The Playgoer: Art vs Commerce

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Art vs Commerce

I'm very grateful to the reader yesterday who posted a rejoinder to my plea for distinguishing theatre art from theatre biz. But I gladly take up the challenge of the main argument:

Part of what makes theatre (and any commercial art form) so vital is that it has to succeed commercially as well as artistically. How far out can the playwright or director go without losing too large of a chunk of his/her audience?... The delicate balance between commerce and art, in an ideal world, should create better work.

I print this not to praise it, but hardly to bury it, either. It's a commonly held view, that the stamp of popular appeal is necessary to ratify a piece of theatre's value. But do we really hold the same view of all other artforms? Would people feel just as comfortable saying this about novel like, say, Moby Dick, which took a long time to be recognized? I'm not sure I buy how theatre must be held to a different standard, namely that of commercialism, just because it plays before paying patrons. (Publishing seems to me a more commercially driven--and profitable!--industry than even Broadway.) Yes, theatre must engage its audience, but can't we find a language for talking about this "connection" that is different than that of a marketing department?

The audience is always a necessary participant. But let's ask ourselves what may sometimes "lose" an audience--dirty words, naked people, other offenses to contemporary morals and manners. Is the audience always "right" in these cases?

Also, before you "lose" an audience you gotta find one! The factors that go into who buys tickets to what and when go way beyond aesthetics alone. What plays people go to has a lot more to do with judgements they're making before not after seeing it.

Anyway, thanks for the provocation, mystery reader and I hope you'll come back for more. Others, feel free to join the fray on either side.

1 comment:

John Branch said...

At an early point in my career as a critic, I sometimes heard, while waiting for the play to start, one audience member asking another what it was they were about to see. Being full of a certain kind of knowledgeable enthusiasm for the theatrical arts at the time, I was inclined to look down on those patrons who went out to consume a play with less premeditation than they would give to picking a restaurant. Later, I reversed my position and admired anyone who would go to the theater simply to see what was there, without trying to prejudge a show on the basis of reviews or even the taste of friends who'd seen it already.

Basically, I still hold that latter view. But I think such people are uncommon, even rare, and not only in the audience for theater. I also see in other fields signs that consumers wish to make their judgments before they pay their money. It's common practice in movie trailers to convey many elements of the situation and story ahead of time (which some true movie fans have complained about). The influence of Oprah's book-club choices is another example--if she picks it, it must be good (contemporary authors and publishers breathed a sigh of relief when she abandoned her exploration of classics and returned to new works). Possibly all this is inevitable in a highly capitalistic consumer culture where we're faced with numerous choices--even our expenditures on arts and entertainment are apt to be regarded as investments that we should pick carefully, with the aim of maximizing our return. But there's also a great tendency toward unitary thinking in America, toward going with the momentum and seeing the hit or buying the best-seller that everyone's talking about.

The problem of how (or whether) a critic can prevent his/her reviews from being used simply as a yea or a nay vote is another matter. I'm glad to see it raised but don't have time to ponder it.