Does Quality Matter?


It fell to me this week to present to our PhD Art and Design seminar group – the topic was to examine notions of quality and ‘yardsticks’ in evaluating exhibited work (or, as I was rather more interested, whether work needs to be exhibited?)

I am, in my lefty, arty way, uncomfortable with the language of ‘quality’ – is that with a capital Q, and therefore bringing in ideas about quality assurance and an established view of what must be best? Am I nevertheless reliant on seeking out signals of ‘quality’ and authenticity, as in marks like this on a Moorcroft vase in my dining room?
John Carey, in ‘What Good Are the Arts’ (2005) articulates my concerns in presenting the problem that “Value […] is not intrinsic in objects, but attributed to them by whoever is doing the valuing” and so we use the same semantic field for the striking sculpture of Barbara Hepworth as for bargain cheese in a supermarket.

We are operating in a complex world of definitions: The root of the word comes from the Latin ‘Qua’ (who?) and from this we have ‘qualis’ or qualitas’ – roughly translating as ‘of what sort’. The Latinate base is still seen in 13th century French, where ‘quality’ indicates a person’s character, disposition or temperament. A century later, it is used for the first time in Old French to indicate social ranking. Varied dictionary definitions now furnish us with ideas about inherent traits or characteristics, special or distinguishing properties – along with a standard, as measured against others, or as a measure of excellence – free of defects.

But we still have to deal with Carey’s challenge of who is doing the measuring – and what influences us in this. For example, here is an exhibited work of art – what do you think?
Do you feel differently about its quality if you know this is a work by Charles Bronson? To what extent does our cultural and social framework affect our views?

Bronson can be considered as an example of ‘outsider art’ – where makers are self-taught amateurs who refuse to fit with conventions of approach or ‘quality’. However, we have also now codified this concept, so there are notions of excellence and meeting a standard… Pearl Alcock is just one ‘outsider’ artist now widely exhibited and positively critiqued.
And don’t get me started on that art / craft binary debate we somehow still keep having. If you look at the work of Jenni Dutton, recently exhibiting at City Hall in London, there can be no question about the quality of the emotive, skilful ‘Dementia Darnings’

and yet textiles is often still viewed as marginal.

I am particularly interested in participatory art – the emphasis being on the creativity of the amateur participant. For me, it is the ‘quality’ of the experience which holds more significance, as people have an opportunity to make something mindfully…
Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema (2009) write on the need to reframe our view of the ‘qualities’ offered through shared critical making and engaging in practice together. Participatory arts, according to Toby Lowe (2015) are perhaps more about ‘equality’ and authenticity, but still grapples with our question:

“However, what is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?”

Stephen Pritchard has also blogged about this dilemma – In a fierce response to Lowe’s work, he examines the dialectic where the ‘quality’ of participatory art is judged – and therefore that there must also be poor or unacceptable outcomes. What impact does facing this have on the fact that participatory art is the new hot potato for economic and cultural policy makers?

The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic. That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment.

Eleonora Belfiore, in her independent work (2015) and that with the Warwick Commission (Neelands et al, 2015) is grappling with the problems created by placing an economic value on art – for the purposes of funding and policy making – when cultural aspects of art have the capacity to improve wellbeing and the ‘quality’ of our social lives. However, as these things tend to go, there has also been criticism – for example from Voluntary Arts (2015) – of a focus on established notions of art and ‘quality’ which has left the importance of grassroots, community creativity out in the cold.

It is a Gordian knot, but I think it is important to keep evaluating what we mean by these terms and the impact it can then have on the way we view ‘quality’ in the arts. In my frustrated reading on the subject, I enjoyed this, and so I will leave you with it:

‘Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the “betterness”? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?’ (Pirsig, 1974. p.184)

Belfiore, E. (2015) ‘Impact’, ‘value’ and ‘bad economics’: Making sense of the problem of value in the arts and humanities.Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2015, Vol. 14(1) 95–110
Carey, J. (2005) What Good Are the Arts . Faber, London
Lowe, Toby (2015) Quality in Participatory Art (online)
Neelands, J.; Belfiore, E.; Firth, C.; Hart, N.; Perrin, L.; Brock, S.; Holdaway, D.; Woddis, J.(2015) Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. The Warwick Commission, Warwick.
Pirsig, R. M. (1974)Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Bodely Head. Oxford.
Pritchard, S. (2015) Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification? (online)
Ratto, M. and Hockema, S. (2009) “Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden”, in Dekker, A & Wolfsberger A (eds.) Walled Garden, Virtueel Platform, The Netherlands
Voluntary Arts (2015) Response to the Warwick Commission Report #EveryoneCreative (online)