People & Ideas

Oct 21, 2011

The problem of being exceptional

Excellence. It might be a goal of our national cultural policy, but do we really know what it means?

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000. *This article was originally published on October 21, 2011. Excellence. 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 what it means?

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22 thoughts on “The problem of being exceptional

  1. moonkid

    An absolutely insoluble equation. Any standard for artistic excellence will necessarily take away from what is, in my view, art’s central quality: the ability to express the meaning of life in powerful and unexpected ways. The “powerful” bit could perhaps be nailed down if there was no such thing as subjectivity. But even then, how do you legislate to support the “unexpected”?

    It’s not really possible, but then that’s why it’s beautiful – art is enigmatic, and doesn’t fit well in boxes. Of course, that doesn’t help artists put bread on the table…

  2. John Bennetts

    Erm… Ben… About Cathy.

    She doesn’t run clockwise very often, if ever.

  3. Morgan Rickard

    It seems like it might be possible to implement such a system of appraisal rooted in a standard of excellence if it were approached from a cultural studies perspective as is taught in most undergraduate communications and arts courses in Australian universities.

    The problem would be that to accomplish this would necessarily cause a fundamental reduction in distinction between “art” appraisal (criticism) and the criticism (cappraisal) of any other publicly transmitted information (like news media, advertising, institutional communications etc).

    Art would be encouraged to be given a collectivist social discourse that would reduce the individual and subjective nature of the relationship between art and its audience (or an audience and its art as the case may be).

    Art (and its production) would also be henceforth burdened with an ethical responsibility toward this collective discourse, and more importantly that this responsibility would be positioned higher than any that might possibly felt towards its audience as subjective individuals.

    Art must then become a product without exception, and one which by default “must” direct its audience toward meaning (if only through its ambiguity – if such a thing were still possible). It must then mirror fashion in its method, and thereby become constricted by the same inhibiting market driven cyclic trends (as if this were not extreme enough already). Yet unlike fashion whose outcomes for the most part must always be dictated by the human body and its behaviours, art’s outcomes must always consider not only the human sensory organs (the body); but also its interaction with the human mind. This is an apperatus whose behviours are far less constricted by circumstance than those of the body; and it is this apperatus that will surely suffer from such a policy.

    So be it. Although the Art Directors Annual may need to consider increasing the size of their publication.

  4. Simon Loveless

    Is Ben capable of writing an article without getting his claws out for classical musicians?

  5. scottyea

    Art is entertainment, and whatever price it brings is what its worth. If art delivers ‘products’ that people feel inspired by, people will pay. It’s always been that way.

    Why should Government be involved again?

  6. Geoff Wells

    Well argued, Ben. Of course you’re right. ‘Excellence’ is one of those terms that derive from the modern management context of ‘performance management’–which doesn’t even work in management, let alone in the arts. What are you going to do, count the number of bowings the violinists make in a given period of time? The arts have to do with insight, values, illumination, celebration–and God help them in the grip of the bureaucrats.

  7. Eric Sykes

    “without getting his claws out for classical musicians?…..” er, no, he’s engaging in a debate about form, culture, class and value, and how the word “e cellence” has been strategically used, in Australia, over the last 100 years at least, to exclude a whole range of art forms from mainstream Australian awareness and thus, value. He’s not “got his clasw out” he’s commenting on historical fact.

  8. Donald Brook

    I do wish that Ben Eltham and his respondents would stop using the word ‘art’ as if it meant ‘works of art, as these things are identified and promoted by the artworld’.

    Art is something about which it is difficult to get agreement, except to the following extent (when people are really pressed to think about it). Art is encountered everywhere, and not only in the artworld. Whatever art may be, it is universally understood to contrast in an importantly fundamental way with exercises of skill directed toward some statable purpose.

    Arguments about which things should be recognised as works of art and about which of them are the most commendable are all based on the supposition that making works of art is a sort of skill directed toward a statable goal. Questions about the sort of skill that should be manifest in works of art are thus endlessly arguable. Some people will insist that works of art should try to show how life is, or how it might be; or that they should try to be beautiful, or funny, or politically perceptive or instructive; or whatever. There are as many answers to the question about what works of art should try to do, or try to be, as there are opinionated combatants.

    There is one answer that is more interesting than others because it seems (albeit deceptively) to be final. This is the answer: ‘Works of art should try to embody or to manifest art’. The trouble with this answer is not that it looks circular, because it isn’t circular. The trouble is that it is nonsense. How can anyone do purposefully what we all believe not to be doable on purpose, as if art amounted after all not to a genuine contrast with craft but only to a peculiarly recondite sort of craft?

    So there are usually two questions in play in essays like this one, creating interminable confusion. One is about what the artworld should do and what we should all do about the artworld, and this is like the question about what the government should do. It is a battleground on which hostilities will never cease. The other question is not about works of art at all. It is about the nature of art, as contrasted with craft, in any domain of human interest whether inside or outside the artworld. There is a definite answer to this, in which very few people are interested. My complaint is not about this. It is about the way a dispute over works of art with no possible resolution gets conducted as if it were an entirely different dispute over the nature of art; a question that might in principle be settled if only people could be induced to put their minds to it.

  9. Anne Sanders

    John walker
    Donald is quite right about definitions.
    Pragmatically speaking, because just about any thing can be art and anybody can be an artist , we must have a system that somehow rations the very limited supply of public money.
    Hence the complaint about ‘opera’ is not against the arbitrary granting, by power, of elite status rather its a whine about about the fact that elite status is not theirs.

    The endless assumption that arts/cultural policy is solely about public funding is getting tedious. All the Government sector ever talks about is money.

    You could go out there and relate to an audience that has freely chosen to pay to watch.

  10. Anne Sanders

    Sorry Donald I logged in using Annes Crikey account

    John R walker

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