The different moods of quality

by Jini Stolk

Maybe it’s in response to being bombarded by…stuff…at this time of year, but I’ve been thinking about excellence (or quality) in artistic work.

Do I know it when I see it? I think I do, but I’m always intrigued by the variety of responses to a piece of work and try not to presume that my own opinion is the only one that’s valid. I’m particularly happy when the critics like something I don’t, because I root for everyone’s success and I’m pleased that they’ve found something to appreciate that didn’t ring my bells.

Like many of us, however, I get a bit sniffy when they pan something I loved. But the best defense is a good offense and the abundance of comment on blogs and social media makes it possible, as never before, to highlight alternative opinions. Lyn Gardner of The Guardian, talks about the continuing need for many different types of criticism and about reviews as a product of critics’ experiences, prejudices and in some cases, what they had for lunch. One of Canada’s finest theatre and dance critics Max Wyman, wrote about the privilege and minefields of “this very public form of personal growth and exploration.”

Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 recently reminded me that quality is judged by specific expectations and preferences, which change even throughout a person’s lifetime. She identifies ten different kinds of quality in arts experiences, leaving plenty of room for differences of opinion and a whole variety of ways to value and evaluate a piece – or an entire program – of work:

  1. AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
  2. TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
  3. INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
  4. INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
  5. EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
  6. RELEVANT: can people relate to it?
  7. PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
  8. ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
  9. BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
  10. IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?

Andrew Taylor warns about the tendency to “place a populist frame around creative work”, thus discounting the gift and craft of true artistry – something I sometimes worry about when reading studies on arts engagement even by my beloved Alan Brown. Taylor linked to this beautiful interview with one of my favorite authors, Colm Toibin where he talks about the hard and demanding craft of writing and the assumption that he’s a ‘storyteller’ from the long cultural tradition of Irish storytelling. “I hate being called a storyteller, because I’m a novelist. In other words, I hold and wield textures and tones and language. And if you think that it’s natural for me to do that, it is not.”

That comment was masterful, understandable, helped me learn, produced new knowledge, sparked unexpected connections, and inspired me to action.


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