Is efficiency the enemy of art?

Have we become too productive?

Tim Jackson thinks so. The professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and the author of Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet wrote an editorial in the New York Times arguing that it’s time to stop working so hard.

Productivity — the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy — is often viewed as the engine of progress in modern capitalist economies. Output is everything. Time is money. The quest for increased productivity occupies reams of academic literature and haunts the waking hours of C.E.O.’s and finance ministers. Perhaps forgivably so: our ability to generate more output with fewer people has lifted our lives out of drudgery and delivered us a cornucopia of material wealth.

But the relentless drive for productivity may also have some natural limits. Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work. If more is possible each passing year with each working hour, then either output has to increase or else there is less work to go around. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth.

Jackson argues there are a few sectors where efficiency and productivity are blatantly detrimental: education, healthcare, craft and culture.

It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible. The same is true of the cultural sector: it is the time spent practicing, rehearsing and performing that gives music, for instance, its enduring appeal. What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year?

While asking musicians to play faster is obviously a ludicrous form of efficiency, the classical music industry does have other, more complex problems. It is often beset with heated contract negotiations, as musicians fight for better pay while orchestras try to balance the budget. Are they striving to be too productive? Are they pursuing an unattainable level of growth? Or are they simply trying to do the best they can with what they have?

Some of the most efficient and productive people I know are artists. Some make incredible use of limited resources, or even use other people’s cast-offs to create beautiful new works. I know painters who churn out a new work every day, almost compulsively.

So when is efficiency and productivity good for art, and when should it be dismissed?

  • Ben McGinley

    Efficiency and productivity are enemies of art for art’s sake or for a craft, for sure; however, when the art is taking place in within the confines of a scheduled/marketed season of a local theater like, for example, Park Square, they are totally necessary. Park Square, I would guess, probably can’t afford to pay its (mostly) equity actors for an 8-week process to get the BEST possible art out of a show. As great and as rich as that would be from the perspective of an ensemble actor, this would not make any viable sense from the Theatre’s bookkeepers’ view.

    As for individual artists, if art making is the business not just the passion then efficiency is paramount in getting the work to the buyer – some would argue that the art would be fresher and more vital than something that’s been over considered.

    Additionally, I would argue that making work without efficiency leads more of a lack of sustainability than productivity does.

    I know so many actors who churn out show after show after show and that productivity gains them not only wonderful spotlight and recognition, but a skill that is so homed in on that their ability to make work with an abandonment of rigidity and make impulsive, playful work. Over consideration hurts artists and builds tunnels around their visions I often find.

    Additionally, I don’t know many people who care to work on one project for longer than a few months (unless they are being paid handsomely for it.)

    These are great questions and an addendum to the question comes down to the individual’s lifestyle desires. Do they want to make a bunch of money or do they want to make perfectly stewed Synedoche New York’s? There’s certainly a cost both ways.

  • Elisa Carlson

    This makes me think of the frustrations regional theatre actors and directors are experiencing now that rehearsal hours have been cut down by at least a week due to shrinking budgets… The shows are under-rehearsed and not ready for opening, yet open they do, all dressed up and shiny and pretty but with so much work still to be done. Surely if it’s worth doing, it’s worth rehearsing. I have to think our audiences are noticing the unfinished nature of the work they see/hear. In my role as a voice/text coach I’m involved in a lot of different rehearsal periods every year — sometimes up to 10 or 12 — and as the years go by I’m noticing a real slip in quality directly related to shrinking rehearsal time. In the days of repertory theatre actors’ text/dialect skills were very sharp because they used those skills daily. The fine actors I work with at major regionals do not as a whole have theatre acting skills that are as sharp as they need to be to throw together a Hamlet in three weeks, because in between making plays they’ve made a living doing commercials, industrials, audiobooks, movie/tv roles… all very demanding, skill-driven creative work, but a far cry from the marathon that is Hamlet. It’s like asking a terrific ballroom dancer with a bit of ballet training to dance Swan Lake in three weeks. I find no fault in the actors, as they must work other creative jobs in the for-profit sector in order to put together a decent living. But asking a group of people, many of whom have never worked together before, to come together in a rehearsal hall and work theatrical magic in two and if you are lucky three weeks before tech is only right for the bottom line. Everyone else, especially the audience, gets cheated.

  • Marianne Combs

    Ben and Elisa – these are wonderfully thoughtful responses – thanks!