First the Seed: Embracing Arts as a Means to and End

First the Seed.

As I head to TCG to moderate a panel with Diane Ragsdale, Diane Paulus and Chad Bauman on how to better integrate art and artists into a conversation about audience engagement, I feel a little like I’m walking into the set up for a joke and I don’t know the end of it.  “An arts marketer and advocate walks into a bar full of artists and says, ‘Maybe art is really a means to an end…'”  Then what?

I’ve been thinking about this shift, from a mindset where the making of art is the center of the enterprise to a mindset where the making of art is a tactic towards a larger strategy for social engagement or advocating against injustice or perhaps just happiness or fulfillment or thought, and as I sit here preparing the questions for this panel (a dream panel of three of the people I respect most in the field), I find myself getting more and more riled up at what I see as an impulse towards navel-gazing self-pretense in much of the conversation about theatre and art and relevance and society.  As I read Diane Ragsdale’s thought-provoking post on Jumper about whether the socially-driven mission goals inherent in the non-profit structure have gotten in the way of a more basic impulse to nurture art, and as I read Polly Carl’s opus on the perceived perils of a transactional mindset in an artistic enterprise, I find myself reacting much more strongly than I initially thought I would.

In the late 1940’s, the line of citrus stock responsible for the Persian lime (the most popular lime in the world, and what you probably use in your gin and tonic) started to suddenly contract a certain virus that drastically shortened the tree’s life.  In most cases, this would have been an easy problem to solve, as tree viruses of the type affecting the Persian lime are not transmitted to seedlings, so all you’d have to do is plant a seed.  The issue, however, as recounted in John McPhee’s book Oranges, was that “Persian limes contain so few seeds, however, that the researchers…cut up eighteen hundred and eighty-five Persian limes and found no seeds at all.”  So, in 1952, two researchers went to a processing plant in Florida and carted away two truckloads of pulp (all from Persian limes), picked through it, and found 250 seeds, which they planted.  From those lime seeds “came sweet orange trees, bitter orange trees, grapefruit trees, lemon trees, tangerines, limequats, citrons—and two seedlings which proved to be Persian limes.”  The part that surprises scientists who specialize in citrus plant growth, however, is that they were able to get any Persian lime trees at all.  The genetic variability of citrus is so wide that those two Persian limes were precious, statistically unlikely gifts—and at the same time were the only truly desired outcome of the exercise.

I was reminded of this story recently as I was being driven back to the Raleigh airport by my brother after visiting my parents for a long weekend.  The drive back is long, about two hours, and it runs mostly through planted fields of tobacco, cotton, corn, strawberries.  Usually, I read to pass the time, but in this case, at one point I looked up just as we were passing a large barn-style building painted flawless white, and on the outside, above the main sliding door in large elegant cursive letters, were three words: “first the seed.”  First the seed, yes, but not only the seed.  It is the most important part of a multi-part process that gets you a plant.

I have occasionally thought of the Persian lime story since I first heard it in college because I think it has something to tell us about where we all sit in the ongoing journey of a patron through an artistic experience—and at least to me, it serves as a reminder that the art, the seed, is the absolutely crucial, infinitely complex, wonderfully compact beginning of what is hopefully a long and fruitful unpacking and growing up of the full artistic potential of that piece for the patron, sometimes over years—and that we need to understand that more nuanced context as we attempt to address questions of relevance, equity and impact in the field.

The story of the Persian lime serves to remind me of exactly how little control we generally have over the final form of the memories our art makes in people—and moreso, how little we seem to want to exert whatever small amount of control we have, given the opportunity.  Like the Persian lime, which is what McPhee calls “a natural hybrid,” the art that is presented is open to variation, interpretation and change.  Some people are “right on target,” and interpret as we hope they will, and some people—well, they’re bitter oranges in a land of Persian limes.

In horticulture, this makes sense.  But when I start talking about cultivation (in the horticultural sense, as in attempting to cull out undesired outcomes) in context with artistic consumption and, more specifically, post-consumption interpretation, I experience a huge amount of pushback.  Why is that?

