Thesis: Quality Doesn't Exist (Discuss)

Let me just say up front, before you read any further, that I know that the post that is to follow is a non-starter. Readers will throw up their hands in exasperation, postulating as Isaac did that "Scott Walters is Insane!" Chris Wilkinson will likely remove me from his list of top theatre blogs. Thom Garvey will call me academic. I can take comfort, however, from Tony Kushner who, when he proposed in his outstanding speech and essay "A Modest Proposal" (American Theatre, Jan98, Vol. 15 Issue 1) that we "abolish all undergraduate art majors," recognized that "Since[undergraduate arts education] so very lucrative, I can say let's get rid of it and we don't have to worry that anything will actually happen. So my speech is rather like theatre in this regard, and this frees us to consider the validity of my 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." I should be so lucky.

The topic of this post has arisen in my mind as a result of the reactions to my earlier proposal entitled "Diversity, Education, and the Arts: One Approach," in which I suggested that one way, an inexpensive way that could be easily instituted on stages across America, to increase diversity in the production of new plays was to create a specific rubric for evaluating plays in a blind reading, have readers indicate whether the play meets the criteria, then put all of the plays that meet said criteria in a weighted lottery and choose them randomly for production. This was the idea that led to my insanity charge. Some found the idea intriguing, though inevitably flawed in some fatal way that allowed it to be referred to affectionately as "wacky"; others howled in derision, decrying the abandoning of "choice" and "quality" in favor of Mere Chance; and others huffed and puffed about Hard Work and Merit. I've tried to track all the comments so as to provide links, but I'm afraid I've lost track over Christmas, and I need to get this written so it can stop rattling around in my mind.

Some of the comments seem beyond my ability to respond to short of writing an entire book, or referring to some already written (although you could do worse than starting with Stephen J. McNamee's The Meritocracy Myth or perhaps more provocatively and persuasively Walter Benn Michael's The Trouble With Diversity). Suffice to say, if you think the theatre (or any other part of American society) is a meritocracy based solely or even primarily on hard work or innate talent, I invite you to return to reading Atlas Shrugged by the flickering light of a Fox News show.

The idea that I want to address here revolves around what 99Seats rightly called the "quality dodge." It is an argument that arises any time we attempt to correct inequities in some part of our society. It arose when we began using Affirmative Action to diversify college campuses, as politicians, professors, and reg'lar citizens argued that the "quality" of the student body was being compromised. And it is what underlies this discussion of diversity in the theatre as well. Opponents argue that quality on our stages will suffer if plays are chosen while paying attention to the race/gender/class/geography of the playwright -- they will be by definition be subpar. (Sidenote: my proposal didn't suggest doing this, except to say that a theatre could decide to weight the selections according to whatever criteria it wished, including considerations of diversity.)

Which leads to the thesis for this post: quality doesn't exist.

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.

Before going further with this theoretical argument, I'd like to pause for just a moment to examine reality for a few moments. 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.

Or perhaps you say: well, as middling as plays like Rabbit Hole and Proof and August: Osage County are, they are probably the best of the lot -- there just aren't any masterpiecs being written these days. Maybe so, which might lead us to question whether the "elite" MFA playwriting programs are really all they're cracked up to be. But that's another argument, also about "quality" and its intersection with class and educaton. But let's get back to my thesis: quality doesn't exist.

When I proposed my thought experiment, one of the arguments against it focused on my idea of a rubric for determining basic competence. Some argued that this was too mechanistic, and that, when all was said and done, "quality is subjective." The proof, it was argued by many, was that the commenter liked some plays that other knowledgable people he or she respected didn't like, and vice versa, and who's to say who is right and who is wrong? To use a rubric, which removes the subjective element somewhat, is just "neo-intellectual fascism."

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. YOU may think it is good, but somebody else may think it is dreck -- and who is to say who is right and who is wrong? 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?

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.

