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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Let's give Chance a Chance

How does the cultural hierarchy amass itself to select winners and losers in the arts, and what common methods, strategies, and so-called “best practices” do they deploy to determine results from a selection process that is (for the artist) not always transparent or obvious?

My interest in this topic stems as much from plain old curiosity as it does a self-interested desire to be understand the rules. After all, hasn’t everyone wondered at one time or another how and why this or that contemporary work - and the artist who created it – was a success, while many others were not? Finding a rationalization for this process is something that composers in particular should be cognizant of, since as professionals they are significantly invested in having their music performed and in the integrity/viability of the selection-system as a whole – to say the least.

As a composer myself, I strive to observe and understand how this process plays out in the arena of contemporary serious concert music, although to be honest, the subjective data I’ve gleaned thus far only provides a faint hint of the obscure rules that lay underneath. And yet, subtle indications of a mysterious systemic process rise to the surface and reveal themselves to those who pay close attention to the details. The selection-system in the field of music, as I see it, is fairly generic and generally applicable to other fields of art as well.

But how do we construct a viable theory out of fleeting impressions if we can’t peer directly into the black box of social interaction and observe for discernable patterns of information on which to base our claims? What if you can’t be a fly on the wall and observe the powerbrokers at work?

Having never been on a jury myself, I can only base my theory on cumulative results and outcomes of the selection process rather than on an internal narrative that occurs behind closed doors. We can’t see the hidden processes that hide beneath the hood and out of public sight. Although events of day-to-day decisions that reflect and represent inner-mechanics and social patterns that lie submerged are clear enough, it’s the larger trends and the patterns they form that are much more difficult to grasp. Local events generally exist out of sight and out of mind, and are distributed over the course of years of activity and spread among many individual recipients working in isolation. But the establishment always maintains the upper hand. The long-term impact of their positive or negative rating forms an over-arching and cumulative series of events that ultimately creates the pattern of winners and losers. Their mission is decidedly strategic, although they claim to be open-minded and neutral.

Acknowledging there is actually a systemic gateway for art and that it functions on a grand scale could be considered socially taboo, since the conventional wisdom is that outstanding and unique original art (and music) will always bubble up to the top of the vat to reveal itself as a superior product. It’s another incarnation of the survival of the fittest principal. We are trained to believe that true talent can’t be suppressed. On the other hand, it’s painfully clear to many observers that the number of producers of art far outnumber the limited supply of cash-carrying consumers. By hook or by crook, society must rely on a methodology to filter out (as with a cultural “sieve”) the “worthy” from the “worthless.” This concept is nothing new. The assignment of artistic value is an age-old process that has found application throughout time and across culture – yet this all-important filtering mechanism is also underplayed, perhaps in the interest of perpetuating the mystique about the greatness of individual works of art, artistic movements, and even colorful narratives about individual artists themselves. One thing is true: without a working conscious or unconscious filtering process, the public would be completely overwhelmed, besieged with information and the market (by which new art and new music is created and sold) would collapse under its own weight.

Several key factors are at play here. For one thing, there is good art and bad art, but unfortunately not everyone can (or will) agree on a unified criterion of aesthetic judgment to make value assessments on a universal or collective basis. There is no gold standard for art of exceptional quality, and if there were, we’d have other problems to deal with.

Some see the selection filter in purely financial terms. They mistakenly assume that art will succeed only if it has commercial potential, even what could be considered a niche market. I don’t take that view. It’s too simplistic.

While it is presumed that every consumer has a right to make decisions about what is good or bad art, by practical necessity most people tend to defer to eternal experts or specialists to help them form an “opinion” of their own. Here is where professional pundits and power brokers enter into the picture. Often they lend themselves out as experts - even as judges on decision-making committees - and directly influence the outcome of awards, commissions, and grants. It’s rather mercenary.

Several systems and mythologies have evolved over time to satisfy the need to limit the quantity of art in an open and free market. While anyone with means can produce art, the arts establishment oversees commerce in a marketplace that is internally subject to rules it establishes, controls, and self-regulates. It’s fundamentally a dark market, and its operations occur behind closed doors and out of public sight. The public has no idea about what the rules and regulations are, or how decisions are ultimately made. Even worse, the rules and their application are opaque to the creative artist as well.

For a sense of direction and cognitive security, consumers of art sometimes look for prevailing winds, and when they find it, fall in line with their cohorts like a flock of Canadian geese heading south for the winter. They follow this or that trend according to the dynamics of horde psychology. Following along with the masses has become a prevalent mode of group-based decision making in the information age where the number and veracity of Internet-driven spikes is a precise metric for social networking sites, and ubiquitous access to multimedia has made everyone a potential participant.

