Achievement and Quality: Higher Education in the Arts
Numbers and Evaluation in the Arts: Critical Questions
Numbers, quantification, and counting can play various roles in evaluating various aspects of the arts, including professional preparation, but it is a grave error to consider them as the sole indicators of success or failure. Choices are critical. They determine the extent to which numbers illuminate or obscure realities in specific evaluations or with regard to the composite nature of arts evaluation.
Elsewhere, we have presented facts and ideas about art as a mode of thought, and indicated that the arts are centered in and seek uniqueness. Thus, uniqueness is an important indicator of success, especially at the highest levels.
Numbers, quantification, and counting have many interesting connections with conditions of uniqueness. Indeed, uniqueness regularly thwarts their conclusive utility, especially when they are used to make comparisons. For example, there is a number that will specify to all the exact amount of water in a glass. Measurements of this kind and the systems that enable them are structured to find a universal answer, not a unique one. But what about varying opinions about which was more important, the end of WW I or WW II? There is no number that convinces conclusively, that produces unanimity. The reason: different people have different, even unique perspectives that lead them to their conclusion. For example, the relative numbers of people who lost their lives in each conflict may not convince an individual who lost a beloved ancestor in one of them. Fundamentally, there is no single, numbers-based answer to questions of valuing. Individual interpretation, professional debate, and at times, temporary consensus is about all that can be expected. Questions of valuing uniqueness are central to making and evaluating in the arts.
Numbers, quantification, and counting clearly work well explaining and evaluating things that are replicable. This capability and its powers in the scientific and technical world produce the illusion that numbers will tell the whole or at least the necessary truth and thus predict accurately every other realm of activity, if only the right formulas are found and applied. This illusion often leads to misuses of numbers and counting, and can lead to serious misjudgments about what is happening and what should be done, particularly in the dynamic and relatively unpredictable world of human action. Indeed, this illusion can damage the pursuit of quality and achievement in the arts disciplines and in many other fields.
The art forms have properties and use materials and processes that can be expressed mathematically. The physics and thus the mathematics of color, light, sound, movement, and so forth operate in works of art. Further, in becoming an arts professional, there are certain aspects of mastery in each field that have yes or no answers, or that are based in technical proficiency or the necessity of replication. Many elements of these aspects can be evaluated effectively and honestly using numbers. And in the arts, as in other fields, numbers can be used as reductionist surrogates for complex evaluations; for example, the single number judges use in professional competitions. In all these cases, however, the numbers, as vital or as useful as they are, cannot produce or reproduce the art work or the artistry, or even begin to encompass it, not even to the extent that digital technologies can store and reproduce specific sets of aesthetic effects. Even in the digital example, the numbers are the medium for the art, not the art itself.
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