In 2011, David Dower told a story that, to me, illustrates what happens without cultivation.  He was sitting in the house of Manhattan Theatre Club watching the New York production of Ruined, a dark and lyrical, Pulitzer Prize-winning play about female genital mutilation in the Congo by Lynn Nottage.  In front of him was a late-middle-age couple, a man and a woman. As the play progressed, the man quickly fell asleep and stayed that way almost without pause through the end of the play, when the houselights came up, people launched to their feet to give the show a stirring  standing ovation, and his wife angrily hit him on the shoulder.  As he groggily got to his feet at her insistence and began to clap, he said, “What’d I miss?”  And she said, “Oh, it was wonderful.  It was like South Pacific set in the Congo!”

That, my friends, is a bitter orange. The answer, of course, is not to (as you would in a horticultural setting) to pull up the start.  The answer, instead, is to be unafraid to be clear in your desired outcomes for the art as the artist, the producing organization and the marketer, and to be unafraid to power those outcomes forward into the minds of the audience in whatever imperfect way you can.

In Diane Ragsdale’s latest post, she recounts a conversation with an immigrant playwright who was commenting on the state of American non-profit theatre, in particular the stipulation that, in being non-profits, theatre organizations must ultimately function from a place of education and social good.  She writes:

On my way out the door to grab a cab to Union Station I ran into a playwright (now based in the US but originally from outside the US) and we had a quick chat. In the midst of our conversation she commented on the nonprofit system of organizing and funding the arts in the US, making the point that the system is flawed because it puts all art in service of social or educational goals—and in doing so constrains artists and art. Her point was that all work created in a nonprofit structure must serve the instrumental ends of education and be in service of a mission. Her perspective as a playwright, in particular, was that nonprofit theaters create mission statements, and then programmatic strategies to fulfill those mission statements, and that such strategies inevitably filter or limit the types of plays that can or will be selected. The question she seemed to be asking: What happens to the artists whose works falls between the mission cracks, so to speak? (italics mine)

I guess my reaction to this is, well, yeah.  Yes, theatre organizations don’t simply exist to allow your personal artistic expression without regard for what its point is in society.  It is in part the role of the theatre organization to curate (cultivate?) the myriad possible offerings of the artistic community in order to make something happen for the audience.

For Ragsdale and her interlocutor, the conversation seems to have centered mostly on straight-up instrumental benefits (“social good” in the concrete context of reducing recidivism, teaching kids to read, improving test scores, etc), and in that context I understand more the issue—but I think that non-profit mission-based curation can also be as much about setting the art up to be as impactful and memorable as possible in the larger context of the patron’s life, the organization’s season, and the hoped-for longitudinal impact.

In Polly Carl’s latest piece, she closes with a list of admonitions for organizations and artists, one of which (for the artist) is:

“Give up the notion that you are of a more sacred stock that those you sit next to on an airplane. This holier than thou attitude keeps you believing in your own mythology and financially impoverished in ways that are going to make it incredibly difficult for you to raise a family, pay off student loans, and survive the onslaught of day-to-day transactions. Instead, think about the ways your gifts live in the world. In looking for places to share your gifts, imagine that they might live outside of a black box.”

While Carl, here, is speaking mostly about a self-preservative instinct in order to demythologize the “poor artist” trope, I think this attitude shift is equally about trying to understand further the role of the art in the experience.  Increasingly (witness Alan Brown’s writing on active participation and understanding audience engagement, efforts by the NEA, the Duke Foundation, the Irvine Foundation and others to place more primacy on activities that happen along-side the art, etc), we are given to understand that the art is the seed, and that as both artists and those who surround those artists, we are as much meant to be cultivating, directing, pruning, empowering as we are to be simply producing.

Looping back to McPhee and that white barn by the side of the road, those scientists knew what they were aiming for.  They sought to cultivate a set of traits, a progeny of a particular type that they had deemed the desired outcome of the experiment.  We are not so different, we theatremakers.  Artistic directors, artists, marketers—we all, variously, perhaps in conflicting ways, have goals for a piece of art.  We know why we wrote it, produced it, put it out in the world.  Whether that is directed, as in Ragsdale’s example, specifically at mission-based, instrumental, socially-driven outcomes or is more internal, we do not make art loosely, at least mostly we don’t.

The impressions and memories that art inscribes in our brains can last for a very long time.  They can inform how we live our lives, how we set our path forward, how we act and interact with others.  We have a powerful responsibility to try and instill what we actively mean to instill—to extend the intentionality that goes into season planning more fully toward the long arc of audience engagement, the impact echo of the experience over time.

