The Quality Quest

[The following is a letter I wrote a while ago to the editor of Chicago’s NEW ART EXAMINER responding to an article by Betty Ann Brown badly vitiated, if I may say so, by postmodern political flimflam.  As might be expected from the low quality of Brown’s article, Brown’s only response was to engage in some perfunctory hand waving.]

Betty Ann Brown (“A community self-portrait,” NAE, December, 1990) would have us return the word “quality” because she believes that the concept the word expresses has built into it standards which improperly and objectionably tend to exclude women and artists of color from museums, galleries and exhibitions.  (I will put “quality” in double quotes when I am talking about the word, and in single quotes when I am talking about the concept.)  That is to say, the concept is constructed along class/race/gender lines.  She seems to identify ‘quality’ with the concept of formalistic quality, i.e., a work’s excellence or lack of excellence considered as hinging on such factors as line quality, tough, handling, composition, spatial balance, relations between forms, relations between colors, and so on.  ‘Quality’ interpreted as ‘formalistic quality’ is the concept, she asserts, whose use excludes women and artists of color.  Instead of the word “quality,” she would have us use “worthy.”  According to Brown, a work is worthy when its content “…authentically [accurately?] reflects the artist’s social/historical/political moment.”  She prefers work that grates on her, reflects experiences beyond her own, and concerns issues of race, gender, and class.

I very much doubt whether Brown is really rejecting the concept of quality at all.  If she uses “worthy” in such a way that “This work is good or excellent” follows from “This work is worthy” (surely the word means nothing if this does not follow), then the concept of quality has not been done away with.  For if a work is high in quality, it is good or excellent, and if it is good or excellent, it is high in quality.  Thus I suspect Brown is really just advancing a different theory of what artistic quality (worth, merit, excellence, being good) consists in.  She thinks that a work’s quality hinges not on its formalistic values, but on its authentically reflecting an artists’s social/historical/political moment.

However, Brown’s theory of quality (or worth, merit, excellence, or whatever) is obviously false.  Consider all the dull, heavy-handed, poorly observed works stemming from the nineteenth century that use vicious stereotypes to depict African Americans, male and female.  Surely these works reflect their artists’ social/historical/political moment in the most authentic way possible.  They even grate on me, reflect on experiences beyond my own, and concern the issues of race, gender, and class that Brown holds so dear.  Brown is not about to value them as worthy.  If her theory of quality is true, however, there is no way one could escape the conclusion that they are worthy, their shoddiness and viciousness notwithstanding.  Brown could try to avoid this unappetizing conclusion by claiming that the content of  work must reflect the correct politics if it is to count as excellent, but such a move would be clearly ad hoc, if not laughable.  The only reason to make such a move would be to save Brown’s theory.

In the absence of any plausible alternative, one is left with the formalistic theories of quality.  Do these theories in fact have built into them standards that improperly and objectionably tend to exclude women and artists of color?  Consider the following theory, and see if it has any such standards built in.  I submit that the concept I describe below is the one operative in most critical discourse.

A work of art is a symbol that both expresses and sometimes denotes (to use Nelson Goodman’s terms) a content or subject matter.  The work’s excellence or lack of excellence is a function of both its formalistic values and what it expresses.  If what the work expresses is of low value, the work itself is of lesser value, even if (and in fact partly because) its formalistic values express its content perfectly.  Suppose, for example, that Jones, a critic, becomes convinced that Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings express the same types of feelings expressed by New Age music.  Since Jones holds those feelings in low esteem, she values the paintings less than they are usually valued.  Similarly, Smith, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, holds in low esteem what Anne Ryan’s collages express, namely, a sense of intimacy and pleasure (usually regarded as feminine) in materials and fabrics.  The fact that the formalistic values of the collages expresses those things perfectly hardly commends them to him.  He therefore places the works in storage.

Clearly, Smith’s application of the concept ‘quality’ has been guided by his gender attitudes.  He regards feminine stuff as minor and of lesser value.  I take it this is the sort of case Brown has in mind when she claims that ‘quality’ has built into it standards that improperly and objectionably tend to exclude women.  In what follows, I argue that the claim is nonetheless false.  The argument focuses on the expressive content of an artwork.

There are two possibilities concerning the value of what an artwork expresses.  1) Conventional, relativistic, folk wisdom is correct.  Conventional folk wisdom would like to relativize value the way Einstein relativizes motion.  In Einstein’s theory, of course, the speed of an object is relative to a frame of reference.  In one frame of reference, the speed is 60 mph, and in another it is 1 mph.  Folk wisdom treats Smith and Jones as on-person frames of reference.  In the Smith frame of reference, what Ryan’s work expresses has a low value, while in the Jones frame of reference, say, it has a high value.  Just as there is no absolute measure of speed, but only the speed in this frame of reference and the speed in that one, there is no absolute measure of value for what Ryan’s work expresses.  There is only its value for Smith, and its value for Jones.  2)  What an artwork expresses has a value that is not relative to particular individuals, and Smith and Jones can measure that value accurately or inaccurately, correctly or incorrectly.

