Our Lady of the Perpetual Disruption

Our Lady of the Perpetual Disruption (Courtesy of RCA Records)
Our Lady of the Perpetual Disruption (Photo courtesy of RCA Records)

Dance historian and critic Sally Banes, writing in 1981, described American modern dance as an onslaught of avant gardes, one happening inevitably after the other. Her point was that the Western dance tradition is mutable and continuously evolving, and that each generation meets their own aesthetic, economic and technological challenges, typically in opposition to those who came before them. Through the passage of time (and with a healthy dose of shifting baseline syndrome) the urgencies of any given era become less germane and more mappable. Or, as Elsa in Frozen thoughtfully puts it, “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small.”

Such historicizing neatly situates artistic crises as inevitable and inevitably overcome, but it provides little comfort to culture warriors working in today’s artistic trenches. Many feel (as many have felt) that the aesthetic, economic and technological challenges facing them are titanically different from any that came before. It’s hard to escape the feeling that while, yes, perpetual change is a facet of the arts, something big is happening, something major is unraveling. For those of us invested in traditional categories of performance — usually some sort of show on some sort of stage — we find ourselves competing for the attention of audiences against forms of entertainment and edification we believe empirically inferior. That folks would prefer to sink hours into a YouTube rat-hole of free Miley Cyrus music videos rather than pay for live performance is the new state of the art.

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The term frequently ascribed to this economic scenario is “disruption.” Coined and popularized by Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, the word describes historical innovations that emerge cheaper and of seemingly less quality than the competition, but come to dominate the lower-end of a market nonetheless, and remake entire industries in their image over time. Examples of disrupted industries include the American auto sector (Asian automakers bring cheaper, arguably inferior vehicles to the global market, bankrupting U.S. automakers); computing (micro-computer companies bring cheaper, arguably inferior devices to the global market, bankrupting mainframe makers); and steel (mini-mills bring cheaper, arguably inferior steel to market, bankrupting companies that used integrated steel factories). While “disruption theory” is a de rigueur term, it provides a useful frame for reading marketplace behavior.

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Disruptive innovation requires an “apples to apples” comparison — whereby disruptive entrants compete for market share against incumbents. But the nature of disruptive competition also does not abide by traditional categories of consumption, but rather by what a product accomplishes for a user. In this light, automakers can be seen as competing against each other, but public transportation, motorcycles, walking and ride-sharing entrant Uber can all be “hired” to get people from one place to another. Getting my kid to daycare every morning is a “job to be done”; buying a car is one of many potential means to accomplish that end. Christensen refers to this breakdown as a “jobs to be done” analysis, and will be the subject of a future post.

It follows, then, that in the context of disruption, the competitive landscape for “live dance performance” isn’t just “live dance performance” but cultural consumption in the broadest, most inclusive sense. American Ballet Theatre isn’t just competing with New York City Ballet to sell Nutcracker tickets during the holiday season, it’s also competing with bootleg Taylor Swift Christmas YouTube videos, pirated copies of Love Actually, every Nutcracker performance ever made anywhere and every other holiday-themed online errata, no matter how good or terrible, free or expensive it may be. All of these, in fact, may be “hired” for the “job” of making an audience member feel their holidays have meaning. “Live dance performance” is thus a product category we use to define ourselves against cultural products we deem inferior. Data suggests that audiences are agnostic in their habits of cultural consumption — and increasingly ambivalent about the platform by which they consume that culture. The Innovators Dilemma suggests that those who look with condescension upon the competitive emergence of cheaper, arguably poorer quality cultural products do so at their own peril.

Ubiquitous Internet access has shifted cultural and generational baselines, and many in the performing arts sector feel undercut in two ways. First, they feel undercut by the ostensible shrinkage of audiences. Then they feel undercut by the lack of comprehension as to why that shrinkage is anybody’s loss. A study released by the National Endowment for the Arts this week says that the highest barrier of potential audience members from attending an event — some 47% of those surveyed — was lack of time. Given that the number of hours in a day hasn’t changed, the problem is not that audiences lack time for the performing arts. It’s that they don’t want to spend their time on us.