Divining “Artistic Excellence”

diving rodIn the arts industry, “artistic excellence” is routinely posited as an empirical fact—a thing outside of our individual heads and hearts that is locatable, measurable, quantifiable and justifiable. Like thirsty shamens with divining rods, somehow those of us with aesthetic expertise can locate artistic excellence through the vibrations we feel when we get near it.

I’m skeptical. First of all, I think our industry use of the term “artistic excellence” is messy. Sometimes we are referring to professional standards: the technical proficiency of a musician or dancer, the sophistication of a play’s dramatic arc, the architectural flow of a sculpture, the harmonic intricacy of a musical composition. This usage makes sense—there are (somewhat) tangible guidelines in all of these disciplines for technical and structural achievement that we can, generally speaking, agree upon. (Except when we can’t—which is more often than most of us would like to admit.)

But arts workers often conflate that definition of excellence with something far less tangible and thus far less quantifiable: taste. And taste, as I argued in my last post, is a socio-economic construct that is, by definition, fluid.

That is because taste is part of the meaning making process. Personal taste in everything from beer to Shakespeare comes about through a combination of biology, past experience, cultural norms, and individual predilections. It is not by accident that the English word taste refers both to the gustatory sense and to a sociocultural process—both usages have their roots in the Latin taxare, meaning to evaluate or to handle.

On a biological level, gustatory taste is rooted in special neural systems that ward us away from bad foods. As cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom points out, babies and young children cannot be disgusted (the word’s literal meaning is “away or apart from taste”); that reflex emerges at about age three as an aspect of neural development. In a related fashion, preference, an aspect of taste that also has biological roots, is clearly affected by knowledge. Knowledge “doesn’t change the experience itself but instead the value that we give to the experience,” states Bloom, “and this alters how we talk about it and think about it.” The major point here is that belief affects experience itself. So taste, as an aspect of experience, is driven by belief.

Which leads to the definition of taste derived from our social experience. We are born into our tastes via social class, ethnicity, even family preference (“what my group likes”). We are socialized into our tastes via associations with various sub-cultures (“what I need to like in order to be a part of this group”). And we acquire our tastes via individual expression (“what I personally like/my thing”).

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, philosopher Pierre Bourdieu argues that taste is a sociocultural construction based on class structure and what he calls habitus—those aspects of culture that are anchored in the daily practices of individuals, groups, societies, and nations and that produce and reproduce the practices of an economic class. As Bourdieu understands it, any given habitus not only informs but also controls cultural capital, his by-now well-worn term for the accumulated knowledge necessary to make cultural distinctions (and thus to operationalize taste making).

In Bourdieu’s view, taste is less an ontological or epistemological problem and more a behavioral phenomenon—we acquire our good taste by emulating those with good taste. We in turn also regulate social mobility by using taste as a weapon of social stratification, because, as Bourdieu argues, the “most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated. This means that the games of artists and aesthetes and their struggles for the monopoly of artistic legitimacy are less innocent than they seem.”

The struggle for the monopoly of artistic legitimacy is the history of civilization, of course, and there will always be new taste makers (artists, aesthetes, administrators, critics, historians, bloggers) to continue that struggle. That’s a good thing. We all benefit from rigorous discussion about legitimacy in any field. The arts are no exception.

But a healthy arts ecology is about more than artists and aesthetes. We need to find productive ways to invite audiences of all tastes (and all economic and ethnic backgrounds) to join in the conversation about (the struggle over) meaning and value.

And we need to find the generosity of spirit to create more space for audiences of all tastes to explore their knowledge and experience of the arts with us.


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  1. says

    Rather than inviting audiences of all tastes to join in the conversation about meaning and value, which suggests that we somehow own that conversation (and thus have all the taste), shouldn’t we instead be participating – with selfless curiosity – in the audience’s ongoing conversation about meaning and value?

    I can’t help thinking that the when we set ourselves up as the gate keepers of artistic excellence and, by extension, the arbiters of artistic taste and interpreters of meaning and value, we’re still working to prevent the “sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated.”

    The only hope most large, traditional, audience dependent arts organizations have for survival lies in finding the place where prevailing tastes and artistic excellence overlap. We’re not going to find that place if we keep insisting that the audience has to come to us and we have no fundamental responsibility to go to them.

