Show Standards
Their meaning and interpretation
Jean-Paul Maas
Harrison Weir, the first president of the first club of friends and breeders of cats, the British "National Cat Club", and the initiator of our Cat Fancy, wrote the very first breed Standards in 1889. He called them: "Points of Excellence". Weir must have been a musical and a visionary man. Whoever reads them now, is astonished how he created from scratch breed Standards that make a highly modern impression today. The newest GCCF Standards, notwithstanding all the changes in the course of time, are in essence the same as what he formulated more than a hundred years ago. Just as astonished are we, when we look at pictures of Victorian and Edwardian pedigree cats. From sepia-brown photographs on glazed cardboard, cats look at us who at today's shows would not even merit a "Very Good". Nevertheless the judges of that time, on the basis of breed Standards that are not essentially different from today's, were honestly of the opinion that the cats presented conformed to the Standard to such a degree that they merited to become Best of Breed and Champion.
1902 Persian Longhair black tabbies
NCC Champions
But even when we look at much later pictures of show cats, our astonishment hardly subsides. In 1972, somewhat more than a quarter of a century ago, Grace Pond, a world famous authority of her time, published "The Complete Cat Encyclopaedia", a standard work full of pictures of the best cats the British Fancy could show, Champions and Grand Champions galore. Today's verdict? "Very Good" most of them, some perhaps "Excellent, title withheld". And don't forget, in the Cat Fancy of that time Great Britain was Europe's leading country, the absolute and uncontested number one.
1972 Persian Longhair black tabby
GCCF Champion
(The caption in The Complete Cat Encyclopaedia read: "showing his well-developed male head with good whisker-pads and good bold eyes".)
Arriving at the modern Persian Longhair type as shown below, the conclusion must be: much similarity in the wording of the different Standards, a world of difference in their interpretation.
Clearly it does not suffice to formulate a Standard. By experience every Standard is "poly-interpretable" in a high degree and cannot be more than a "leitmotif". Every new edition of the "Show Standards" of the American "Cat Fanciers' Association", CFA, starts with a preface by Jean Singer, from which the following:
"No standard can or should set down to the last millimetre of a whisker a scientifically exact diagram of a cat. Nature never produces exact replicas anyway. The standard is a objective and artistic guide to a judge's own good taste and educated sense of proportion. In like manner a composer sets down his notes, tempo, dynamics, and phrasing as a guide to the interpretive musician, but he must rely on the musician's own sensitivity and knowledge of style to make the music live. A cat is a living, breathing, moving being that must be observed as such - not as an inanimate piece of machinery or a frozen corpse.
Certain things a good musician never does such as interpret slow for fast or loud for soft. Likewise a good Judge could never interpret coarse for fine or short for long, though these terms be merely relative and not absolute. For example, how long is long and how tall is tall? This is the area in which the "art" of interpretation operates."
So far Jean Singer.
So, a Standard is not a judge's Alpha and Omega. It does not define a living cat but is the point of departure from where a judge evaluates an individual specimen.
Scales of Points
Do we then find the beginning and the end of a judge's guidelines in the Scales of Points? Do they form the precise yardstick along which we measure the excellence of an individual cat?
No, they don't, for several reasons. First, because an undefined but not inconsiderable proportion of the points goes to imponderabilia that together are called "show condition". In addition, this proportion, although unspecified, is different for various groups of varieties. Many, even experienced, exhibitors think that condition means no more than "clean and free of fleas and tangles". But show condition means far, far more.
Jean Singer again: "Condition mirrors the total cat. Diet, care, environment, and heredity all play vital roles in producing a well conditioned cat; every facet of the cat reflects the results of these important factors. The show cat should be in prime physical condition. It should be faultlessly clean. Grooming should enhance the beauty of the cat, emphasizing the nature of the breed. Well balanced temperamentally, the show cat should be receptive to the judging procedure. A calm stable disposition enhances the cat and allows the judge to evaluate and display the cat to its best advantage. General health and vigour are reflected by clear eyes, shining coat, and alert appearance. In movement, the cat will exhibit the characteristic grace and beauty natural to its breed. As an exhibit is handled by the judge, his hands record the size and shape of the bone structure, the muscle tone, and the basic conformation of the cat."
Second, because there is little uniformity between different varieties in the distribution of the points for different aspects of the cat. Last, because no living cat merits the full total of one hundred points as this represents an ideal and by definition an ideal should remain out of reach.
So, a judge deducts a little here and a little there from the total. How much? Well, if he or she thinks the cat merits a certificate, especially in the Champion class, there is not much leeway, is there? Suppose a judge is placing say ten cats in one class. Now let us presume that all of them have enough intrinsic quality to justify a title. But only one can win. If judges were placing them by the scale of points, before they know, it would be a matter of a difference of fractions of a point. And that clearly is only a seeming exactitude. Therefore, the Scale of Points is not more than an indication of the relative weight of different aspects of a cat with different varieties.
The conclusion must be that the Standards, detailed as they may seem, give only a "poly-interpretable" leitmotif and the seemingly exact Scales of Points are no more than a rather vague, relative guideline either.
Where does this leave us? Is all this supposed to mean that the evaluation process of judging is no more than a most individual expression of a most individual taste? Is a judge an "arbiter elegantiarum", when it is at the same time true that "de gustibus non disputandum", that taste is an inappropriate subject for dispute?