Ruined categorically should not be like South Pacific set in the Congo.  And this is not about treating the audience as incapable of making interpretive leaps.  It is not blasphemy, I don’t think, to say that perhaps the art isn’t enough to fulfill the promise of the art—nor is that a slight against the artist.  Just as the playwright needs the director, the director needs the actor, the scenery, the lights, the audience, so the audience may need the marketers, the engagers, the connectivity experts, the dramaturgs.

Everyone who can drive can travel on roads.  But if you have a destination in mind, it sure is helpful to give the driver a map.

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  1. says

    Clay, bold post. Curiously, I more and more find myself asking whether NFP is, or ever has been, the right form for enabling a large majority of Art coming to fruition and reach some miniscule or massive portion of society. We spend a lot of time bemoaning the “broken business model” that seems to be inherent to the form. I’m worried less about that at a moment and more about the philosophical disconnect.To be continued at our session and perhaps on Jumper after-the-fact. Thanks for sparking the conversation.

  2. says

    Adding this session to my conference calendar. I think right now is the time for us to figure this out. And to use the tools of technology and social media not to curate but to facilitate conversations between audiences and theater makers. Marketers and dramaturgs, yes, but let’s break out of the silos. Looking forward to the panel.

  3. michael rohd says

    I don’t arrive til friday at noon (because I am in Chicago leading a Sojourn institute on Theatre and Civic Practice with 32 people from around the world, ranging from Goodman Theatre’s Engagement staff to a woman who works in London and India with women and refugees)- i am on two tcg panels on engagement, one moderated by rebecca novick, and one a conversation with steve cosson on the continuum of activity that precedes and follows the ‘art event’…
    The challenge for me with the seed analogy is the idea that we can define the seed. I am pretty convinced that the heart of this conversation, and much of the dialogue it kicks up, is stuck because we think the seed is a play…and new theatre work is not just plays. The work that surrounds ‘the art’ is actually, more and more, the art itself, and not just intention driven programming made to get the play’s point more clearly into the experience of the audience. What audience is, is changing…forms are expanding..civic practice and its intersection with intention and community constituencies is evolving into new work, and new practice. Looking forward to seeing you both in boston.

  4. says

    Hi Clay,
    I am just catching up to the conversation. I posted this response to Diane’s post:

    “I think the most important thing from my reading is can the not-for-profit theater be a one size fits all for sustaining the arts in the US. I think that answer is so clearly “no!”. We see enough mission drift, enough not-for-profits doing nothing more than filling sits in ways identical to commercial theater. Filling sits by the way isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not something that deserves not-for-profit status. The transcendent opportunity for art can happen in a theater seat you paid $300 for or in a free seat. This is the way that art eludes the market. My sense is that the not-for-profit theater made so much sense to our founders because in a way they were trying to institutionalize that elusive and magical quality of art. And more importantly I think the point of not-for-profit art making was about making that accessible, making the magic available to more people than would ever buy a ticket on Broadway. That said, the drive to perpetuate ourselves shifts the balance from cultivating artists in a setting that is accessible, in a place were the gift of of the art can be shared, to cultivating audiences to pay for whatever it is we think they are willing to pay for. This is a VERY different emphasis and one that throws the art making and artists into disarray.”

    And I would add to this, based now on reading your post Clay, that from my vantage point you’re entering the conversation at the moment when the balance has shifted, in the moment when we’re putting all our energy into understanding how audiences think, how the seeds are best nurtured.. Market research is about figuring this out to understand who will pay for the work eventually, how will the work be sustained by the audience. I think “intrinsic impact” tries to take this to a deeper and hopefully more meaningful place. With intrinsic impact you’re trying to quantify in important ways that elusive magic, what Lewis Hyde calls the Gift. I think this is incredibly important work. BUT I also think this focus of the work starts at a very particular moment in the history of our not-for-profit institutions….AFTER we lost track of how to cultivate artists and the work and at the moment in our history where our salaries and overhead have gotten too big to sustain, at a moment where art making and artists have become secondary to “figuring out” the audience.

    I think Diane’s post is trying to take us back to the question of why artists make art and what are the best models to cultivate that gift.

    Exciting conversation and thanks Clay for pushing it further.