Quality in the Cultural Sector
16/04/2021 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
A Democratic-Political Provocation
A few days ago, the results of the Vienna Theater Jury were published. The public was astonished to learn that the panel did not even agree on a lowest common denominator, but rather tried to reinforce prestigious status with its decisions. It came to the conclusion that the Viennese dance and performance scene was much more likely to meet its quality standards than the field of musical theater, which it attested to have “low standards overall and a worrying tendency toward stagnation.” The point of the exercise: the Cultural Department of the City of Vienna should take this assessment into account when reallocating funding.
The jury consisted of seasoned professionals–all of them proven artists, managers or critics. They have known the field and its actors for many years, know about the feasibility of project descriptions and were probably also in close contact with the applicants. Systematically excluded, however, were the users and audiences, and thus all those for whom all the projects submitted were really – or only supposedly – being realized. And on their behalf (and with their taxes) the public sector is supposed to provide the necessary funds on the basis of the jury’s decisions.
The procedure that makers and professionally legitimized decision-makers use to decide what can and cannot be done in the art sector has largely prevailed, at least in the independent sector. Alternative decision-making models, such as the principle of the director (see the federal curators of the 1990s), the claim to self-administration, or – in the absence of sufficiently comprehensible quality criteria – even the demand for a drawing of lots have so far remained the exception. What all these scenarios have in common is that a group of producers and their immediate environment give a binding declaration on what meets their artistic quality standards, while the large majority of the population remains systematically excluded from this decision-making process.
The Users Have no Say
What we see here – in the best case – is the reflection of procedures of representative democracy, in which some – legitimized by elections – make decisions for others. In the cultural sphere, this is not so simple; here, the force of social position applies. In the case of jury decisions, experts are appointed for a limited period of time by elected cultural politicians in order to advise the politicians with their specific understanding of quality, influencing the grounds on which politicians make their decisions. The users do not have an active voice in the selection process; their only possibility to intervene in this game is to accept the offer (the quality of which has already been decided in advance) – or not. They are not allowed to participate in the decision as to what should be offered and in what form; with the exception of reference film funding, where good utilization figures increase the chances of funding for the next projects, audience response has no effect.
In its various evaluation projects EDUCULT has repeatedly dealt with the question of quality development in the cultural sector. On the part of the clients we were confronted again and again with the requirement to make clear statements about the quality of this or that project. The disappointment was all the greater when we refused to meet this expectation and insisted that quality per se could not be discussed. It sometimes took considerable persuasion to explain that the discussion of quality must always be preceded by the explicit or implicit definition of goals. Only if these goals are made transparent can it be meaningfully discussed and ultimately assessed whether and in what respect a project has been successful or what effects can be demonstrated directly or even indirectly. But these goals also have a history, because they are – at least in democratically constituted structures – always the subject of a discursive communication and negotiation process in which the individual groups of actors agree on a common expectation of results. If this means that the prerequisite for setting goals is an evaluation of quality, the respective circumstances, structures and framework conditions in which these goals are to be achieved are of equally great influence. The result for EDUCULT was the creation of an entire quality grid, in which the essential factors, which only determine quality in an overall view, are laid out (cf. p. 22).
The ascription of quality is the result of a permanent negotiation process
So what does the fact that our ideas of quality are the result of a permanent process of negotiation and cannot be unilaterally decreed mean? A look at the field of cultural education in particular could provide a little more clarity here. After all, the various programs are not only intended to encourage participants to sing, dance, make music, paint or write. At least as important seems to be the development of a judgment of taste related to the respective artistic activities: Can I have a say in what I think is good and what I think is not good? Or do I resign myself to the fact that others impose their ideas of quality on me? It is the willingness to learn not only to make judgments of taste but also to justify them that frees the participants in cultural education programs from their aesthetic immaturity and empowers them to have a say in which artistic goals are to be achieved by which means in which circumstances.
We are still a long way from a situation in which everyone is willing and able to participate in the discussion of quality in the arts on an equal footing. This is actually astonishing if we can assume that the phenomenon represents a community experience in which – ideally – everyone should be able to actively participate.
As a reminder: In the course of the growing social division of labor, a group of experts has also emerged in the field of the arts, who have claimed for themselves the monopoly of having the knowledge of quality at their disposal. In the course of the differentiation of the cultural sector, they have taken on a special function as gatekeepers, deciding with the help of more or less transparent criteria what constitutes artistic quality and what does not.
