It’s one of the thorniest concepts in the cultural lexicon. And yet, curiously, it’s one on which nearly all of us can agree.
Who doesn’t want our art to be excellent? Certainly not the federal government, which has enshrined excellence as one of the goals of its new National Cultural Policy: “To support excellence and world-class endeavour, and strengthen the role that the arts play in telling Australian stories both here and overseas.” And who could argue with that?
Sure enough, excellence featured prominently in the ABC’s forum on the National Cultural Policy on Tuesday night. Macquarie University’s David Throsby pointed out that “we don’t want to support mediocrity … we don’t worry about supporting excellence in the sports, why should we worry about supporting it in the arts?”. The Queensland Theatre Company’s Wesley Enoch pointed out that “you never ask Cathy Freeman to run slowly”.
On the face of it, it would seem hard to argue with Throsby and Enoch … but I am going to. Up to a point, the art as sport metaphor can be useful and illustrative. We generally don’t ask actors to act badly or musicians to play bum notes. And we can all applaud and admire the wonderful skills displayed by the highly trained professionals found in our major performing arts companies.
But art is not sport, and excellence is not simply the superb performance of a particular craft. One of the many things that are different is that art has a content — it has something to say — while sport, for all of its drama and pathos, is in the end repetitive and, in a formal sense, relatively content-less. Sure, we don’t ask Cathy Freeman to run slowly, but we also don’t ask her where she’s running to, or why she runs around the track clockwise instead of anti-clockwise, or why she’s running at all. In art, everything should be up for grabs — not merely the skills of its performance, but also the goals, methods and the conceptual underpinning of the work itself.
The problems of putting “excellence” up on a pedestal start to appear when one tries to define just what artistic excellence really is. The word itself is a curious one, coming to English from the Latin excellentia, which merely means merit or worth. And there’s the rub: one person’s excellence is another’s dross, and has been almost as soon as Plato tried to lay down some ground rules for judging art by advancing the idea of mimesis. Mimesis, which means roughly verisimilitude or truth in depiction, has been debated hotly by philosophers and aestheticians down through the ages, and yet it is still recognisably the standard by which many newspaper critics judge a work of naturalistic drama by David Williamson.
In the 18th century, British and German philosophers developed an idea about the power of art which went by the name of the “sublime”. This, roughly, means the inexpressible awesomeness of boundless aesthetic experiences, which in the European tradition ended up meaning taking a hiking trip to the mountains of the Alps. The sublime is a topic often discussed in contemporary art history, fraught as it is with ideas of “negative pain” and “dissensus”. What could be more sublime than the idea of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (otherwise known as Damien Hirst’s stuffed shark)?
The point of this potted history of aesthetics is that the notion of excellence itself is controversial and contested. The great modernist painter Barnett Newman once joked about “aesthetics being to artists what ornithology is to birds”, and there is a sense in which sensible artists should never worry too much about what the critics or the curators might say. Unfortunately, the idea of the artist working away naively plying her craft has never enjoyed much basis in reality: all artists must in the end situate their work in an artworld defined and constituted by their peers, and by the institutions, audiences and organisations that might potentially support them, and by the broader economic and cultural currents of their society.
Prominent Australian art historian Edward Colless points out in a recent paper that “to argue, in particular, that artists do not need a theory of art in order to make art — that art is instinctual, that it cannot be taught but only encouraged by example or endorsed and so on — is of course a theory of art and a pedagogical principle”. Whatever else the ballyhooed doctrine of “art for art’s sake” is, it is first and foremost a theory of art itself.
Where then does “excellence” reside in the Australian context? Certainly not in the concept of “peer review”, which Australia Council chairman James Strong unexpectedly mentioned on the Artscape forum on Tuesday night. Peer review — the idea that artworks are best judged by panels or committees of other practising artists — is an idea that finds only token support in the current Australian cultural landscape. Yes, some Australia Council grants are judged by peer review, but the majority of the funding given out by the Australia Council is not. Outside of the grants system, there is very little peer review. Big institutions such as the galleries, arts centres and festivals choose their work in more-or-less dictatorial fashion, at the pleasure of a director and their hand-picked staff. Arts criticism, meanwhile, is in transition, perhaps even crisis, and 20 years of higher education reforms have done little to support art criticism and history in Australia’s universities.
There are also ongoing culture wars surrounding excellence as we find it in its most contested form, the canon. The idea that there is a small set of essential classic works that make up a recognised canon of great art is one of the enduring controversies of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the debate is no closer to petering out, even as fewer and fewer young adults are asked to actually read classic works or engage with the peaks of Western civilisation. Australian universities have never embraced the so-called “liberal arts” model of teaching the great works in the same way that US universities have anyway, and nowadays the modern undergraduate would be hard-pressed to construct a course of study for themselves that might study — I don’t know — Cicero, Dante, Hume and Joyce (or Sappho, K’ung-tzu, Sei Shonagon and Murakami, for that matter) all in three years of a BA.
There is a more uncharitable explanation of the presence of the word “excellence” in our national cultural policy. This is that it is really a policy code-word for a certain palette of cultural practice. In the end, this view of excellence becomes a vulgar justification for arts funding, rather than a worthy goal of artistic merit. The Australian Chamber Orchestra doing Beethoven’s Ninth? That’s excellent. School holiday arts programs at your local community arts centre? No matter how good they are, such events get filed away under terms such as “access” and “participation”.
Excellence. It might be a goal of our national cultural policy. But do we really know it means?