The Gravity of Culture

Seth Godin made a post last week about maintaining a commitment to quality in your work. (my emphasis)

When you seek the mass market, there are two paths available:

You can dumb down your message and your expectations, and meet your audience where they stand. You can coarsen your lyrics, offer simpler solutions, ask for less effort, demand less work, promise bigger results…
Or you can smarten it up, and lead despite your goal of mass, not chase it.

The very fact that “dumb down” is an expression and “smarten up” isn’t should give any optimist pause.

Culture is a gravitational force, and it resists your efforts to make things work better.

So what? Persist.

My first impulse was to mentally acknowledge he was right about how the impulse to improve isn’t common enough to bring a term like “smarten up” into common usage. I read his comment about culture resisting efforts to make things work better as an indictment of a society that demands satisfying results that require little of them in return.

However, when I got to thinking about it, those who embrace and define high culture often don’t want practitioners of low/pop culture to transition upward. There are a fair number of examples of pop artists who decide they want to pursue a more rigorous path as they mature. They are criticized for lacking the excellence required or expected of someone who has dedicated decades training in some discipline of high culture.

Certainly, some of these people may lack the seriousness, nuance and general quality of a long time practitioner. There may be valid concerns that in their popularity, they are misleading their fans into believing they represent the higher levels of achievement when a perceptible gap exists.

But for others, after 10-20 years of sincerely trying to “smarten up,” they are probably going to be operating at least at or above a level of 80%-90% of achievable excellence. That puts them on par with a lot of people who, like them, have spent decades solely devoted to the high culture discipline.

Except that the latter group will be labeled an X discipline artist while the former pop artist will forever have a modifier like crossover-X discipline artist. Essentially, you get branded if you try to step out of the original lines drawn around you.

So like Godin says, culture can be a gravitational force. It can feel like you are constantly being pulled to lower your standards, but it can also feel like you are being pushed away from ever being recognized as having achieved your ambitions if you try to become more proficient.

Yes, ideally things could get to a place where people and their efforts could be fairly evaluated but will it ever really be possible to create truly objective evaluations that are free from these sort of judgments?

I frequently cite Jamie Bennett’s comment that people have an easier time viewing themselves on a continuum with famous sports figures than they do with famous artists. As I think about it, I wonder if people are getting a message that they shouldn’t try to see themselves on an arts continuum.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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4 thoughts on “The Gravity of Culture

  1. I’m not sure we can look at this simply as a matter of ‘excellence’ and ‘achievement’. It seems to me that artists are driven in two distinct and often incompatible ways, and that this is irrespective of the genre we are plying. We can be moved to express ourselves, wherein the goal is simply to bring what is inside us out, and we can be moved to communicate, wherein whatever gets expressed is not done until it has made itself heard AND understood. In other words, we can aim at things which are important independently of being understood, and we can aim at being understood.

    The ‘setting the bar low’ crowd is attentive to being understood, unless there is some other reason for aiming low. We dumb it down most often because it won’t otherwise be understood. We aim for where the audience is at rather than something they would need to aspire to. Smartening up, on the other hand, accepts that some things cannot be communicated unless the audience raises its own game to that of the speaker. Dumbing down creates a spiral of descending criteria for being understood rather than even holding at the status quo. Expecting less is a self fulfilling proposition. Expecting more asks us to value the act of being challenged, to see that a challenge is something worth desiring. At worst it leaves us no better than we were, but it has the chance of making us more than we were as well.

    The reason it is so easy to see ourselves on a continuum with athletes rather than artists is that the challenge of being a better athlete is taken to be practical. We could be better if we only had the right genes, practiced harder, had the right training, ate the right diet…. These are not conceptually different from what we do in kind as much as in degree. It IS the same continuum. But with artists there is a disconnect because they often speak a different LANGUAGE. It manifests when expressing themselves rather than when they aim at communicating. Unconventional artists present something that is different in kind rather than degree. They are asking us to change something fundamental about ourselves. They are asking us to see the world not as we already see it but as it could be seen.

    In other words, the disconnect is fundamental.

    I have played some sports throughout my life, and I can understand in principle what it means to be really good at things like soccer, tennis, basketball, baseball, football, etc. When an artist asks me to see the world differently I often do not even have the right footing to make sense of these things. I cannot imagine what she wants me to see unless I have either been prepared for it specifically or some new insight dawns on me. We do not see ourselves on an arts continuum because seeing it requires believing it, and our imaginations too often stop dead at the different worlds artists are capable of exposing us to. Some art strikes us as alien, not just unfamiliar. When artists express these things rather than attempting first and foremost to make sense to us the lines of any possible continuum dead end. To the extent artistic vision makes sense to us we can see it as a continuum, but only then.

    Isn’t this why kids grow up more often dreaming of being rock and roll and hip hop stars rather than abstract painters and sculptors? The question is first where the continuum already exists in people’s minds and how this by definition reflects what they already understand. Anything not understood cannot, by definition, become part of our own continuum. Art that fails to communicate also does not measure our own imagined potential. And art only communicates within the culture for which it has been prepared. We can’t move atheists with Bible verses, vegetarians with bacon, or conservatives with welfare initiatives. Some continua simply do not include what we are offering…..

    • Carter – I see your point about the continuum. As I often am, I am tempted to cut whole chunks of your comments out to use as the basis of later posts.

      When Bennett talked about people not seeing themselves on a continuum, he was referring to an experience he had where people didn’t recognize it in almost the most basic sense. People who sing in choirs, play guitar, act in community theater, not identifying themselves as actors.

      Something I saw this morning on the Chronicle of Higher Ed that resonated with the post I made yesterday was a speech made by the recipient of the Truman Capote Award. He figured he was the first adjunct faculty member to receive the award and really tore into the use of adjunct faculty in the humanities.

      There was one paragraph that I wish I had known about earlier so I could have used it in the post –

      The message is clear: Stick to the old dissertation formula — six chapters about six authors. The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees, a trade book is merely one that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.

      This doesn’t really address anything of your comment in particular, I am mostly taking the opportunity to append it to my post because it illustrates the gravitational resistance exists outside the immediate arts community.

      • A friend had linked to that article and I got to read it yesterday. Yeah, that quote stuck with me too…. Addressing one audience often excludes others.

        And yeah, I’ve seen this temptation to not call ourselves artists when I have taught. Somehow word got out that “Art is what other people do.” I think the message from traditional arts culture and perhaps especially museums has been to praise artists for their extraordinary quality, their genius. They attempt to make the case that ‘real’ artists are exceptional, different in kind, not ordinary people like the rest of us. This has been so damaging, and only makes it more confusing for the folks who actually engage with the arts and know themselves to be nothing special, just like most folks, and not the geniuses they were told really make the art…..

        That press has turned art into a spectator event for most people. Defining art as what someone else does limits our own connection to it. And amazingly despite being told they are not the real artists some people push through the disconnect and do creative things themselves, against all odds. And yet, if we are not geniuses it isn’t that we do our art poorly, it’s that we are not even qualified AS artists! That absurdity is long overdue for the dustbin.

  2. “Smarten up” is certainly a common expression and has been for a long time. “Dumb down” is of much more recent origin and popularity.

    Of course, “smarten up” usually refers to appearance, rather than intelligence, which does sort of make your point.

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