The problem with this argument is twofold. First, during that 2500-year conversation there hasn't been a whole lot of agreement. The French of the 17th century thought Shakespeare was a barbarian, and even in Elizabethan London Shakespeare was regarded as a popular hack and upstart who couldn't hold a candle to the university-educated playwrights like Ben Jonson. The Greeks thought a chorus a necessity, the Romans...not so much. Moliere, Racine, and Corneille believed the Unities of Time, Place, and Plot as well as Verisimiltude and Decorum were absolutely crucial to a play's quality, whereas Lope de Vega and Calderon couldn't care less about them. The Naturalists put their faith in a scientific presentation of a slice of life, complete with a clear demarcation of heredity, environment, and given circumstances, whereas the Romantics believed a quality play was sui generis and arose organically from the individual passions of the playwright. 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. In other words, we're back again to artistic relativism -- I like what I like, you like what you like. As Bud Abbott would say, "Third base."

The second problem with that argument about "informed opinion" is that, because of the 2500-year conversation is so cacophonous, the education that leads to an "informed opinion" involves a teacher picking and choosing which parts of theatre history to emphasize and which to ignore (after all, time is limited and there is a lot of cover), which to appreciate and which to exoriate. So what the student acquires is partial education shaped by a teacher's ideology. Since, as Tony Kushner notes in his aforementioned essay, arts majors tend to be fairly uninformed about their own art form, focusing more on learning skills than ideas, these survey courses often are the only exposure to the ideas of past artists that these young people will ever get. So the danger of "that troublesome MFA stat" that indicates that 90% of the working playwrights in the TDF study Outrageous Fortune came through a handful of elite MFA playwriting programs is that the students enrolled in them will receive, basically, the same partial education filtered through the same prejudices of a few teachers and thus acquire a similar set of values. So is the answer to the ubiquitous question "Who's to say what is good and what isn't?": Paula Vogel, Christopher Durange, Lynne Nottage, and Maria Irene Fornes? I doubt many would be willing to make them the final arbiter of theatrical quality.

So the problem is: if we define quality in relativistic terms, we can't use it as an objective way to prefer one play over another; on the other hand, if we define quality objectively by referring to education, we cannot deny that access is limited (these elite programs accept only a few each year) the definition is ideological, and thus diversity is diminished.

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.

Right now, we use the word "quality" as if it is a part of the work of art -- as if it is something that lives within the play, within the performance, within the production that we can recognize if we have the requisite "taste."

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.

If we accept this as true, it leads us to look for plays differently, because we recognize that there is no such thing as a "good play" all by itself. (And truth be told, a "good play" sounds pretty Platonic, yet I truly believe that most theatre people have some vague, unspoken belief that there are ideal forms that exist somewhere against which plays are measured -- they call this "intuition" or "gut feeling" and they believe that these feelings are somehow separate from ideology, prejudice, and personal experience.) Anyway, a play that is "flawed" when compared to some idea of what constitutes a "good play" might be exactly what is needed for a certain audience or certain performers or a certain context. For instance, Luis Valdez's Los Vendidos is a play with one-dimensional, stereotypical characters, energetic and exaggerated dialogue, and was played by relatively untrained performers -- but performed on the back of a truck in California during the grape strikes in front of an audience of striking pickers, it was a "high quality" production because it combined content, form, context, and audience in a dynamic and effective way.

In short, "quality" is a complex, contextual, ideological concept, one shaped by the (dare I say it?) hegemonic culture which privileges certain groups and ideas and discriminates against others. It is interactive with the audience and the particular social context. It cannot be easily used to reject plays without an explicit statement of what elements of the status quo you are tacitly or actively endorsing through your definition.

All of which is to say, once again, that we as artists need to develop a shared vocabulary of values and concepts which have been closely examined for their underlying power structures, asking ourselves who certain values and concepts serve, and who they exclude, and whether we can live with those exclusions and endorsements. While we may not be able to develop totally inclusive values, it would be refreshing and helpful to make explicit the ideology of those we hold, so that each of us is honest and above board about our commitments.

We can't continue to use words like quality as an excuse to end discussions of power and prejudice in the theatre.



I think the difference here is between quality and value. I talked about this back in June after the NET conference in this post:

I'll leave the most relevant excerpt here:

"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.

