The art of praise
by: Dag Wiersholm

To be appreciated is often regarded as a universal basic human need. Appreciation as a phenomenon has also been an important topic within different disciplines – it is a central concept within social philosophy, and a recurring social ethical issue that concerned both Hegel and Honneth. Similarly, to appreciate can be an expression for such a need on an interpersonal level. To recognise, may often mean that something or someone is valued, be it actions, skills or qualities. In its most positive sense, it can be considered as attractive, even in fact, exemplary.

What the exemplary consists of, is, of course, dependent on time, place and context. In his novel, Forbildet (Role Model) from 1973, the German writer, Siegfried Lenz convincingly demonstrated this, where three textbook writers meet to write a chapter on ideals and role models. Lenz queries what value role models have in a time when all authorities appear to be in decline, and he goes so far as to wonder if there is something authoritarian (towards young people) about holding forth people who have carried out praiseworthy actions. The three main characters in the book had to dig deep into moral philosophy before finally accepting anything exemplary.

What is worthy of appreciation in art, what can be presented as qualitatively good in an artistic work and practice? It is highly unlikely that the moral aspects are the criteria when considering artistic quality, and it definitely has little to do with way of life. So how can we understand quality in art? How can it be done when the question of what actually is art still shows up in public discourse – while the philosopher Nelson Goodman maintains that the question should be: when is it art?

It goes without saying that the discussions about quality, artistic value and the criteria used to determine the quality of artworks are endless and can be viewed along many lines, both historical, sociological and philosophical. It probably doesn´t make it any easier when important aspects of artistic practise today involves exploration, of both means and perceptions as such, or of art itself in the face of social events and political contexts. But when art is understood as experiment and exploration, it seems relevant to see it in relation to science itself and its evaluation criteria. As already known, in both scientific and cultural/artistic contexts a number of commendations and prizes are awarded. What then is the relationship between science’s requirement of exact measures and set criteria in relation to art´s “discernment” and differing tastes?

Traditionally, these spheres have been considered as essentially different – in science there has been little appreciation for “softer values”, it has been the actual form of reference for neutral truth values. Although Max Weber, in his day, argued for freedom of values as a scientific ideal, there are few today who would consider this possible, at least not within the humanities and social sciences and hardly at all in the natural sciences. On the contrary, the creative is often recognised and emphasised in research, and as such science and art are closer to each other than previously acknowledged.

This is also a value that is in demand in society, since development, as the term is understood in the West, assumes innovation. Here, artists can, in the same way as researchers, contribute significantly. This, however, raises the question of whether this can be the most important criteria in terms of evaluating art and artistic quality.

Another aspect of this relationship between science and art is a tendency, that several have pointed out in recent years, including the philosopher Gernot Böhme, that concerns the scientification of art, or what he considers, a theorising of aesthetics. Böhme refers here to Baumgarten, who is regarded as the originator of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline; his conception that perceptual cognition was in contrast to the rational that was the benchmark of his time. The prevailing view of art today with its conceptual and contextual foundations may in turn, be said to be characterised by intellectualising and conceptualising, thus supporting the aforementioned tendency.

There are, in other words, aspects of contemporary art´s own orientation – relational art is not even mentioned here – which is problematic for thinking about quality. Even the concept of quality itself is a fundamentally contested concept, seen in relation to changing historical parameters within aesthetics and ethics. The idea of quality has been considered oppressive with its emphasis on formal and rule-bound aesthetics, often in opposition to any avant-garde. And how does a hierarchical set of values, based on the concept of quality, function in late modernity´s fragmented public sphere?

If, in spite of the concept of quality´s relative and indeterminate character, a singular taste regime with regard to “quality” was established, then a point could be made for more awards in the field of art, as Andre Gali and Nicolai Strøm-Olsen pointed out in Kunstforum some time ago: «The increasing number of private collectors, galleries and art awards disperses the defining power.» Besides power, emphasis is also placed here on the private, as they maintain that the cultural life showed too much respect for the State. Diversity can obviously be a value in itself when discretion is emphasised. It can, however, be discussed whether it is private capital that best ensures diversity and quality in the field of culture. Even though the instrumental aspects of cultural policy raise important questions about artistic and institutional freedom and autonomy, such questions are perhaps less pressing in a private, brand-building economy? And who in society is capable of appointing themselves to the role of patron? In the neoliberal economy one often ignores the fact that the State and government represents all of us – the community – as manager of cultural policy, also in relation to awards and rewards.

Consequently, both art and quality are open concepts, in the sense that they are difficult to define and, not least, essentially determine. Art today both invites and requires different ways of reading and comprehending which, with the reference to Baugarten and perceptual recognition v. (scientific) rationality, can be characterised as “unclear and indistinct”. This hardly implies a distinction between the cognitive and the emotive – the aforementioned Goodman points out in relation to art that in aesthetic experience the emotions function cognitively. The ability to discern quality in art must therefore be based on a complex competence, even though there are those who would probably argue that it is of a somewhat different nature than found in the traditional sciences. It is an interesting position that, in spite of all the dilemmas, makes it possible to award prizes and recognition on a well-qualified basis as stimuli for further work, including exploration.