De Ars Aesthetica
The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek aisthētikós, which concerns the perception of the senses, and took its modern meaning following the connotation that Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten gave it in 1750, as a discourse or theory on taste (Simpson & Weiner, 1989, p. 206). Philosophers have given very different contributions to the study of aesthetics, sometimes deeply contrasting. For the Italian writer and critic Umberto Eco, the artwork is open to subjective interpretations; Eco believes that these viewpoints reflect, firstly, the socio-cultural background of the spectator and change the comprehension of the aesthetic validity of the work of art ‘precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood’ (1989, p. 3).
Either based on an objective principle or belonging to the eye of the beholder, the idea of beauty—affecting what is considered valuable, acceptable, influential, and even good—shapes artistic productions, trends, behaviours, and consumption decisions. People want to be surrounded by beautiful things: they continuously buy, dress, attend, share, and create beauty. In the Information Age, everyone can become an auctoritas, the keeper of a new kind of aesthetics, and tell the masses what to wear, eat, read, rate, and believe. The new curators go by the names of influencers, fashion bloggers, YouTubers, vloggers, and so on. Moreover, the huge amount of data that the Internet enables to be instantly shared, overcoming geographical boundaries, makes the idea of a truthful authority obsolete. No reference points and tools are left to determine if what it is shown is true, nor beautiful, whatever that means.
In a world that cannot really define the limits of the artistic discussion—where anyone can virtually be an artist, and anything can be art—artistic programming becomes a challenge: a sense-making process that projects the outlook of a cultural organisation onto the audience, and on the market. Inevitably, the decisions taken face both artistic considerations and economic ones, intertwining reflections on taste, quality, feasibility, and profitability. Since artistic programming is about selecting and delivering contents, the planning aspect acquires a ‘strategic’ role, being the arena in which all the different trade-offs raised in the decision-making process are dealt with to allow the final distribution of the output.
The concept of ‘strategy’ was introduced in the management studies starting from the 1960s (Kiechel, 2010) and was mainly employed to indicate a deliberate process of planning (Ansoff, 1987), a vision with a precise direction to achieve specific goals (Chandler, 1966). Over time, it has broadened its meaning including a more dynamic and transformative dimension: a set of actions that happen to emerge and are realised or made visible a posteriori, more or less independently of what was planned in the first place (Mintzberg, 1978). Consequently, if a strategy is defined ‘as a pattern in a stream of decisions’ (Mintzberg, 1978, p. 935), then artistic programming cannot but be strategic. No matter what is the rationale behind the decisions that lead to a certain display: programming unfolds as consequential choices, thus, as a strategy for its own nature. Through time, that design might reveal a particular trend or style, perhaps far from what was initially devised, or it might not be possible to infer any clear scheme. Therefore, what is worth analysing is how all the various pieces of the whole jigsaw puzzle relate one to another. What the different factors that must be addressed are, what their relevance is and how the aesthetic discourse affects decisions. This does not imply that having a vision and planning thoroughly are useless: on the contrary. But it is important to underline that the dilemma faced by programmers is not about being either strategic or aiming at quality, instead, it concerns the fundamentals of what will inevitably manifest itself as a strategy.
More than focusing on how much deliberate and rational these processes should be, it is more intriguing to explore some of the other variables that must be addressed when programming. The issues to be tackled during the determination of artistic programmes regard the likelihood of dealing with various trade-offs. For instance, the relationships between quality and financial sustainability, trends and avant-garde, and funding and freedom of contents.
Taste and programming
The artistic programme of a cultural institution represents its manifesto. It contains the lines of thought of the programmer over what it is considered valuable seeing and displaying. In fact, it both aims at offering selected works of art to the spectators for them to appreciate and at enhancing those works precisely in light of their selection. In other words, including some productions in a programme makes them worthy through the approval of an authority. This acceptance is similarly connected to the idea of the sacred: being separate and distinct from what is common, what is profane. The artistic director is the minister of this choice: he chooses for the public, but more importantly, he chooses on behalf of the organisation he represents.
