Puzzles, mysteries and arts funding

The intelligence expert Gregory Treverton is perhaps best known for his definitions of puzzles and mysteries. A puzzle, he explains in his book Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information, can be solved if you have the right information, whereas a mystery is something much more complex and multifaceted; something, indeed, where too much information may actually make solving it more difficult. To give two simple examples: “where is Osama Bin Laden?” is a puzzle — all you need is Abu Hamza’s address book — whereas “what will happen in Iraq?” is a mystery. 

The distinction is a useful one in many different walks of life, because it gives us clues about how to think about different kinds of problem, and about the different ways in which we might try solving them. One area in which the British government has thankfully begin to apply it is that of public funding for the arts, in the form of last year’s  McMaster Review.  The report, Supporting Excellence in the Arts — from measurement to judgement is a classic example of the move from puzzle thinking to mystery thinking. As the title implies, its central recommendation is that arts organisations be funded on the basis of something that can’t be objectively measured — the quality of their work — rather than, as had tended to be the case before, on something that can, for example audience size or composition. The question that this raises, of course, is: if we can’t measure it, how should we judge it? McMaster defines excellence like this:

Excellence in culture occurs when an experience affects and changes an individual. An excellent cultural experience goes to the root of living. 

While the language might be a slightly bizarre mash-up of Civil Service formality and high-flown rhetoric, this is pretty revolutionary stuff from a government-sponsored report. McMaster goes on to address the role of those who govern cultural organisations, saying that they “must be the custodians of innovation and risk-taking”, and that their directors or trustees should include active practitioners of those arts. What next — government ministers who’ve actually worked in the industries they’re put in charge of?

It’s not yet clear how far DCMS  will implement McMaster, but as the report itself says, “risk-taking is about experimentation and pushing boundaries … It demands courage, curiosity and desire, and a degree of spontaneity”. We should hope for all of these from DCMS as they turn the review into reality. 

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