Theater of Cruelty

"But then there's the bottom line again when all the other, non-aesthetic considerations come together: district politics, diversity, children and youth, who got in last year, and who needs it right now."

We all have an "instinctive" taste. Quality understanding. The concept of quality in contemporary art and culture makes us reflect on this.


Knut Ove Eliassen and Øyvind Prytz (ed.):
quality understanding. The concept of quality in contemporary art and culture

The Norwegian Cultural Council is behind an anthology that discusses the concept of quality in art and culture, edited by the literary writers Knut Ove Eliassen and project manager for art, culture and Øyvind Prytz. The eleven contributors consistently maintain a high academic level, but the texts are still easily accessible to the general public. Unfortunately, there is only room to mention a few of the contributions.

Anne-DanielsenEditor Eliassen has written both the introduction and an enlightening chapter on quality concept history. Originally, "quality" was a characteristic of an object, such as its color. After Newton and the scientific revolution, the so-called "secondary sense qualities" like smell and taste became something subjective, while "primary sense qualities" were objective because they could be weighed and measured. This ambiguity in the concept of quality still characterizes the current situation, the author argues: Quality is perceived partly as an objective characteristic and partly as a result of subjective taste judgments. Eliassen rejects a substantive understanding of "quality" and argues that quality must be understood as one relationship. Library and information writer Linnéa Lindskjöld likewise describes quality as "a concept empty of meaning that is filled with content of various subject positions struggling to reach hegemony in a discourse".

Quality depends of aesthetics and scale. Tore Vagn Lid, director and theater critic, comments on the criticism of a performance by Ibsen Little Eyolf  that the same qualities (qualities) in the performance are given the opposite assessment. Rating systems can collide. For example, social anthropologist Odd Are Berkaak writes: “Quality is unpredictable, while quality evaluation is highly predictable. There are two different rationales. "Music writer Anne Danielsen talks about" the important dynamic between conceptualizing quality on the one hand and conceptual aesthetic experience on the other ". She divides the concept of quality into form and function: art understood on its own terms, and how it works in other areas.

The «ineffable» The aspect of taste and aesthetic judgment is themed by almost all the authors. Literary historian Frederik Tygstrup formulates the contradiction between conscious and unconscious taste partly as the relationship between an emotional and a reflexive reaction, but also as the relationship between a self-affirming and a "transcending" habit. We are all carriers of an "instinctive" taste conditioned by socialization. But we can also all relate more or less reflexively to our own tastes. Nevertheless, there is always something about the taste that escapes understanding and concepts. All contributors are more or less in agreement.
Nevertheless, none of the contributions really illustrates how the taste and quality judgments can be described in more detail. Everyone relies on conceptual divisions. But if the taste depends on many factors, this dualism becomes too simple. The quality aesthetic thus reproduces the old distinction between reflection and immediacy. The intense political struggle for education and pedagogy is ultimately motivated by the desire for defining power when it comes to creating habits in children and adolescents. After socialization, these are more or less unchanging as a basis for later taste judgments. These "reproductive" habits are also the condition of those habits that can change and which we are not mechanically subject to. Tygstrup asks: «What constitutes sustainable environments for the consolidation of intelligent cultural habits? How do we promote the production, circulation and reception of practices that create transformative habits in the cultural landscape today? ” None of the contributions answers this question.

In the introduction the aim of the book is stated: “The aim is not to give a definitive answer to the question of the essence of aesthetic quality or to determine its particular characteristics, but to show how 'quality' works in specific contexts. As contexts change, it necessarily follows that there are several different quality concepts in circulation at all times, all of which are activated in different assessment situations. That's what this book is about. ” The book is thus not normative, but should document how quality is actually used. This does not prevent several of the contributions from being critical.
Art theorist Stian Grøgaard's contribution is the book's most provocative: «Today's Norwegian political administration treats all work as unskilled work. The only exception is the administration of other people's work, because it has now become a separate subject called 'management'. All educational reforms and reorganisations of cultural institutions over the past 20 years have failed to address basic features of skilled work: self-motivation, an inner dynamic driven by professionalism itself, and self-correction. " This is how Grøgaard's striking critique of the redefinition of "quality" in academia begins to "relevance".
“Relevance is something that an administration can consider on behalf of everyone. Quality itself has become a special skill that not everyone can share. ” Grøgaard sees a similarity between the object's irrelevance in art and the utopia of the unskilled in academia: the concept is everything, the execution is nothing. "Conceptual art expresses a new aesthetic, which emphasizes managing one's own artistic intention."
The parallel between garbage exhibited as art and administrative change at universities that are not academically justified is apt to create an indignation that can mobilize for change.
Some authors are brilliant with thirteenth academic exercises in conceptual acrobatics, where Hume, Kant, Bourdieu and other prestigious theorists are named. But when the analysis points out clear discrepancies between the content concept and the function of the quality concept, several authors approach a committed ideology critique of the quality concept as a management tool inspired by New Public Management.

The leap between the aesthetic understanding of quality and its fluid importance in different fields creates a leap between theory and practice, between aesthetics and politics. The conclusion of Anne Danielsen's article may therefore be a summary of the whole discussion of the concept of quality: "But then it is in the background again when all the other, non-aesthetic considerations come together: district politics, diversity, children and young people, who got last year, and who needs it right now. ”
But the practical implications of this anthology can be extended further. The impact of New Public Management on the understanding of quality and political priorities must be reversed. The left side in Norway has made a fundamental mistake in leaving large parts of the bureaucracy criticism to the Right and Frp. Professional skills have been a key value in the labor movement. This also applies to the art sectors and universities and colleges.
This professionalism must be regained and the bureaucracy fought. The Norwegian Research Council largely uses external committees recruited from the university and college sectors to assess quality and distribute money. Why not give the money directly to those with the skills?
This publication is initiated by the Cultural Council, but largely written by people from the universities. Why then the Culture Council as an unnecessary intermediary? Shrink the soup tips and give the money directly to those who do the work! – in this case Professor Knut Ove Eliassen.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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