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An Excellence Manifesto for the Digital Age
- Excellence is Meaningless
Excellence doesnt stand out when everything is excellent. In a world where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average," being good looking, strong and above average wont get you noticed. We perceive excellence when it stands out from the things around it. When everything is excellent then excellence is average. Its in our nature to want more, to want different. Most declarations of excellence arent about excellence at all; theyre about positioning. In the digital age, when ideas and bits and bytes are cheap and endlessly reproducible, excellence is a mutable concept.
- The Mushy Middle No More
Success in the mass culture was measured not by excellence of product but by size of audience. That doesnt mean mass culture wasnt excellent; only that the essential measure of its excellence was audience. Mass culture was built on the idea of producing things that would appeal to the most people. That usually didnt mean the high end; it meant generic and accessible. Generic is the "mushy middle" — something that is least offensive to the most people. If there are only three channels and you want to watch then you have to pick one of the three. The communications revolution is killing the mushy middle. Generic cant compete with infinite customization. We want what we want when we want it, and increasingly, how we want it. The good news? The arts were never the generic mushy middle (Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons notwithstanding). Something to consider though: Would you be producing what youre producing now if you werent the only opera company in town? If you had 10 or 20 opera competitors and your audience could customize its experiences?
- The Good-Enough Problem
MP3s suck. The sound quality is worse than the most indifferently-recorded CDs. Yet most of us happily listen to MP3s, content to give up sound quality for the convenience and portability of digital files. Likewise phones. If 50 years ago you had asked AT&T engineers what the most important feature of their phone service was, they would have said it was reliability and sound quality. Turns out it wasnt. We put up with dropped calls and crappy sound because portability is more important. In both cases industry leaders defined the essential qualities of excellence differently than did their customers. So why do consumers not only settle for products less excellent than they can be, but often prefer them? Its called the good-enough problem. Something doesnt have to be definitively excellent to be successful; it merely needs to be good enough at the thing consumers most care about. The excellence is in matching what matters most with the ability to deliver it. How does this translate in the arts? Do our audiences care more about the evenness of a voice across registers or how convincing a singers acting is? A provocative story or well-crafted music? Famous performers or lavish sets? Comfortable seats or unique experience? Its not always about trade-offs and, sure, we want everything to be excellent. But unless we can identify what the essential good-enough is and deliver, excellence in everything else might not matter, no matter how much we want it to.
- Choice is the New Excellence
We care about excellence when it delivers something we value. The question, then, is what do we value? The communications revolution pushes overwhelming choice on us, and were constantly weighing the value propositions in those choices. Choosing is complicated and difficult and exhausting. The New Excellence is that which speaks to the values in the choices were trying to make. Now. Excellence — by whatever definition — is nowadays assumed. To be anything other than excellent means to be discarded. What changes is my definition of excellence. Dont tell me your new production of Nixon in China is excellent and expect me to rush on over. Just saying something is excellent doesnt help me decide. Excellence of a production (whatever that is) is just one part of the decision process for most people. Its not about shoveling out more YouTube videos and press releases and tweets; thats just adding to the information jungle and you could be making it harder to choose, not easier. Youre excellent if you make choosing easier, if you articulate value in ways that make it easy for me to decide.
- No, Community is the New Excellence
Every arts organization in America is talking about engagement. The old definition of audience engagement? You make something and I respond. But social networking has changed expectations. Were in the Sharing Economy, and my attention and recommendation are currency, worth more the more I share. It isnt just call and response — its about interacting, give and take. Sharing and interaction are now an essential part of the cultural experience for many people. A meaningful experience is not complete until theres an opportunity to share it. Sharing has become a creative act, and how people curate what they share is a way in which people help define themselves. Sharing means Ive decided to invest in what I find meaningful. So: the value of new-definition engagement is not so much to get feedback as it is the ability to tap into the creative energy of a community. Yeah, yeah, sounds good, you say. Artists are supposed to lead, not follow. But art doesnt really get its power until an audience decides to do something with it, to translate it, play with it, spread the word and reinterpret it. The web makes this possible with unprecedented efficiency. And it makes art better. For all the talk about inclusiveness and outreach, the arts are actually behind forward-thinking businesses in this regard. American business has discovered that customers arent just a market, they can help do things a company cant do on its own. A mobilized community can make a company better — more excellent — than it can be by itself.
About the Author: Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of ArtsJournal, one of the first websites to aggregate arts and cultural news from around the world. He delivered the Opening Keynote of Opera Conference 2012.