrinsic utility it has. Things are extrinsically useful as means. The ends are not similarly useful, at least not in that sense. Not extrinsically. Not AS ends. The ends don’t (necessarily) have extrinsic utility themselves. Not as ends. They may be co-opted as means, but that excludes their function as an end. They are treated as ends because their value is not for some other purpose. They are ends only when they are not taken as means.
Some further explanation may be required. Ends are not what we are attempting to find out. We are not ‘discovering’ the ends but placing means in terms of them. They are not something in question or under investigation but that which the testing is measured by. What other things are good for. Those other things bear the weight of our empiricism. The ends are the things we take for granted to solve our questions.
A means is measured by its end, what the means is good for. The thing it is good for is not subject to the same scrutiny. The means get measured, the ends do the measuring. The measure is used for measuring. Not something extrinsic. This is what it means to be a measure. Its value is intrinsic. It is defined by itself, its role in our lives as an end. It does not depend on something else for explanation. It does the explaining.
So if the question is, according to Danto, whether the arts DO anything, then we don’t have to look merely at the extrinsic utility they have. We need to look at the sense in which the arts are treated as ends, the sense they are treated as the measures we use. And this we have yet to do.
If means are only as ‘good’ as the ends allow, then we cannot afford to dismiss the role of the arts as an end. And all the research devoted to treating the arts as a means, as tools to solve our problems, tools to promote health and wellbeing, must be seen for its categorical commitment. We need to at least acknowledge that this instrumentality is not an exhaustive or final determination, if it is even ultimately the right frame in which to understand art. We need to take seriously the idea that art can do things that are not extrinsic, that are not instrumental, that are not in service to some other cause, and that these roles and functions are in fact the proper value of art and that that place in our lives is enormously important.
End of sermon 😊 I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I am curious whether the arts have ever actually been advocated for on the grounds of their “uselessness”. That seems so objectionable that if it ever had been the case I can see every reason the MBAs were called in to right the ship. If the arts ever did engage in Danto’s version of fantastical pandering I can see precisely why it seemed necessary to restore a bit of instrumental sanity. This might explain the urgency of the instrumental demand on our psyches and its solidity in our convictions.
Its just that both positions miss something extremely important. The divide between ‘useless’ and ‘extrinsically useful’ has an unacknowledged and significantly unexplored middle road. The ‘dichotomy’ is not exhaustive, which is why it isn’t a dichotomy. Our mistake is that we pretend it does all the explaining required….
Postscript: I just saw a reference to the 1960s debate on “The two cultures” and read this article. Leavis’ response to Snow is generally accepted as devastating, it seems, but does little to forestall the shortcomings of a Dantoesque ‘useless’ advocacy for culture. As long as we feel the need for reassurance that things are ‘good for‘ something we will be seduced by the dreams of benefits and impacts and all the reductive siren songs that get woven about us. What I am proposing seems the exception to this recurring drama that accepts ‘useless’ or ‘ineffable’ value as the only opposition to straightforward and hard nosed extrinsic utility.
Running out of steam! Any of that make sense? Any idea on what basis the arts were advocated for prior to its outright instrumentalization?
Hope all is well 😊


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What I believed I was doing in my life before cancer:

I had been thinking of the difference between a person with no imagination (surely a figment?) and people who read for fun, who make and look/listen at/to art, who are in general capable of being transported by something creative, of seeing and inventing based on mere potential.

Art teaches us to SEE, because it helps us look in unfamiliar places. Or familiar places with new eyes. Art shows us that meaning is often constructed from gossamer wings and ephemeral bones. We don’t just find meaning in the world as something excavated or discovered preexisting, but sometimes we invent it out of shameless and unexcused possibility. There is much more to the world than the ‘given’, and it is art’s duty to not only explore this but show the magnificent expanse beyond the merely existing and leaden ‘facts’. We don’t just receive the world, we bring it into existence.

Art springs into the world a vengeful Angel, destroying our preconceptions, removing old shadows and dismantling obstructions. Art kindles fires from which to see the world anew and light the way forward. An unexplored territory.

We are not victims of poetry, as if we were strapped into place and have to endure it. We bring poetry TO the world from our own capacity to see and to love. We don’t just have the world because we have undergone an experience of it. We have the world because we are responsible for creating it.

EVERYONE is an artist.

