Burning Down the Cathedral

In 1999, Eric S. Raymond published the essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” championing open source software development. The essay contrasts two different free software development models, the Cathedral model, where source code is available with each release but the code developed between releases remains restricted, and the Bazaar model where the code is developed over the Internet in view of the public. According to Wikipedia:

The essay’s central thesis is Raymond’s proposition that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” (which he terms Linus’s Law): the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny, and experimentation, the more rapidly all forms of bugs will be discovered. In contrast, Raymond claims that an inordinate amount of time and energy must be spent hunting for bugs in the Cathedral model, since the working version of the code is available only to a few developers.

I’m writing this essay in OpenOffice.org, an open source version of Microsoft Office, and will be publishing it using WordPress – an open source content management system and blogging platform. It is almost too obvious to say that the ideas behind “open source” have transformed the way people think and behave on the internet and, often, in their daily lives. So why is it that the arts in America remain a walled city, a Cathedral? Too often the arts seem not only irrelevant but elitist and exclusionary. People don’t come because they don’t feel welcome and they are intimidated. Not only that but they don’t see the relevance. If we want arts and culture to regain a position at the center of civic life, if we want the arts to remain relevant, vital and dynamic, then we need to start thinking about what the arts look like in an Open Source model. We need to burn down the Cathedral.

What does that mean in practical terms? Well, let’s begin by making the analogy that creating art is a lot like developing software. In his essay Raymond lists nineteen steps to creating good open source software. I’ve modified and edited the list to work for the arts:

1. Every good work of art starts by scratching an artist’s personal itch.
2. Good artists know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).
3. Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.
4. If you have the right attitude, interesting problems will find you.
5. Treat your audience as co-developers.
6. Release early. Release often. And listen to your audience.
7. If you treat your audience/community as if they’re your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.
8. The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your audience/community. Sometimes the latter is better.
9. Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.
10. Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.
11. Any tool should be useful in the expected way, but a truly great tool lends itself to uses you never expected.
12. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.

So this works on two levels – first on the artist level and secondly as a way of running an arts organization.

Artists could adopt this software development model towards approaching the development of new work. In fact, many contemporary artists already do. In NYC it is by necessity, people show work in progress as they go along – it can take up to two years, sometimes more, to make a single work. On the one hand this can vastly slow down someone’s output. On the other hand it makes the work deeply experimental – approaches are tried and discarded, material is used, abandoned, recycled. But over the life of the work it can build audience investment – when it finally comes to fruition there is a vast network of people who have been involved either as co-creators or as audience members and they care about what happens. They come out to see the “final” product and are often very supportive.

In NYC we complain about it, but I think that, apart from the financial burdens that have made this model necessary, its a good way of developing work – in public. The other thing about it is it reconditions audiences to move beyond a “big show only” mentality – people learn about what goes into making the work they see and even take pride in seeing it ahead of time. How many people saw Avenue Q before it made it to Broadway? A lot. NYC is a great theater town because so many people consider themselves a part of the theater community.

So if artists were to actively adopt this Open Source software development model (rather than passively accept it, which I think is what happens now) what would it mean for venues? There are a handful of institutions across the country that, I believe, embody the Open Source philosophy and they are the ones we should be looking at to determine the future of the arts in America. Spaces that came into being relatively recently (in the past thirty years), that are very artist-centric, that are generally multidisciplinary and porous, that build communities within them and around them. I am thinking of the independent, multidisciplinary, contemporary arts spaces like Performance Space 122, On The Boards, Diverseworks, REDCAT, Dixon Place, HERE and others in that model – I am certain there are other venues out there like these, but these are the ones I know and am familiar with.

These are the venues that are keeping the arts – and artists – alive in America and we should be devoting significantly more resources to them. There is already an infrastructure in place, between the NPN and the CAC networks, and additional support could transform performing arts in America significantly. If these organizations could invest in their human capital the way bigger organizations do, if they could spend less time on fundraising and more time on creativity, education, program and outreach, they could revitalize the arts in a way that bigger presenters can’t.

Small arts organizations are more nimble and frequently more innovative – they have to be – than big arts orgs. By investing in small and mid-sized arts orgs we can create exponentially greater change and higher impact than constantly propping up these huge institutions that aren’t able to truly adapt.

Another reason is accessibility. If we believe in civic engagement and the role of the citizen in civic life, then we must not treat audiences merely as consumers but as co-producers. They are not rubes whose butts fill our seats, they are vital participants in the creation and presentation of arts and culture. Now, I know that for venues who are purely presenters this can be a challenge. But it is necessary for audiences to be invited into the process in some way – to feel invested in the outcome. Small arts orgs can do this.

For art to be relevant it has to be alive – and nothing is more alive than something that is growing and changing. In my ideal arts world even the most purely presentational of venues would have some kind of community component that would bring people into contact with the art and artists. Even the most professional venues would offer competent amateurs a chance to participate in some way – whether it is showcasing a local string quartet or something like Performance Space 122’s perennial hit-or-miss entry point showcase Avant-Garde-Arama.

When we talk about “barriers to access” we don’t mean just ticket price, we mean all the psychosocial dynamics that keep people from “taking part in art.” Large institutions, by definition, create barriers to entry. Even if the tickets were always cheap, it wouldn’t matter. They feel elitist and exclusionary. I’m not suggesting that we dumb things down or play to the lowest common denominator – rather I am suggesting that we do away with some of the formality and self-regard that comes with being an “arts person” and start making new institutions and audiences that look more like America.

[I am using the “release early release often” model here – this is just a working draft of an essay that will hopefully improve over time. You can help by commenting.]

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