Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Diversity V: Quality Again

I just realized now, as I was going through my media contacts figuring out who I should invite to my production of Hamlet in the Spring, and I realized that my feed for Scott Walters' Theatre Ideas blog was broken. No wonder I've been missing out on him.

I'm glad I did spot it, because he just put up a post answering the blogosphere's response to his lottery idea.

The post begins with a recap of the debate so far. He notes, not inaccurately, that he has largely been dismissed and belittled on the idea. Before I launch back in to disagreeing strongly with him, I want to say what I've been saying every time I've posted on the subject: that he's a very sharp and provocative thinker, and that my disagreement on this subject doesn't lessen my respect for him. He uses a lot of verbs like "howling," "decrying," "huffing," and "puffing" to characterize the blogosphere's response to his ideas. I have no idea if he's come across my post (he apologizes for not being able to track all of the comments he had read, and I don't blame him, considering the viral nature of the post, at least in the realm of theater-blogging).

Alright, meat and potatos time:

Which leads to the thesis for this post: quality doesn't exist.
Ho boy. The thesis of that post is exactly the opposite of the thesis I'm about to embark on for my degree. In a way, I'm really lucky he's advancing this argument. It's time to tangle.

Let's follow the argument:

The reason it doesn't exist is that we define it, when we bother to define it at all (usually it is some vague assumption), in contradictory terms that simulatenously reveal the arbitrary and ideological source of our concept.
I don't disagree that quality is very difficult to find, seemingly very arbitrary. I think the excellent book for this purpose is The Reasons of Love. Frankfurt's argument is very subtle, but the best way for me to recap it is thus:

  1. Caring about things is inherent to us.
  2. If we try to objectively define why what is important to us is important, we can't--because we can't evaluate importance without having some sort of standard of importance to compare it to.
  3. The reason we care about things is because we need some way of determining how best to act.
That's the central important that caring -- love -- importance -- quality -- has to play in our lives. If we have no way to evaluate theater, how can we care about it? Why not just roll around naked in honey? Why would it matter if theater is diverse? Why would it matter that we participate at all?

Given our seeming attachment to the status quo, given our belief that this system of conscious "choice" and single-minded focus on "quality" leads to excellence, shouldn't there be some kind of evidence that the system works? Shouldn't there be a helluva lot more masterpieces around? I must say I don't see many. In fact, I can't for the life of me think of a really, really good, powerful, profound play that has been done on the stages of Broadway or the regional theatre since, well, since Angels in America almost twenty years ago. I see a lot of average, faintly interesting, or adolescently "provocative" work, but nothing that really stakes a claim to become canonical. Indeed, when I look at most new plays, they seem like they could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky or A. R. Gurney, or if they are "experimental," Frank Wedekind or Alred Jarry. No, if this system is so effective, we ought to be able to come up with more than a single masterpiece a generation.
Well, I guess here is the center of the problem. For Scott, apparently nothing worth defending has come out of the system at all. I guess I have to disagree: to take a random sampling of theater experiences that have really moved me, I'd go with Thom Paine (Based On Nothing), The Lily's Revenge, The Team's Architecting. I would be willing to put forward all three of them as a masterpiece of a generation. Scott is, of course, free to disagree -- I don't believe quality is absolute. But if I was involved in any of the theaters that produced that work, I would be proud of my work.

By the way, neither Taylor Mac's nor Will Eno's education isn't listed, Rachel Chaivkin comes from Columbia (in terms of MFA).
The problem with this argument, which is a form of relativism, is that, if every person has his or her own equally valid opinion as to what constitutes quality, then the claim that any play is better than another becomes by definition absurd.
I disagree that relativism reduces every argument to absurdity. I think that in our post-modern times, a false opposition was created: Objectivism versus Absurdity -- Objectivism versus nothing. If there's no objective truth, there's no truth at all.

I think both options are bollocks. I think we each have the right to have our subjective opinions, to stand for them, to argue on their behalf even knowing that they're wrong. Why do we expend so much time trying to separate the wheat from the chaff? Why does Ben Brantley show up to work every day, even knowing that he'll never prove that The Wooster Group did a good job and Julia Roberts didn't.

Think about applying this argument outside the realm of quality of theater, it becomes incredibly corrosive. Should we pull our political convictions out of a hat, because they're relative and therefore absurd? I can in no way prove that Barack Obama's health care bill will reduce the cost of health care in this nation. I can't definitively prove that it will increase coverage. I can't prove the opposite either. I guess that makes the attempt to lobby for or against the bill absurd.

