Tag archive for » quality «

The Importance of Venue

Sunday, 5. January 2014 23:56

In a recent blog, Seth Godin makes the point that if we think we are supposed to like something, we probably will. He uses the examples of laughing more at a comedy club, liking the food better at fancy restaurants, and feeling like we have a bargain if we buy it at an outlet store. In other words, the venue influences the perceived value of the experience.

Reinforcing this idea is the Washington Post experiment instigated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Weingarten and implemented by Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor Joshua Bell. Bell, lightly disguised, played as a street performer for 45 minutes at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC on January 12, 2007. Only seven people stopped to listen and he collected a total of $32.17. Earlier the same week, he had played the same concert to a sold-out $100-per-seat house.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet once compared New York and Chicago theatre audiences in what seems to be a comment on the same phenomenon, “In Chicago, we just presume that the best theatre is going to be in somebody’s garage.”

This about more than the environment in which an art work exists, it is about the perception of value (the qualitative portion of audience expectation) based strictly on venue. Because of the prices we pay, and the location of the theatres, we expect New York theatre to be the best in the world, and consequently we like it more. As we move away from Manhattan, our expectations shrink and we expect to like what we see less; we are hardly ever disappointed. We look at the environment and adjust our expectations. Is it a union house? Are the actors professional? Are they students? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we modify our expectations according to the venue. We expect less and like it less.

This way of thinking does not apply only to theatre. We base our expectation of the quality of any art on the venue and the location of the venue. So when we walk into the hole-in-the-wall club in Tennessee, we do not expect to hear world class music.  When we visit an outdoor art fair in Texas, we do not anticipate seeing mature, masterful work. We do not really expect world-class anything outside of the “proper” context.

Like many of the passersby in the Washington Post experiment, many of us are so locked into the idea of how we are supposed to respond (according to location and situation) that we cannot hear the actual quality of the music or see the real quality of the art.

An earlier installment of this blog, “Context Matters” said, “The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.” Although certainly a desirable ideal, the more I learn, the less sure I am that decontextualization is a real possibility—at least for most people.

And although we know very well that quality is not related to venue, as artists we need to be aware of this phenomenon and realize that where we show our work does indeed matter to the majority of our audience. We may not like it, but we had better learn to deal with it.

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Art is Not Just a Matter of Preference

Sunday, 15. September 2013 23:44

When I was an undergraduate, I had an English professor who said that the accomplished student of literature should be able to read a poem and separate the quality of the work and whether or not it was personally appealing. The implications, of course, were that not all poetry is created equal and that liking something has nothing to do with whether it is good or not.

This has not been a popular position in the postmodern world, where all work is pretty much equal. And although postmodernism is, according to some, dead, it left a legacy. Daniel C. Dennett has said, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

And as elevated as the egalitarianism of postmodernism sounds, most of us who work in the arts know that it simply isn’t true. There is good acting and bad acting, good directing and not-so-good directing, good writing and bad writing. There are, in fact, qualitative differences in the performing arts. And other arts are no different. Given that, the problem is articulating what constitutes good art and less good art, and that, in turn, requires that we be able to distinguish art from non-art.

Although many have attempted this, novelist Leo Tolstoy is one of the few who not only distinguished art from non-art, but articulated the conditions which determine the qualitative levels of art. Tolstoy collected his views in a book called What is Art? It is not an easy read. Fortunately, Maria Popova has summarized and presented Tolstoy’s ideas in a recent posting to Brain Pickings. Essentially, Tolstoy said that art is a union between the artist and viewer or receiver of the art that allows the receiver to feel and experience the feelings and experiences that the artist put into the work. Additionally, this union works not only in one era, but across time and cultures. He says that what distinguishes real art is the presence of this infectiousness.

He goes on to say that the stronger the infection, the better the art, and that the degree of quality is dependent on three conditions:

  1. The individuality of the feeling being transmitted. (More is better.)
  2. The clarity of the expression. (Clearer is better.)
  3. And the sincerity of the artist. (Sincere is better.) This is the most important condition.

Sincerity in Tolstoy’s view is what gives art it’s power and is the source of its infectiousness: “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

Whether or not we fully agree with Tolstoy, or even understand him, most of us instinctively know that all art is not created equal. There is excellent work and there is crap, and there are all sorts of levels in between. Most of us know that. It’s time that we quit pretending that it’s all about individual expression and acknowledge that Tolstoy has a point. Art is not just a matter of preference.

