Why we must embrace the unquantifiability of the arts
The 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.Tagged in: Diana and Actaeon, opinion
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