Apparently not. Notwithstanding all the aspects that cannot be weighed or measured, it is clearly desirable to strive at a general overall unisonous assessment of show cats. What is required to bring about such a common opinion? How far should this desirable uniformity in the evaluation process of judging go?
What do judges do?
What do judges do? They interpret the Standards and the Scales of Points. Without these there can be no judging. But, as we have seen, they cannot do that in theory. It must be done in continual practice. Judging is a craft. It can only be learned on the basis of observing and handling individual, living cats and then be exercised in practice the best way one can. Not without reason, both the Dutch and the French independent judges' associations call themselves a "guild".
The correct conception of how the Standards must be understood is tied for time. It must be agreed upon over and over again in a continuous process of statement and feedback. Agreed upon not only between the judges themselves but with the breeders as well. Especially with the breeders, because one may imagine a Cat Fancy without judges if need be, but not without breeders.
The right interpretation of the Standards comes forward from the exchange of views in a dialogue between judges and breeders. From the warmth of this friction originates the spark of the truth, momentary as it may be. In the end the authority of a judge's decision rests with its acceptance by the exhibitor. Perhaps not in each and every individual case, but certainly in general.
Three questions complicate this matter. First, the desirable degree of uniformity in the evaluation process. When we speak of the desirability of unisonous decisions by judges, this cannot imply that their verdicts have to resemble each other like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
The Tweedle brothers
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)
If that were the case there would be no need to organize shows in the way we do now. It would be enough if a cat would be assessed once in a while by one travelling judge. Or, better still, the cat would have to pass through a scanner. The points thus gained are then fed automatically into a central computer and out come placements and titles, neatly arranged in a printout. As a consequence, shows would be "presentation" shows only.
If we do not want that, and we don't, then "unisonous" judging cannot mean more than "agreeing in principle", whereby a certain, limited deviation is condoned. In order to know what the norm is and how much deviation makes one an outcast, both the judges and the exhibitors need to check and adjust their viewpoints continuously in a communal ritual song with occasional new verses and long refrains.
Is there a more international community than the Cat Fancy? I personally am of the opinion that the international person-to-person contacts are perhaps the greatest asset of our hobby. I like to think of cat breeders as the real Europeans, more likely to be free of prejudice and xenophobia than others, who don't have the opportunity to meet so many people with so many different backgrounds from other countries.
But then, to return to the metaphor of community singing, it is necessary to be willing to sing - like Jean Singer's musicians - in the same rhythm. In other words, much contact and much willingness to have an open mind is essential.
Of course, judges want to steer away from crooked jaws and weeping eyes as much as any responsible breeder but that does not make a slight dip a good break, nor a flat forehead round.
This brings us right to the second poser. Is show quality identical with breeding quality and if not, what then is in fact the use of judging for breeding quality? Or, put in another way: Is a judge responsible for the health of show cats?
Of course, a judge, like anyone else in the Cat Fancy, shares responsibility for the health of show cats. However, no judge can be any more responsible for feline health than in a very restricted, negative way. There is the GCCF's Standard List of Faults, and what a good initiative it is. But no judge is able to evaluate on the show bench to what extent normal feline behaviour has suffered from a too high degree of consanguinity, if a female reproduces normally or not, if cats from some blood lines die much earlier than from others, which hereditary diseases they may carry and transmit to their descendants, and so on and so forth...
In accepting for health reasons cats of average to mediocre type, useful as they may be in a breeding program, as show cats worthy of show titles, there is, as so often in life, a wee dram of truth, stirred with big lies and a generous helping of hypocrisy.
Cats are not natural. They are domesticated. With all their endearing demonstration of independence, they are in fact entirely helpless. Stray cats are lost before long. Soon frightened, hungry, filthy, diseased, they are run over by motorists, destroyed by farmers, killed by hunters, put down by vets.
The "naturalness" of pedigree cats is a myth. What is meant is a highly artificial aesthetic exterior, an appearance experienced as "natural" by acquired taste. The kind of "natural" from publicity for fashion or cosmetics.
Pastime or sport?
And with that we have arrived at the third complicating question. Is breeding show cats a pastime or a sport? If we were really exclusively concerned with the health of cats we should stop breeding pedigree cats altogether and direct our efforts to breed for vigour, stamina and character only, to breed cats for their function as household pets, as companions and social partners, regardless of any breed type. And if we would do that, then our hobby would be no more than a useful, pleasant and rewarding recreational pastime.
If we don't want to confine ourselves to just that, if we want to breed show cats, almost solely bred and judged on outward appearance as we do now in the Cat Fancy, then we have no other logical choice than going to the limit and try to restrict the undesirable side effects as far as the rules require.
Authoritative bodies must set the rules, stake out the bounds to which we should all loyally hold. They have an important task, especially as far as breeds with hereditary defects as determining breed characteristic is concerned. But, within these borders, it must be much like Foster Dulles' brink policy: going to the outside limit without ever crossing the threshold. In other words, then breeding show cats is a sport.
Nobody, in or outside the Cat Fancy owns the truth. Some may be more successful in maintaining that pretension than others. But it is false and a lie all the same. The truth is in the making. In this conception, it does not exist and never will. This, however, does not release us from the obligation to persevere together in seeking it. It is both the challenge and the charm of our hobby.
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