Hans Abbing - EVALUATION

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Hans Abbing agrees to meets with CP for an informal chat about evaluation (22 October, 2013 5-7). The timing couldn't be better; we're contemplating making a funding bid to the AHRC Cultural Value Project.

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Hans Abbing talks about evaluation

Hans is staying at Marsha's place while Kuba and Natalia are in Warsaw. Hans and Marsha discuss Critical Practice on the Tube ride from Earls Court to Chelsea. Marsha outlines the development of CP's research--shifting from 'value' to 'evaluation'. (This is further elaborated by Neil at the beginning of our discussion with Hans.) Once on campus, there's talk of the Rootsein Hopkins Parade Ground's history...and the Millbank area more generally. From prison to military hospital/research facility to art school. Tate Britain sits on one side of Chelsea and MI6 is just a stone's throw away. There's discussion about regimes of authority that permeate this site...
CP congregates in the third-floor Lounge in E-Block. Those in attendance include Claire, Amy, Katherine, Neil, Marsha, Metod, Scott and, of course, Hans.

A fictional dialogue based on CP's exchange with Hans.

A: Should we start?

B: Maybe you could begin by saying something about your recent interests at the moment? I understand Critical Practice is looking at ‘evaluation’?

A: Yes. This grew out of talking about value. We noticed that when it comes to this subject, the conversation often becomes theoretical—unhinged from a real-world context. This helped us to realise that what we’re really interested in is value as a process. So if ‘value’ suggests something stable, ‘evaluation’ makes us think of something closer to something fluid and unstable. And this fluidity—this dynamism—is something that excites us about evaluation. But we’re also a little stuck when it comes to how to proceed. We thought that given that you’re an artist-sociologist-economist (though not necessarily in that order), you'd be able to help?

B: Okay. So let’s begin with what you were saying about process, then. Do you think aesthetic value—or aesthetic evaluation—is a process?

A: Yes. But if you’re talking about art, could we talk about ‘cultural value’ instead of ‘aesthetic value’ because everything has aesthetic value, right? You know, last year Critical Practice read about George Yúdice’s theory that culture is a resource. So this is one way of thinking about the value of culture—in terms of its spillover—

B: ‘Spillover’? The benefits of culture? This makes me think of costs and benefits and instrumental reason. So art becomes instrumental, public space becomes instrumental—instrumental to something; they’re in the service of something else. You’ve said before that you think the public domain is ‘good,’ right? Is this the same as thinking about it as beneficial?

A: Well to begin with, is it really necessary to calculate benefit? Isn’t it enough just to think that something is good? Or is it always necessary for us to know in advance the particularities of a good's goodness?

B: Or badness, if you’re talking about costs and benefits. But okay, so an economist will say that you take a risk. You believe there’s a chance that things will work out but they might not. But when you’re thinking in terms of risk, you’ve already made a calculation.

A: Well, what about this proposition: I just believe that clean air is good. And so I will try and ride a bicycle rather than drive a car.

B: Okay but there is still a cost-benefit-analysis in play, isn’t there? I mean, you’ve explained the benefits of not driving a car and instead riding a bike. When you say that ‘clean air is good,’ I think you have a type of value in mind. There are many types. Money, heat, joy…something in terms of something else. Sometimes you can’t measure them exactly. I can measure that you’re a man and you’re a woman. But not all values are quantifiable, like speaking the truth.

There's a difference, of course, between ‘Value’ and ‘value‘. You can’t measure Value. For example, tolerance may be a Value of the Dutch—it could even be an intense Value. But you can’t measure it because it’s closer to a conviction or a good or an aesthetic.

A: So it’s about distinguishing categories of Value/value?

B: You can order some of them with relatively little skill. And then there are others. Not stealing is good. You don’t need to measure it. It’s just good. But this depends on the context. We could also say that not stealing is bad. If you’re starving and there is bread to steel, not steeling may be very bad for you. The point is that we need to think both in terms of ‘Value’ (moral conviction) and ‘value’ (something you can measure).

Now in the case of ‘clean air being good,’ well it’s a moral conviction and it’s something that you can measure, too—so there is Value and value—values, actually. Value and values can coexist and are even interrelated.

A: It’s all very messy.

