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Artistic Grade Inflation

January 28th, 2004 · No Comments

I was at the Kennedy Center last night to see the Alvin Ailey dance company in celebration of Will Wilkinson‘s 63rd birthday. (Ok, not quite. But he’s old.) It was an excellent program well executed (hell, go see it), but as the performance came to a close and the audience got up for a standing ovation, Will turned to me (both of us still seated) and whispered “grade inflation.”

Which is good… because I was worried that it was just me. Maybe it’s a New York vs. elsewhere thing, or maybe it’s a matter of a custom changing over time, but it seems as though the standing ovation, once a very rare response to a truly exemplary, mindblowingly good performance, has become all but de rigeur. Maybe this is some delayed effect of the “self esteem” movement, a way of making the performers feel good about themselves. But when the teacher gives every child a gold star, the gold stars cease to mean much. What are we supposed to do when we really are extraordinarily moved (as opposed to delighted and impressed—for which I applaud) by a performance? Tear our shirts and howl like the teens in that old stock footage from the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan?

Update: Crap! Looks like I got beaten to this one by the NY Times. But I definitely think there’s something to the opinion voiced by one pundit there—which come to think of it, one of us raised at a bar after the show. Psychological literature is replete with evidence that the greater the costs of participating in an activity (joining a club, seeing a show, whatever) the greater the pressure on people to make themselves believe it was worth it. So the notion of the standing-O as autohypnosis makes sense as ticket prices rise. And I should stress one more time, even without autohypnosis, the performance really was damn good. Of course, I still have to toss some cash to the person who bought the tickets… maybe when I see the price, I’ll believe it was even better…

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