#TBT: Audience, It’s What You’re There For

Happy #TBT! Here’s an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Audience, It’s What You’re There For.

I had a really interesting lunch with Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, and the conversation ranges, as always with a person with as big a brain as Terry’s, from topic to topic, but landing on the topic of the role of the audience in creating and managing programming.

Photo Credit: Ezra Jeffrey via Unsplash

Somehow, it seems that some people, particularly in the arts, have this idea that the audience is irrelevant to what is put on the stage. That “creativity” means ignoring everybody and spewing forth whatever comes out, no matter what anyone thinks, including the people expected to fund said work.

The other extreme, of course, is pandering. That means slavishly being whatever a paying audience wants in order to succeed.

Here’s what I think about that:

First, creativity is not the unbridled freedom to be express whatever you want at any time. That’s called babyhood, which is a time when your every utterance is greeted with delight, you’re not expected to  do anything for anyone else, and you’re given unconditional support. It may have been fun while it lasted, but if you’re reading this, babyhood is over.

Second, pandering is a hell of a lot harder than its critics make it out to be. Hollywood commits massive resources to pandering all the time, but only rarely does it work. (OK, Paul Blart: Mall Cop I’ll give you.) If you don’t believe me that it’s hard to be a successful panderer, I suggest that you give it a try. It turns out that people’s tastes are extremely complex, and it’s easy to get them wrong, even if all you’re trying to do is give them exactly what they want. Think of it this way: Even pornography is a competitive business, and that’s pandering at its purest.

Third, true creativity is in using constraints to create something great. As Terry said the other day, “That’s why poetry traditionally rhymes.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that as poetry has gotten more and more into free and blank verse, it’s become culturally irrelevant. In this case, there’s a true creativity needed to take one’s talents and desire for self-expression and find a point of important overlap with something that somebody (not everybody, but somebody) wants to see.

Fourth, I see no difference in value between mindless self-expression and pandering. I put them on an equal plane of value. That’s not to say that good work can’t be produced in both of those modes. It is, but as a rule, both are ways of operating that are more likely to fail to produce anything of lasting value or commercial success.

I’ll give you two counterexamples: Iron Man movie [2008] and Cirque du Soleil, both enormously successful. Iron Man, let’s face it, is a movie about a comic book hero, but it was done with such style and originality that it transcended a few summer movie kicks and became something that will continue to be watched for a long time. They could have been content to lift a few bucks out of summer moviegoers pockets by recycling the same old superhero tripe (like The Incredible Hulk, which came out the same summer), but they didn’t. By the way, box office on Iron Man was about two-and-a-half times Hulk.

Cirque du Soleil is a crowd-pleaser and a gigantic commercial success, but it’s also pretty sophisticated as a work of performing arts. In a slightly different setting, what Cirque does could be a flop, and there are many imitators that are flops. But the vision that is behind Cirque assures us that these extraordinary creative powers that the group has are put to use on behalf of the audience.

And that’s really the point: You are there because of the audience. They want you to bring them something creative and unexpected, but they also want to like it.

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