In the case of appreciating amateur performances, this also intersects with another favorite topic of mine - the important role played by constraints in the creative process. Not only does an understanding of the constraints faced by a non-professional performance make us more forgiving, it actually changes the way we think about what we're seeing/hearing. And it should, because we're human, they're human, etc. One of my favorite movies is one that I made (!) a few years ago. It's a 45-minute version of The Wizard of Oz starring my daughter and about 10 of her cousins. We shot it over three days, and although some creative prep work went into fashioning costumes and scouting out locations, there was almost no rehearsing. We basically shot it line by line; we'd feed the kids (mostly ages 4-12) lines and then roll film.
Although I was screenwriter, director, and cameraman, there's little question that my most important role was editor. I've never counted, but I'd guess the final product is the result of something like 300-400 takes stitched together in a process that was both laborious and wonderfully challenging creatively. Talk about constraints. Now, I can't say for sure how unbiased eyes would view this film (not sure if I'll ever post it online, mainly because the innocent deserve protection), but biased eyes love it and have watched it over and over. I find the final product quite satisfying, and it's significantly because I'm astonished at what we were able to achieve within such tight constraints. No, it's not a Hollywood quality movie, but no one would ever watch it with those sorts of expectations.
In fact, I think viewers understand that those constraints (only three days, no boom mics, chainsaws roaring in the distance, tired kids, etc.) are part of the language of the movie. This is one of the crucial things about how constraints work in art. I recently encountered two fun examples of this, first in stumbling upon a PBS mini-feature on the photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen. He's made a career out of a sort of trick photography that creates amazing images using nothing more than a Polaroid and skillfully set-up shots (warning, use of clothes is not one of his tricks). The images are often extraordinary, but it's quite important to Minkkinen that no digital or even darkroom manipulation enter into the equation. And we as viewers look at the results differently knowing the constraints he set for himself.
On a lighter side, Fred Himebaugh recently wrote about the constraints written into the rules of writing barbershop harmony. I really like what he says here:
"We roll our eyes at the rules because personal expression is a Myth that dominates our modern understanding of art. Then we reconsider, reminding ourselves that constraints often stimulate creativity: think Rachmaninoff's Vespers. The truth is that art struggles in environments that are too permissive, but also, in environments that are too restrictive. There's a region of magical twilight where just enough resistance leads to just the right kind of struggle that results in a satisfying work of art. That finding that region is difficult is only one more way that Art Is Hard."That stimulating of creativity is what I find most interesting about constraints, but I think awareness of constraints also has much more to do with our perception of artworks/performances than is often assumed. The rigorous academic study of an art can make us think that unless all the ideal factors we've come to care about are taken care of, an artistic experience will not satisfy. [UPDATE (the next day): I think I accidentally deleted a transition sentence here, something along the lines of "However, we naturally forgive imperfections in a performance when we know there are constraints that explain them." The transition to the ideas of these last two paragraphs still needs work. Hopefully, I'll flesh that out soon.]
Here's one way of thinking about that; is it possible for Beethoven's genius to shine through in a hackneyed, uninformed playing of the first movement of the Moonlight sonata? (To the student who recently performed that, I don't mean you! That was sensitive, beautifully shaded playing.) This has to do with what I think of as the 90/10 problem. Most of us understand that achieving that final 10% of rightness takes something like 90% of the effort. (i.e. getting the Moonlight notes right is just the start; the artistry lies beyond that.) As a result, we also start to assume that the success of a performance is determined by that last 10%.
I'm not sure that it is; I've enjoyed far too many non-professional performances, and at a really deep and meaningful level. Of course, that has to do with adjusted expectations. I just put on a professional recording of a Mozart piano concerto and was completely distracted by some surprisingly out-of-tune wind playing that would probably have bothered me much less hearing a local orchestra live. I have nothing but the fondest of memories of a high school production of Carousel that I helped out with as a grad student, even though the performance standards would have been inconceivable on Broadway. But my point is not just that I can enjoy both; it's that the message/meaning of the artwork can be just as powerful in these different contexts. At least, I think I think that, but I'm going to end here for now. Soon I'll post about this, which has had me thinking about some of the same issues.