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