Ian Gilhespy
The College of St Mark and St John
Derriford Road

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The following should be read as work in progress. The starting point for this piece is an interest in the development of methods with which to understand how artistic and cultural works are appreciated and judged. I should welcome any commentary on this piece. I am contactable at the above terrestrial and electronic address. 

The recognition was also of the profound changes that had taken place throughout Britain in terms of new arts organisations and activities. The characteristics of this arts activity were that they were  accessible, community-based and often involved a breakdown of the division between performer/artist and consumer/public. This has been described by Hutchinson and Forrester(1987):

...a new generation's determination to make creative activity as well as the art object available and accessible to the vast majority of the population who are currently untouched by the 'art' which is made available for their consumption.
There are two key features to  this determination. The first is the emphasis on 'creative activity' with the assertion that artistic production can be undertaken by everyone, rather than an exclusive coterie of artists.  The second feature of this determination is the emphasis on  social groups 'currently untouched.' This is another implicit challenge to the Leavisite hegemony on cultural value and is summarised in the Scottish Charter for the Arts(1993: p, 41):

The widespread questioning of traditional agendas, hierarchies and value judgements which has taken place since the 1960s  - on behalf of black people, of women, and of other traditionally oppressed groups - has led many who grew up in that decade, and later, to reject the whole business of value-judgement as essentially fraudulent, biased and oppressive; and many of those working in the arts have shared this view.

This quotation highlights one element of a crisis in confidence in the  evaluation of cultural quality.  This crisis has clear consequences for the educational variant of the merit good status of the arts.  Education in, and exposure to, the arts does not produce more rounded individuals but only access to  middle-class values and taste preferences.  The criticism is that the educational rationale is  value-laden and judgemental, that it is  an argument made by an educated elite approving of the leisure options they choose for themselves and that which their education has furnished for them.  

Austen-Smith's argument that the transfer of public resources on the basis of taste is illegitimate has already been noted. The question arises of whether the broadening of the definition of the arts means that this problem is avoided.    

The concept of cultural value is explored  by Pierre Bourdieu (1984)using a sociological approach to analyse cultural tastes and behaviour according to class membership. He writes of the arts as being a treasure chest of 'cultural and symbolic capital', the wealth of which can only be acquired by a middle-class education. Good and bad taste is not pure but is socially determined. This is a crucial point in respect of the merit good status of the arts.  The criticism is that exposure to the arts may not be appropriate to everyone and the educative quality of the arts is not a universal one. 

The work of Bourdieu led Lewis (1990;) to assert that 'artistic value is an arbitrary aesthetic system....based upon and inscribed within social positions'  rather than anything 'essential' within the arts then a question arises over whether the arts  should be made available to all citizens. When trying to pluck the rose of  aesthetic value it remains difficult to avoid the thorn of  relativism. 

Lewis's line of argument  opposes the merit good status of the arts or, at least, of the 'high' arts so cherished by the Leavisites.   He goes on to develop the argument that the state should be supporting popular arts and culture and the cultural industries on the basis that it is socially divisive to argue that artistic quality  only exists in certain art forms. The rationality of his argument may be questioned.  

The first reason to question Lewis's argument is that there is an assumption that public funding acts as an incentive to the pursuit of quality.  Towse (1993,p3) observes  that, from an economists point of view, it is not logical to expect that funding should act as an incentive to artistic quality. This incentive exists regardless of the existence of public funding for reasons of professional satisfaction (Towse:1993,p3).

The second reason to question the position of Lewis  is his own insistence on the relativism of aesthetic value.  If aesthetic value is entirely a relative phenomenon then it is infeasible that there can be a programme of education into the appreciation of aesthetic value, whatever the artistic form may be.  

