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Quality, Where do you Get it?

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Everyone has their own idea of whether a particular musical performance, play, exhibition, artwork or organisation or enterprise is good, bad or indifferent. Some argue that it is not worthwhile trying to work out what criteria one would use to judge something. Particularly jazz: some performers have been heard to say that if you have to analyse a performance there is something wrong with you, you shouldn’t be listening to it at all. Others will talk not of reading a book but of ‘experiencing’ it. But there are outstanding performances and so on, ones of supreme, even sublime, quality.

The fact is then that quality is a very difficult issue to come to grips with. Our own personal preferences are to an extent a part of our identity. The arts management writer Paul DiMaggio put it well when he said that differences in quality, in both execution and presentation, ‘are apparent to almost everyone; discerning others is better left to experts’¦ nearly everyone agrees support ‘¦ should encourage excellence.’ He made the point strongly that a diversity of sources of funding is essential where the audience is part of a pluralistic society.

Critics are people who seek to define quality. They are frequently reviled. Oscar Wilde observed. ‘Once upon a time man had the lash, now he has the pen.’ Emily Bronte, in a recently discovered letter of 9 November 1849 to W[illiam] S[mith] Williams, wrote that while allowing that the critics writing for the Spectator and Athenaeum (about the recently published Shirley) are ‘acute men in their way’, she feels that ‘when called on to criticise works of imagination — they stand in the position of deaf men required to listen to music — or blind men to judge of painting. The Practical their minds can grasp — of the Ideal they know nothing.” (The Telegraph). Cate Blanchett, Oscar winning Australian actor and now co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (and Australian Museum Trustee) recently observed that she ceased reading critics’ reviews five years ago!

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