Excellence and Engagement: I

Advocates for community engagement in the arts often get pushback from people who assume that concern for the interests of our communities necessitates a “lowering of standards.” What follows is my attempt to address the misgivings (legitimate and otherwise) people have and to address them as clearly as I can. It is intended almost exclusively for arts organizations. Artists should be perfectly free to approach their art in whatever way seems best to them. However, if they are concerned about relevance or reaching more of the public, there may be things here of value.

Art Is an Expression of Culture
As background for what follows, it is important to acknowledge that all art is an expression of a specific culture. As such, no art is truly universal. One need only put a Shakespearean play and a Noh drama side by side to see the truth of this. The greatest works from any culture are rooted in universal principles but they do not translate (literally and/or figuratively) well between widely disparate cultures. There is an unconscious assumption that the great exemplars of the arts with which we are familiar are universal and that those with which we are not are parochial. This is an understandable but ultimately unsupportable view. Similarly, excellence in an art form is important within its cultural context but not superior to the same level of artistic excellence in work from another culture.

As just one example, music of the European aristocratic cultural tradition emphasizes harmony and counterpoint. The great works provide dazzling displays of both. However, largely because of that, it is based on some of the simplest rhythmic structures among world cultures–generally, one need only count to two, three, or four to master that aspect of the music. In contrast, African and Japanese drumming and Indian ragas demand feats of counting and the ability to play cross-rhythms that would befuddle the professional musician in an orchestra devoted to European masterworks.

The point here is that no culture’s greatest art is inherently better than that of another. It is also true that it is extremely difficult for someone to adequately assess the quality of art from a culture with which they are unfamiliar. Cross-cultural comparisons of greatness are nearly impossible and, for all practical purposes, pointless.

With that as a background we can consider issues regarding artistic excellence inside a given form of cultural expression. There are two principal categories generally used in assessment of the quality of art. Technical excellence, the mastery of the elements of an art form, is one. It is sometimes quantifiable–the speed with which a musician can play scales, the number of accents an actor has mastered, the skill with which a painter manipulates perspective. But all critics acknowledge that technical excellence by itself, while impressive, is insufficient for greatness. The art must also be “expressive,” bringing forth the human feeling or experience associated with and undergirding the work. This aspect is nearly impossible to quantify but is also insufficient by itself. Great expressiveness without technical excellence is simply messy. The technical flaws usually distract from and diminish the experience.

These two aspects of excellence are critically important and form the basis of most people’s concerns about community engagement. However, those are not the only criteria for excellence. In workshop settings I sometimes ask participants which is better, a quilt made by an internationally renowned artist or one made by your grandmother. Obviously a “trick” question, the point, of course, is that they represent two completely different types of value. The former presents technical excellence and expressiveness, the latter personal meaning to the grandchild.

There are categories of excellence unrelated to technique and expressiveness. In a 2014 essay, “But What About Quality?” (http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2014/09/but-what- about-quality.html) Nina Simon suggested dimensions of quality that could be considered in assessing excellence. (See below.) While not a thoroughly vetted list, it does, like the quilt question, highlight the fact that excellence is not a unitary thing. It is also diverse enough to show that excellence in one area does not imply excellence in all. Indeed, some of the categories may be so divergent as to be almost mutually exclusive.

[Next time: Consideration of three categories of excellence.]



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From Nina Simon:
AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
RELEVANT: can people relate to it?
PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?

  1. Using Nina’s list as a springboard, one criticism of community engagement in the arts is that funding for such projects tends to privilege excellence in a few of those areas (participatory, relevant, and sometimes igniting) over excellence in others that require more investment in artist training and artistic experience to produce (aesthetic, technical, academic). If an artwork does not have to be relevant to any particular cultural group of people to be excellent, there’s no reason to fund participatory and relevant excellence to the frequent exclusion of aesthetic and technical excellence. Empowering and funding communities to create their own art of excellence makes a lot more sense than community engagement projects which frequently require formally trained artists to focus on creating art with untrained potential artists of a different cultural background, when they could be producing their own excellent art for a different audience, This is one of the hard limits of cultural relativism.

  2. Excellent post, Doug.

    Theres a great scene in Bas Lurman’s “Ballroom” where the protagonist, who thinks he’s mastered the paso doble, meets a poor Spanish family on the other side of the tracks. He dances for them and is humiliated to discover that his technically excellent ballroom version of the dance looks ridiculous in comparison to the authentic version practiced by this family.

    I mention it because your thesis here brought it to mind, but also because the hero’s experience leads to a catastrophic dismantling of the organizational structures that supported the ballroom culture’s technically precise but otherwise empty standards of excellence.

    I wonder if we avoid exposing ourselves to other cultures’ standards for fear that our own may be found wanting, and that the value hierarchies that sustain us may ultimately be undermined.

    • Trevor, it sounds like your example from the book implicitly privileges the poor Spanish family’s version of the dance. That is, instead of recognizing that “looking ridiculous” is simply a matter of perspective. Yes, in the context of the poor family, formal ballroom dance looks weird, but inside the ballroom context it obviously is entirely appropriate. Is the lesson of the book that it was then somehow objectively *right* for the character to dismantle the organizational structures of ballroom dancing? That seems like an overreaction!

      The story as you tell it seems to rely on fundamental values that the narrative simply expresses. It is not an argument for the non-technical version as much as it is simple partisan boosterism. I could imagine a different story where the poor family attends a ballroom class, is embarrassed by their difference, and decide to take up the more technical version. Does that actually ‘prove’ anything? You can make a story supporting either perspective, but that doesn’t mean one is necessarily right and the other is wrong.

      You conclude by asking, “I wonder if we avoid exposing ourselves to other cultures’ standards for fear that our own may be found wanting, and that the value hierarchies that sustain us may ultimately be undermined.” I wonder in what sense it seems necessary that one form ‘undermines’ the others? Are they necessarily in competition? If they are not aiming at precisely the same things in what sense is it even appropriate to measure them by the same standards?

      But I get the temptation. The similarities between art forms sometimes make it seem as though comparisons were somehow simply obvious if not in fact actually necessary. But that always says more about us (our needs and motivations) than it does the things we are judging. We focus too easily on what things are shared, what they have in common, than acknowledging and valuing the differences between them. We don’t always respect differences in their own right.

      It is as if we found the need to undermine checkers by discovering that it is played on the same board as chess. If we think it is a competition with winners and losers we fail to appreciate that each art form is doing its own thing. Somehow we have subscribed to a zero-sum outlook and stopped seeing the value in different people doing things differently.

      If you can eat pasta one night and meatloaf the next, does one thing necessarily undermine the other? We simply have reasons for doing one and different reasons for the other. They are not in competition. Not inherently or necessarily. Each thing in its own time and place. So why would one version of dance necessarily undermine another?

  3. It’s important to note that for the most part, in our society (US) art is not simply “an expression of a specific culture” but of a specific artist within that culture.