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Thursday 21 May 2009

Art by Market Research?

Mark Ravenhill, writing in The Guardian (18:05:09) commented on the future as he saw it (bleak, but not too bleak) for the stage. He spoke of the way things once were for theatre-land, a scenario of boom and bust, feast and famine, in which they relied, all too heavily, on word of mouth, which would bring in customers in their droves when a play caught the imaginations of the general public, but otherwise they struggled to get enough bums on seats.

According to Ravenhill, the policies of Maggie Thatcher changed all that. It was, she maintained, all a matter of supply and demand. All that was needed was for you to first identify your audience, then work out what it was this audience were wanting. After which you merely had to sell yourself to them as a company capable, ready and willing to supply it. So they did. And it worked, to such an extent that they now have loyal audiences which turn up regularly. And particularly so at the moment, thanks to the credit crunch (sic)! Those punters who are still in work have £25 or so to spare each week, thanks to lower mortgage repayments, and they are willing to spend this on theatre tickets. (I must say here that this does not seem to quite accord with other analyses I have come across, but let's go with it.)

You might think, might you not, that the market research approach would make for some degree of conservatism in the fare on offer, but not so, says Ravenhill. It has actually resulted in an increase in the number of new plays. However, there is a downside, and it is here that he seems to me to be arguing against his own optimism: apparently, the adoption of the Thatcher approach led to an increased dependence on sponsorship and grants - and it is these, that given the new financial situation, are likely not to be forthcoming in the immediate future. He doesn't explain the mechanism by which it came about that Thatcherite policies led to this increased dependence upon handouts, and I find it hard to see what it might have been. At any rate, it would not seem possible for the theatres to make up this shortfall. Seats are already expensive and, for the main part, filled. He did not propose a way out of the dilemma, but remains optimistic in that he looks forward to what is to come.

I did wonder, reading the piece, whether and to what extent his Thatcherite policies could/should be extended to the other arts, the visual arts, for example. Is the policy transferable? Should Tracey Emin have researched the market a bit to find out whether indeed it was wanting an unmade bed, or might she have done better with, say, an inverted toilet?Should Tate Modern or the White Cube Gallery carry out market research to discover what the punters want? Could you imagine Picasso saying to himself: It seems this blue stuff's not shifting like it was... time to try another colour, maybe!

Could there be a New visions for old! approach in any of the arts, whereby if what you are painting, writing, composing at the moment is not selling, you should bin that style or voice, that sound or genre for something more popular? After all, artists of old, Michelangelo et al gave their patrons what they wanted (by and large) - and their work doesn't seem to have suffered as a result.

Just a thought or two to be going on with...


Barry said...

I love the thought of Picasso shifting from his blue period based on market research.

Actually I think that sound I just heard was Picasso rolling over in his grave.

Honestly I heard that sound all the way over here in Canada.

Kat Mortensen said...

Isn't the point as an artist to be true to oneself? I should think catering to the masses would greatly compromise that.
The Picasso bit was stellar!


Tabor said...

Marketing art...what opposites! I guess a non-artist could do the marketing, but changing the product for the market makes it no longer art...just a product.

Meri said...

What a balance playwrights need to achieve! And even with visual arts, the kind of works displayed in Tate Modern appeal only to a small segment of the population. What often sells briskly and in huge volumes are trite pieces with cottages and gardens and fairies. There is always a tightrope between purity of vision and critical or economic acclaim.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

In a way, market forces are just as pertinent to the arts as any other product. The theatre is probably slightly different to sculpture and painting. I suppose it depends whether the artist is desperate to sell his/her work or content to produce pieces of interest to only a few.

I can see how the theatre could become heavily dependent upon sponsorship, more so than grants. Did public sector grants fall during the Thatcher years?

BTW, I hope you will be able to pop over to my place and cast your expert eye over my offerings, please.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting post, as usual, Dave.
I think I like the idea that the artist paints/draws/sculpts/writes whatever he or she is moved to do - that the important thing is to create what you want to create regardless of what the public wants.
Yes I know in the days of patronage the whole thing was different - I think artists such as Leonardo, Raphael etc. saw themselves as artisans, Maybe the cult of "self" and self-expression only came later.