Category:Aesthetics, Quality | Comments (1) | Autor:

Artistic Success: A Matter of Definition?

Sunday, 26. May 2013 23:47

It is very evident that the student’s comment that he wanted to “live an artistic life” engendered much discussion. The meaning of the phrase was, according to the student, to support himself by doing his art. One person with whom I discussed this suggested that the student’s was likely to produced art of diminished quality. Further discussion revealed that the idea was based on two suppositions. The first was that the student would cling to the notion of supporting himself through art without regard to the quality or level of work produced. And this, of course, is based on the other supposition: that certain types of art are superior to other types.

For many, the question of the superiority of one type of art over another was resolved by the postmodernists, who declared very loudly that there was no high or low art, or if there was, there was no difference between them. Of course, not everyone accepted this idea. We sometimes hear photography instructors criticize a student’s work as “too commercial,” which somehow makes it unworthy, or music instructors who are certain that if a piece is less than 100 years old, it cannot be possibly be considered art.

To be sure, some works of art are of higher quality than others. Some are more difficult, more complex, more sophisticated than others. Some exhibit a higher degree of craftsmanship than do their counterparts. In those ways they may be superior. But to say that one type or form of art is inherently superior to another is nothing but bias and snobbery. Certainly within every category of art are those qualitative differences that exist in almost every area of human endeavor.

The other consideration is whether the student in question is willing to reduce the quality of his work in order to make a living from his art.  Some would say that if the student were to be a soap opera actor rather than performing Shakespeare, he would have become an actor of diminished quality. If he had set out with the goal of becoming a Shakespearean actor, that might be the case; working on a soap opera would certainly represent a failure to achieve his goal. If, however, he had set out to be a professional actor, he would have succeeded admirably.

Likewise, if what you want to do is sing for a living, and you front a cover band, and that pays your bills, you are indeed singing for a living and thus succeeding in making a living from your art. Thomas Kinkade, according to most critics, failed at painting fine art masterpieces; however, Thomas Kinkade succeeded wildly at making a living from his art.  Whether the artist, in his/her attempt to earn a living from artistic work, succeeds or fails depends on how the artist defined his/her artistic goal in the first place.

Will this student be able to support himself doing art? We don’t know yet. Will he have to figure out exactly what success means to him? Of course he will. Will that demean his art? I think not. So far, it seems that he does not aspire to act Shakespeare or sing Wagner; he wants to sculpt and make music and perform; some might consider what he does lower forms of art. He doesn’t; it’s his art and he loves doing it. And, I suspect there is a market for it. He just has to find it.

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“Make It Work” Does Not Mean “Produce Substandard Quality”

Monday, 18. February 2013 0:20

An actor whose name I don’t remember once said on Inside the Actor’s Studio that the phrase he hated most was “That works.” Although he did not elaborate, I think to him the phrase represented something less than excellence, or perhaps a willingness to accept a product that was not planned in advance. In another television show, Tim Gunn has made the phrase “Make it work” a rule to live by, although that phrase also raises questions in some people’s minds about excellence and certainly about meeting deadlines.

I suspect we all, in the best tradition of the reality “skills” shows, have had to “make it work” on some project or another—or maybe every project. In most cases, this has to do with meeting a deadline of some sort, whether it is imposed by a client, a show, a pre-existing schedule or ourselves. Most of us have learned that if we allow ourselves the luxury of not finishing a piece because it presents challenges, we would never get anything done. We would never, in Seth Godin’s words, “ship.” And if we are to be productive, we must ship.

This necessity forces us into a “make it work” mentality. Sometimes, the time constraints that we place upon ourselves cause us to find a solution that works—at least for the moment. Developing this mental attitude, in turn, provides the pressure we need to overcome some the difficulties that we were having in realizing the work.  What “works” is probably what we would have done if we had had more time with the project. Having to make it work in order to meet a deadline just made us find that solution sooner.

That done, we may have a varying set of responses to our own work. We may be quite satisfied, so shipping feels good and right. However, we may have had the very common experience of creating something that works but is still not satisfying. What we then do about that turn of events varies. In some instances, we ship and forget it; after all, we gave it our best effort, and that is all that can be expected of anyone in any situation.