B: Yes sometimes--often. You can measure profit making but it’s also a moral conviction. You can’t measure tolerance but you can measure the impact of tolerance.

A: There’s also the issue of values being relative.

B: If we want to operationalize something, such as clean air, then we get values in lowercase letters. I like to think about Value and values in terms of intensity.

A: That’s what policy makers do, isn’t it? They’re constantly checking the intensity of Values/values that are often incommensurate. Policy making involves speculating about how these Values/values may interact. And both types also get organised into hierarchies. When it comes to social cohesion, tolerance is often valued over football, for example.
A: Maybe it is. I could live in a world without football but I’d struggle to live in one without tolerance—but then football can also promote social cohesion. To make policy about tolerance, you’d need to have some measurements. You’d need to establish what you mean by ‘tolerance’. If you want to have a proper discussion about the distribution of funding, for example, you have to break down the Value/values at stake in the distribution.

A: But how do we evaluate moral conviction? We can probably agree that clean air is good. But what about honour killings? Of course, determining value—either with an uppercase ‘v’ or a lowercase one—is a process. But I’m wondering if either type is always socially constructed. Are there any moral convictions that are absolute?

You know, take the argument that the human race should be advanced by some kind of culling or genetic engineering. Now, some would say this is a good thing, right? It’s good to have a stronger and smarter human race. You’re looking at me like this is getting too abstract but you’re wrong. I’m talking about 1943.

B: If you’re saying this proves that value/Value is relative then it’s a good example. The Holocaust is inconceivable but it happened. It’s an example of social constructivism going so wrong.

A: Okay, what about an easier example. Happiness is increasingly used in the arts and culture as an alternative measure to or for success. I think that artists find this interesting.

B: Yes, well, artists are interested in pretty much everything. There’s the Value/value of money. Fine. For many bankers, for instance, money has a lot of Value. Not just for earning and spending. It’s an indicator of how good they are in their circle. For many artists, money is a means. It can make them happy because if they have it, they have more time to make art; they don’t have to spend this time making money. So the Value of money isn’t that large. We don’t really judge artists based on how much money they make, do we?

A: No, not really. In fact, wouldn't it be embarrassing to be a rich artist? Don’t most artists believe that when it comes to wealth, it’s beneficial up to a point but then tends to plateau? Or did I just make that up?

B: Well artists may believe this but not bankers! But could we go back to happiness being a measure of success? Do you know about The Happiness Index (or rather, the Happy Planet Index)? So the HPI was developed by the New Economic Foundation as an alternative to national assessment based on GDP. In a nutshell, there’s a sense that many of these large-scale quantitative studies are designed to help us determine how we’re doing as a nation are actually measuring the wrong thing. So John Helliwell and friends started looking at happiness and—

A: What’s intriguing about reports like these is that they seem to suggest that for us to Value/value something it needs to be economised. Or perhaps ‘quantify’ would be a better word than ‘economise’. I understand that clean air can be measured but I’d also like to think that I ‘Value’ (with a capital ‘v’) clean air without measuring—without valuing (with a lowercase ‘v’)—it. It’s like many of these measurements are, well, proxies for measuring stuff that’s related to Value/value. But you’re never quite sure what the Value/value is. So there’s this tendency to confuse the proxy with the process of evaluation as well as with the Value. Without clean air, we wouldn’t be here!

B: But in developing countries there’s give and take. To develop to a sufficient degree, these countries need to dirty their air. We’re in a very privileged position to be talking about clean air. And then, of course, there is carbon offsetting and—

A: But doesn’t this mechanism just demonstrate the idea that the only way we know how to Value something—or a group of things—is to take them to market. So price as a mechanism for valuing things gets confused with price as a mechanism for Valuing things. When we put price to work with something like clean air, it fucks up because it’s such a crude mechanism of evaluation.

B: Okay but isn’t that a funny thing for Critical Practice to say? I mean, don’t you have a long history of working with markets? PARADE at Chelsea? And The P2P Exchange at Truth is Concrete in Graz? Don’t these markets advocate the moral conviction that ‘Markets are Good’! Or are you saying that markets are neutral? Maybe we can say that markets are sometimes good but this brings us back to measuring again.

