Warning: Rant Alert!
Adam Huttler of Fractured Atlas fame recently blogged about data mining and preference discovery a la Amazon and Netflix as having important (although as yet unrealized and little examined potential for the arts). [Is House of Cards the Future of Cultural Programming?] This is vitally important territory, but as a self-acknowledged underachiever when it comes to research, I’ll let others dig into this vital work.
What grabbed my attention was Mr. Huttler’s re-articulation of a not uncommon concern expressed in discussions of reaching a broader swath of the community.
What exactly is the dividing line between respecting your audience’s taste and shameless pandering?
Mr. Huttler was not claiming this as an insolvable conundrum. Indeed, he said, “I’m certain we can pivot towards greater respect for our audience’s taste preferences without compromising our artistic integrity.” He is also on record as being something of a populist (by which I mean respecting the public–more on that in a second) when it comes to arts programming, He quotes himself from an earlier interview as saying: “[T]he tension between aesthetic integrity and popular appeal is overblown. All too often this ostensibly irreconcilable conflict serves as a convenient excuse for vapid artistic pretension, incompetent marketing, or both. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day, and he sold a lot of tickets.”
But the question posed provides me opportunity to address two concerns I have. One is the “artcentric” nature of the question. For the purpose of argument, let me reframe the question from what might be the point of view of a “panderee.”
What exactly is the dividing line between respecting your community and self-centered artistic arrogance?
Framed thus, it’s possible to see how the first question paves the way for “artistic pretension” and/or “incompetent marketing.” And, while the second may read as in-your-face outrageous by arts insiders, how is the former any less in-your-face outrageous to the community?
That’s the core concern I have with the issue Mr. Huttler rightly describes as a false dichotomy. And it is a vital one. If we don’t respect the people we are attempting to reach, we will have a hard time building a relationship with them. Successful relationships need to be built on a mutuality of respect.
The other concern I have with the question gets a little deeper into the respect issue. I’m not sure it’s necessary to respect your audience’s taste, at least not the way it’s implied by those who pointedly ask such a question. By that I mean I don’t think it’s necessary to “give them what they want.” Prior to the iPod and iPhones, who knew we all needed palm-sized juke boxes and computer/phones? Apple didn’t give us things we asked for. It gave us things we would come to want (and OK, now “need”) and it made them with style. The company considered the way people used and responded to entertainment and data and created things that would meet the needs, not necessarily the current wants. However, the rubric for success (the outcomes assessment) is that upon understanding what these things were, people developed incredible “wants.” The fact that Apple became the biggest company in the world is a fairly self-evident demonstration! If no one (or very, very few) had bought the products, their assessment of the need would have been proven to be wrong.
The key is to respect people. Giving people what they need rather than what they want is a form of deep respect, if that is indeed what we are doing. If we are simply giving them what we want to give, that is profound disrespect. In order to distinguish the difference, we need to reframe our own perspective and get to know “them.”