Dull Is Dangerous, Sharp Is Safe
Back in the days when I trained teenagers to cut bagels for living, we had an expression about knives: Dull is dangerous, sharp is safe. Basically, what that means is that a knife that isn’t properly sharpened has a tendency to snag or to cut a person’s hand in a way that’s much worse than a sharp blade.
I really enjoyed reading Isaac Butler’s piece about the supposedly safe course pursued by some venues in programming familiar material in their seasons. Although this specific instance is about a theater season, I think the same thing could be applied to just about any genre that we’re talking about, except maybe sports. In this case, Isaac is talking about avoiding producing plays written by either racial minorities or women in favor of producing plays written by white men. The supposed rationale of doing this is to make it more likely that the theater fills its massive new house. The underlying assumption of that is that known and understood source material provides at least a baseline of sales, even if it doesn’t knock anybody’s socks off.
Isaac’s point is that this leads to more shows being produced that are written by non-minority, non-women writers. That may well occur, but I don’t think it’s the key issue when it comes to the question of “safe” or “risky.” I go back to my knife analogy. Dull, in either sense of the word, is dangerous. We have reached a point in the cultural revolution that began in the 1960s where even the elderly have expectations of entertainment that demand something that’s not bland or boring. I think in this culture we have a bias that leads us to believe that once a person reaches a certain age, they become boring. This, when you think about it, is a very ugly bias. Today’s 65-year-old was born in 1948; they were 16 when the Beatles came to America; they were 21 during Woodstock; they did not grow up in a Lawrence Welk world, and if they did, as a group, they rejected that world and replaced it with a far more rockin’ one.
Of course, there was a generation before them whose expectations of entertainment were far different. They were raised on a very broad entertainment fare and, in fact, many of them grew up with radio as their primary source of entertainment. Only the very broadest kind of programming could succeed because it was so difficult to deliver programming at all.
It’s not 1985. It’s not even 2005. Even the typical patron in the most geriatric-heavy genres of all, like classical music, come from a generation that rejected conformity and squareness.
So while I primarily agree with the point that Isaac is making, I’m less interested really in the ethnic or gender-based questions here, though they may be valid. It’s the thing about sharp and dull that really seems compelling to me. Dull is dangerous. At this point in our cultural history, this is true for knives, and it’s true for live entertainment. Sharp, on the other hand, should be pretty safe and if you’re looking for sharp, that will naturally lead you to look in any place you can find it, and you shouldn’t care much where it comes from. This, in turn, should move us away quite naturally from a world in which contributions by any particular kind of group dominate.
Except the group of people who can create something that audiences want to see.