    • says

      Hi Trevor:
      I think you are exactly right. We should be participating in the audience’s ongoing conversation about meaning and value.

      But part of the argument I am making (which I lay out at some length in my new book) is that the sacralization process that began in the late 19th century and continued through the 20th century quite effectively silenced audience-centered and audience-powered conversation about the serious arts. Now we live in a kind of conversational vacuum, wherein many generations of Americans have been taught that the arts are too special/difficult/elite/etc. to venture an opinion. Somebody has to address this. I’m suggesting it’s the responsibility of arts workers to create environments (both live and digital) that invite audience-centered and audience-powered talk about the arts. Not to guide the content of the talk, but to help desacralize the arts environment so that audiences once again feel welcome to make meaning in a public way.

      And you are also exactly right when you note that if we hang on to concepts like “artistic excellence” we most certainly are working to prevent the “sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated.” As I write in my book, the arts industry’s habit of hiding behind a concept such as “artistic excellence” is, I think, at best a simplistic method of operation that makes it easier for dominant individuals to set the agenda and, at worst, a willful practice of social separation and segmentation. In other words, despite the apparent freedom of choice in arts-going in American culture, our own class-based concept of taste and the gatekeepers who maintain it ultimately restrict access to the arts.

      In my own work with audiences, I am not interested in talking about “artistic excellence” as either an aesthetic concept or an ethos for curation, production and/or performance. Even if it exists in some objective way (which I challenge), it isn’t the point and it obfuscates the more critical dialogue about the audience’s right to interpret the art they consume (of whatever type, in whatever manner).

      • says

        I think you’re really onto something, Lynne, when you suggest that we may be restricting access when we refuse to let go of our class-based conceptions of taste and ownership of excellence. There’s a profound dissonance in arts communications between the irresistible compulsion to dictate taste (look at any classical music brochure) and the desire to motivate participation. Today, of course, the latter is almost entirely dependent on our willingness to abandon the former, but most institutions find it impossible to do. The irony is that we’re using what should be motivational communications to try to reinforce our elevated class positions and, because the messages cancel one another out, they’re accomplishing neither objective.

        “We really, really, really want you to spend a lot of money on our products, but only if you’re willing to acquiesce to our superior ability to tell you whether or not you should like them.”

        • says

          In our capitalist driven cultural everything is trying to dictate our taste. The NFL, General Motors, the GOP, the new restaurant down the street. Every commercial entity is trying to sway you to like what they think you should like and get you to do what they think you should do, and to spend your money where they want you to spend it.

          So, I’m confused as to how does Art, which is probably the last bastion of free thought left in our culture, get portrayed here as the big bad wolf. Why? It seems to me that people today have more freedom to choose with their pocket books than ever before. You can’t even make the argument that people are forced to support with their tax dollars what isn’t to their liking.

          We are also more culturally diverse than ever before in our country. Every city seems to have ethnic museums and cultural centers, festivals to celebrate genders, races, classes, communities, parks, and even city block parties. If you run a community group, an arts center or organization, a theater, or a major museum our neo-liberal society now requires you to raise your own money to follow your mission.

          Every artist, arts advocate, organizer, theater director, museum curator has as a primary focus ‘artistic excellence.’ How is any conversation about excellence obfuscating people’s right to choose or enact their own taste?

      • Sarah Andrews says

        “In other words, despite the apparent freedom of choice in arts-going in American culture, our own class-based concept of taste and the gatekeepers who maintain it ultimately restrict access to the arts.”

        So let’s say we make art that we believe to be tasteful. I have a hard time imagining why that might be inferior to making art we find to be distasteful, simply because we feel some concern with respecting the right of some collective audience to be the master of meaning. Personally, the very reason I, as an audience member, engage with art is to have my thinking and my tastes challenged. I don’t really want the art I consume to cater to my innate tendency to be self-referential.

  2. says

    Defining excellence is knowledge based. To be able to know who is an excellent surgeon, or baseball player, or which work of art is an excellent piece and which isn’t, one has to have knowledge of the subject at hand. Taste on the other hand is anyone’s personal opinion. You don’t have to know anything about science or art to have a personal opinion about it. That is your personal taste. But that also doesn’t mean your opinion is a knowledgable one or worth any credence.


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