Expressing Excellence

Being the grumpy cat lady I am, I love to read newspapers. Every morning I have a fixed routine of opening a freshly printed one, reading it front to back as fast as I can, before my new kitten has had the opportunity to turn the pages to confetti. I lovingly christened the fur ball “Aramis”. Right now though, “Destroyer of Worlds” would have been a more appropriate name.

Normally, I wouldn’t write about what’s in the news. I like to keep my blog as politics-free as possible. But something extraordinary happened these past weeks: An article was dedicated to the arts! And not in a negative way either, which is quite unheard of in a country where ‘art’ is often synonymous with ‘that stuff my 4-year-old-cousin-could-do’. Of course. I had to write about it.

From Modernism to the Art of Modern Medicine

The article was about Het Stedelijk, the museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam. It is THE institution in the Netherlands when it comes to Modernism. They recently – well, fairly recently – changed their policy to become more inclusive and diverse and put their focus on creators other than the ‘typical white middle-aged man’.

Like artistic/esthetic values, social/political values have always been a part of Modernism, diversity included. And rightfully so! What worries me though, are the new additions to the team of Het Stedelijk. The new curator of Photography is an art critic, not a historian. For the new head of Education and Inclusion, they hired a political scientist. How do you guarantee the quality of your collection when the people you hire don’t seem to have the skills required to recognize it?

At the same time I read about the Modern Museum of Art, there was also a piece about the Dutch Universities of Medicine. Many of them are thinking about abolishing the cum laude system, where you can graduate with highest honors. The National Student Union explains that “we’d rather have an active and critical classroom” and that “excelling should not be part of the culture”.

Excuse me?! One does not exclude the other. Since when is it a bad thing to be good at your job, or to want to go the extra mile? Imagine a patient on an operation table saying: “I’m sorry, doctor, but you’re too qualified to handle my open heart surgery. I’d rather have someone less capable.”

My Art Is Trash

At first glance, the two articles seem to have very little in common. But this lack of ‘excellence’ is something that the art world is struggling with as well. The ‘my-4-year-old-cousin-could-do-it’-cliché at the start of this writing didn’t arrive out of nowhere. In our past rat race to create the next crowning jewel, we have often missed the mark. A banana taped to the wall, canned fecal matter, a bag of garbage, anything could be considered art. Criteria for quality crumbled with each new ‘revelation’, and with it our reputation among the general population. If we can’t convince our neighbors that our work is worth spending money on, then who can?

The Modern Museum of Art in Amsterdam is not the only museum trying to diversify their collection. It is something you see in our western culture as a whole and it’s important. But! At the same time, there’s a tendency to pull focus from the art and to place it on the creator and their ‘qualities’ (namely gender and skin color). In an attempt to right past wrongs, we are focusing so much on the social/political side of Modernism, that we forget the artistic/esthetic side of the equation. But it’s within the balance of things were we find magic. Where we can show art from all over the world, of the highest quality, of creators who excel in their craft.

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