The Excellence Problem

If I built the best-ever VCR, would you rush out to buy it? Of course not. Even though my VCR might be the most excellent VCR, no one cares about VCRs anymore.

Being excellent at something no one cares about doesn’t get you very far. What was excellent yesterday doesn’t necessarily matter today. If I’m all about apples and you bring me oranges, I don’t care how good the oranges are.

So when orchestras or theatre companies say they are “excellent” what do they mean? Playing all the right notes? Performing in tune? The actors remember all their lines? These definitions of excellence are so common, there’s barely any point in mentioning them. So what makes the New York Philharmonic more excellent than the Toledo Symphony? Or the LA Philharmonic? They play the notes better? Their interpretation of the music is in some way better?

When the general level of musician technique was lower, orchestras with players who could perform technically brilliantly stood out. Over the past 30 years the level of technical excellence has improved to the point where we expect technical competence as a normal thing, so technical competence is no longer the definition of excellent. That’s average. And how many people can tell a meaningful difference?

Connoisseurs are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a great bottle of wine. But if I can’t tell the difference between a Chateau Margaux 1995 and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, the $400+ price tag on the Margaux makes no sense. Appreciation of excellence has to be learned, experienced.

The arts can be excellent. But for some reason we seem to have difficulty articulating their excellence in terms that matter to a large audience, so we resort to easy descriptions that mean nothing to most people. And when they go and can’t discern the “excellence” they’ve been told about, how do they feel about returning?

What will I feel if I hear your Beethoven? Why should I care about your Chekhov? How will I be changed by the experience? How about just telling me what the experience will be? Excellence is an over-used term. Actually, it’s a meaningless word if you don’t define it for the situation. And if you don’t define it, how will your audience learn?

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  1. Jennifer says

    Great question! One of our core values as an agency addresses Excellence:
    We are committed to the pursuit of excellence in everything we do and in the caliber of arts experience for all Illinoisans.

    Our Program Grant application review criteria includes “Pursuit of Excellence.” We provide some guidance as to what we mean:

    +artistic quality of the work or project and the aesthetic or cultural impact on its audience
    +demonstrates movement towards artistic challenges
    +artistic mission expressed with clarity and purpose
    +innovation of proposed activities

    These bullets are examples of issues that may be considered. These bullets do not represent the only means of evaluating the criteria and are provided only as a guide. They may not apply to every application and do not have separate point values in the review.

  2. says

    This is an excellent question – the elephant in the room question for artists – and Turning Point Ensemble recently pursued this question by canvassing artists, audience members, stakeholders, and even those with no stake in our efforts – and there are, of course, as many definitions of excellence as there are judges – however, we did find one common denominator – that being the time spent thoughtfully pursuing one’s artistic goal. It is one reason why a university orchestra that spends an entire semester learning a piece can present an “excellent performance” – arguably more so than a bunch of superior professional players who perform the same work with only a few hours of rehearsal. Turning Point strives to achieve excellence in numerous ways, but with the affirmation of this survey – a considerable priority on rehearsing for a greater number of hours than similar ensembles. Our success is not necessarily indicative of excellence achieved – but definitely for the efforts with which we strive for it.

  3. ariel says

    This so self evident result required canvassing artists etc ??? Turning Point needed a survey to
    understand the value of thoughtful rehearsal time , c’mon you’re joking .

    • says

      Ariel, I can tell by both your responses that you know something that clearly the entire arts sector has an issue working through. Please enlighten? If “excellence” is so self-evidently defined, such that you reaching out to the stakeholders for whom it matters is a wasted exercise, I’m afraid you’ve underlined the problem wondefully articulated in this article rather than successfully dismissing the well-meaning efforts to solve it. I’m honestly interested in the values that our stakeholders have – with the interesting conclusion that the ONLY common consensus was “time” – and yes, you might have guessed something similar without a survey – but my hunch is that everything you know as “self-evident”…is not. I saw a GREAT bumper sticker once – it said “don’t believe everything you think”.