This point highlights the tension between absolutism and relativism and what Connor(1992) calls the 'oscillation' between the two extremes.  Bourdieu's work presents a sociological treatise on taste and is driven by the argument that taste is socially reproduced through social institutions, in particular, that of education. As a consequence cultural capital is unevenly distrubuted throughout society. McGuigan(1996:p,42) writes that this led Bourdieu to become the 'champion of the culturally disadvantaged'.  The apparent inference to be drawn from Bourdieu's work is that cultural capital should be redistributed on a more equitable basis. The educational variant of the merit good argument seems to have purchase.  

However,  the eventual consequence of the demystification of artistic taste is to reduce notions of cultural value into historical and relativised phenomena.  The argument that there can be no certainty on matters of cultural value is a postmodernist position (Strinati:1995) and a populist position (McGuigan:1992). This argument has consequences both for the academic treatment of cultural products and for cultural policy.  One of the key features of postmodern culture is the blurring of boundaries amongst cultural practices and the dissolution of the division between 'high' culture and popular culture.  Uncritical populism  is the consequence where all cultural practices - from grand opera to soap opera - become of equal merit (McGuigan:1992):

A real danger, certainly, from a critical perspective, is to fall silent about questions of value as a result of extreme relativism, typically in negation of conservative and absolutist positions, because such questions are thought to be somehow tainted.
(McGuigan:1996 p,45)

McGuigan(1992) and Tester (1995) are highly critical of cultural and media studies in higher education in neglecting matters of value. According to Brunsdon(1997) quality is 'a dirty word' in cultural studies. Frith(1997) notes the same problem in the teaching of English:

Contemporary popular culture may now be a familiar topic on the curriculum, but in being constituted as a fit object for study it has become an oddly bloodless affair-the aesthetics of the popular continues to be at best neglected and at worst dismissed. ...Sociologists, anthropologists, and social and cultural historians have ...been wary of proclaiming the activities they study as good or bad..perhaps, more surprisingly, evaluation was long ago apparently 'exiled' from literary criticism.

The 'quality' problem in cultural, media and english studies is solved by either ignoring it or adopting the position of 'uncritical populism' where all texts may be regarded as valuable and equally valid for study. 

Are the same options available  for cultural policy when matters of value are  problematical?  Public investment into education for appreciating quality in  the arts becomes impossible if the position of extreme relativism is adopted.   The eventual inference to be drawn would appear to be that intervention is inappropriate if the aim of intervention is education.  One solution is to ignore matters of cultural value.  This was the effective outcome of the National Arts and Media Strategy in its final publication 'A Creative Future'(H.M.S.O. 1992) in which a call is made for greater debate on matters of quality. In The Charter for the Arts in Scotland (1993)  the prospect of ignoring the 'value' problem is untenable:

It is ...possible to detect a growing recognition in the artistic community that if funding bodies and other arts organisations cannot confidently use a shared language of artistic evaluation in making their decisions, then they are inevitably forced back on mechanistic and financial criteria which artists find oppressive and demoralising...
The second solution to the 'value' problem is to move away from an extreme relativist position.  Connor uses the word 'oscilliation' (1992) to describe the movement between absolutist and relativist positions on cultural value.   The problem that arises is one of achieving this movement whilst avoiding the accusation that the assertion of value is socially divisive.

The first step  is to stop treating all cultural texts as if the same criteria of cultural value will apply. This step: really rather common-sensical and none the worse for it. This is that a cultural performance may be deemed 'good' or 'bad' of its kind, that is, within its own discursive field.
(McGuigan:1996 p,45)

In his discussion of quality television Mulgan (1990:p,15) asserts the need to recognise the quality of the medium, what he refers to as television's aesthetic. His call is to treat the judgement of television as television  rather than the extent to which it replicates or echoes the qualities of other artistic or cultural forms.  This argument applied more broadly has a number of benefits.  The first is that the dry debate on the merits of 'elite' or 'high' cultural forms  relative to popular forms is avoided.  There is no need to assert that opera is a greater  form of cultural practice than graffiti.  The second benefit is the recognition that there are characteristics of cultural forms  that are specific to that form rather than there being a gold standard of cultural value which is generalisable for all cultural forms.   

