Samuel Ladkin: Against Value in the Arts

Against Value in the Arts

“Claims for the high morality of art may conceal a deep horror of life. And yet nothing perhaps is more frivolous than that horror, since it carries within it the conviction that, because of the achievements of culture, the disasters of history somehow do not matter. Everything can be made up, can be made over again, and the absolute singularity of human experience – the source of both its tragedy and its beauty – is thus dissipated in the trivializing nobility of a redemption through art.”

Leo Bersani, The Culture of Redemption

“Against Value in the Arts” sounds like a counter-intuitive way to go about describing and defending the value of the arts. The project proposes, however, that it is often the staunchest defenders of art who do it the most harm, by suppressing or mollifying its dissenting voice, by neutralizing its painful truths, and by instrumentalizing its potentiality, so that rather than expanding the autonomy of thought and feeling of the artist and the audience, it makes art self-satisfied, or otherwise an echo-chamber for the limited and limiting self-description of people’s desires.

This project does not argue that the arts have no value: quite the opposite. It argues instead that value judgments can behave insidiously, and incorporate aesthetic, ethical or ideological values fundamentally opposed to the “value” they purportedly name and describe. It argues that even the most ostensibly virtuous of values can become oppressive when disseminated bureaucratically, and as a set of official renderings or statements of artistic accounts. This is the prevalence of an audit culture.

“Against Value in the Arts” argues that the greatest possible value of the arts has been, and might continue to be, to oppose, rigorously and constitutively, dominant and dominating ascriptions of value. “Against Value” proposes that the best way to engage critically with our society is to suspend presumptions of value, to propose an incommensurability, the critique of any “common measure”, even if that common measure pretends to be as neutral as “value”. It seeks to antagonize questions about who gets to ascribe value, and how, and to interpret those ascriptions ideologically.

“Against Value”, which will culminate in a short monograph and an edited collection of essays (co-edited with Robert McKay (Sheffield) and Emile Bojesen (Winchester)), includes thinking about five iterations of against value: 1. against value as a pragmatic recognition of the harm the auditing of value can cause, 2. against value as a critique of the ideology of value 3. against value as a particular kind of making, that is, a preference for bad, wrong, hateful, or failing work. 4. against value as the critical function of art; 5. against value as irrecuperably against value, that is, by thinking through negation (Adorno) or impoverishment (Bersani). Throughout, the project is informed by Jacques Rancière’s reading of “dissensus”, the interpretation not of conflicts of received values, but instead engaged in a “dispute over what is given”.

The quotations that open and close this post provide something of a bookend for my thinking on the project. From the first by psychoanalytic critic Leo Bersani I take a deep suspicion of the redemptive claims made for art, and suspicion of the motivations of those who make such claims. The second is from the social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern whose reading of audit cultures as bad ethnography substantially motivated the first iteration of the Against Value project at the University of Sheffield in 2012. Here it is the great precision of the words “against” and “despite” to which I draw attention. Firstly, there is an imperative here to suspend instrumentalizing our knowledge as though it were sufficient or complete, or in fact could ever be sufficient or complete, whether that is in the description of people and their values, or in the description of their potentiality. Secondly, and in a way that also suggests dissensus, we might resolve to maintain commonality amongst cultural difference, and the potentials within cultures, by conceptualizing that commonality “despite” all descriptions. This can be figured as neither an intrinsic, instrumental, nor exchangeable value; its only commonality is negative.

“I like to think that anthropologists could assert the potentials there are in being human against everything they know about people, individually or collectively, and against how they form particular social relationships[…] I suspect we do not really want our descriptions of ourselves to become true; we hope they are partial enough to hold out promise of better things. No particular description is in any case adequate to the possibilities human beings are capable of, any more than any particular set of relations encompasses people’s capacity for social life. So anything we might use in claiming common humanity is just that: a claim. Rather than redescribe the world in order to find humanity within it, one might wish to conserve the concept beyond and outside descriptions of it, and even despite them.”

Marilyn Strathern, Shiftng Contexts: Transformations in Anthropological Knowledge 

Peter Lamarque and Gregory Currie: Cognitive and Aesthetic Values in Cultural Artefacts

Cultural artefacts come in many different shapes and sizes and are of many different kinds. They might be tools or weapons, paintings or songs, houses or jewellery. Sometimes it is obvious what values they possess. Practical artefacts made to serve practical purposes are valuable largely to the extent that they perform their functions well. Of course they might also be well designed and look good or feel good to use. That seems like a different kind of value. We might call it “aesthetic” value in contrast to purely practical value. Yet practical artefacts are usually praised both for their efficiency in doing what they are designed to do and for their (aesthetic) look and feel revealed in their design. These often go together. So in very many cases the aesthetic and the practical turn out to be not entirely distinct.

What about works of art? Traditionally aesthetic values are thought to be dominant in the arts. The value of looking at a painting, hearing a song, or musing on a poem lies, so it is said, in the pleasures these activities afford. Practical functions don’t seem important. Are not works of art valued “for their own sake”? But maybe that is too quick. Nor is it clear exactly what being valued “for its own sake” means.

Our project is to explore questions of this kind, addressed to cultural artefacts broadly labelled “works of art”. The focus will be specifically on aesthetic values and cognitive values, examining not just what such values are but how they are related. What do we mean by “cognitive” values? In brief, these are values centred on the advancement of knowledge or understanding. Cognitive values can be thought of as a species of practical value and they are commonly associated with certain art forms (notably representational arts) that are thought not only to afford aesthetic pleasure but also to add to the stock of human knowledge, including self-knowledge and what is sometimes called “know-how”.

Rather than engaging in a purely abstract or philosophical investigation our aim is to focus on three very specific but radically different case studies in the hope of shedding light on these kinds of value:

• The Palaeolithic wall paintings at Chauvet Cave
• A selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, on the theme of time and mortality
• The Ridley Scott film Blade Runner

We chose these particular case studies for several reasons. We wanted examples of totally different art forms and media; we wanted a wide historical and cultural reach; we wanted artefacts that have already been subject to extensive debate (part of the interest is in the nature of those debates); and we wanted examples that might usefully reveal different aspects of the two principal kinds of values in our study.

We have planned three intensive workshops on these case studies bringing together experts from different perspectives and disciplines: archaeologists and palaeontologists for the cave paintings, Shakespeare scholars and literary theorists for the Sonnets, film theorists and critics for the film. We were delighted, for example, that Jill Cook, who curated the highly successful exhibition on “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” at the British Museum, contributed to the Chauvet Cave workshop (held on 7th February 2014), as did Andrew J Lawson, author of Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe. Throughout there is also an input from aesthetics and philosophy of art. The interdisciplinary nature of the enquiry is crucial to it. The remaining two workshops will take place at the end of February and in April.

It is difficult to predict what kinds of intellectual findings will emerge overall—that is what is exciting about it—but we are hoping that the unusual juxtaposition of the case studies, the breadth of expertise called on, and the philosophical overview to be developed will yield genuine new insights in the longstanding debate about the values of art in general and the complex relations between the cognitive and the aesthetic in particular.