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

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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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