So how can we reject for reasons of quality the use of a lottery to choose a play, when quality is an individual opinion and any given play is as likely to have its champions as its detractors?
To repeat my point: the difference between a lottery and an artistic director does not have to do with guaranteeing that nobody will have issues -- as though there has ever been an artistic director, from Oscar Eustis all the way down, who has ever produced anything that didn't have detractors. Hell, theater critics in the 1600s saw no distinction between Shakespeare and witchcraft (I took a whole course on that and boy howdy is that a fascinating discussion).

The point is that if you run an organization, and you are constantly striving for quality, and you're constantly failing, and you're constantly applying Beckett's Law ("Fail better."), then you may not be able to say that you've created the great masterpiece, but you can say one thing: you believe in the work you've promoted. Taking pride in our work, being passionate about it, and working to communicate that with the audience, sharing that moment.

That's the Ian Thal method of diversity: making the work we're passionate be diverse work, and championing it.

What we mean, really, is not that quality is totally s ubjective -- that the cab driver's opinion is as good as the artistic director's -- but that among trained, informed, knowledgable, and experienced people (i.e., experts) quality is subjective. Which brings us back to education again. There is, after all, a 2500 year conversation about what constitutes quality in the arts, and those whose opinions ought to matter more are likely to have absorbed enough of that conversation, usually through formal education or extensive independent reading (auto-didacticism being a respectable form of education) to arrive at an "informed opinion" about a play's quality.
No. That's not my position at all. After all, one of the great mysteries about Shakespeare is how a man with so poor an education wrote the works that he did -- which has lead so many to try to ascribe much smarter, more educated men with his works. My position is that if quality is subjective, passionate is the qualification. If your straw-man cab driver really, truly loves theater, and can really passionately engage in it, he will come to informed and interesting decisions about theater.
In other words, there has never been consensus, and so the best an educated person can do is pick and choose which part of the conversation they find most attractive.
I'm glad you used the word "conversation," because it's my favorite frame for thinking about the arts. It's a conversation. But whereas you're positing the that the artistic director's job is to select other people's parts of the conversation, I disagree. I think that when artistic directors select plays, they make a statement in the cultural conversation. It's how they participate in the artistic conversation that they care about.

That's why artistic directors (myself included) were emotionally upset by the proposal. It's basically saying, "Your participation in the conversation? Probably not as good as flipping a coin."

Now remember: I'm not pretending that artistic directors have used that conversation well. I'm not pretending that the MFA-centrism is not a problem. But there are better solutions. You proposed it yourself.

Then his argument shifts.

Which is why I say: quality doesn't exist. As a pure, usable, non-ideological, objective concept quality doesn't exist.

Unless we define it differently.
Alright, so what's the definition of quality that takes stands behind the lottery?
But I don't think that is true. I think quality is interactive. Like a rainbow, which exists only when rain, sunlight, and an observing eye are in proper relation to each other, quality exists when a play with certain characteristics in a production with certain characteristics interacts with an audience who recognizes, appreciates, and is able to interpret those characteristics. You need to have all three elements for quality to exist. It is a gestalt. An excellent play in an excellent production that is performed in front of an audience that has no interest in it is not an excellent play and production.
I agree. Quality is interactive, like a conversation. I don't see how this strengthens your point, however. You propose an equally, if not, more so, relativist standard of quality (I mean, "It is a gestalt"? That's the most relativistic thing you could say).

But your last sentence is key: "an excellent play in an excellent production that is performed in front of an audience that has no interest in it is not an excellent play and production."

When the artistic director does his job correctly (not those straw-men failures of artistic directors), then it is exactly that purpose that he serves. Should it be based on education? No. Should it be based on MFA connections? No. But if you take away the lottery, you're not only taking away those points, but you are also removing exactly that interactive element

You're right that we need to restore a set of common language in terms of criticism. How does that coexist with your idea that we should just pull plays out of a hat they'll be equally good or better than the work of an artistic director? I understand your frustration with certain large, established regional theaters, certain big non-profits. But I'm a small time artistic director, and there ain't a single artistic call I've made that I haven't felt passionate about, and which I wouldn't stand behind over a lottery.

That being said, Scott, I want to underline that I spent my time writing this post precisely because I want "to consider the validity of [your] a pure abstraction ultimately productive of nothing more unpleasant than a spasm of conscience and perhaps something as pleasant as a whiff of scandal and a flicker of ire." Again, when it comes to bringing diversity, I still think of you at the top of my list of its advocates. It's just this one point.

(Update: forgot to link to the article I was writing about. Silly me.)