To put this in historical perspective, we should acknowledge that many artistic movements are as much the result of consumer fad as they are the product of a genuine artistic resonance based on a particular collective idea shared and distributed by the creator. I don’t advocate suppressing fad, but I do suggest that artists and consumers rise about the fray, self-educate, and become cognizant of the mechanisms that potentially fuel the fire of artistic movements – right down to understanding how limited resources are distributed to individual artists, musicians, and composers (or their constituent support organizations).

Perhaps it is because resources are so limited (and dwindling as we speak), that a cadre of so-called arts management professionals and self-appointed experts have inserted themselves to refine the process. In some cases management professionals have pre-selected concert programs before the musicians contracted to perform it have had a chance to provide their input. For these experts, randomness is neither virtuous nor a functional component of their organizational toolkit. Almost by definition, these people want complete control over the selection process and seek to wield absolute power in shaping concert programs (and ultimately the careers of those they manage). In the end, their well-intentioned (but usually misguided) actions determine what the public will be exposed to. Arts organizations experiencing financial stress tend to listen to their wise marketing advisors who may (or may not) have a personal aesthetic axe to grind. But as self-proclaimed experts, they allegedly know what’s best when it comes to the bottom line: ticket sales. Randomness - on any level - is their enemy, since they can’t control it.

The status quo in concert management is to propose and recommend a moderately conservative menu of musical offerings. This approach most often results in solutions that are predictably pre-determined and limited. Using their approach, the number of new works scheduled for a season will typically be very limited (if indeed any local or world premieres are scheduled at all). The prototype program offering of a major symphony orchestra is a case in point, where one hopes that the Music (or Artistic) Director is given at least some artistic leeway to create the season’s program. But it is more likely today that members of the Executive Management team will either lead the effort, or be heavily involved in the selection of actual programs (although in Europe there is a more complicated tradition to involve a mix of orchestral members in the program selection process).

The problem with the “music selected by committee” approach is that in the end there may be little if anything on the smorgasbord that actually appeals to the overall public’s sensibilities. It tends to promote a generic (and boring) outcome. On every level music ensembles are caught between the rock of selecting what a select few might consider interesting and exciting music verses the hard place of a boring alternative that will bring in a broader audience and hopefully maintain (if not increase) ticket sales. And as we have learned, what works in the short-term does not always translate to long-term success.

In some venues, concert programs are still “curated” by an Artistic Director with a particular point of view – which may or may not align with the interests of composers on one side, or an audience on the other. But at least with this singular approach, a unique vision is presented, implemented, and allowed to sink or swim based on its own intrinsic merits or limitations.

Public radio is an interesting example of a system where music was at one time selected by an individual DJ with a particular set of ideas and preferences. If you disagreed with their individual selections of music, you could always turn the dial to another station that conformed to your tastes or wait for the next show. Over time, commercial and public stations merged and their net number of listeners for a particular program grew. Management felt that in the new commercial paradigm the task of selecting specific music to broadcast was far too important on the bottom line to delegate to individual hosts or DJs. Behind the scenes, radio stations adopted committees of experts and consultants to analyze and tailor programs of music based on surveys, analysis, and studies. It’s now all very scientific, like Muzak.

The result of this change is that the independent selection of music for broadcast by local DJs was superseded by pre-selection of works (or at least categories) by a global committee. Their aim and objective was simply to apply pseudoscientific methods to appease the largest number of subscribers and maintain or increase market share as well as to centralize and optimize budgets.

Many people have an aversion to rationalizing the pre-selection of art by systemic means because of a widely held assumption that the consumption of art transpires on a purely emotional level. While both hemispheres of the brain are important factors on the receiving side of the artistic experience, many social and economic hurdles still have to be negotiated by the artist post-creation of his or her work. Although their work may be “pure” or even inspired by the aid of a creative muse, it ultimately has to go to market. In this regard art is a product, and in this sense it is no different than fish, coffee, fresh produce, hamburgers, or pork bellies.

In the case of contemporary music composition, the composer does not exist in a vacuum. Generally, his/her works are created for a venue and performed live (or with electronics) by skilled and trained musicians. The term “professional” is oft-applied to a performer and/or composer if they have formal training coupled with a formative list of accomplishments indicating extensive experience in their field. These incidental facts tend to be prominently published in the bios and webpages of such professionals along with acumens that strongly acknowledge this or that composers’ presumed success. How many times have we read, “X is generally acknowledged as one of America’s leading composers.”

