Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quality (Part 2)

This is why I love and hate blogging. I love it because I can post an extreme idea and a host of intelligent and articulate bloggers and commenters will analyze it, point out its strengths and weakness, and help me to polish the idea into something stronger and more insightful. I hate it, because very quickly I realize that I can't keep up with all the great blogs that are out there, and I miss some great insights.

The first comment on the previous post was by August Schulenburg, who back at the end of June posted to the Flux Theatre Ensemble blog his ideas "On Quality, Value, and Criticism." I remember reading it at the time, and experiencing regret that I hadn't been able to come to the NET conference (my father had had a stroke and passed away just before I was to head to San Francisco). His differentiation between "quality" and "value" is extremely useful. He writes:

I think the primary reason we have trouble talking about quality is we so often confuse it with value. Artistic quality is excellence in an established cultural tradition. That tradition has a form with a set of rules and expectations, a unique physics of engagement, a shared language; and from that tradition, excellence is expressed.

You do not need to like or value that tradition to recognize when its expression has quality. You only need to be familiar with the rules.
Which brings us to value, which is a moral judgement, not an aesthetic one. Value judges what kind of work is important - theatre of social justice, devised work, Broadway, Indie theatre - and in doing so, also judges what kind of work is not important.

Quality is concerned with the use of a medium within an aesthetic tradition.
Value is concerned with the role of that tradition within a society.
Quality looks at how art works. Value looks at why.
Many of our most heated discussions in the theatrosphere are about value, not quality, although sometimes we get the two confused. I thank August for adding to my conceptual library.

Hats off to Adamflo84 and Thomas Garvey, who both clearly identified the contradiction at the center of my thesis. Adamflo84 wrote: "Really confused by you initial point of there is no "masterpiece" of recent memory, THEN you go on to blast the very idea of being able to identify quality. Isn't "masterpiece" a quality statement?" And Garvey followed up with: "But if quality doesn't exist, what is this "shared vocabulary" you propose going to be about? Because surely if artistic quality doesn't exist, then no quality exists - not political quality, not rhetorical quality, not logical quality, not nothin'. But of course "quality" does exist, or your post makes no sense - what are you aiming for, if not a situation of higher "quality"?"

Thomas is right: quality does, indeed exist. In fact, I'd go even further: we all would tend to agree about constitutes quality -- at least, we would all agree about what constitutes a basic level of competence. If we attend a festival of plays written by high school seniors, most of us will agree that the level of competence is not reached, whereas if we attend the 10-Minute Play Festival at Humana, we would likely see a basic level of competence. Where we tend to run into disagreement is at the point where the level of competence is achieved. At that point, each of us "values" certain things above others. You'll like one 10-minute play better than I do, and vice versa.

It was this that led me to propose the play lottery model: sort out those plays that we all would likely agree don't meat levels of dramaturgical competence, and then, at the point where agreement yields to individual values (which we sometimes call "subjective," as in "quality is subjective"), allow chance to take over. Why? Because otherwise, the decisions that are made concerning plays that are produced are strongly reliant on what devilvet calls "resonance," i.e., the way a particular play vibrates within my individual soul, what I personally "value."

If we rely on "resonance" of a couple individuals to determine which play is going to fill the slots (or single slot) devoted to new plays in a theatre's season, the limitation is obvious: "how do these plays get picked by artistic directors, literary directors, etc... who feel no resonance with the material?" This is when the homogeneous economic, racial, geographic, educational, and gender characteristics of those decision-makers becomes problematic for the cause of diversity in the arts. Because, as devilvet goes on, "how then does the organization not only produce, but enthusiastically produce work when it feels no resonance regarding it?"

Conventional wisdom says that the artists who produce and create a production must feel passionate about the work, must feel that it resonates within them, or else it will be mediocre. While this has historically not been a universal idea, it has come to be generally accepted today without, I would venture, a recognition as to the ramifications for all other aspects of theatrical creation, especially diversity of all kinds.

However, given that our commerical and regional theatres are mostly not producing using a permanent or even semi-permanent ensemble, but are instead jobbing in artists for individual projects, then wouldn't it be possible that an artistic team could be put together that was, in fact, passionate about a play that has been chosen via weighted lottery? Couldn't resonance be hired? And if so, what happens to our belief that a commitment to diversity leads inevitably to lower quality? At what point do we give priority to our values?


Tom Loughlin said...

In all this discussion of quality it might be worth people's time to take a look at this NY Times Arts Blog post - "What Play Changed Your Life?" The list itself, provided by readers, should prove interesting in this context. Not only is it worth looking at what plays are making the list, it's also worth noting what is not making the list to this point.

Tom Loughlin said...

BTW - I contributed 4 selections, all from before I was 21 years old. "Man of La Mancha,"(B'way) "Company,"(B'way) "The Balcony,"(undergrad) and "West Side Story."(the movie, actually.)

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the tip, Tom. I looked through the first couple of pages, and it is, indeed, interesting. In many ways, the plays listed reinforce my definition of "quality" (which I might now call "value") in the previous post: that quality is not intrinsic to the work of art itself, but rather to the interaction between work, performance, and audience. Which seems sort of "duh," but actually has far-reaching ramifications for how we think about theatre.

I am disturbed to say that I don't know what I would answer to the question posed by the NY Times. I think it might have been a production by Milwaukee's Theatre X that came to my high school in Racine in 1975 or so. Or a production of "The Recruiting Officer" at the Milwaukee Rep, which starred the late Larry Shue. Hmmm....

Anonymous said...

why do producers need to be passionate about something? or actors and directors, for that matter? if it's a new play, all that matters is that the playwright was passionate about something. actors and directors should do their job. if the work is good, they'll be sucked in by the play, and recreate the writer's passion..

on the question of quality - it's impossible to define, true, but maybe it's whatever competent readers (those who understand the difference between writing and making plays) might end up making choices on when other determinants such as the identity of the playwright, their connections, a theatre's ideology, the cost of the production, the marketability of the play etc are discounted. anonymous submission, and reading of plays by professional playwrights (a kind of peer review) might be a good starting point...