If you have ever read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you know he engages in an examination of the concept of quality. I wrote a bit about how it applies to the arts a few years ago.
In the post I made the following observation:
We go before legislatures and tell them that they should be concentrating on all the lives that have been changed and not numbers served when choosing to fund the arts. But when we get back to our offices, damned if it ain’t a lot about the numbers, eh?
In his book Pirsig talks about how he decided not to let his students know what grade they got on a paper but instead give extensive feedback about the work they did and how to improve. The students went crazy. The comments on the quality were well and good, but they wanted a quantitative measure of their success.
When you are running an arts organization it is much the same way. You love the comments about how great the show was, but what you really care about are a satisfying number of butts in the seats (or butts passing through the doors if you are a museum/gallery.)
I think we still face the problem that art for art sake doesn’t pay the bills. The numbers, both in attendance and income, drive us just as crazy as Pirsig’s students because it is the easiest thing to evaluate success on.
On the other hand, as I noted, in the absence of grades the A & B students rose to occasion and did better, the C students either improved or hovered in that territory and the D & F sunk. We all know that not all great artists garner the attention, and certainly the monetary compensation, they deserve. But many of them continue producing great art because they are either motivated internally or by the praise they receive.
Professor Longhair and Earl Carroll of the Coasters, both took jobs as janitors when their careers faltered. Both their careers came back to a degree, Carroll for example was the subject of a kids’ book, That’s Our Custodian, and toured with the Coasters on weekends because he seemed to value being around the kids.
“Mr. Carroll told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1988. “When they found out I was a rock ’n’ roller — I was on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo with Bill Cosby — the kids couldn’t believe it.”
He added: “Now they call me the star of the school.”
What endures in people’s minds about their experiences with the arts often doesn’t include the size of the crowd. Sure I remember attending a U2 concert with thousands of others, but I don’t remember the size of the audience for my first Broadway play (Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan) or the Steppenwolf company’s production of The Grapes of Wrath.
It’s the butts in the seats that make doing the show possible and it is a sad thing that talent often goes unrecognized and labors in obscurity while trendy, flash in the pan products get recognition. It is the quality of the people, both on stage and in the audience, that often makes being in the seat worthwhile and endures in spite of the absence of recognition.