But what do we mean by “professional” and how does society formally or informally assess Composer X’s success in the field? In an uncertain market, what are the criteria by which success and failure is measured? What framework is used to regulate the system or make selections? If it were a business, we could ask for a balance sheet and an analysis of the corporate metrics, but struggling artists and emerging composers don’t come equipped with that data. Even if such things could be measured objectively, our culture is not inclined to think of art in those terms.

It really seems that an entire infrastructure has evolved to assist modern society with the fairly ugly problem of narrowing down the selection of art before it reaches the public’s eye. Specialists and experts have appeared out of the woodwork to fill this niche. For example, to simply the process, consumers often read the recommendations of professional critics for helpful advice. Conversely, critics feel a responsibility to guide their readership in the “right” direction. While I agree there is a role for the well-versed music critic, since on occasion they can provide a common thread for public discussion centered on one or more important topics, there is a risk that critics can become more than mere commentators and cross over the fine line into a role of cultural activist. This editorial transgression should stand as a clear and present danger to the integrity of the selection process. Critics who take sides in the musical or artistic debate do so without actually being a direct stakeholder. For the most part, they are not creators themselves. The media’s recommendations often carry considerable weight. For instance, when a city-wide newspaper publishes their selected “picks” of concerts and venues, the beneficial impact on the featured presenting organization can be rather significant. But the adverse effects on artists and presenting organizations routinely ignored by the press tend to be equally devastating. For them, being ignored is poisonous.

On another front, academia has self-appointed itself as a mediator to provide formal credentials for artists and composers who seek to obtain legitimacy in a woefully over-saturated market. In the hope that a MFA or DMA will provide a competitive edge over their peers, many artists and composers have invested heavily in this academic-based strategy. While some musicians have on occasion found this career path fruitful, the formula has been less successful in recent years and appears to be losing steam and credibility as time marches on. I sense that audiences care less these days about the quality and quantity of degrees listed on a composers’ bio. With a market flooded by credentialed artists, the credential itself becomes less of a distinguishing factor.

And yet credentials seem to matter. A number of new music specialty ensembles in my geographic area appear to perform works by the same small group of credentialed composers more or less ad nausium. I find it interesting that some of these same ensembles are recipients of various awards for “Adventurous Programming.” What’s so adventurous about performing works by the same two dozen mostly academic composers over and over again?

Academia is heavily involved in controlling the filtering process at the source of funding as well. This occurs in instances where a foundation is based at, and administered by, a university. The significant potential for conflict of interest lies here, since the same organization that assigns credentials is tasked with distributing benefits and awards. The filtering process in this context tends to weigh heavily on personal connections and preexisting relationships. Academics tend to award other academics, and inside-politics has been known to reign. For example, if the jury of a grant selection committee were to actually listen to all of the recordings of the submitted works, they would never have enough time to listen to everything that was submitted. Therefore the trend has been to use a system of selection criteria that typically filters out the unwanted based on factors of familiarity and personal bias. From my experience on the submitter side of this equation, this filtering method is not optimal either.

Government subsidy of the arts is related to his discussion in that public money is often used to fund art projects – particularly major ones. I’ve seen both good and bad outcomes from art projects funded by Federal and State agencies in the US and by various European subsidies as well. While this discussion is not about the merits of public funding of the arts, it does raise the issue of cultural filtering when governments are forced to cut back on funding (as they have recently in Europe). The painful discussion about how and where to make these cuts becomes even more relevant when funds are in short supply. Deciding about what to sponsor in the arts is the mirror image of deciding what to cut. Recently in the Netherlands, politicians have decided to take a populist route: future funding will be determined the financial “success” of organizations. The hard metrics of audience size and ticket sales will become the primary determining factor of future support.

I find the “popularity contest” method of filtering to have significant limitations too. It’s an American model, and (from what I can see here in the United States) it does not serve the interests of those who hold a minority perspective in the arts. While select commercial ventures could exist on their own without the infusion of public monies, there is a much smaller market for certain art forms – including some important cultural warhorses such as the chamber and orchestral music. The classical music industry has from the outset never been completely self-sustaining, so it’s simply Pollyannaish to believe it would thrive (or survive) in a purely free-market economy. Recently two commercial British musicals won Tony Awards, which in itself is not surprising other than the fact that the British Government provided seed money to the producers of these stage works. This initial government funding allowed for the kind experimentation in theatre that is not likely to occur with free enterprise alone. My argument is not about reducing funding for the arts (in fact I think it should be increased), but about re-evaluating the means and process by which it is allocated.

Internet-driven crowd-sourcing is an interesting recent variation on the popularity contest. It uses Information Technology to systematize the mass market tabulation of winners and losers. It has commercial application too: collecting SMS texting fees for each “vote” has proven to be quite profitable for Simon Cowell’s American Idol’s empire. The YouTube phenomenon has made more than a few artists famous, if not infamous.

