Sometimes people think I don't care about artistic quality. And, I admit, sometimes that seems like the shorthand version of the point I'm trying to make—not excluding anyone because of our own aesthetic judgment has long been a core value for Springboard for the Arts.
But I do care. I've experienced transformational art. I've leapt to my feet after virtuosic and passionate concerts; I've wept because of the ability of an actor to tap their own humanity; and I've stood in awe and reverence of masterful visual art. I get it. Quality exists. But here's where I get stuck:
When we try to PRE-determine quality. When we try to say that because of some external process of judgment, we're guaranteed to only get good stuff. When we rely on a system of validation and recognition to decide where we THINK quality is going to show up—what degree the artist has, where (if) they went to school, what awards they've won, where else they've played, who collects their work, etc.
I don't find that system reliable enough to be the only determiner, and I’m certainly not comfortable asserting that I can determine what will be a quality experience for someone else. I've been moved to tears by high school plays, and I've been bored at some of the most decorated theaters in the country.
Also, the majority of the criteria we have for pre-determining quality are heavily weighted towards disciplines we understand and the western cultural canon. It's a system that often leaves out women, people of color, folk artists, tradition bearers, comedians, popular musicians, self-taught artists, designers, and on and on. Besides, I'd rather wade through a whole lot of dreck for the chance to experience something new and raw and unrecognized, than give up the thrill of that moment of discovery for the safety of the already-validated experience.
When quality is only defined by skill or craft. There are a lot of things that make up my definition of quality. Of course craft is part of it, but for me, guts, truth, sock-you-in-the-face-passion are more important. I am much more likely to criticize an experience because “there weren’t enough guts in it” than because the artists were unskilled.
I want art that makes me feel something. I want you to make me fall in love with you, feel with you. I want to feel the joy in your process. I want to hear what you are saying, not just marvel at your skill. I care about context: where I’m seeing the show, who I’m with, what else is happening in my life all affect my experience tremendously. And the backstory matters to me. I care about the reason you're making this work. I care about who you are and what the work means to you – not because I'm an altruistic person but because that makes my experience better. One thing I think we can learn from the recent high-profile struggles of cultural organizations—some of whom are at the “top of their game”—is that this kind of skill-based definition of quality doesn’t always correlate to relevance for a community.
When we use quality as a way to exclude others. I honestly do not see how the world suffers if some people make "bad" art. I do not understand who is hurt if we let more people define themselves as artists. I do not see any other way of finding the truly great, passionate artists who will provide transformative experiences for us in the future—at least not a way that doesn't severely limit our options of who those transformative artists might be. In a time when the institutional, mostly-nonprofit, arts sector is challenged to demonstrate their relevance to the broader community, doubling down on the idea that we’re the only ones who know how to pick good art and hoping that the lens through which we see quality is the “right” one seems a very risky bet to make.
Yet, I recognize that skill is real, that curators and critics are valuable, that artists who dedicate their lives to serious practice produce different results than someone who approaches art as a hobby, I even think there are occasionally works of art that approach universality as a result of their quality. So I struggle with these questions almost daily. Struggle with my own definition of quality and how to communicate that nuance in my work.
In the end, I defer to Howard Gardner who suggests that we each, individually, have our own portfolio of beauty: the catalog of experiences that have meaning to us, that we find beautiful. "We’re no longer going to have a single canon where a central authority will be able to decide what’s great and what’s not... Everybody can make his or her judgments about beauty, and it doesn’t impinge on anybody else.”
Finally, when I peer into my own portfolio of beauty, it doesn’t seem so complicated any more. Because in that portfolio is a crazy collection of experiences that have moved me, pushed me, and changed me. My portfolio includes Itzhak Perlman in a concert hall and the community band at Minnehaha Falls; Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and street acrobats in San Francisco; Mercedes Ruhl and Patrick Stewart in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and a scrappy, rag-tag Midsummer Night’s Dream in Matthews Park; Louis C. K. and late night improv sets; a Magritte show at the Chicago Art Institute and a painting by a high school student and many, many more.
Those things make up my definition of quality and that definition only needs to matter to me.