An example: I don't know much about the tradition of ballet. However, I know enough to recognize excellent ballet dancers from merely competent ones because I have had enough exposure to the form...

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."

I might not have considered Los Vendidos a quality production (having not seen it, I don't know), but that shouldn't prevent me from recognizing the significant value it had to its community. By the same measure, I may find a Broadway musical comedy to have little real value to its audience, while at the same time respecting the quality of it's execution.

Of course, political street theatre and Broadway musical comedy are vastly different expressions of the form, with different traditions, rules, and expectations; and it would be foolish to measure the quality of one directly against the other.

But to say that quality doesn't exist objectively feels to me like a dodge. It's not a matter of intuition or gut feeling, but rather a rigorous, choice-by-choice process whereby an artist brings all their past experience and talent to use the rules and expectations of a form to create a unique expression of it. If we as an audience have sufficient exposure to the form, we will be able to recognize difference in quality. And we as artists should be able to clearly argue why one expression of a form is better than another from the same tradition.

Now, when one tradition is used to define the quality of another, absolutely we have a problem. But that is not the same thing as artistic relativism.
isaac butler said…
I like this post, lots to chew over here! I'll try to toss p some more in depth thoughts in your comments or at my place.

just so that it's clear... when I wrote that you were insane, I meant it in a good way. And to me, *some* of that conversation was interesting. focusing on the problems with the lotto idea helps see (a) what people's biases and preferences are and (b) what a better idea could possibly be.
Adam said…
I'm with August, I think it's more about value then it is quality. It's just that believe value is in the eyes of the donor/audience member.

The question, at least to me, is not whether a show is "quality" it is whether that audience member felt that got sufficient value for their money and time.
Sabina E. said…
August is spot on about quality vs value. One thing you wrote that stood out the most:

"n 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."

That's sonewhat true, Suppose there's a really amazing play written by an Asian American playwright, which revolves around Asian American youths-- what if an audience of all white people in a very small town with barely any people of color, these folks who have no clue about certain Asian American cultures or whatsoever, these folks who have never met Asians-- they are forced to watch the play-- and suddenly they're absorbed into the experience and they're intrigued and paying attention to the play. Suddenly, they care and they're interested in hearing and watching a play about a group completely different from their own.

I think that's quality.

but I like what August said about value. Maybe I don't like a certain musical or an opera, but I can most appreciate and understand the value of the musical or opera's importance for some people.
99 said…
Nice post, great comments, good discussion. I find myself falling between Scott and August and I don't think they're that much in opposition. To August's final point, part of the problem is that one set of traditions has been set up as THE barometer for quality and, in the mainstream mind, quality is a key component in value. What (I think) Scott is getting at is there's a difference between competence (basic skill in certain quantifiable areas) and quality. Value is a separate entity that has to do with context. I think too much we leave context out of the equation in a variety of ways. But focusing on value doesn't necessarily eliminate competence. It just separates it from a value judgment. If that makes sense.
Tony Adams said…
I think "quality" (in relation to excellence) does exist, but it is a sum of many parts. (or it takes many qualities to have quality)

The subjectiveness comes in when we disagree about what parts should be ranked where in the final tally as it were.

I agree it gets more difficult when most practitioners are fairly ignorant about huge swaths of theatre history and most of what falls outside the mainstream hegemony.

There is also a tendency to lump things together: Black Playwrights or teachers etc., and act as they are one in the same. (for. ex why lump Fornes in with Vogel and Durang?)

I think at the end of the day it's on us to open our eyes to what's laid before us and the possibilities that present themselves.

Because most won't believe it until they see it.
Adamflo84 said…
A few notes: Really confused by you initial point of there is no "masterpiece" of recent memory, THAN you go on to blast the very idea of being able to identify quality. Isn't "masterpiece" a quality statement? maybe I missed the connection here.

Secondly, and related. I think the above discrepancy beings up what I think is the central missing component of the argument, which is alluded to but not fully developed. That is the very real divide between THEATRE AS LITERATURE and THEATRE AS PERFORMANCE. We have all seen or been in some (by most accounts)horrible high school productions of Shakespeare. That doesn't diminish Ole' Willie. Which pieces of theatre as literature from our era will survive as future "masterpieces" we don't really know. Especially when we see them through the lens of a specific performance and not as the theatre living on the page.