Other times, however, our dissatisfaction nags at us. That shape in the corner just isn’t what we want, or that color is not precisely what it should be, or this paragraph doesn’t quite reflect the feelings we want to convey. It works, but it doesn’t work as well as we would like, or exactly the way we want it to. In that case, it might be well to revisit the work with a little perspective —if we still have access. If it is a work that allows us to “correct” future copies (photography, prints, writing) or it has not shipped, and we have figured out what to do to make it better, we should do it by all means—if for no other reason than to ease our minds about it. This, of course, is the reason there exist multiple versions of many books and poems. Those are easily modifiable—even if thousands of copies have already shipped.

Pieces that are already in the hands of collectors are more problematic. For those, the best solution is to leave them alone; they have a home, and modifications can only disturb an already-satisfied collector.

So, if you find yourself in what you consider a “make it work” situation, make it work. If your work does not reach your quality threshold, set it aside and make something else that does; if it meets all your criteria, ship it. If you need to revisit the subject later, do so. “Making it work” does not mean that your work will be less than it should be. “Make it work,” simply means using everything we have, our experience and skills and insight and creativity (and all the serendipity our individual karmas can gather) to make the best work we can, given the constraints of the situation. In other words, make our art the way we do normally.

 

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An Artistic Philosophy–Why it’s Important

Sunday, 10. February 2013 23:30

If you study Henri Cartier-Bresson, you cannot but be struck by the quality and consistency of his work. (If you are not familiar with his photography, you might want to look here or here.) What strikes you immediately is that none of it is posed; it’s all captured. He said himself, “’Manufactured’ or staged photography does not interest me.” His work bears out his words. Even the portraits are captured; you have the feeling that as far as the subject is concerned Cartier-Bresson might as well be a piece of furniture.

This post, is not, however, to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s work or photography in general, but to consider how one of the great artists of the twentieth century managed to do what he did and discover if his approach has anything to teach us.

He said, “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” Photojournalists, or those photographers who work in that style, spend entire lifetimes trying to master the approach set forth in the first part of the quote, an ability that Cartier-Bresson seems to have had from the outset. Perhaps it is not a learnable skill; perhaps it is one of those abilities that we either possess or do not.

And there are some of us to whom that way of working seems foreign indeed. A number of artists, even photographic artists, plan and experiment and pose models and do all sorts of intricate things, not because they lack Cartier-Bresson’s ability to size up the situation instantly, but because that is that way that works for them. For many of us, the creative act is not instantaneous, as it was for Cartier-Bresson, but rather a process, and sometimes a rather complicated and involved one that takes some time—and in some instances quite a long time.

That Cartier-Bresson’s “precise organization of forms” was instantaneous, certainly does not diminish yours or mine or anyone else’s who works at a different pace. More important—for us anyway—is the latter portion of the quote above, that we put our head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Only by doing this will our work achieve the excellence that most of us are aiming for—it must be the product of all our faculties.

The second quality of Cartier-Bresson’s body of work is the consistency of it, another goal to which many of us aspire. If you study his work and writing, what you find is that the foundation of his style is his philosophy of what photography is and his assumptions about how excellence is achieved. This philosophy informs all his work.  We are not talking about technique or environment. What we are talking about is a personal philosophy, an idea of what constitutes good work which governs his approach, technique, and choice of tools, and which enables him to engage eye, head, and heart to generate a remarkably high quality product consistently.

What Cartier-Bresson has to teach us is that if we develop our own philosophy of what makes an image or a sculpture or a poem or a play, then base our personal aesthetic and methodology that, we are more likely to facilitate full engagement and produce consistent results that are satisfying, both ourselves and our audience. It’s more than developing a style—it’s establishing a way of thinking that serves as the foundation of all our work, regardless of subject matter or medium. Our philosophies and resultant methodologies may differ drastically from that of Cartier-Bresson and from each other, but they are just as valid, and with such underpinnings, our work can improve both in consistency and quality.

 

 

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Originality, Photography | Comment (0) | Autor:

New Beginnings

Sunday, 6. January 2013 23:47

This time of the year we hear a lot about new beginnings and modifying our lives, our businesses, our art. It seems that it’s a time to evaluate where we’ve been and adjusting so that the next year will be better. Some will create lengthy lists of resolutions, but most of us realize that, with a few exceptions, resolutions fail. Other pundits, Like Seth Godin, suggest that we make an inventory, as “a way to keep track of what you’re building.” What is curious to me is that you never hear about this sort of thing at other times of the year.

