The comedian and the trumpet player

What, possibly, could Nicholas Payton and Louis C.K. have in common?

I saw a clip a few weeks back of Louis C.K. on Conan O'Brien's show. The topic was "Why I don't want to buy cell phones for my kids." The answer was a bit circuitous, but kind of awesome. Here's the clip (some mild profanity…):

It's difficult to know what exactly is "authentic" Louis C.K. and what is a "bit", but either way, I like what he's saying about how we might use our cell phones (and other distractions) to avoid true emotions or true experiences. I know I've been guilty of checking my phone (again…and again…) especially when alone at events, rather than taking in the surroundings or connecting with people.

And so what about Nicholas Payton? Well, his is a blog I read on occasion and, a few weeks back, he posted an entry called "On Truth and Beauty in the Age of Bullsh**" (minus the asterisks). You can read the post here. When I read his post, I realized that what Nicholas Payton says is similar to what Louis C.K. says in the clip above: it seems as though we're conditioned to do whatever is easiest, whatever helps us to avoid the thing requiring effort. Payton writes:

We’ve created a culture where depth no longer matters. The less time it takes to understand what something is, the more desirable. Reductive sound bytes are given more credance than well fleshed out ideas. Memes have become more stimulating than Monets. Escapism and deniability is what’s fashionable and confronting truth is passé.

I struggle with this concept on a personal level, especially when dealing with programming at the jazz festival. There are several issues at play:

  • I have an enormous amount of material to get through when evaluating submissions, and so have only a few minutes to spend on each. I rely on my initial reaction to the music, and a gut instinct about how the project would perform artistically and at the box office if it was booked. As a result, it is likely that certain projects - especially those which must be experienced as full concerts in order to achieve their intended artistic effect - may get shortchanged.
  • The current funding climate, in which a strong box office is paramount to the overall financial success of the festival, means that we're more likely to book acts which are easier to digest. Even familiar names need to be presenting a project which we feel will resonate fairly widely.
  • In Toronto's saturated entertainment market, we are competing with all other art forms - movies, theatre, dance, museums, galleries - and even live sporting events. It is difficult to convince potential audience members looking to be entertained that they should spend their money on a performance which may be outside of their comfort level artistically, or unfamiliar in other ways.

So how do we counter this construct? The idea, as Payton suggests, that "If something doesn’t reveal all of its layers in a matter of seconds, no one wants anything to do with it"?

Two things come to mind.

First, we need to make sure that the art is available. In other words, arts organizations - including the jazz festival - need to book the art which requires more effort, more thought, more investment from the audience. It's risky and it may not break even, but if the art is not available, there is a 100% likelihood that it won't get experienced.

Second, we need to make sure that the art is accessible. By accessible I mean: ticket prices must be relatively affordable; information on the performers and their music must be readily available; and the performances must be front and centre. This last point is especially important: we can't expect audience members to go to certain concerts if those concerts are always in the smallest venues, and occupy the smallest amount of space in marketing materials. As I've mentioned before, when I'm not working at the jazz festival I work for Continuum Contemporary Music. Continuum performs challenging music - it's challenging to perform and, sometimes, challenging to hear. But I honestly can't remember the last time I heard someone say that they did not enjoy a Continuum concert. If art is produced professionally, if it's presented in an engaging fashion, it will resonate, one way or another, with all audiences.

It's not realistic to expect that we can change the entertainment-seeking habits of society on the whole. As Louis C.K. put it:

And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It's starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…

So it makes sense that we'd seek distractions, things which are easy to consume and digest. But as Nicholas Payton writes, we shouldn't shortchange ourselves "because it may create a bit of discomfort from time to time." Let's provide an opportunity for people to delve deeper into art, to experience something beyond the surface. In doing so, we may just end up creating larger, more engaged audiences.


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