I know this was alluded to, but I feel especially in the historical sense this is the most prominent issue.
devilvet said…
I can not prove the existence of quality. If I could that doesn't even mean that I would necessarily gravitate to it. (I like lots of things that I am sure a majority of the populace would never agree has quality. This is why I am also so pleased by certain folks like John Waters, Guy Maddin, Daniel Johnston, of even Richard Maxwell whose work uses artifice, taste, the scatological to really push against preconceived notions of quality)

Even though I can't come up with a way to measure it that I think is acceptable, I do believe in "resonance". Regardless of the the mutliply facets that complicate quality and therefore make it a convuluted point of defense for picking plays... the thing that makes me want to approach any work of art more closely is when it creates a "resonance" within me. And, my instinct (god another unmeasurable metric) suggest that this is how the majority of human beings on the planet operate when it comes to what they approach.

Hence the diversity situation, which is how do these plays get picked by artistic directors, literary directors, etc... who feel no resonance with the material? And if you had a lottery system in place, how then does the organization not only produce, but enthusiastically produce work when it feels no resonance regarding it?

Thomas Garvey said…
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"? Scott, you're stuck in the same logical trap that ensnared the likes of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and so many other structuralists - you're trying to critique a value from within the perspective of that value. I admire your ingenuity here, but it just won't work, my friend.
Nick said…

Glad to see you have revised your original proposal into a “thought experiment.” It’s no longer so wacky.

The skilled Dada ensemble could perform with expertise an arbitrary text without concern over the quality of that text. However, audience would make "qualitative" judgments as to the value of that performance.

In Thieves Theatre's Fly by Night project in Philly we produced dozens of new plays without any concern over the quality of scripts. Throwing together by chance the novice and the veteran into makeshift ensembles was always a rewarding study. However, although the aesthetics that developed through this project were different than other theatre productions, there was still aesthetics; i.e., artists and audience alike made “quality” judgments at every level.

Fly by Night, Dada, and other theatre experiments often present workable alternatives to the system of aesthetics and market that exists, but are never replacements to that system. More likely, the elements that most effectively create a new product for the market are incorporated by the very system they resist.
Thomas Garvey said…
"Plays of no quality, chosen at random." That should move tickets all right.
Randy S said…
A piece of theatre per se fits your argument perfectly. However, there are other reasons to study the "cacophony". It's that very cacophony that has brought us to wherever, or whomever we are today. There's an axiomatic suggestion that academic study in and of itself is contrary to the arts. What of pedagogy, criticism or theory, or the theories of both and more. Academics can't exist in the arts because its the arts? It's perform or die? We don't get to study it, teach it, write about it until we're proficient at defining and exhibiting its product?
Anonymous said…
A piece of theatre per se fits your argument perfectly. However, there are other reasons to study the "cacophony". It's that very cacophony that has brought us to wherever, or whomever we are today. There's an axiomatic suggestion that academic study in and of itself is contrary to the arts. What of pedagogy, criticism or theory, or the theories of both and more. Academics can't exist in the arts because its the arts? It's perform or die? We don't get to study it, teach it, write about it until we're proficient at defining and exhibiting its product?
Scott Walters said…
Hi, Randy! As an academic myself, and a theatre historian teaching survey courses too boot, obviously I think academia has a role to play, and studying how we got here is crucial. The problem is that many undergrad and grad theatre students get very little of this -- maybe a class or two in theatre history that rushes through the 2500 year history learning who invented the counterweight system without really examining why it was invented and what effect it had on the art form. It all seems so inevitable. Does anybody, for instance, teach about how the Theatrical Syndicate forced the centrality of NYC into existence at the turn of the century? The main point is that "quality" is ideological, and reflects a narrative put into place by the winners and taught as objective truth to young people in a way that makes it clear they shouldn't question "progress." When funders use the word "quality," what they mean is "the things that I and my friends like."

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