The Quality Bugaboo: pg. 67-70
No book advocating for connecting the arts and the broad community can afford to ignore the topic of quality. It is a refrain heard often from those uncomfortable with the concept. Building Communities, Not Audiences contained a section addressing the question. (BCNA: Pp. 34-36) The topic is too central to the mission of the arts to exclude from this book. What follows repeats some of the material from the earlier book along with new thoughts on the topic developed since its publication.
The assumption that community focus is antithetical to artistic quality is damaging to the discussion and to the potential for engagement. High quality work is possible in any cultural expression, context, genre, or medium. The issues are several. Who decides what “quality” is? What are the relative merits of spectator and participatory art? What issues are inherent in technical excellence? What is the proper benchmark for excellence? And, for what end are we seeking excellence?
For some, there is a fear that if efforts are made to provide arts experiences that appeal to those outside the traditional audience, that effort is pandering— grossly appealing to a lower common denominator. But who gets to decide what “quality” means? Some guardians of artistic purity operate with an unconscious assumption that the reflective artistic expression of Europe is superior to that of other cultures. Fortunately, this argument does not hold up well in the light of direct analysis. It is only the most conservative of cultural critics who persist in this line of reasoning when confronted with the position’s implications.
For others, the quality question can reflect an unconscious discomfort with the unfamiliar. Experts in (or knowledgeable supporters of) an established genre of art, when faced with “foreign” art forms, media, and traditions find their expertise (or understanding) called in to question. The result is that they sometimes circle the wagons around the work they know.
What is Quality?More difficult, and more to the point, is the question of what is meant by quality. To some, this seems like a relatively simple question. However, upon closer examination, the number of concepts to be addressed and the diversity of options in doing so makes this an exceptionally difficult topic.
The arts infrastructure supporting the European cultural tradition today is heavily weighted toward “spectator art.” In other words, the quest for excellence (sometimes understood as technical expertise) is so pervasive that most people have been reduced to arts observers. Excellence is important; quality is important. However, participation in the creation and presentation of art is also important. Could not the participatory potential of an art form come to be understood as one criterion (and yes, only one) for quality?
An aesthetic that dismisses the value of hands-on artistic expression is one that runs the risk of spiraling toward irrelevance.
Technical excellence is often cited as the prime criterion upon which to judge artistic merit; however, this is not a simple concept to address.
Artificial vs. natural?
The pursuit of technical excellence could be seen as a means of making art artificial. This artificiality can be off-putting to those not part of the cognoscenti. For them, such art is, arguably, less valuable as an aesthetic experience. To make the same argument in a different way, homemade or handmade can be seen as providing a richer, more authentic result. This is not to say that a high degree of technical excellence is not excellent. It merely means that assumptions of the absolute superiority of technical excellence are worthy of question.
Access to resources?
A particularly troubling question in consideration of technical excellence is the historical inequities associated with access to resources by different cultural traditions. (This was raised in the abstract earlier. Here it specifically affects the issue of technical excellence.) European and European-derived “high art” has, in the arts infrastructure, been privileged with inordinate access to financial support compared with the expression of any other culture. How can any artistic expression compete on sheer technical excellence given the resources that have been devoted to the reflective arts of European origin over the last several centuries?
The Artistic Goal: “World class” vs. “deeply valuable to your community”?
Numerous arts mission statements cite “world class” (or its functional equivalent) as the artistic standard sought, a standard central to the mission. For the most part, such statements assume technical excellence as the basis for that standard. Apart from the practicality of such goals from a resource perspective, if all arts organizations who so aspired were indeed world class, what would that mean? It sounds a bit like Garrison Keilor’s Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average.
What if, instead, the goal were to be deeply valuable to the community in which the organization resides? This would, of course, require knowing the community well and programming to address its interests.
This view of excellence would be measured by the degree to which an organization enhances the life of its community. The goal of world class status in a strictly artistic sense is inwardly focused if not narcissistic. On the other hand, being world class in value to the community has the advantage of providing benefit to that community in ways that will gain support for the organization, furthering its sustainability.
Serving a community does not necessitate lowering standards, unless “lowering standards” is defined as having concern for those not already “believers” or having a desire to be of value to them. To be clear, this discussion is about the arts industry—producing and presenting organizations and those that service them. This is not about artists pursuing a community engagement agenda. At most, this thinking might provide the rationale for artists who wish to do so.
For Whose Sake?For art/for community?
What is the purpose of the pursuit of excellence? Is it a pursuit for its own sake? (That’s a bit of a strange goal.) Is it for the sake of the art itself? Again, that’s an odd and, arguably, desiccated goal. Does the art really care? Is excellence for the sake of the
artists and the arts organization? That’s a bit more human, but fairly narrow.A more sustainable end would be the pursuit of excellence for the sake of the perceivers (creator/performers, audience, visitors, purchasers, viewers, etc.)—all of them. Why? Because, as human beings, all deserve it. More directly, excellence should be pursued because the communities served deserve excellence. Working from that frame, the concern should be not only about excellence but also about the arts industry’s role in connecting with those communities. Here’s a koan-like question: If we do not connect communities with the artistic excellence pursued,
is it indeed excellent?
Except in its fallacious use as an objection to community engagement, quality is not central to this topic any more than it is fundamentally important in any consideration of the arts. As will be expanded upon below, the “pandering” objection is a straw man in discussions of community-focused art, but it is important for all who care deeply about both art and their communities to understand that the question of quality is both complex and entirely consistent with community engagement.