How can art be judged and valued?

Public funding of the arts has become a nebulous and convoluted process

As you read this, arts managers, curators and creators are hard at work. They're not making, curating or managing art, they're writing their annual Arts Council grant applications. The deadline for Strategic Funding, the heading through which the council supports organisations that it considers "essential infrastructure", is September 5th. Arts centres apply for funding two weeks later.

Alongside exhaustive lists and details of the exhibitions, performances and projects in planning, the applicants are also wrestling with trickier questions: who is it for, and why is it worth supporting? Over recent years the justifications for public funding of the arts have been tinkered with, shifted, nuanced and, in the process, become more convoluted. Part of the reason for this is the promiscuous way that arts has swapped partners and departments.

When it was with tourism, people talked about art’s ability to attract visitors. Now it has bedded down with heritage and the Gaeltacht, and had its name changed to culture. Its goals, while remaining nebulous, are subject to ever more rigorous metrics, as people try to prove how “good” they are. These arguments are made, in parallel to the descriptions of planned programming, through checklists of words that include access, diversity, engagement and quality, together with their qualifiers: engagement is “deep”; access is “meaningful”.

In England, the arts council this year announced that it would make funding decisions based on “relevance”, and has also been tinkering with a quality metrics programme to try to assess art across a range of terms including: concept, presentation, challenge, enthusiasm, risk and rigour. Think about the last artwork or performance that moved you beyond measure, and consider how on Earth you’d fit it into those headings.


In almost all instances, the art has come first, the justification second. This is not to suggest that those writing the applications are manipulative opportunists. It is the making that matters to them, not its packaging.

Justifications are overlaid by the funding system, and funding is necessary for those art forms and projects that aren’t commercially viable. Looked at this way, funding is also a hopeful sign that we live in a society that doesn’t solely exist according to the values of commerce.

‘Dominance of purpose’

There is also a problem with the idea of "good". Trying to prove that art is good for health, well-being, social inclusion, creativity and education is as hard as trying to nail down "excellence", a term beloved of funders and evaluators. In his 2005 book, What Good Are the Arts? John Carey argues against the visual arts and music as having a wider social good. One of his arguments is Adolf Hitler's support of them, or at least of a certain type of them (nothing modernist, nothing "degenerate"). "Art," wrote Hitler "is the great mainstay of the people, because it raises them above the petty cares of the moment and shows them that, after all, their individual woes are not of such great importance."

All this proves is that art can be used as a tool, and that its purposes can be perverted. Funding applications instrumentalise art (it's good for you, it breaks down barriers, you'll find your health improved), but there's another argument that suggests a profound purpose of art is to have no purpose at all. German philosopher Theodor Adorno described art's "definitive protest against the dominance of purpose over human life", giving rise to the idea of culture as all the things that we do to bring us beyond mere existence.

Unspoken issue

The problem is that we live in a world shaped by the arguments we make. Once people start using economic arguments to, for example, support environmental projects, economics become the only prism through which environmentalism is registered. Start to promote the funding of art in terms of its ability to promote social cohesion, and you lose the ability to see the arts as something outside of a defined set of goals, even though it may have those benefits as a side effect.

Complicating all this is a broader, deeper and generally unspoken issue, and that is taste. Despite what past thinkers (such as Immanuel Kant) may have determined, taste isn’t an essential quality, it arises from the cultural biases of those in charge. Our canon of culture comes from the tastes of those who have owned the narrative of what art is, and what “good” good culture looks like.

Artists may struggle to push boundaries, but still there lurks the sneaking suspicion that beneath the overlay of a certain rhetoric, programmes of access and inclusion aren’t about redefining culture through an open embrace of diversity, but instead about educating more takers for the presently accepted view of what art is. Something for both the application writers, and assessors to wrestle with.