A second significant step away from extreme relativism is to recognise that there are a number of characteristics to cultural value and that the judgement  of those characteristics may legitimately be made by different groups. The  legitimacy of the judgement is not lost if they are not agreed to by everyone.  This is a significant point. It means that the 'huge and mistaken temptation'(McGuigan:1996p,48) to pursue artistic 'truth' in a Kantian sense is avoided. This is to say that aesthetic truth does not reside in the art object in an objective way. The recognition is that, although value judgements are historically and culturally specific,   cultural value may be asserted.  

The following criteria emerge from a literature review but are in part based on my interviews - question to myself - where do I put the following analysis on the criteria of cultural value?

This leads to a discussion of the criteria of cultural value. The following have been identified:

i) craft;
ii) genre;
iii) innovation;
iv) escape;
v) truthfulness;
vi) diversity;
vii) contribution to the public sphere.
The criteria are discussed in turn:

i) Craft

The criterion of craft can be approached both from the perspectives of producers and consumers of culture. 

For Mulgan (1990: p,8)  the perspectives of producers are informed by notions of professionalism. He writes about quality television and contends that the judgement of quality from the perspectives of those who produce the programmes are informed  by 'technical issues of lighting, camerawork, script and direction, the quality of acting...'.  Thus, television can be badly made according to the skills that have been deployed in its production irresespective of the type of television being made.  He refers to this process as producer quality 'because it is the producers  who guard it'(Mulgan:1990: p,9). This means a commitment to  producer autonomy and implicitly infers a degree of freedom from the pressures of the market.  In discussing notions of craft Mulgan's is an interesting starting point for two reasons. For one,  he is writing of a popular cultural form rather than one of the 'high arts'.  The second is that the function of 'guardianship' is performed by people who are working in the industry and as Mulgan himself points out this is different to the performing arts. 

Frith(1997: p,36) writes about how music is valued and argues that there are three types of discursive practice which he labels as bourgeois, folk and commercial.   The folk and commercial types will be discussed later. According to Frith the :

organising institution of bourgeois musical discourse is ...the academy by which (he means) the music departments of universities, conservatories, the whole panoply of formal arrangements and practices in which classical music in its various forms is taught and handed down to the generations.
He argues that the same is true of other forms of the fine arts. The function of 'guardianship' is performed by scholars primarily.  To become a performer  in the classical music field tends to involve some sort of scholarly socialisation the content of which is determined by professionals who have gained such expertise themselves.  The guardians have accumulated a substantial amount of 'cultural capital' to use Bourdieu's phrase. 

The perceptions of craft and the use of this criterion is not limited to those within the academy.  One of the functions of the academy is the dissemination of an understanding of the crafts that are nurtured in the academy. The problem with this process is the now familiar one of the accumulation of cultural capital and its consolidation into particular social groups. The problem is the inequity of the distribution of this capital.  Nevertheless, the simple point remains  that perceptions of craft are significant for  the consumers of  arts and culture. 

The perception of craft is significant for the consumption of cultural forms that lie outside the frame of the fine arts.  It has already been noted that the disciplines of media and cultural studies have rarely concerned the judgement of cultural value.   But as Frith(1997: p,49) notes it is possible to look to the Mass Observation surveys of the 1930s and 1940s for evidence of the use of craft as a criterion of judgement. The evidence concerns the judgement of films:

It is clear, to begin with, that films were judged in terms of technique, skill and craft. The question for the viewers was whether something was done well(acting, most obviously), and there were also recurrent references to cinematic detail, to care (with scenery), and so on.

ii) Genre

Having established that  there may be no universal set of rules  - no gold standard to use McGuigan's terminology - for the evaluation of culture the discussion can move forward with the suggestion that there may be 'something that exists within forms or genres'(Mulgan:1990 p,9) which allows for comparison within that form or genre. This is closely related to the notion  of craft  but is less of a judgement of whether something is done well than a judgement of whether something is 'good of its type'.  Mulgan(1990: p,9) asserts that this form of judgement in broadcasting is defined by the community of producers but as McGuigan argues (1996: p,45) it is variously contestable across different positions. McGuigan  is referring to  social positions, to the consumers of culture. 