Empowered by the selection, the programme reaches the audience together with all the
seasons of the other artistic organisations belonging to the same area. This offering becomes
the cultural offering available to the public. According to the French sociologist Bourdieu, the formation of taste is a result of the early socialisation: the context in which one has been raised, especially the social class, determines what that person will appreciate (1984). Middle and upper-class members, experiencing and absorbing an abundant amount of cultural capital from ‘legitimate’ institutions, will reflect the taste typical of these institutions. Moreover, they gain a peculiar ‘aesthetic disposition’ not just toward high culture but also developing the capability to abstract from everyday contexts rather than perceiving primarily the functional and practical purposes of reality, as members of the working class tend to do (Bourdieu, 1984, pp. 28-30). In addition, taste makes clear how people relate to each other, how they acquire specific stances in agreement with some social groups and not with others (Stewart, 2014). What people like tells what is their social position. In Bourdieu’s words: ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’ (1984, p. 6).
It is reasonable to think that Bourdieu’s vision of the society is quite dated and that the order portrayed is probably less clear-cut nowadays; nevertheless, from the institutional level still comes the most recognised definition of taste. If on the one hand, one can argue that these legitimate institutions are exercising a dictatorship of taste stating what is good or, at least, what is high culture; on the other, their decisions may depend on the prospect of selling. Artistic programming decides what the audience can see, whereas the audience expresses its opinion choosing whether to attend. Since the contents are destined to the ticket buyers, what is the role played in the programming process by their willingness to purchase?
It goes without saying that financial sustainability is pivotal for any organisation. Arts organisations are facing increasingly complicated environments in which they operate: in terms of funding, competition, and the challenges that the digital medium entails. Performing arts organisations can rely even less than others on technological improvements and economies of scale to reduce their expenses. The performing arts industry incurs an inevitable income gap (Baumol and Bowen, 1966). This gap is the difference between almost fixed productivity, resulting by the same amount of time and personnel required to perform live, just as it was centuries ago, and constantly rising unit costs that follow the trend of the economy as a whole (Baumol and Bowen, 1966). Consequently, this pressure might affect artistic decisions pushing organisations to cut the productions’ costs and to programme more commercial works. Productions with smaller casts, fewer rehearsals, and cheaper sets and costumes result in an artistic deficit that unavoidably stands out against the image that has been reinforced through the tradition and that spectators expect to see on stage (Heilbrun, 2011). Programming commercial performances, instead, may not be as profitable as planned if the venue is not a commercial one. After all, earnings are important but cannot constitute the prime goal of these organisations.
Arts organisations face many forces: they have at their core a unique artistic vision, but they adopt managerial tools similar to the ones used in for-profit companies and have to negotiate with very different stakeholders (Cray, Inglis and Freeman, 2011). Usually, these tensions are addressed by and divided among two figures: the artistic and the managing director, the latter redirects the artistic vision towards efficiency and effectiveness (Cray, Inglis and Freeman, 2011). Clearly, if the two roles are not in balance and eventually hinder each other, then the organisation is not working properly.
Krug and Weinberg tried to solve the compromise between financial sustainability and essential purposes of an arts organisation offering a model to value the contribution of the different activities undertaken (2004). The model is based on a decomposition of each project among different dimensions: its contribution to the mission, its financial feasibility, and its performance. The last component is defined in terms of quality, and of what is called ‘merit’, and can be obtained measuring the attendance of the public and its opinion concerning what spectators had experienced (Krug and Weinberg, 2004, p. 326). An analogous reasoning can be easily applied to the analysis of an artistic programme. Although no real technique is offered to properly evaluate quality, the model is a good intersection between qualitative and quantitative data, especially in the way it combines these components together and it highlights the role of the mission in the artistic decision-making process.
Identity, Coherence, and Integrity
The mission is the starting point of any manifesto. Indeed, an artistic programme directly originates from the organisation’s purposes and identity. Formulating a mission can be difficult: its implications guide the planning process impacting on the resulting administrative and organisational decisions (Kaiser, 1995, p. 9). For this reason, if a Broadway theatre’s programme is highly dependent on the response of the audience and tends to follow the public’s taste, it is just because it complies with its mission.
