Excellence as meaning in art

The Story of Excellence

In the arts, particularly in the arts and faith discussions, even more particularly in the Christian faith and arts discussions, we love to use certain words. The words are quite meaningful, but their constant use actually starts to dilute meaning. Words like Faith, Beauty, Relationship, Art, Love, Gospel, Excellence — we use them all the time, but their applications have become so diverse I truly doubt any two people talking about one of those words will be talking about exactly the same thing.

Take Excellence for example. What do we really mean by Excellence? I know it might seem self-evident, but it really isn’t. The easy assumption, such as in the arts, is excellence in technique. But what technique? Was Mark Twain an excellent grammarian? Is B. B. King an excellent guitar player? Is his technique on par with, say, Andre Segovia?

Okay, maybe we don’t really mean technique in general, but technique within a certain context, technique in telling a “story”. B. B. King is an excellent Blues story teller. He tells the story of Blues exceptionally well. But we can’t use how well someone plays the Blues as criteria for all music excellence, only Blues.

Vincent van Gogh, was not an excellent painter if how realistically one paints objects or subjects is the criteria. There were and are better painters at realism than he was. But he was excellent at telling a story in a way no one else had done.

Even the word Story is laden with implicit meaning — a story that is easily understood, one that follows a logical course to a logical conclusion and can be comprehended as such. Cinderella. Beauty and the Beast. Brandenburg concertos. The Night Watch.

What of Stravinsky? Philip Glass? Nijinsky? Ornette Coleman? Kandinsky? Howard Finster? These are people who not only wanted to tell stories in different ways, but also wanted to tell different stories.

When I come across people or organizations looking to facilitate excellent art I question what it is they truly want to facilitate. What do they mean by “excellent”? And why is that so important?

The point is Excellence isn’t a goal. There is no such thing as “excellent art”. There is art. Either people connect or they don’t. You can’t even judge art by how well or easily people connect or engage.

We are to do our work as unto the Lord. I don’t take that as “excellence”. I take that to mean as in there is a more important purpose to the things we do, a greater meaning than the sum of the parts of our work. Excellence, if this is what that passage means, is an attitude, not a result, not a quantifiable measure, for, who knows the heart? There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.

There is skill. That is a quantifiable measure. Someone needs to have the skill to accomplish a given task, such as building a temple, playing a particular piece of music with a particular instrument in an expected way. But skill does not in and of itself add meaning, not on its own and not abstracted from the goal.

Jesus didn’t seemed concerned that anyone might not understand what he spoke of in his chosen art form of parables. He even seemed to expect it. To be sure, he seemed quite annoyed that his disciples didn’t understand and annoyed that they even asked him to speak plainly. How do you reconcile excellence in that regard?

Even when Jesus tells an old story in a new way, such as “If you even look at a woman lustfully you commit adultery”, or “The greatest commandment is Love God, number two is Love your neighbor, and all the other commandments hang on these two”, people today seem to want to make him not mean it or mean it conditionally, or mean something else, even as they preach God’s unconditional Grace and Love.

But there is power in being the one to define the words. When we are the ones using the word Excellent, then we get to say, to judge, what is and isn’t excellent. When we define the word Gospel, we get to say who is and isn’t preaching or living the Gospel. Even when the definition is as simple as “good news” we will imbue ourselves with the power to make it mean we have power and judgement over others. Is that power really ours to have? Is that really the good news? What is the Gospel? “Jesus is the answer”. But do we really want the answer? Or do we want power? Who is our neighbor?


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