This is confirmed in Frith's analysis(1997: p,50) of the Mass Observation data concerning the consumption of film.  The negative evaluation of films recorded in the Mass Observation data rests upon an 'easy familiarity with genre conventions'  and what he refers to as 'obviously a kind of popular cultural capital'.

iii) Innovation

belongs to producers and experts - Consumer quality and the market - consumer sovereignty as measured by the amount of consumption - a ready made performance indicator - (think here of awards  ceremonies) - the people's choice - go to Frith - no good according to Frith  - it tells us nothing of the reasons why they were chosen  - also nothing about time frames

iv) Escape 

The label of 'escape'  is meant to denote a criterion of cultural value which relates to such experiences as fun, pleasure  and entertainment. In the analysis of the differences of high and popular culture it is argued that the emergence of the category of 'fine arts' in the nineteenth century came about in order to differentiate certain cultural experiences from the increasingly rapid turnover of commodified culture. Rojek(1993:p,16) refers to this process as the seperation of good passions from bad passions, of real wants from false wants and was informed by a Puritan ethic. This differentiation led to the secularisation of certain forms of culture  which have since become known as high culture.   This ideology has already been described as informing the moral rationale for  public support of the arts where the fine arts are consumed in a solemn and reverential manner.  

In contrast, the value of popular culture lies in its evanescence and its disposability.  In Frith's three musical discourses this is the commercial discourse(1997:p,41).  The commercial musical world, he argues, is organised around a kind of 'routinised transcendence' or 'fun' which is 'an escape from the daily grind'. The sales chart is the symbol and measure of good 'pop' music. This criterion of cultural value is the same as that noted by Mulgan(1990: p,11) where 'the most popular programme is to all intents and purposes the best'.  Mulgan's label is consumer quality and relates to the consumer sovereignty ideal of neo-classical economics.  

Frith(1997: p,50) finds evidence for this criterion in the Mass Observation data in which it is noted that films were valued for their ability 'to take one out of oneself'.

Nevertheless, the use of sales figures or audience numbers alone does not seem adequate to the task of ascribing the perception of cultural value.   They may be an indication of consumer sovereignty but they say little of the reasons for consumption or the judgements that people make of their cultural consumption.

v) Truthfulness

The word 'truthfulness' is taken from McGuigan(1996: p,49). The meaning of the term is similar to Frith's phrase 'true-to-life'.(Frith:1997p,50). McGuigan distinguishes between truthfulness and the pursuit of aesthetic truth.  The point is not whether some sort of aesthetic truth resides in the art object but whether the cultural performance or product is true-to-life.  For McGuigan this concept operates as a professional ethic in cultural production but may also be used as a standard of criticism. Although McGuigan does not elaborate how such a standard would operate Frith illuminates its function in relation to music and in relation to film. 

In music Frith(1997: p,39) refers to folk music as the third of his musical discourses after classical and commercial.  In this discourse 'the value of music has to be understood in terms of cultural necessity - ideally there is no seperation of art and life.' The folk values are spontaneity, naturalness and  authenticity. In relation to film Frith(1997: p,50) draws on the Mass Observation data to discuss the evaluative criterion of 'truth-to-life' in the appreciation of films.  Audiences judge the content of films in terms of identification with their own lives.  

Frith points out that the perception of the seperation of art and life may be something of a 'self-deception' on the part of folk music enthusiasts. Describing the work of Mackinnon on folk music he details the elaborate social rituals involved in the construction of the absence of artifice in folk music performances. 

The same argument applies in the appreciation of films and television. The appreciation of authenticity, it can be argued,  is based on a series of learned generic conventions. The semblance of reality is an artifice. The construction of the 'realism-effect'(MacCabe refs  McArthur)  is the subject of many structuralist and post-structuralist academic analyses of film and television. Accounts of postmodernist culture(Connor:1992, Strinati:1995) report that contemporary life in Western cultures has become so saturated by media influences that authentic experience has become impossible.  All of these accounts serve to deconstruct the appearence of reality in cultural forms. Nevertheless, the criterion of truthfulness persists as an element of judgement as reported by Buckingham(1993 ref). 