A: So is there a way to avoid metrics—to avoid measuring things? We can probably agree that we can’t measure culture but that it’s necessary for life. As cultural producers, we have to calculate what we do. We haven’t been very good at finding ways of articulating this value.
B: Well this problem isn't special to the arts. A number as a bottom line can give a sense of safety. But it’s actually a very risky result because it ignores a great deal—everything that can’t be quantified.

A: But couldn’t narrative be a non-metric for communicating value? I’m thinking of the work of Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt and Common Practice.

B: So how do we use narrative to Value/value and evaluate what you do?

A: Well you tell a story that packs a lot of variables—some of them may be measurable and others not.

B: Economists are always reducing variables in order to have an outcome. Otherwise it gets too complicated.

A: But maybe that what makes narrative so useful? It can be very complex. It's way of thinking complexity. ‘Narratives of variables’. I like that phrase.

Granted, the rhetoric of narrative can also be very persuasive--seductive, even. And narratives can be imperialistic. Good story telling is hypnotic; form eclipses content. You know it's often described as captivating. It’s like casting a spell. You can have a very powerful experience…but it’s fleeting. What does this mean if you’re making decisions that are binding, as in the case, of, say policy making? What kind of extra work needs to be done to ensure that you're making these decisions from an sane and informed point of view? Analysis? Critical thinking? Maybe this needs to happen more actively in the reception/interpretation of the narratives? Or maybe it’s about constructing narratives in such a way that they reflexively frustrate their own captivation…dialogue is actually quite good at this. The form of dialogue unfolds through turn taking so the dialogue is broken up between different diction, difference voices, different perspectives—and even different arguments. So perhaps it’s diversity that’s at stake. Perhaps it’s a kind of ‘triangulation,’ in the parlance of research. Approaching the subject via multiple angles, hanging different frames around it.

B: Okay but can we agree no system of evaluation is neutral and many are actually designed to press forward some agenda or another? I don’t think we can avoid this; rather, the best we can do is acknowledge our biases, no?

A: And produce multiple and completing evaluations, maybe. But tell me something. Do you think the value of art is special?

B: Special? Definitely not. It’s particular—maybe even exceptional—but it’s not special, as in unique. There’s all this emphasis on the privileged position of art—art as autonomous and artists as autonomous. There’s this idea of art being different from the rest of the world and maybe better.

A: For sure, art is heavily invested in it’s own mystification! As an artist, I sometimes feel compelled to defend this because it safeguards us against being measured by other metrics. So in other words, the magic of art is a kind of defense mechanism.
B: So we have to do better than that! It's short sighted? Popular art is far less magical and yet very successful—think about hiphop and graffiti.

A: And then there’s all this artwork that’s in a museum and simply by it’s location, it’s ‘good’—so the bricks and mortar (and all the glamour of this institution) valorizes it in some way. So it’s the museum effect and more. This isn't so different than money. Money is paper! The paper of a £10 note and a £20 isn’t so different is it?

B: I think we also need to pause for a second to think about the value of time. You know, earlier you told the story of a famous violinist.

A: Yes, one morning he played outside a New York subway station. The crowd streamed by but no one stopped. Well, almost no one. Three kids stopped but they don’t really count because they didn’t have any money. But that night, the violinist played to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall. The tickets cost a fortune.

B: You know so much of it is about time. Those £100.00 tickets are paying for someone to sit there. So there are different Values/values running interference.

A: Yes, always. But can we think about context as an evaluative mechanism? And would that help us to value some Values/values more than others?

B: Maybe. That indicates where the art domain begins and ends. The point is that these institutions that have existed for ages. And we work on a star system. What happens to people who don’t become stars? Do they become ‘enthusiastic friends’?

A: Can we think for a moment about popular art and wellbeing? What about Normal Rockwell? Lots of people enjoy looking at this work but it’s disparaged by the art world. But isn’t there Value/value in it if makes a lot of people happy?

B: Definitely.

A: And do you think that art has intrinsic value?

B: Ummm… Is this important and if so, why?

A: Hmmm…Well, it would be nice to think that some things are immutable—transcendent. Unfortunately Value/value isn’t one of them! It can ebb and flow. Value accretes across something but can transmute in the process, with different aspects coming to the fore and passing away. What about the idea that a poem is never finished? It’s only abandoned.

I’m also wondering if art isn’t itself a kind of evaluation?

