Ahhh, one of the eternal questions, what makes something art? Does selling it or being popular "cheapen" art or cause the art itself to be lost?
This is one of a number of questions that I have been trying to work out for a long time.
In University we were taught about "for profit" and "not-for-profit" models in theatre. Basically, these are two separate worlds, one, focused on pleasing share holders, has a tendency to look at work through the lens of profitability...will this show sell tickets...the other, strives to choose works based on how good they are, not looking at the bottom line. In theory there is a strong line drawn between these two groups one group is focused on money, the other on pure art. We often further divided these two groups by claiming that "for profit" was mostly entertainment (and by entertainment (imagine a sneer on the word) we meant poorly conceived slop designed to part people from their money with as little effort as possible), while "not-for-profit" was pure art. While exceptions were given there was always a connection between selling tickets and the absence of art. Not surprisingly, wanting to be part of the for-profit world in any form was looked down upon, and as a result a lot of the streams of theatre that were more "popular" were seen as second rate and "entertainment." So, comedy, musical theatre and even plain story telling were not encouraged. Also, many of us had serious guilt and problems when entering the work force. Did we sell out? Should we live more penitent, monk like lives? Why was our devotion to art not enough? And why, oh why, has our audience deserted us? As I see it, part of the problem is found in the practicality of art vs. money ("not-for-profit" vs. "for profit" models) and the resulting definition of art:
1) Making art, while you love it, is also a profession. You do this to live. You need to get paid in order to eat, sleep in a decent place and even keep the physical building that houses your art over your head. In either model this is a reality that must be dealt with. Art isn't penance. It's a profession. At some point you must consider making money on a show. If this is true than making money cannot in and of itself negate art, also not making money does not prove that you have made art.
2)We are assuming that we can define art by money.
3)You need an audience, so you need to sell tickets. Is theatre actually theatre without an audience? In my opinion I don't think so. The audience is, in a sense, the final collaborator. The show is not alive, it is still in rehearsal, until it is in front of those wonderful eyes. Guessing what they'll like is hard, you don't get to pick who your audience is, and frankly tastes change from day to day, but there isn't anything wrong with trying to please them. Maybe it's a bit like a marriage, you want to be there for them, laugh with them, cry with them, talk about important things, you want them to appreciate you, love you and, I think, you should want to love them. I don't think it would be good to pretend that you are only dating for the rest of your life (you know, spend big bucks on a fancy car, go out on the town, pretend that everything in the world is solved by having a good laugh and a little romance) it would feel fake after a while. When something important came along it wouldn't really matter. Just like something crafted only for entertainment. But a good marriage has a little of the "dating" moments in it, roses, date nights, vacations, romance, laughter. It's not wrong, it's necessary, sometimes the way you can deal with problems is to forget them for a while. That's ok. On the other side of the coin you want to talk about things that are important. Try to figure out how to solve difficult situations, sometimes calling them on a bad decision before they get hurt. After all, you love them, you want them around. But you wouldn't want to mope around all the time, only talking about terrible issues, yelling at your spouse every time they came into the room. A little fighting clears the air, sometimes shows that you care, but fighting all the time, ignoring their wishes, alienating them? That's how marriages end. That is, I think, what has happened with our modern theatre, we fight a lot, we push our audience around, we alienate them on purpose (don't believe me, check it out, there is an actual form of theatre called alienation) there's no fun, no romance and so our audience has left us, the only thing they are interested in doing is dating us because at least there they can find the possibility of caring.
4) Both sides must care about money and about the interests of their audience at some point. We need to live, so we need to get money, so we need to sell tickets, so we need an audience. All that is really left is deciding what priority each thing we need will get...and then deciding how we are going to make it happen. Clearly, these cold calculations aren't pure Art, in and of themselves. We cannot allow this process to define for us what art is.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this Art vs Money thing has been going on for quite some time, since the early 1900's at least. My husband bought me a book for my birthday (told you I was crazy about art) that has essays on theatre from an old magazine called "Theatre Arts Magazine". I wanted it because it had articles by Konstantin Stanislavsky, Lee Strasberg and Michael Chekhov but I discovered that it contained some insight into the roots of the whole art/money argument and even some insight into film vs. theatre. (And, for anyone interested in design, it was the start of lighting so lots of interesting back and forth on that.) It was interesting to hear those arguments at their genesis, given how, a century later, we are living with the results.
I'll likely talk about this a lot going forward as it has been rumbling around in my head for years now. For anyone interested I have found this particular book on Amazon (I know I'm always looking for such things.) I'll eventually get round to talking about a few others that have helped formed these ideas...but here's the first one.
Although...I have the paperback version of this book so it's not nearly that expensive! I'm sure you may find it around the site if you look, or there's always the library! (one of my absolute favourite places, I know, I'm a nerd.) If you want to borrow it from me you may have to wait. I'm still busy working my way through to the end...