After my diagnosis I had to be reminded of this. As Camus said, “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination | 1 Comment

Responding to Clay Lord

Clay, you state “Knowing people prioritize core issue areas like education, job security, housing, public safety, and health and wellness, how do we show the important ways the arts intersect with their day-to-day lives?” and I wonder whether you feel that the arts are a “core issue”. It seems every effort you describe is an attempt to hitch the value of the arts to some other motivating force. Are you reluctant to credit the arts with value in themselves? As if the only reason people should care about the arts is that they serve some other need? Is that what you think about the arts?

My question is, if our “core values” don’t need to be bolstered by additional support but apparently can stand on their own, that they themselves don’t need to be justified, why is it we have ceded this ground for the arts themselves? Why are we concentrating on the merely subsidiary values the arts have? Value only in relation to other things in our lives for which we do NOT need similar justification? Because, while every data point you are articulating is true in some sense, these are never the reasons for art itself to exist.

No child ever picked up a paintbrush in the name of cognitive development. No patron of theater ever attended a show merely because the economy would benefit. The things you are describing are not specifically REASONS for art to even exist. The fact that art already has a place in people’s lives allows it to function in these various instrumental ways. We did not invent the arts to solve these other issues. Why, I wonder, do you think the arts are a part of human lives in the first place? Why does the world contain art rather than no art at all? As a means of benefiting the economy? What came first, the unquestioned value of art in human lives, or the value of the arts for some other purpose? When did we start needing to justify the arts? When did we begin questioning their value? In what sense are we right in doing so? In what sense does doing so miss the point?

Do you actually seek to justify the art in your own daily life? No one else I know does. I am a Beatles fan, a lover of Impressionist painting, a working ceramics artist, etc., etc., and it is never a question of being justified or not. In other words, why do you think the arts need to be justified, but benefiting the economy does not? Don’t you believe in the arts as a core value? Because others clearly do.

If there is art in your life, ask yourself why it is there. Is it only serving an outside purpose? Is that why you have art in your life? Or do we orient our lives in a way that positions art as something core to our sense of self, to who we think we are? Is our view on art any less inextricable from who we are than whether we are religious or not, politically conservative or liberal? Do we seek to prove the value of those things? The fact that there are opposing points of view does not seem to require that we ourselves need to hold such positions only because we are in some sense justified. The position itself justifies how we look out at the world. There are things we measure, and there are the measures themselves.

The gap seems to be between the people who think of the arts as a core value and those who do not, between something that measures the world and something that needs to be measured. Why do I get the sense that most of the arts field ‘leadership’ want to stand on the other side? Isn’t there something horrific in that? ‘Americans for the Arts‘ is an inspiring title for an organization. It gives me hope. Shouldn’t we be FULLY behind the arts rather than staking even some (much less all) of our chips on an anemic substitute that fits peoples lives merely in consequence of fulfilling other ends?

If we think that the arts only “intersect” with people’s day to day lives we have missed the point that the arts ARE how many people navigate the world. The arts guide us because they reflect who we are. Some of us, at least….. The arts don’t simply “intersect” with our lives because we would not be who we are without them. The arts are a form of bedrock that other things in our lives take their meaning from. The arts give our lives meaning and value. Where the arts are concerned meaning and value do not need to be imported from elsewhere….

It seems that most people for whom the arts matter prioritize the arts in roughly the same way that education, job security, public housing, etc., are prioritized. When we give examples only for why the arts matter some other way, for some extraneous benefit or impact they have, we are merely hitching our wagon to someone else’s. We hide the core value the arts have in a confusion of incidental relationships. The people who doubt the arts’ value will never be shown why the arts matter as they do to us. They will never learn to value the arts as a core value because we have already sold the arts as merely contingent on their own values. At most we may win isolated funding and policy battles but end up losing the real war to change the public’s hearts and minds.

When we give all our efforts into proving why the arts matter as something dependent on other priorities we undermine the idea that the arts themselves are a source of value, a measure for meaning in the world. Isn’t that a dangerous thing to do? Even suggesting it undercuts why art matters for some of us. How can we be Americans for the Arts and be for that?

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This is my comment to extend the conversation on that article I wrote for the Arts Professional blog.


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 with the reality of art. Do we need a Theseus to sort this out?

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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.)


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.

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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.)


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.