Why is this time of year the season for appraisal and adjustment? Certainly, nowhere on the planet are we even near the rebirth phase of the natural biological cycle. We are, in fact—at least those of us in the northern hemisphere—just about to step into the depths of winter. Perhaps that is it; this could well be considered “dead time.” Several artists I’ve talked with recently regard January, and perhaps February as “creative time,” which, so far as I can determine, means that they choose to spend this time making art—perhaps because of the unfriendly weather and lack of other activities. This means, of course, that they have already done their evaluation and path-setting, so now they are able to move forward.

Still there exists the question of why the majority of people use January as the marker for judging past performance and setting standards and goals for the coming year. The answer is simple. Most people’s lives are not segmented, but continuous.  They go to work, come home, eat, sleep, relax a little, and do it all again. The cycle is the work week, with months overlaid and seasons providing a sort of background. But almost all cultures celebrate winter holidays of some sort, and these holidays seem to last a little longer than others. So things slow down, and in slowing down there is time for reflection. And then there is that event called the “New Year.” Yes, just another day, but a day when we get to hang a brand new calendar on the wall—which looks for all the world like a fresh start, a new blank page. A new beginning.

And that is something we all crave. Humans, at least those in western society, seem to need to fresh starts. And as artists, we have more of them than most people, because we—and it does not matter what kind of artist—work on different schedules from the majority of the population. Each artist may be a little different, but we all work on projects, and projects have ends. Dancers, choreographers, actors, directors, scenic and costume designers work on “the show.” The production is conceived, rehearsed, performed, and closed. The painter or photographer or sculptor works on a piece or a series, which also has a completion arc. Writers work on the book, the poem, the short story, the essay, the blog entry. None of these conform to the calendar year.

And even though many of us (if we’re lucky) move from project to project, there is usually a point at which we can look back and evaluate what we’ve done, and perhaps discover ways to improve our working procedure or efficiency or whatever might need adjustment to improve our output. Performing arts production teams often hold “post-mortems” to evaluate procedures and approaches. Individual artists rarely do anything so formal, but we do have an opportunity not available to all: evaluating our work and adjusting on a per-project basis rather than once a year. It’s up to us to take advantage of those opportunities.

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Actors and Salaries and Art, Oh My!

Monday, 9. July 2012 0:11

A headline attributed to Forbes appeared not long ago in my news reader summary: “Kristen Stewart’s Lavish Pay A Sign That Nobody In Hollywood Knows Anything.” It turned out that the headline belongs to an op/ed piece by Kyle Smith, a Forbes contributor. Smith’s position seems to be that Stewart, who topped the current Forbes Highest Paid Actresses List, earning $34.5 million, did not make a significant contribution to the films she was in. Smith cannot find connections between the high incomes of major movie stars and the number or earning power of the films in which they appear. Nor does he see any connection with branding of the films.

Anyone who has studied film should understand that movie-stardom and the quality level of film are not really related. Movie-stardom is about a relationship between a movie person and his/her audience. It has very little to do with acting ability, profitability, or anything other than celebrity. Sometimes, movie makers can cash in on that popularity and utilize it for marketing (Historically, it has been used as an aid to market stability); sometimes not.

Smith also seems to miss at least one point that Forbes staffer, Dorothy Pomerantz, in a business news article, “Kristen Stewart Tops Our List Of The Highest-Paid Actresses,” makes quite convincingly. Stewart is in demand; fans would allow nobody else to play Bella Swan in any of the latter Twilight films. Thus, she (and her co-stars) could command a significant salary and a percentage of the profits. And why would the studios not pay? Hollywood, after all, is (and has always been) about the money, and if the producers want the movie to make more money, they will give the potential customers what they want, and if what the customers want is the actors they are used to seeing, regardless of the level of talent or skill, then they are who appear on the screen. And that same fan base justifies a higher salary for these actors in other movies.

Putting any actor in any role is a gamble into which many factors play. As far as I can determine (without digging too far), at least nine other actresses were considered for Stewart’s role in Snow White and the Huntsman. Replacing any actor playing any character can and does change the nature of the film. The choice of Stewart, and her accompanying higher price tag, was not a chance thing done for no reason.

Another thing that is evident is that the money paid a person working on a film is not automatically related to “crafting a story.” Money in American film is allocated not in a way that will necessarily contribute to artistic improvement, but in a way that will make more money. One reader of Smith’s article points out that Forbes also nominated Stewart as one of the most profitable/bankable stars of 2011 because “she was netting an estimated $56 for every dollar she was paid.” That is a pretty good return on investment according to almost anybody’s way of thinking.

