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Summary and reflection: quality and imperfection.

Douglas, Anne


Anne Douglas


In embarking on Working in Public, we started out with an implicit assumption that criteria for judging quality in art in the gallery and museum were widely understood and broadly agreed, whereas quality of art in the public sphere was less well understood. The work of the series therefore set out to create a new level of thinking that would allow art in public to account for its value (not least in relation to significant investment in terms of public funding). In experiencing the seminar series and the diversity of positions represented, a new horizon (as Simon Sheikh might put it) has emerged. The focus has shifted towards understanding 'quality' in a different sense - quality as inherent character explored through its interplay with context - artistic, social, cultural and political. To focus on criteria for judging quality is to evoke a use or exchange value - What is art for? What is it worth to us (in equivalent monetary terms)? Focusing on quality in the sense of 'inherent nature' raises a different question 'What is art? And 'What is art in relation to other ways of being in the world?' What are the (aesthetic and ethical) implications of practising one way or another? When Suzanne Lacy asks of the Oakland projects -'When does this work spill over into becoming life?', when Grant Kester investigates art projects that propose alternative value systems to those of neoliberalism, or when Simon Sheikh articulates the role of art in terms of constructing diverse publics, they are not constructing an economic justification for art - its use value. They are testing the thresholds that they each perceive between art and other forms of conceptualising and experiencing the world. It is striking in each case how radical these thresholds are. By extending our horizon from use value to symbolic experience, the discussion has shifted away from justifying one artistic approach over another. The latter operates within an assumption of art rather than an articulation of art as a practice and its place in the world. It also locks the discourse narrowly into alternative styles of making- gallery or public, allowing the one to be easily dismissed by the other. (Currently in Scotland and further afield this is where most of the heated debate in art is situated.) I would argue that the real challenge lies in much bigger stakes - of art refinding its place in the world. It is a world in which communication technologies are fluid and shape the everyday in powerful ways. It is a world of significant cultural differences, not least deepening economic discrepancies between the very rich and the very poor. Globally we are increasingly challenged by our relationship with the world. David Haley argues that this is manifest in the significant discourse on climate change (our relationship with the environment) and the discourse on cultural diversity (our relationship with other cultures). We have reached a point in human history that demands that we listen and reflect on the implications of different systems of value; cultural, social and economic. That was the starting point in a particular context of the Oakland series - observing young people and hearing the alarm calls of a breakdown between youth and the adult world. The Working in Public discussion has engaged in an open ended exploration of dynamic and radical forms of creativity and their power to create meaning. In so doing it has seriously questioned the intellectual basis for a current hierarchy of values - (such as 'art in museums and galleries is more authentically art than art in the public sphere that is compromised by other agendas'). Seminar 2 questioned whether we can ever assume value in either place - gallery or non gallery. It placed emphasis on continually exercising criticality and gaining a thorough understanding of the power at work in acts of representation (whether in or outside of conventional institutional contexts) and of understanding where authority really lies.


DOUGLAS, A. 2007. Summary and reflection: quality and imperfection. In Proceedings of the 3rd Working in public seminar: quality and imperfection, 19-20 June 2007, Inverness, UK [online]. Available from

Presentation Conference Type Other
Conference Name 3rd Working in public seminar
Conference Location Inverness, UK
Start Date Jun 19, 2007
End Date Jun 20, 2007
Deposit Date Aug 25, 2009
Publicly Available Date Aug 25, 2009
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