Off limits excellence

I’ve kept diving into Google Scholar to look at excellence, arts, culture; some recent finds see excellence on a par with perfection (Moreh, 1998) and genius (Ginsburgh and Weyers, 2014). Some explore cultural excellence but they’re referring to ancient civilisations (Bain, 2016) and their cultural artefacts, assuming the skill to create such work is technically sophisticated and ‘excellent’. Some cultural policy mentions excellence in title alone (Brandis, 2015). We’re collectively shying away from committing an excellent definition of excellence to paper; there is a risk we might exclude something or someone important.

What’s challenging is considering all the manifestations of culture; it’s far broader than the those ‘traditionally associated’ with an arts policy; this would include ‘museums, the visual arts (painting, sculpture, and pottery), the performing arts (symphonic, chamber and choral music; jazz, modern dance, opera and musical theater, and “serious” theater), historic preservation, and humanities programs (such as creative writing and poetry)’ (Mulcahy, 2006). It typically now includes libraries, archives and ‘battlefield sites, zoos, botanical gardens, arboretums, aquariums, parks; as well as community celebrations, fairs, and festivals; folklore activities such as quilting, “country” music, folk dancing, crafts; perhaps certain varieties of circus performances, rodeos, and marching bands’ (ibid).

Mulcahy notes there is ‘a natural affinity between education and culture’ with ‘cultural offerings [as] core components of educational curricula’ (Mulcahy, 2006). He sees the connection between culture and education as important, as ‘exposure to cultural activities at any level of the educational system increases dramatically the likelihood of future participation and, consequently, broader support for a public cultural policy’ (ibid). Though I’m less inclined to see education as a vehicle for gathering public support for public cultural policy; but such a partnership has been formalised in England when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport work closely with the Department for Education on arts education related policy.

Excellence might be considered a form of exceptionalism; excellence cannot be a quality of everything as it assumes an element of distinctiveness that perhaps cannot be achieved by all. Or can it? Holden (2008) considers the arts to be ‘special’; ‘They are not the same thing as entertainment, and they take us beyond everyday life’ (ibid). We saw this in my earlier posts where the qualities of excellent art were arts that took us beyond the quotidian. Supposedly. Holden sees art possessing a ‘constant quest to explore new territory and to provide wonder’. Despite these exceptional qualities of art (the very qualities that were deemed ‘excellent’ in some of my previous reading but are considered by Holden as the components of all ‘art’) Holden feels they should be accessible to all, and ‘should not place them ‘off limits’ to anyone, because while the arts are ‘special’ they are also simultaneously, inextricably and healthily part of the everyday’ (Holden, 2008).

So excellent arts – arts that take us beyond the everyday – should be accessible equitably to all. But Holden does warn

There is no reason why ‘excellence’ should imply a backward-looking culture and, equally, there is no reason why ‘excellence’ should be conflated with exclusivity. But, conversely, we should be aware that appeals to ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’ can be used as a cover for maintaining social superiority.

Holden (2008)

So it’s ‘social superiority’ are the true users of excellence and quality. So I’m left wondering if we didn’t use the labels of ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’ at all if we might achieve the equitable arts and culture we’re all after. It reminds me of a scene from The Incredibles.

Dash gets in trouble in school; on the car ride home, Dash says “Our powers make us special,” to which Helen (Mrs. Incredible) says, “Everyone is special, Dash”.

Dash retorts back to her, “Which is another way of saying that no one is.” 

(Quoted from here).

If all art (and culture?) is excellent, can we really speak of excellent art?


Bain, W. K. (2016). Bishnupur: A Town of Cultural Excellence. Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India65(1), 89-105.

Brandis, G. (2015). Draft guidelines for the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Ginsburgh, V., & Weyers, S. (2014). Evaluating excellence in the arts. The Wiley handbook of genius, 511-532.

Holden, J., 2008. Democratic culture: opening up the arts to everyone. London: Demos.

Kevin V. Mulcahy (2006) Cultural Policy: Definitions and Theoretical Approaches, The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 35:4, 319-330, DOI: 10.3200/ JAML.35.4.319-330

Moreh, J. (1998). The pursuit of excellence. Social science information37(2), 351-360.

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