Why we must embrace the unquantifiability of the arts

Paul Kilbey

Untitled 19 300x272 Why we must embrace the unquantifiability of the artsThe National Gallery has recently reacquired Titian’s masterpiece Diana and Actaeon as part of a deal by which the work moves periodically between London and the National Galleries of Scotland. It was bought by the two institutions from the Duke of Sutherland for £50 million in 2009, after a mammoth public fundraising spree. But what exactly makes this painting worth that much?

Back in December 2008 – just as the fundraising campaign was nearing its final push – the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones wrote this article attempting to explain. The thrust of the argument is apparently because of the attention Titian paid to ‘Suggestive pink velvet’ (detail number 3), ‘Mystery of the hidden nymph’ (detail number 6), and so on, the work is (a) revolutionary; and (b) too precious to be allowed to leave the UK. The weirdest thing about this is the idea that genius, on the sort of scale Jones is talking about, can be accounted for so precisely that one can list its features. Surely, Jones’s seven reasons aren’t why the painting is great? Is each of the features meant to be worth £7.14 million? What would that even mean?

There is, inevitably, something completely intangible about any canonised work of art, be it a painting, a work of literature, a piece of music, or whatever else. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is as highly valued as it is because of its legendary status as much as for any particular musical reasons. Musicologists, in fact, have long been bickering about the aesthetics of the work: the huge choral finale is impressive, yes, but does it fit with the rest of the piece? Isn’t the work overall a little end-heavy? And in recent years, musicological debate has even started up about different editions of it: a controversial new edition published in 1996, edited by Jonathan Del Mar and published by Bärenreiter, controversially claimed to correct a large number of ‘mistakes’ in the standard performing edition. But the point is that however intriguing both of these issues are, neither of them could possibly ever affect this symphony’s status, its popular significance, its cultural importance. The work’s value, in whatever sense you take that phrase, is something that has accrued culturally, and not something intrinsic to the piece itself.

The question of how to evaluate art is one with a particular relevance today in government funding policy. There have recently been several government reports (from the Department for Culture, Media and Sports and from the RSA) investigating this question, pressed into it in particular by the state of the economy. Perhaps, given the argument above, these reports’ emphasis on consumer experience isn’t completely wrong-headed. The DCMS’s proposed use of such methods as ‘stated preference technique’, where members of the public are asked to evaluate cultural experiences (in monetary terms) for themselves, is logical in as much as it sidesteps the assumption that art has a specific and universal value.

There are, however, various substantial problems with the evaluative methods suggested. Firstly, the task which it asks people to do is irredeemably hypothetical and actually pretty difficult. (‘Hmm, I would have paid £5.45 for that symphony’.) And secondly, it reveals a weirdly reactionary approach towards cultural programming: surely, the public are meant to be the consumers of art and music and so forth, and not back-seat curators. While art is a socially dependent entity, rather than an aesthetic absolute, this doesn’t mean that the nation’s cultural programme should be determined by sociological research. This is why we need a healthy range of independent arts organisations in the first place, so that people can be challenged by original curatorial and artistic ideas, rather than spoon-fed exhibitions of things they already have postcards of.

Ultimately what art needs is the space in which to throw out as many unanswerable questions as possible, and make us think. Art is not a place for answers. The particularly knotty philosophical question of how to evaluate art is one that can easily be traced back to the ancient Greeks. The fact that it has recently moled its way into governmental reports is, in a way, quite funny. Perhaps all the policy debate about what art is worth should be understood as one giant, hilarious work of meta-art, a celebration of the continuing power of art to provoke thought and debate.

The arts need funding precisely because we can’t ever articulate why. Their value is beyond words, let alone numbers. It may be inevitable that governmental reports into arts funding overlook this point to some degree, as these reports must ultimately output figures. But if they don’t acknowledge the basic impossibility of their task, then they’ve completely missed the point. The vagueness, the unquantifiability of the arts must be embraced, and not denied.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Paul Kilbey writes on music and culture for Culture Wars and Huffington Post UK. He is working for the Institute of Ideas in preparation for the Battle of Ideas session From the sublime to the ridiculous: can we measure the value of the arts?, which took place on Saturday 29 October.

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  • Paul Kilbey

    ‘Unquantifiability’ is a perfectly cromulent word! Thanks icarus

  • senexlondon

     i don’t suffer from allodoxophobia. quite the reverse because my actual academic  learning was a bit light on thanks to the usual suspects of poverty and er, poverty. so reading has been a lifelong pursuit, and harder than you think in a building shed and the armed forces.  again, I’d sooner see way more spent on art than all the waste our governments spend on arms and wars. I’ve seen  places I never want to see again but  i never tire of books or beautiful music.good luck with your art.

  • icarus_69

    Thanks. It’s good when people on this board can agree 100%!

  • Firozali A.Mulla

    Paul, ·         I studied economics in college and most economics courses are horribly biased in favor of Keynesian economics. I’ll give you some examples. Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner in economics (which is issued by the bank of Sweden in case you didn’t know and has nothing to do with the Nobel Peace Prize), for instance, is academically brilliant, and I love listening to his lectures and reading his columns, even if I don’t agree with everything he says or writes. However, when I decided to challenge what I was taught in college and consider looking at Classical Economics, none of my professors could give me unbiased reasoning to support their arguments against classical economics. It was almost as if Keynesian economics has some type of uniformity in what is taught. For example, many economist on the Keynesian side are suggesting we expand our money supply more to fuel credit (the theoretical bloodstream of the economy in Keynesian economics) which will supposedly get businesses spending and hiring. The problem is that our monetary system is based on debt. Regardless of the arguments of how our monetary system has supposedly “evolved”, the fact that for every one dollar created, one dollar of debt is created is absurd. Why not nationalize the Federal Reserve; thereby, eliminating most of our deficit right there? The Fed supposedly “protects us from depressions”, yet we had the Great Depression in 1929 under the Fed’s watch, and the current defacto Depression. Most of our $15 trillion debt is in the form of internal bonds. For instance, when the Treasury needs more money, it goes to the Fed and gets a loan, the Fed loans the money back to the Treasury and charges interest; whereas, the Treasury would physically print M1 money, but leave M2 in virtual form. This money being spent on interest is our tax money, and this interest is an expense on the balance sheet (key word: Expense). If we nationalized the Fed, imagine all the wasted tax money on interest payments that could be saved. Debt free money would be far superior. Aside from bankers who earn money for nothing from this system (for example, Fed internal shareholders, including large banks), this debt based monetary system is terrible for common people. In the years I spent in college, I am shocked that I have never seen any professor even bothers challenging or questioning this system, yet if you argue against it in a thesis, you’ll get a bad grade. Besides name calling and criticism, I want to read or hear an intelligent argument for or against our current system. Frankly, I have a hard time believing our current monetary system is truly effective.
     I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

  • crookwatcher

    You are a truly decent, bright and honest guy – hope you comment more often for it is good to read your words.

  • senexlondon

    Ok i’ll blame my bias rather than the author.  i’ll concede your article embiggened the debate on arts funding and I can appreciate  it. 

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