Aside from finances, there are a number of considerations in putting a film together, artistic considerations being only one. Creative projects, as any of us in the arts know, tend to take on a life of their own. Once you are committed to the project, we will do almost anything to bring it to life. In the case of movies, this involves many compromises and much collaboration. And it includes scheduling: is this actor available when we want to shoot? Do we modify the schedule? Do we find another actor? Will these actors working together make the project better or worse? Should we pay more for this person, material, location, or less for that person, material, location?  What is the nature and availability of our funding? What is our window of opportunity? How will modifications impact audience acceptance? How much are we willing to compromise? What about the project is really important? How badly do we want to do it?

In the end, what becomes important is completing the project, realizing our vision. And we do what we have to do to make that happen, whether we are collaborating with others to produce a multi-million dollar movie, a stage play, a concert, an art show, or working individually to produce a photograph, painting or sculpture.

 

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To Make Good Art, Find Your Type and Embrace It

Sunday, 29. April 2012 23:38

Last weekend, I was cameraman for an acting-for-film workshop. Among the issues that came up were questions and suggestions about auditioning and getting jobs. The instructor advised students to learn what type(s) they were and then go after roles that were that type. She went on to say that actors should be comfortable with what types they can and cannot play believably.

Her basis for all of this was that film is an intensely visual medium so it is very useful to know how you come across on camera. This enables you to go for roles that “fit” you physically, which means that you can be visually convincing for your audience. At the same time she said that the camera will pick up your personality whether you want it to or not, so it makes more sense to admit that your personality informs your work.

Essentially her advice was to find out who you are and who you can be and embrace that. It seems to me that this simple instruction might be sound advice for any artist in any medium. Perhaps those of us who are not actors need to discover who we are as artists and embrace that and let it inform all that we do artistically.

Perhaps then we can actually make art that represents us and our world view and our values and emotions and all of those things that we were going to do when we first started. And that would guarantee that we would put ourselves into our work. Perhaps then we can allow ourselves to ignore the fusillade of advice that bombards us daily about how to sell our work, how to advance our careers, how to modify what we do so it will better fit the marketplace.

But then what about those careers? How are we to sell what we make if all we do is make art that represents and pleases ourselves? The workshop instructor’s answer to this question was, “Money follows bliss,” another version of the more familiar “Money follows passion.” As simplistic as it sounds, almost every career guide echoes this idea. If we are blissful or passionate doing what we do, it is likely that that will come through, and we will do a better job and create better artifacts. And it is equally likely that viewers of our work will see the quality and the passion and reward us.

If we try to be all things to all people or if we try to produce whatever is trending in the marketplace, we do a disservice to ourselves and to our talent. And we may find that if we wander too far from our own “type” of art, from who we are, our work can become confused, unconvincing, forced, or trivial.

This certainly does not mean that we cannot change. Most of us do change; many of us evolve. Some of us care about different things at different times; those changes can certainly be reflected in our work. Others of us have much the same interests and concerns that we had decades ago, but we may develop new ways to express those concerns and interests. Regardless of who we are or how we express ourselves, what is important is that we allow ourselves to create work that reflects us, and does so honestly.

None of this means that we can disregard auditions or juried shows or gallery exhibitions or having an internet presence or networking. But it does mean that that we can believe in what we are presenting, that we know what we are offering is real and valuable and genuine—and ours. It may take a little longer to find our audience that way, but we can and we will.

 

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Less than Successful as an Artist? Consider Reducing your Output

Monday, 12. December 2011 1:38

As you may know, there is currently a glut of advice to artists. It doesn’t matter what sort of artist you are, or what medium you work in, advice is abundant and easily found. Some advisors want to charge you for their words of wisdom; others will happily give you their opinion for free. Almost all of the advice out there boils down to one thing: be prolific; produce and then produce some more. This is always followed by sales advice, which is a whole subject unto itself. Lately, however, I have come across suggestions that perhaps high-volume output may not be exactly what we need to be doing.

This is not to suggest that you can become an expert in any less than the 10,000 hours that studies suggest are required to gain expertise in any field. But it is to suggest that in order to be successful, or influential, or even famous, you do not necessarily have to produce a new piece of art every week. Real art takes time, and often requires repeated tries to get it right. And unless you are a hack, my guess is what you want to put out into the world is work that is right, or as close to right as you can get it.