Rosaria Williams said...

Look what has happened to television shows: the most popular shows sprout all kinds of imitations to a point where we see nothing but cop shows and reality shows. Nobody is at the elm, inviting new ideas, supporting inventiveness.

Market research, or give the customer what he thinks he wants, traps the arts, redefines them as utilities.

Rachel Erstwhilely said...

yes, but imagine how different art history would have been if people like Michelangelo had NOT had patrons to please...?! there's a work of speculative fiction in that somewhere...

Unknown said...

Fascinating topic--I've thought about the whole patronage question at various times. My immediate reaction is that creation under a system of patronage tends to lend primacy to the subject & that the artist more typically approaches a set subject/theme/form etc. in a way that constrains individuality, but does give it some scope for a "signature"-- a Raphael madonna is easily distinguished from one of the Flemish madonnas, e.g. In the wake of romanticism, it does seem to be "the singer, not the song" to a great extent (yours truly's poetry included, tho in music I tend to play pretty traditional stuff). Great post.

A Cuban In London said...

I, too, read the Ravenhill piece and could not help feeling a pang of complacency there. He is usually quite sharp, but sometimes you have to suspend disbelief in the face of some of the atrocities that are committed in the name of art. I do agree with him that as an artist you should have a market(ing) strategy but how far it should and whether that should limit your output is a moot point.

Many thanks for a good analysis. To your question:

'Could there be a New visions for old! approach in any of the arts, whereby if what you are painting, writing, composing at the moment is not selling, you should bin that style or voice, that sound or genre for something more popular?'

My answer is no. Right now my son, who is eleven, is going through a 'my art is rubbish' period off wich we are trying to wean him. No, art is to be enjoyed by the practitioner and, hopefully, by the audience.

Greetings from London.

Dave King said...

Barry If it carried that far, it must have been Picasso.

Poeticat Absolutely, but should that not also apply to the stage? Or is that one of the differences as between the so-called interpretive and creative arts?

Tabor Exactly, yet it works for the stage... apparently.

Meri Very few, I think, walk that tightrope successfully; most plump for one or the other.

Derrick I have to pass on the Thatcher influence. I cannot see how applying market forces leads to a greater dependence on handouts.

The Weaver of Grass Yes, I think you may have got to thee nub of the issue. Leonardo et al did see themselves as artisans, and no doubt the conviction that you have some divine vision in your soul does change your outlook, but does that not apply to the playwright? Or are the new plays talked about just pot-boi;ers for the most part?

lakeviewer Good point. The TV experience should warn us. There is another aspect, though, and that is that the shows popular with the program makers - and sponsors - are those that are economical to make.

Rachel I think you are right, there most definitely is. Thanks for that and welcome to my blog.

John You are right in what you say, that he who pays the piper... no longer seems to call the tune, but constraints often are a spur to great art, not the reverse. Think how Michelangelo complained at having to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling... perhaps had he been able to put it to the popular vote it never would have happened!

A Cuban in London Thanks for that. I wish you luck with your strategy to get your son back to enjoying art. We had the same problem with a grandson who was/is a moderately talented caricaturist and was told by his art teacher that his work was rubbish, presumably because it was not high art as she defined it.

Carl said...

The Theater and Playwrites have a huge issue now because the theatergoing public ($) are just as happy to see a live action version of Shrek as a they are to see a brilliant new play. I think for survival they turn to test audiences and market research. It is a dangerous place to be. As you point out to some degree this has been going on for as long as there have been people making there living as artists. Quite often each artist does the work they must to pay the rent and the work they do for themselves.

Dave King said...

Carl There does seem to be a measure of agreement on this one. Rather more than I had expected. Thanks for the contribution, it does help put the issue into a context.

Dirk said...

While people may have different views still good things should always be appreciated. Yours is a nice blog. Liked it!!!