copyright 1990, Mary Stewart

Several years ago a particularly interesting program was broadcast from the National Town Meeting in Washington, DC. The program involved a panel discussion of “The Pursuit of Excellence”. Along with the positive benefits, the panelists and audience also discussed some of the less obvious characteristics of the pursuit of excellence.

One panelist noted the comparative nature of excellence. If all performance is equal, he argued, there can be no “excellence” as no performance rises above the average. It is only in comparison that one performance stands out as excellent.

A set standard is needed for such comparison, another panelist noted. When the Cubs play the Mets in the World Series, the number of runs earned in a game bound by various rules and played on a particular field determines the most “excellent” baseball team in the country. Although umpires are required to make difficult judgment calls, the games rules are clearly stated and both teams agree to play by the same rules.

The standards for excellence in the Miss World Pageant are considerably less certain. Each country entering a contestant in the pageant has its own standard of feminine beauty. Given the diversity of humanity, it is absurd to expect an Italian, a Norwegian, and a Nigerian to share the same criteria for beauty. If blue eyes, rosy cheeks and blond hair determine beauty, a native Hawaiian can never win the prize.

Judging other cultures by our standards of intellectual excellence can be equally misleading. An obsession with technology can be particularly destructive. Because we in the West have put great emphasis on technology, we often dismiss as “primitive” those cultures less technically advanced. Although the Maoris of New Zealand may not have the technical equipment needed for production of nuclear missiles, their martial arts and story telling abilities may be more valuable in their culture.

In art, the value of a learning process as opposed to the value of a completed product further complicates the issue.

Many teachers believe the learning process must remain paramount, especially at the foundation level. The product, however, is the only tangible evidence one can present to gallery directors, admissions personnel or job interviewers of the excellence of one’s work. While the learning process is the means leading to the product, no amount of good intentions can replace strong imagery.

In addition to the academic or professional standards of excellence discussed above, a personal standard of accomplishment can be especially valuable to first year students. A realistic assessment of your own objectives and background can help produce an appropriate personal goal. Few of us can excel instantly–yet too often we tend to set unrealistic goals, then berate ourselves for failure to achieve them.

Sometimes the goal is at fault, rather than the achievement. Those with extensive experience in art may initially set higher personal production goals than those with little of no previous experience. Those working with totally unfamiliar media must value each progressive improvement as an essential step in building the technical, perceptual and conceptual skills needed to produce the best work.

There are no short cuts. Each of us has a range of unique capabilities and sources of strength. By reducing our weaknesses and developing our strengths, we can fully realize our own unique potential. Excellence at a personal level can then be used as a springboard for excellence in the public arena.