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 Or are we now merely secure in knowing that the alternative that instrumentalism overcame, supplanted, or simply superseded is easily dismissed?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 😊


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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