Theseus

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

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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?

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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3 Responses to Theseus

  1. RachelleChinnery says:

    Hi Carter, I read your piece in the Guardian and am happy to see part two here today. My first question is what does the ACE mean by “quality” exactly, and secondly, can I read their proposal for these parameters anywhere? At first glance, my thoughts went to ‘skills’ and the re-introduction of skills (read: craft) into arts education. I agree with your sentiments on this issue, but I don’t know what the ACE actually proposes to do. Thank you for the illumination. Rachelle

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