The “Pandering” Straw Man

StrawManThis post is not part of a series, so it may seem a bit out of context. I’ve addressed the issues of quality and community on numerous occasions previously. (The Pursuit of Excellence, Quality and Community, Quality and Community-2) However, the issue comes up so often in Q&A sessions, it’s probably good to share this as I write it in the context of a larger project.

Critics (and uncomfortable observers) of community engagement in the arts world often assume that the effort to reach those without a background (or current interest) in the arts demands pandering–presentation of inferior or simplistic work–a prospect that is, rightly, rejected out of hand.

This is, however, a remarkable and, upon brief consideration, terrifying conclusion. The current base of support is insufficient to sustain the arts establishment. If the only way to achieve viability is to present work that is incompatible with arts missions, the industry is truly doomed.

“Pandering” is such a powerful accusation that it can distract from efforts to reach the community and thus reinforce artcentricity. It is, to be frank, a pernicious charge intended as a conversation stopper that undermines the humility and respect I’ve cited as essential for making essential connections with our communities.

Discomfort with the prospect of change is a principal catalyst for this argument. Granted, a lack of awareness of good examples of engaged programming can be another contributor, but both are rooted in satisfaction with the status quo (at least with respect to artistic content) and a failure of imagination.

The pandering charge is a straw man, although it is true that some programmers do not understand this and–either cynically or with misguided good intent–present work they deem inferior in an effort to “engage.” As has been demonstrated previously and will be again, those who desire to do so can uphold standards of artistic excellence while providing content that is deeply meaningful to the public.

Engage (authentically and without shame)!


Photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by RobinEllisActor

  1. If we buy your pandering theory, either side of the argument one takes ends up doomed. But we can eliminate that outlook by changing our way of thinking about the arts back to the way it was before neo-liberalism.
    We need to stop thinking of the arts as a free market industry. We publicly support highways, energy infrastructure, farming, medicine, health care, police protection and defense in a public way that isn’t solely industry defined. We can do the same with the arts.