By Jim McCarthy Sep 23, 2010 3 comments

Do You Refuse To Pander? Do You Think You’d Be Good at It If You Tried?

Sometimes (as yesterday in the wonderful 2 Am Theatre Twitter conversation which you can find at #2amt) there’s a discussion among arts and theatre producers that goes like this:

A: We have to think of our audience when we create our work.

B: No, we must only think of ourselves and our art.  Otherwise, it’s pandering.

A: No, it’s not pandering because we have to think of BOTH the audience and ourselves/our art.

B: That’s a little too close for comfort for me to pandering, which I could easily do and it would be really, really successful commercially, but not true to my art.

A: Hmm.

“Pandering” is a funny concept because it implies giving people something that you know they want, but that is not really of any value, like placating little kids with candy when they’re noisy.  On the other hand, I’m sure all artists would love to have a building full of people applauding wildly for what they do, and the only way that can happen, of course, is if you’ve given them something they liked.

First, I’d like to suggest that this idea that “if only I were willing to pander, I’d be wildly successful” is just false.  What makes you think pandering is so easy?  Give it a shot sometime.  Hollywood basically tries to pander 365 days a year, with millions of dollars to fuel this pandering, and most movies barely break even or lose money.  Porn, by definition, is pandering and it’s a cut-throat business currently experiencing a deep recession.  Pandering, as defined by getting lots of people to pay for what you’re producing, is a lot harder than it sounds.

Second, when you say that you don’t want to pander to an audience, it makes you sound contemptuous of them, as though until you touch them with your particular genius, they’re slack-jawed troglodytes.  I don’t buy it, and some unsolicited, friendly advice to people who might have the tendency to think this way is that you probably don’t want that and you probably don’t mean it, but that’s how it sounds.

Don’t say you refuse to pander.  Just say you haven’t yet found the formula for matching what’s special about what you’ve got to express with an appreciative audience that’s big enough for you yet.

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