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The difficult news……

Okay, I don’t know how to say this the right way. There probably is no right way, and saying it is never going to be easy. Some of you may have heard, through us being friends on facebook or through the grapevine, but about two months ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Stage four cancer. Not good news……

It has been just over a year since I last posted on this blog, and I now understand the reason my voice has been absent so long: I have been dealing with an illness that stopped me from doing much of what I took for granted, much of what I enjoy doing. For some time I have been thrashed by this thing growing in me, years apparently, and it is only recently that I’ve begun fighting back. The previous 6-7 months have been the worst health in my life. And now we know why.

One sad thing is that I may not get to do pottery anymore. Possibly. We’ll see. I will need chemo for the rest of my days and my immune system may not be so happy subjected to a clay environment. I am hopeful that won’t be the case, that eventually I will regain some vigor and take up my sponge and metal rib, plunge my hands back into a bucket of liquid clay. I have so many things left I want to do! I have so many things left I still need to make!

Since I started treatments I have also been a bit fuzzier than I like, but hopefully that too will improve along with my general health. I enjoy thinking things through, and it hurts to have those skills impaired. I have things I want to talk about. Really! 🙂 I’ve been so grateful that some of what I share here on this blog finds an appreciative audience. I must have written close to a million words! That takes commitment! There are 410 published posts (@ 2,200 words avg) and an amazing 409 that are stuck as drafts. I hope these essays will continue to make a difference long after I’m gone……

So this is my new reality. I don’t really know what the post-diagnosis me is going to face. Too much is unknown. Will I respond to treatments? Will I be able to some day resume making a living as even a part time potter? What I do know is that the steps moving forward are going to be different.

Thankfully I have been surrounded by some really great people, and many of my needs are being taken care of. Folks are bringing me meals or having them delivered. Groceries are getting dropped off at my doorstep. People have organized the clutter in my house, gotten rid of so much unhealthy excess, and even taken control of my languishing garden! I am truly humbled by the caring and generosity that has been shown to me…. I’m amazed and humbled that my friends have all come together and made this transition less filled with dread. It’s just a shame it often takes a tragedy for the wonderful people in our lives to shine their brightest….. I imagine my health will get worse in time, but right now I feel so blessed with the community supporting me ❤

Thus far this blog is a sort of hidden community. I know so many of you reading this will be potters like me, and I will be very glad if you (if everyone) have me in your thoughts. If we have met or communicated here I’d love to hear from you again! If you have not yet introduced yourself I would be interested to meet you! If there are essays that made you think differently or that you find some value in I’d be glad to hear about it. 🙂 It is hard knowing who’s out there. Writing a blog can be a lonely exercise. But it seems worth doing! I’m not giving up yet!

For those with the resources and interest, my friend Carrie set up a Gofundme project that is helping me change my situation into something more manageable and will contribute to paying some of my bills. It is also important that I replace the income from at least one missed pottery sale season. Feeling as sickly as I did to start the year I was never going to be ready for my June sale and the diagnosis made sure I wouldn’t even attempt it. I hope in the next few months I can resume potting to prepare for my Holiday sales, but otherwise my income will be stalled out…. You can donate here (I feel bad for even asking, but some folks will appreciate the chance to do something to help). Thanks everyone!


And a last plea….. Don’t wait too long to get yourself checked out! By the time I realized something was wrong it was already too late…. Be smarter than I was!!!!

All my best,




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The potter’s place

Something I had written a few years ago:

“Being a potter isn’t a ‘job’. It’s being the nexus of a very special community that forms to create and sustain beauty in the humble corners of daily life. Every time you add something new and beautiful to your life or share a pottery gift with someone you know the circle has a chance to get that much larger, helping make the world more a place where handcrafted beauty is welcomed and local craftsmanship is nurtured.

Thanks for all you do!”

Tony Clennell, Steve Driver, Ron Meyers and me a few years ago at Ron’s studio. So grateful I get to share community with those folks ❤ 


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Pottery sale this weekend (!)

I am almost done glazing and firing for the sale this weekend at my studio! If the rain holds off today I will get the last load in and be able to start cleaning the studio (don’t want to kick up too much dust while pots are ready for glaze!). If you folks know people in the Athens GA area, tell them to come on out and see some pots 🙂 You too if you live close enough!

The sale is this Saturday and Sunday (June 3 & 4), 10am to 4pm both days. The studio is located behind the purple house on the speed bump at 572 Nantahala Ave.

Hope to see you!

Here are some pots in the meantime:


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Pottery | 3 Comments