  4. ariel says

    I am hesitant to respond since my comments have unfortunately never appeared on bumper stickers nor has my
    involvement in the arts been guided by bumper stickers . But let’s give it a try .The first is addressed to Illinoisans.?
    Explain the first requirement for a grant – we provide guidance…. then the most stupid line follows we mean”artistic quality of the work” -is there some air head out there who has a quality meter by which to judge a new work ? most
    new works have rarely met with approval; the Illinois agency must be judging a painting by numbers work where
    staying within certain lines can be judged for quality-as for aesthetic – whose ? cultural impact -only Lady Gaga
    The following three sentences are not worth the space given . It is all too stupidly demeaning to the unfortunate
    artist applying for the grant .I would hate to think the” excellence group” are paid for this nonsense .

    The world is full of the well meaning who are always conducting surveys for answers – makes em look
    good and puts bread on the table . The answer could be staring them in the face forever and a day but
    out they go for yet another survey . You have spiked my curiosity and I will keep a sharp lookout for
    any bumpers that carry profound meanings ….you never know …….

    • says

      I appreciate all these comments, Ariel, that can’t, alas :), be captured on a bumper sticker. I’m glad to have a more thorough dialogue, though, as the bumper sticker is like the ignition, but without gas in the engine – one goes nowhere. I totally agree with you that “artistic quality”, “cultural impact”, can be as meaningful descriptors as they are meaningless – but maybe because of that vagueness discussions around funding tables are that much more open to all? That’s a hope, I guess. Though I’d rather take Prokofiev and Mahler to my desert island – I’ve greatly enjoyed the quality of Lady Gaga’s live performances and I remember being advised that many artistsin the pop world cares more about performance practice than “early music specialists”.
      I’m glad to have this conversation – I’d like it to continue – and I trust those responding to this article will give it the serious consideration it deserves.

  5. ariel says

    Artistic Quality as compared to what ? Da Vinc ? Picasso ? Basquiat ?
    Cultural impact – more nonsense – first impact would be “I like it or I don’t like it – call that art? etc.

    It is phrases the air heads sitting around that funding table use thinking they show their intellects at work when
    all they reveal is their abysmal ignorance concerning the art process never mind the results .
    “Demonstrates movement towards artistic challenges “is a howler not to mention ” innovation of proposed
    activities ..” which defies any explanation . Believe me I know of what I speak having attended many of these
    depressing funding discussions. Most early music specialists fit in with this arts funding type .

    • says

      ok, Ariel – pretty easy to criticize – the harder thing is to decide with a limited resource what the taxpayer or Foundation board should support. The best VCR? to quote the article? So, what priorities would you advocate for when distributing limited financial resources? Those things which are “liked” by the most people? Those things integral to a small minority that needs support, and in fact is considered “not important” by the majority? It sounds like you’ve shared my frustration sitting at funding tables when deserving projects “fall below the line” – but maybe I’m an airhead – but the discussion/debates I’ve participated in with regards to how and why we fund have been very exciting and intellectually stimuating if also frustrating. One of the big issues I’d like addressed as a follow up to this article is whether one can ever compare community arts with professional arts – and if inevitable – how? The answer to me lies in what kind of community do you want to live in, and what the mix is of community art where participation of any expertise is welcome and encouraged with art made by those who spend the majority of their working lives developing their art-making skils and are often then teaching the community artists . I don’t claim to know the answer for anyone else, but I’d like my tax dollars to support those projects for which the amateur or professional partiicpant feels is “of quality” – hence the peer advice that you and I have provided at these tables based on our best efforts and the opinions of those who have spent time thinking about it.

  6. ariel says

    It was not criticism it is observation with comments . One main priority in all the shows I’ve ever curated was
    that works be as “original ” as is possible in this age of immediacy , it also guided the music presented.
    The general public does not enter the picture in any respect unless you are doing a block buster retrospective
    aimed at bringing in a large crowd and making money , there the hype and aim is of a different nature .
    I have never used any art or music presentation as community social work so cannot answer other than I doubt the artists
    want their works to be thought of as feel good work for the community . Every” true” artist believes they are
    among the anointed ones even if only five people know of them – it is all about talent and ego and if chance brings them world fame .”. well it’s about time ” If in this world basket ball players and baseball players may
    be considered elite why not the artist. Pursuit of Excellence has this all backwards .

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