B: Maybe. But this isn’t unique to art in any event and—

A: Maybe art as a process of evaluation connects to art being an end itself? Maybe it follows from this that art as evaluation is about evaluation for the sake of evaluation? What about Jeff Koons? The work he makes critiques capitalism and his artworks sell for millions of dollars/pounds. There’s something here…at the intersection of critical art and evaluation that wraps with negation as the hallmark of the avant-garde.

B: What about the idea for building communities of evaluation? This has appeal. Value can’t be universal or transcendent. It’s always situated and specific. And who determines this? Experts? Elites? Brokers? Bankers? Are there counter-communities of evaluation? What about your friends? Evaluation needs supporters? And it needs dialogue—among communities with different evaluative structures. And if you want to dialogue with other communities who don’t hold the moral conviction that what your community values/Values is good, you’re probably going to have to talk about costs and benefits, aren’t you?

A: What about the art school as a community of evaluation? There was this article in The Guardian about Open School East and it was asking whether or not this was a serious challenge to the art school with its high tuition fees. This alternative art school thinks about art education in a different way by trying to recognize that most practitioners won’t become stars. And what happens to their value and their skills? Open School East deploys students—

B: ‘Associates’. They're not called 'students'.

A: Okay, so it deploys ‘associates’ in the local community to realise socially engaged projects. So it’s about finding a different set of values for artistic skills.

B: Yes that's enough to understand. But there are big questions to be asked about how these enterprises are funded. In the case of the Open School East, which is funded by The Barbican and Create London, one has to wonder: How is this alternative art education being tooled to demonstrate the usefulness of these institutions?

A: Well, to bring this back to Critical Practice, it’s worth saying that Cinzia Cremona has long maintained that the Cluster was for her an alternative to an MA. There’s no certification, of course. But it had that kind of value for Cinzia.

B: So what is the Value/value of art education? To get into the market? If the price that something has is already a value in itself, what does this mean for education in general? In the case of university tuition, having spent £9000…well, there’s already value there and this is overwriting the intangible good of education. We don’t usually pay for something without knowing what we're getting in return. It sets up expectations of some kind of return.

A: Can we go back to cost-benefit analysis? It’s useful for demonstrating value. But surely there are other ways? Can’t we demonstrate goodness without having to calculate? And do we really care what other people think? Why not commune with other believers? You look shocked!

B: It’s just rather…insular, no? Narrow? Self-affirming?

A: Why is this so upsetting?

B: Isn’t insulating ourselves from opposition, well, ultimately an act of intolerance? We love talking to people who agree with us because we don’t have to waste energy on trying to convince people otherwise. Maybe it’s an issue of understanding versus agreement. Can we agree there is value in understanding each other even if we don’t share the same values?

A: Well, you've give us a lot to think about. Maybe it's a good place to stop?

B: For now, yes, perhaps.

Return to Main Page * Post-doc *


A few questions to prime the discussion:

  • What is 'evalutation' from Hans' perspective as a classically trained economist/sociologist?
  • And how does Hans as a contemporary artist think about evaluation? About value?
  • How is CP thinking about evaluation? How aren't we thinking about evaluation?


Much of our discussion seemed to turn on examples and/or comparisons e.g.

  • Puritanism is a value of the Dutch.
  • Tolerance is a value of the Dutch.
  • Art is good.
  • Not stealing is good/not stealing is bad.
  • Clean air is good.
  • It could be good to advance the human race via culling.


  • On average, men are longer than women.
  • Art is better than...
  • The Dutch used to be more puritan than they used to be.
  • The Dutch are less tolerant than they used to be.
  • Tolerance is a more important value to the Dutch than football.
  • We can't say the Dutch attach more importance to tolerance than family life.
  • The value of money may be more important for bankers than for artists.


  • communities of evaluation
  • narratives of variables
  • proxy confusion
  • value/Value and values/Values
  • aesthetic value versus cultural value versus artistic value

Return to Main Page * Post-doc *


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Scott captures Hans' discussion


Thinking about dialogue versus narrative - dialogue as narrative?


Hans' method... Here's how Wikipedia defines it: Socratic method (also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate), named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point.

The Socratic method is a positive method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. The extent to which this method is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, is called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method.