Moreover, commercial productions are not per se inferior to non-commercial ones. Cirque du Soleil or Momix manage to attract crowds of people, they both have a quite profitable business model and according to the critic, they represent examples of excellent artistry. On the other hand, independent visual artists are not necessarily producing finer artworks than the ones exhibited in commercial art galleries. Finally, the celebrated paintings created by Italian Renaissance artists were commissions: their art was, in a sense, commercial. Not only it is hard to state something in absolute terms, but it makes also little sense to use the commercial nature of an artwork as the discriminating factor to determine its aesthetic value. It is not a matter of what is better or worse, the point is understanding how diverse these two alternatives are. To this purpose, the first thing that appears evident is a difference in terms of mission and value proposition, this stands out more than any judgment on the final work, which lies on subjectivity.
Even though artistic programming cannot escape the fiscal responsibility issue, it finds in the mission the ultimate decision criterium. Carpenter and Blandy see programming as a mission-driven process that represents the reason for the existence of the organisation itself (2008). Furthermore, it is fundamental to examine both how much the activities programmed are serving the mission, and if it is possible to realise those activities in respect of their inner ‘artistic standards’ (Carpenter and Blandy, 2008, p. 207). Surely, strong programming is the starting point, but it may not be enough to keep an organisation healthy: smart and efficient marketing is key (Kaiser, 2013). Organisations need to increase the visibility of their programmes and to enable the spectators to participate in the activities not only buying tickets, but also entering the venues, talking about what they see, and taking part in collateral events (Kaiser, 2013).
Most of the texts written on artistic programming see it as an extensively deliberate process. A thorough planning phase allows to forecast the effects of the artistic decisions and try to safeguard the financial stability. In Kaiser’s opinion, artistic programming must be faced in an extremely organised way and it needs to be planned far in advance both for economic and artistic purposes (Kaiser, 1995). Planning is, from Kaiser’s point of view, an intentional process in the sense that it tries to reduce complexity analysing all the aspects that can be controlled by the organisation. In more detail, one should take into consideration the possibility of failure when budgeting and arrange the activities of the other departments to support and empower the artistic core, which ought to aim at being unique and characteristic (Kaiser, 2013).
Of course, scholars do look for formulas and patterns to reach success. Kaiser offered a list of ten rules to recover and improve one’s organisation: from a straightforward and forward-looking leadership to aggressive and programmatic marketing campaigns, and against any kind of cut on the artistic core (2008). John Tusa, instead, published an ABC depicting how arts organisations have become highly managerial and how they need, at the same time, to focus on objectives and measures and to keep in mind that artistic creation implies uncertainty and risk (2007). In the end, an accurate organisational design is not the goal, but rather the essential means to achieve the goals. Artistic integrity is guaranteed by the coherence with what an organisation aims at doing.
On freedom of programming
Artistic programmes are the product of the organisation’s mission, but in the end, they are conceived by people: the artistic directors. Therefore, they depend on the directors’ taste, on their knowledge and exposure to the artistic scene, and on the networks and relationships they have with artists and companies (Klaic, 2014). More importantly, programmers are affected in their decisions by a plethora of stakeholders: the critics, the sponsors, the artists, and the audience. The critics influence the audience and the artistic community setting standards and defining trends, the sponsors make the artistic productions possible financing projects that are not yet completed.
