Fifth Anniversary Highlights: The “Pandering” Straw Man

FiveCandlesDuring the month of August, Engaging Matters is republishing some of the most widely read articles from the five years this blog has been in existence. The criticism that community engagement is “just giving people what they want” is, in some circles, as pervasive as it is maddening. A February 2014 post, The “Pandering” Straw Man addressed that issue.

This 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)!


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