Largely informal and highly personalized, these criteria proved difficult to communicate to a broader public: in order to legitimize themselves sufficiently, the self-appointed elect had to resort to two deadly arguments: One borrowed from religious traditions and allowed them to slip into the secularly dressed up garb of the art priesthood. Their apologists, so the argument goes, are not at all concerned with the attainment and preservation of a prominent position in society; rather, they are in the service of a higher truth, the accessibility of which – due to vocation and specific training – is accessible only to a small group. To recognize this truth, to cultivate it and to convey it to selected publics is to be evaluated exclusively as a service to society. The fact that here an elite unilaterally claimed power by attempting to decree the quality of art by virtue of its office and thus dominates public opinion was part of the business. This self-aggrandizement necessarily led to the devaluation of all others, who had no comparable means of assessing artistic output and who could or should therefore be told what was artistic. But anyone who tried to evade such instructions in this game no longer needed to raise his or her voice: stigmatized as “uncultured,” he or she had forfeited any right to participate in cultural events that met the prescribed quality standards. Gladly stigmatized as “non-visitors,” they are still relegated to any leisure activities where, under the dictates of the market, everyone can see where he or she stays. Giving them a stronger voice, so the great fear of the art mandarins, would mean a far-reaching corruption of the culture industry, which would be measured less and less by the quality criteria it imposes on itself, but by a lowest common denominator that brings quotas.
The arrogance of the chosen – still emblazoned on the walls of the cultural establishment
I myself witnessed this unbroken tradition only a few days ago. While walking, I noticed an inscription on the Vienna Konzerthaus that reads: “Honor the German masters – then you banish the good spirits. It is a quote from Wagner’s Meistersinger, which goes on like this: “”Take heed! Evil pranks are threatening us: first the German people and empire will disintegrate, no prince will soon understand his people in false false majesty, and they will plant us in German land in a false haze with false trumpery; no one would know what is German and genuine if it did not live in the honor of the German masters.” When I posted my incredulous astonishment on Facebook for discussion, I immediately received a large number of responses, all of which said that this saying – as a historical reminiscence – should be retained as far as possible. My objection that the majority of Vienna’s diverse urban society, with all the variety of its different cultural attitudes, would not really feel invited to make the house theirs with such a display of an outdated (we now know also politically highly dangerous) elitism, met with little understanding. Apparently, even in liberal cultural milieus, there is too much concern that even a symbolic questioning of historically evolved notions of dominance (in this case imbued with old German supremacy) could – no matter how much the changed social conditions might insist on it – immediately drag the entire establishment down.
Art has long since transcended the narrow confines of existing quality expectations
This admittedly rather woodcut-like juxtaposition of those who have quality and those who are confronted with the results has recently developed a number of cracks. The deepest one comes directly from the heart of the art business, when an avant-garde movement has been trying for more than a hundred years to tear down the laboriously rebuilt demarcations between art and not-art. If art can in principle do anything, then in the long run even sophisticated conceptual corsets are of little help in applying even halfway plausible quality criteria to such permanent transgressions of a socially assigned terrain. The result is a great perplexity on the part of the audience, which does not know how to read the conceptual foundations and is unable to comprehend the categorical difference between art and non-art in the mere appearance of things. At best, what remains is the resignation expressed in words: “I can do that, too.
But even where established institutional demarcations, such as in theater, concerts, or exhibitions, still appear to be somewhat intact, there have recently been confusing frayings. Thus, in almost all genres, mediators are trying to win over people who were previously distant from the cultural sector for their offerings. They can still rely on the quality standards inherent in the institutions, which they strive to convey to newcomers in the artistic field. But all too soon, word could get around that they have their own ideas about quality and want to actively contribute them. This is all the more true because in recent years a variety of other forms of cultural expression have established themselves alongside a (usually state-subsidized) cultural enterprise.
These are oriented less and less to an institutionally prescribed understanding of quality, but allow the makers as well as the users much more sovereignty in the evaluation of their creations. Here, completely different ideas of quality based on diverse participation have spread, which assign the actors an active part in both making and evaluating. With the mass implementation of such a cultural practice based on comprehensive participation, there is little reason to assume that this can be forced into a hierarchical structure elsewhere, in which those up there know what is good and those down there accept it.
In order not to appear too naïve, it is worth pointing out the dangers of this new polyphony on the Internet, where any kind of nonsense can be disseminated alongside well-considered positions. And of course, such a media expansion of the public conversation does not mean that all desire for orientation has been lost. Right-wing populists with an authoritarian fixation know about these needs all too well and are just as capable of profiting from them as are “influencers” and the economic interests behind them. Even if we are aware of these dangers: In terms of cultural policy, we cannot avoid the fact that Pandora’s box of diverse participation has been opened: everyone can, indeed should, have a say in aesthetic issues that affect them personally, so that in a democratically constituted culture, their ideas of quality can be oriented towards the many and not the few.