And I am serious about the successful, influential or famous part. Consider, for example, that Dutch painter Jan Vermeer produced less than 40 canvases during his lifetime, or that award-winning poet Grace Paley produced only three books in her thirty-year career, all three of which were critical successes. Robert M. Pirsig has written exactly two books, at least one of which may be the one of the most influential philosophical writings of the twentieth century.  Harper Lee produced a single book: To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Leonardo da Vinci completed “only about 15 paintings in his whole lifetime.”

There are a number of reasons for this level of output. Some artists may have said what they have to say and feel that to keep making unsubstantial work is a waste of time and energy. Some are involved in other equally important activities. Such was the case with Grace Paley: “Part of the reason she had such a small output is that she was busy with other things , not just raising kids but working as a peace activist.”

Sometimes it’s the nature of the work. Daniel Grant in his article “The Art World’s Slowpokes” lists seven contemporary artists with relatively small annual output: William Beckman, Barbara Dixon Drewa, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Candace Jans, Scott Pryor, Douglas Safranek. All of these artists are photorealistic painters, an art which require painstakingly detailed painting, which, of course takes enormous amounts of time.

Christina Patterson says that, based on his writing in his notebooks, Leonardo “thought, like all great artists, that nothing he did was ever good enough. He knew that people who thought their work was good enough were nearly always wrong.”

So it’s a matter of quality and judging what is good enough to show other people, at least according to Leonardo. It’s a novel concept in an era when every image that a photographer produces and every painting that an artist makes appears instantly on Tumblr, or whatever the current “in” website is. And if we’re so busy producing that we lose sight of quality, maybe it’s time we reevaluate. Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Maybe that’s something that we should all think about.

 

 

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Arts Awards – Really About Excellence?

Sunday, 19. June 2011 23:59

In a conversation about the Tony Awards this week, someone said, “I expected you would blog about it.” It had never occurred to me to write about the Tonys. It’s not that I don’t care about Broadway, it’s just that I don’t have much to say about them. I do not see much New York theatre, so I can’t really comment on the comparative quality of the shows. I didn’t watch the awards live, so I can’t comment on the show itself, except those portions I watched on You Tube.

What I can comment on is the idea of awards in the arts. How can you be against recognition of excellence—if that’s what the awards are? And there are some: the Pulitzer Prize comes to mind. As does the Booker Prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. But then there are those awards that come with nationally televised presentations and lots of advertising: the Tonys and certainly the Academy Awards.

Unfortunately these sorts of awards are subject to heavy campaigning in the media. This, of course, has to do with the privilege of being able to put “Winner of x number of some kind of award” in the advertising for the play or the movie in question. So the awards become something other than recognition of excellence.

Now I am not naïve enough to presume that no politics enter into deciding the awards in other arts, but it seems to me that they are less subject to advertising and activism. At least the jockeying for prizes, if there is such, is much better concealed from the public.

What I object to about such awards is not that they are used for financial gain. Film and theatre are, after all, produced in order to make money. Hopefully there is some art along the way, but the ultimate goal is financial, and awards help producers reach that goal. What I do object to is that heavily publicized awards seem to turn their respective arts into contests; that is what art is not.

The result of the most recent contest is that The Book of the Mormon and War Horse have become more marketable commodities. However winning multiple Tony Awards did not cause them to become suddenly more accessible as works of art. The upside is that more people now know about the productions, and potentially more people will see them. The downside is that the publicity will attract detractors and uninformed criticism, some of which will be the result of attendance by those who are not ready for the art of these two shows.

The role of the audience in any theatrical production (or any art) is not completely passive. You have to bring something to it, if you are to fully enjoy it. And often the more you can bring, the richer will be your experience.

Art is not easy. It seems that the better the art is, the more that is required from the viewer, and the less appeal to a mass audience it has. Many artists work very hard to make their meanings clear. Some artists, on the other hand, work very hard at making meanings obscure and allusions oblique. Neither approach guarantees the intended audience will appreciate that meaning or its expression. Neither does the winning of awards.

It may be elitist, but it is true that to be able to access to the very best art, one must have some education and background. This is hardly the case with mass-marketable commodities, which is what the highly publicized awards attempt to create.

Unfortunately for those trying to commoditize it, art is difficult. And worth it.

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