The criterion of truthfulness may appear to be at odds with the criterion of escape but as Frith argues this may not be the case:

It's not that some people want to see films that are true to life and other people films that are different from the everyday...Rather, people want both sorts of qualities simultaneously...
(Frith: 1997 p, 50)

vi) Diversity 

Mulgan argues that cultural diversity is 'essential in a decentred world of multiple truths'(1990: p,27).  The multiple truths that Mulgan refers to can be related to the 'widespread questioning of traditional agendas'(Scottish Charter for the Arts:1993)  in the 1960s by and on behalf of a range of traditionally oppressed groups.  The widespread questioning  noted in the Scottish Charter has resulted in what McGuigan has referred to as a  silence(1996: p,47) on matters of cultural value and a reluctance on the part of cultural policy makers to affirm criteria of cultural value.  

The contention developed in this thesis is that criteria of cultural value are necessary but do not have to consist of a series of maxims that have to be applicable to all cultural forms and for all social groups.   McGuigan reports the writings of Habermas to argue that:

more than anything because it causes greater harm to make people all agree, for example, that  a work of art is good or bad than it does to permit differences of opinion to exist and be debated.
(Habermas:1990 quoted in McGuigan:1996 p,48)

The passage of the Local Government Act of 1948 in Britain allowed  local authorities to support a broader range of the arts although the involvement has never been made statutory.  Following the policy initiatives of the Labour government of the  1960s  a number of local authorities developed arts centres in their towns or provided funding to existing arts organisations Hutchinson and Forrester (1987).  Hutchinson and Forrester argue that arts centres began to take their lead from the perceived needs of the community, often with an emphasis on the perceived needs of certain social groups such as women, Afro-Caribbean or Asian communities, the unemployed and the disabled. The range of educational activities undertaken at arts centres broadened with the  growth of 'workshop programmes' at which performing artists would endeavour to share their skills   

vii) Contribution to public sphere.

The last of the criteria of cultural value relates to the contribution of cultural and artistic activity  to the public sphere defined by Habermas as 'a realm of social life in which something approaching public life is communicated'( quoted by Harvey:1997).  This criterion relates to both innovation and diversity but has a more specifically political inflection  involving empowerment, enablement or giving people and groups of people the confidences, the skills and the platforms to express themselves  artistically and culturally.   The criterion of cultural value, therefore, rests upon the notion of cultural democracy(ref).  It is a criterion that is missing from the formulation of Austen-Smith  who writes of the arts as merely being 'a taste formation.'

Harvey(1997) argues that the invigoration of the public sphere is necessary for a pluralist democracy.  The contention may be developed that the arts and culture may play a key role in this invigoration. This invigoration would mean the inclusion of individuals and groups who may be critical of 'prevailing ways of art and life' (McGuigan:1996 p,49). Savage (1993 p,115) uses the phrase 'the dissatisfied' as a means of encompassing the range of individuals and groups who may be critical, excluded or dissident in some way:

From the dissatisfaction position the argument always has to be that life could be different, could be better, could be changed - both art and education rest on such premises; they are meant to make us see things differently. They are designed to show us through the imagination, through reason, the limitations of our perspectives, to doubt our common sense.
(Savage:1993 p,115 quoted in McGuigan:1996 , p49)

Employing the invigoration of the public sphere as a criterion of cultural value makes a strong normative assumption about the role of the state. Lane(1993:?) argues that models of the state may be divided into two kinds, one that assumes the state functions on behalf of  a dominant social group(or groups) and the second that the state can function on behalf of everyone.  This criterion of cutural value assumes the latter.  The consequence of this is the argument that an appropriate use of public money may be to support  people who are critical of the state.

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