Aesthetic Judgements are Always Subjective
If today social media in particular open up completely new possibilities for actively participating in cultural events and thus also asserting one’s own quality claims, it is worth recalling at this point that the question of who is able to judge artistic quality and who is not has been with us in modern societies at least since the Enlightenment. After all, Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of the Power of Judgment, already made a very groundbreaking statement about the claim to validity of aesthetic judgments. According to him, these are exclusively subjective judgments of taste, which cannot be arbitrarily transferred to others: “The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of cognition, consequently not logical, but aesthetic, by which one understands that its determining reason cannot be other than subjective.” With this, Kant also makes clear the categorical difference between science and art–where the former aims at gaining generalizable knowledge, art feeds on its subjective references (of the artists as well as of all others who are confronted with its results).
From Kant’s reflections on the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments follows – at least for me – a very radical insight: namely, that there can be no social authority that could comprehensibly decree what is of artistic quality and what is not. Instead, we cannot avoid the task of making up our own minds. To do this, of course, it is worth equipping ourselves with sufficient tools to form our own taste.
Every expression of quality refers to existing power relations
The question of who is allowed to have a say in quality and under what conditions thus points to the questioning of existing power structures – also and especially in the cultural sphere – which grants some people a prominent position in the assessment of artistic quality and denies this to others. If, however, within the framework of our democratic constitution, we grant all people their own subjectivity, then this also and especially applies with regard to their having a say in the formation of aesthetic judgments. With such a claim to emancipation, also and especially in questions of engagement with art, we must say goodbye to the expectation that the quality of artistic expressions can be generalized or even objectified. Quality claims rather arise from a many-voiced process of negotiation, which perhaps leads to temporary intersubjective decisions of all participants. But only in order to call them into question again at the latest with their completion.
Such a search for the inclusion of as many voices as possible in the assessment of quality has serious implications for the design of future settings relevant to cultural policy. New programs for “cultural participation” are setting a trend here that forgoes the enforcement of a state-imposed culture and instead focuses on letting more people take their cultural destiny into their own hands. This has implications for the aspect of mediation, which will be less and less able to limit itself to passing on institutionally prescribed quality specifications to the uninformed, but rather to empowering them to become aware of their cultural expectations and to articulate them (experiences in this regard can then also be used for the further development of the institutions in terms of content and program).
Cultural Education not just as an invitation to take part in culture, but also to take part in discourse
A central task in this context would certainly be cultural education as a procedure for individual and also collective emancipation, which releases learners from the dependence on judgments of taste that are alien to them and empowers them to actively participate in the conversation about a common understanding of quality. Artists, if they are willing to leave their protected spaces of representation, could play a stimulating role in this. After all, by virtue of their training and professional experience, they have a very special sense for giving form to the diffusely felt/unthought/shown/unsaid and thus encouraging people to express themselves and thus their subjective sensitivities. But of course, such a turnaround also has to do with improved data, which can be developed with the help of contemporary cultural policy research. Considerations to add “audience reports” to the annual art and culture reports of the local authorities, which illuminate the production side in great detail, in order to strengthen the users empirically as well, point in the right direction.
In addition to the courage to once again conceive and implement content-related political focal points, especially for the benefit of people who have no voice in society, the linchpin of any further development lies in the willingness to overcome the cultural-political dominance of representation and to increasingly turn to aspects of confrontation and cooperation (a symposium on this is planned for May 20, 2021 at the University of Applied Arts).
Instead of falling further and further into the sidelines due to traditional production orientation, it is high time to revive cultural public spheres in which people from very different backgrounds empower themselves to actively participate in cultural events with their respective sensitivities, expectations, interests, longings and hopes. A cultural policy based on this would have the instruments to assign people an active part in cultural events and to include them as co-creators in the cultural development of our community in the hitherto hermetic circle of decision-makers on quality and much more.
The committee, which has the quality of the independent Viennese theater scene at its disposal, would then probably be equipped in a completely different way – and probably also come to different results.
Picture: Kaffee-und-Kuchen-Tristesse bei Dauters: Johannes Czernin als Gustav, Ingrid Haselberger als Oma, Günther Strahlegger als Vater, Katrin Targo als Tante Ilse. Bild: © Kristine Tornquist