Assume that 1) is right.  Suppose also that Jones is a feminist who wants to believe that Smith’s exclusion of Ryan (and the exclusion of other women artists on similar grounds) is improper and objectionable.  Jones, however, cannot cogently criticize or object to Smith’s exclusion of Ryan’s work.  For surely the following thesis is true:

A) If an artwork is of low value (is not good, excellent, worthy, etc.), excluding it (putting it into storage in a museum, not exhibiting it in a show, not buying it, and so on) is not objectionable or improper.

This is, I suspect, an intuition everyone shares.  Even Brown’s view commits her to it, since if a work is worthy, it is surely not low in value.  Now in the Smith frame of reference, Ryan’s collages are low in value.  It follows from A), then, that Smith’s putting her work into storage is not improper or objectionable.  The mere fact that in the Jones frame of reference the collages have a high value does not make the exclusion objectionable.  For disputing the exclusion on those grounds would be like disputing a measure of speed made in another frame of reference on the grounds that it does not match the measure one has made in his own frame of reference.

So if the relativism outlined in 1) is correct, Smith’s exclusion of Ryan’s work is not objectionable.  I assume, by the way, that Brown objects to ‘quality’ because it allegedly leads to cases of objectionable exclusion.

Assume now that 2) is right.  Smith has either correctly or incorrectly valued the expressive content of Ryan’s work.  If he has valued that content correctly, then Ryan’s work is of lesser quality and therefore of lesser value.  It follows from A), then, that Smith’s exclusion of Ryan’s work is not objectionable or improper.  Smith’s exclusion has not resulted from biases and prejudices that have prevented him from valuing the work correctly.  So the concept ‘quality’ is not open to criticism in this case because it has not led to an improper or objectionable exclusion.

Suppose now that Smith has valued the expressive content of Ryan’s work incorrectly (presumably because of gender biases).  He was wrong to put it in storage.  (This is, incidentally, the view I hold, and I suspect Brown would prefer to hold it as well.)  In this case, however, the fault does not lie with the concept ‘quality,’ but with a bad and misguided application of that concept to a particular case.  The application of ‘quality’ went afoul because prejudice prevented Smith from valuing correctly the expressive content of Ryan’s work.  In cases like these, then, the concept ‘quality does not have built into it standards that improperly and objectionably exclude women; rather, it is particular application of the concept that can objectionably exclude women (not all women, by the way) when the expressive content of a work gets wrongly valued.

In each case, then, either the concept ‘quality’ is not the culprit, or the exclusion in question is not objectionable.  Contrary to Brown, it turns out that ‘quality’ does not have built into it (through some kind of white male conspiracy) standards which improperly and objectionably exclude women.  If women are underrepresented in museums relative to their population, the fault lies not with ‘quality,’ but with other factors, including bad applications of the concept (assuming that relativism is false and that female concerns are incorrectly assigned a low value — if relativism is true and female concerns are correctly given a low value, cases of the sort discussed above, which I take to be bad applications of the concept, are in fact not objectionable), prejudice, and social discouragement.  The same analysis applies mutatis mutandis to artists of color.

Cliff Engle Wirt                                                                                                                                        Chicago, IL

Today’s homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM takes the form of James Dean and Sal Mineo.


‘Look at me the way I look at Natalie Wood,’ James Dean reportedly told Sal Mineo during the filming of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.  Mineo, having a crush on Dean, needed very little prompting to heed this instruction.  Homoerotic expression is, I dare say, something that in the past has been given an incorrect valuation.


About Cliff Wirt

I am a banking DBA with various and sundry interests, including art, poetry, philosophy, music, languages, relational algebra, database administration, and blueberries. Don't forget the blueberries. Some of these interests tie in in surprising though usually tangential ways with database theory. Even the blueberries. I have published one article in a Philosophy Journal, and I have one painting in a corporate collection (housed in what used to be the Amoco building in Chicago). According to 12andMe, my paternal haplogroup is I2, my maternal H5. The Neanderthal percentage of my ancestry is 3%. My most famous ancestor is William Wirt (from whom I get my last name, though possibly not my Y chromosome), who defended the rights of the Cherokees before the Supreme Court, and ran for President in 1832, carrying one state. My homepage is at My FaceBook page is at My LinkedIn page is at View all posts by Cliff Wirt

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