Thus far I have surveyed just a few of the methods in use by the arts establishment to whittle down an overly broad spectrum of art and music into a smaller, more manageable pot of finalists. The finalists then compete for diminishing resources of public and private funding, or get voted off of the island. We’ve seen how professional arts managers have a financial agenda that does not always align with artistic trends. We’ve seen how the juries at foundations often resort to personal bias and inside politics as a filtering method – usually out of practical necessity. We’ve seen how some professional critics inject bias into the public arena and use the power of the media to influence the filtering process. We’ve seen how academia has attempted to influence outcomes by throwing their weight behind their graduates and using credentialing to validate one class of artists over another. We’ve also seen a recent trend to filter art using the tools of social media with “crowd-sourcing” to empower the public through voting electronically for whatever they desire in the moment. This is impulsive and art by the numbers.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of any of the above methodologies. Yet, I fully acknowledge that not everyone can be an artist. As ugly as it, there needs to be a filtering process of some sort. That’s a reality.

Let me propose an alternative system: that of randomness. When someone has an encounter with art that is purely random; something clicks and the resulting experience is often quite positive and memorable. Serendipity has always been an important factor - not only for the consumer, but for the creator.

With human nature being what it is perhaps the best way to bypass back-room politics, personal bias, and insider trading in the art markets is for the distribution of funds and awards to be randomized. Randomization would equalize the playing field and virtually eliminate the potential corruption of committees and outside influence of self-proclaimed experts. While using chance does not guarantee that the “best” work of art will always be selected, it does provide a wider spectrum of options and more points of view than we have today. After the work is initially presented to the public, its intrinsic value is open for interpretation and vigorous debate. The new work will ultimately sink or swim based on its own merits. But the issue we face today is that poorly filtered selections of work make it to the public. By randomizing the selection process we would do a much better job at picking potential winners for society.

Randomness is not to be feared. For example, I am an advocate of open stacks in the library where one can browse books at will and discover new ideas purely by chance. Although I have a very extensive audio collection of recorded music, I often prefer to listen to the radio because the selection of music is out of my control. Random selection takes us beyond our narrow box of ideas and concepts, and can provide us with experiences that would not be part of our self-defined set of values.

How does one implement a system of randomness? I propose using a lottery system to achieve this goal. It’s rather easy to implement and would save funds and reduce (if not eliminate) administrative overhead. Artists would simply apply for a grant by obtaining a lottery ticket after establishing that they met a minimum set of requirements (the subject of another discussion). Foundations and cultural organizations would hold periodic lotteries to select the recipients of their awards or commissions. It’s that simple, and completely fair. It’s as easy as rolling the dice. You can’t get any more efficient than that.

It would require a paradigm shift for cultural organizations and foundations to demote their managers and panels of experts and migrate toward an organized system of chance. But I’m convinced that positive surprises would ensue from the adoption of this new filtering method, not to mention the fact that it would be far more equitable all around. At worst, the lottery system might provide results that are just as mundane or drab as the offerings we have today as the result of filtering by the existing pre-selected calculation methods. Nothing could be more boring than determinism in the arts, and randomness can stir things up.

Under the current system, the more awards an artist accumulates, the more suspicious I become of their work. Art should be about original ideas, not about an artist’s ability to schmooze and work the system to their advantage. If it does nothing else, the lottery system equalizes the playing field.

Is it fair? It depends who you ask. Certainly well-established artists and composers might feel threatened by the idea that their next commission or grant would be awarded on the basis of a lottery. But for many others, perhaps the majority, it does provide at least a chance of success and access to potential financial and artistic resources that they have difficulty accessing. While the odds would not be in any particular recipients favor and generally quite low, at least every basically qualified artist would get an equal shot at the prize.

Some will argue that with a lottery system everyone will suffer. This fear is overblown. The truly committed with continue their work and regularly apply for funding and commissions via the newly instituted arts-lottery system - while the dilatant will grow bored and seek other ways to pass their time. Those who apply more often will improve their success rate. In some cases an individual would have an equal (or better) success rate with the randomized selection method than the existing systems of selection utilized by the status quo.

Ultimately, the proposed lottery selection system would be generally accepted by the majority of creators of art and music, but it would also hold tangible benefits for the public at large too. Some of its positive outcomes in the field of music would include randomized listening tracks on the radio, new pieces of concert music by completely unknown composers, and an open and unregulated playing field unhindered by politics. These would all be welcome contributing factors to a newly vitalized new music scene, and I would embrace all of them as a positive trend toward something better than what we have today.

1 comment:

  1. This is a sign of progress...