Criticism offers one measure to evaluate the quality and value of the artworks displayed. Even if it is not always the case, critics affect ticket buyers, especially because the average spectator is rarely adventurous (Eason, 2002). Sometimes, they give an external perspective to the artistic team, they create expectations in the public and guidelines to read the works, and they affect the selection of pieces to be re-enacted (Dvoskin, 2012). Yet, most of the time reviews are chiefly preoccupied with expressing personal judgement and highlighting either their love or hatred for the works without an actual analysis (Eason, 2002; Weckwerth, 2002). Criticism itself turns into a commercial tool and reduces to a recommendation of consumerism (Holland, 2010) and, at the same time, wants to be purchased and read merely as an enjoyable product for its own sake (Herskovitz, 2002). Also, reviews can be problematic when dealing with innovative contents: works that offer a quite pioneering contribution to the field, and are not purely contemporary (Castañer and Campos, 2002). After all, art is always contemporary when it is created. What once was considered worthless and inappropriate, because against the mainstream, is now exhibited and has become part of the ‘tradition’, while its initial newness and boldness slowly disappear. On the other hand, it is not a foregone conclusion that innovation of contents is implicitly worthy.
Nevertheless, a comparison of the literature and empirical data shows that internal micro factors appear more relevant than macro elements in the determination of innovation. Scholars have identified the presence of unused or unnecessary resources (in a way, a small size), and of a gap between performance and aspirations as variables positive correlated to innovation (Castañer and Campos, 2002). Mixed and ambiguous relevance subsists in the funding sources. The multiplicity of funding tends to be linked with artistic innovation, but corporate sponsorship is not, ipso facto, connected with commercial orientation (Castañer and Campos, 2002). Public funding is affected by the political outlook of the moment and corporate funding’s purposes change with the mission and with the kind of industry (Castañer and Campos, 2002). Anyway, it would be naïve to state that programming is not influenced by the size of subsidies, their requirements, and the trends in the funding establishment (Assasi, 2007).
Censorship, in the wide connotation of interrupted expression, can occur in many manners, more or less explicitly. It can be for decency, socially or governmentally regulated—as happened in the 1980s in the US (Walker, 1993)—or as a compromise in the hope of meeting the audience’s taste. Artists, participating in the same arena, are equally affected by similar dynamics. They partake in the process both providing organisations and critics with the works to be presented and reviewed and dialoguing with those and with the audience in a complex but necessary exchange.
Finally, since it is unlikely that the audience consists of a homogeneous group of people, it may be hard to predict how much a work will turn out to be appealing. Diversification of the programmes is often used to make sure that everyone can find something captivating in it, but this might fragment the offering with the risk of weakening the coherence with the organisation’s identity (Klaic, 2014). For example, some programmes are devised for families, some others to promote young artists and experimental productions, and customers are usually segmented and addressed differently. In any case, the artworks are inevitably decontextualised from their ‘original setting’ and inserted in another one through a delicate operation: they become part of a bigger picture that may—or may not—make easier their appreciation (Klaic, 2014, p. 17). Moreover, arts organisations often adopt a market orientation approach trying to understand express and latent needs and desires of the audience in advance: their programming techniques can vary from being highly oriented toward an artistic vision to having a major focus on means and resources available (Sorjonen, 2011).
Artistic programming is a complex process that creates connections between an aesthetic and a managerial perspective. Neither one nor the other can be neglected. Moreover, it forces the programmer to establish priorities and objectives, taking, sometimes, hazardous decisions that involve artistic integrity. In addition, dealing with art and culture can never be a light-hearted activity: those domains are inextricably linked to the society and cannot be reduced merely to leisure products. Obviously, arts organisations cannot avoid considering the public, but keeping in mind the spectators is not the same as compromising with commercial productions. Programming starts and ends with a straightforward mission and since it entails numerous issues and interests, it should not be rushed but it requires a certain planning.
Furthermore, if it aims at innovating through experimental and more contemporary works, it should not assume that the public must be educated. This bias constitutes a pretentious way to enlarge the gap between the arts and the people. Arts organisations act as intermediaries between artworks and the public, thus, the latter needs to be taken into account without being necessarily accommodated. The difference is subtle but real:
I’m not interested in having marketing experts run the season planning meetings. Or for the artistic mission of a theatre to pander to the lowest denominator of audience expectations. I believe that audiences do want to be challenged, surprised, and perhaps even offended. But I do not think that challenging an audience is the same as baffling them. As artists who help shape our theatres, we need to think through our audiences.
(Kosidowski, 2003, p. 86)
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