A respondent to an earlier post raised the issue of “quality” with respect to community engagement, suggesting in essence that engagement efforts inevitably result in a reduction in the artistic merit of the work. My response was, among other things, that if there is a decline in artistic quality in the arts engagement process, it’s not engagement’s fault. In fairness, I need to elaborate on that. We’ve got to address this elephant in the room eventually. This is as good a time as any.
Coming from a “high arts” background, I was sympathetic to this concern early on. Over the years, however, I’ve become increasingly impatient with it. Let’s see how succinctly (and dispassionately) I can articulate my thoughts. This may take more than one post. There are at least three questions I’d like to pose: Who decides what quality is? What do we mean by quality? and What impact does access to resources have on artistic quality?
Who decides what quality is?
While it’s not always the case, at least sometimes when the quality issue is raised it is being done by a gatekeeper who, consciously or not, is concerned about the loss of authority that could come with admitting “non-standard” [e.g,, non-Western or non-"high art"] artistic expression into the canon. Expertise in one artistic expression does not yield expertise in all. If the issue of quality is going to be raised, it’s necessary to have experts in the art weigh in. Outsiders are poor judges of quality in unfamiliar realms. I sometimes ask students whether the fact that they (or friends of theirs) don’t like opera means that opera is not good. Eventually even they must admit that in terms of absolute quality, they may not have sufficient background to make the call. In evaluating arguments opposing engagement, the perspective (and unconscious motivations) of the person arguing in opposition must be considered.
What do we mean by quality?
We know it when we see/hear it? This is not a standard that works well for pornography; it also has limited value for assessing artistic merit. The European canon privileges “spectator art” (non-participatory arts experiences) and technical excellence (you hear the word “prowess” often used in this context). I don’t deny that much greatness is found here. That’s the background from which I come. But there are other ways to think about this. There need to be multiple categories to consider when assessing quality.
For instance, why is spectator art more inherently excellent than participatory art? A case can be made (and I would like to make it) that the capacity for an artistic expression to welcome participation should be on the list of criteria for excellence–not the sole criterion by any means, but on the list. Not all art should be participatory. Art that does is valuable; art that does not is simply lacking this element–not a negative criticism, just an observation.
Similarly, why is technical excellence an a priori good? As I pointed out in The Arts’ Four Noble Truths, Arlene Goldbard showed me a new way of thinking about this: the greater the technical excellence, the more artificial it could be considered. That is not absolute truth, but it is an important alternative understanding. The phenomenon of castrati in 17th- and 18th-century opera demonstrates a telling extreme in the relationship between technique and artificiality. To make the same argument via a positive spin from the other perspective, handmade/home made work is arguably richer and more authentic.
A further thought is to be found in Scott Walters’ post on the meaning of excellence in his blog Theatre Ideas. (I won’t begin to try to parse the difference between excellence and quality here.) He says that “Excellence exists not in the work of art itself but rather in the interaction between the work of art and its audience.” While I would not go so far as to say that this is the only criterion for excellence, I would agree that it is one and, to me, an important one. To put it another way, if the art doesn’t touch anyone (and I will include posterity here) how valuable is it? And to take posterity out of it, if it doesn’t touch anyone now, is it more valuable (excellent, of high quality) than work that does? If the art fell in the woods and no one heard it . . . . oh well, you get the idea.
I’d better stop for this time. But, if we are going to have a conversation about quality and community engagement we need to open our view to a broader understanding of what quality (or excellence) means. When I’ve got the energy to continue this, I’ll address the resource equity issue and a couple of related ideas.
The Pillsbury House + Theatre in Minneapolis, MN is dedicated to the proposition that excellence rests in both community engagement and artistic product. [Disclosure, again: PHT is the subject of a case study that Noel Raymond and Denise Kulawik have written for Building Communities, Not Audiences.] PHT is a (nearly) twenty-year-old Equity company “operating within the context of (and subordinate to) a large human services agency with a mission of both social service and social change.” What they say about the quality issue is ” While, increasingly, we hear about the need for arts participation independent of any considerations of quality, our experience tells us that the quality of the art created and the overall experience is key to organizational effectiveness. Furthermore, working with under-served communities makes the emphasis on quality of even greater importance.” I am particularly struck by the concern to emphasize quality in their dealings with under-served populations.
As a side note, PHT has learned some interesting marketing lessons from outside the realm of arts marketing thought. As they say, “Our audience building success owes more to strategies gleaned from the fields of community organizing and human services than arts marketing.” Just one of the benefits of engagement.