#1 Relevance and distraction
Congratulations to Zsuzsa Nagy-Sandor, who successfully defended her master thesis at the Central European University this week. Zsuzsi’s thesis examined how Hungarian museums are responding to the Sustainable Development Goals. I hope to be able to share her thesis with you soon. I met Zsuzsi through #MuseumsForFuture and as I wrote as an external reviewer for her thesis:
I look forward to welcoming Ms. Nagy-Sandór and her energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism to our sector, and to adding a well-spoken, curious, and diligent voice to the cause for more sustainable museums.
I hope this sets the tone. You are now reading my first regular, irregular newsletter. Thank you for being here. In ‘normal times,’ I am fortunate to be able to explore new ideas and perspectives in interaction with people from all over the world. I value these conversations and miss them dearly. This newsletter is an experiment to continue these open-ended exchanges and open them up to more people.
Today, three topics, loosely connected: The Last of Us Part 2, blockbusters, and a generous orchestra.
I binged The Last of Us Part 2, one of the most anticipated games on the year. Part 1 of the series, which came out seven years ago, follows the cynical smuggler Joel on a journey through post-zombie-apocalypse America. His cargo is the teenager Ellie, who is somehow immune to the disease that triggered the apocalypse. The setting and the game’s violence, which is intense, act as a stage for some of the best character development I’ve ever seen in games. Over time, Joel takes on a father role towards Ellie. Their relationship is delicate, charged, beautiful. Part 1 was a masterpiece, and the expectations for part 2 were high.
The image below, which I took a couple of days ago, summarizes all you need to know about the game’s reception.
Christian Rudder — co-founder of OkCupid and author of Dataclysm — found that it’s not the average score that determines how interesting something is, but the spread in the score. If this is universally true, it doesn’t get more exciting than The Last of Us Part 2: lots of 5-star reviews, lots of 1-star reviews, and very little in between.
As most of the 1-star reviews still applaud the gameplay and graphics, what gets judged here is mostly the story. The story is what sets this game apart from almost all contemporary high-stakes, high-budget popular culture. (The New York Times and Guardian reviews both touch upon this and put it in perspective.) This is a story where heroes become villains, heroes die, and villains become human. It’s a blockbuster that demands its players to empathize with what is uncomfortable and to explore dark parts of their humanity. It is the first blockbuster game with a gay protagonist and the first I’ve seen that challenges various misconceptions about gender (albeit clumsily).
As the reviews show, not all people appreciate such a game.
The reviews show that there is a group of people that welcome being wholly immersed in a story, that don’t mind it if a game does the unexpected and enjoy having their worldview challenged. And there is a group that prefers a game to be simple entertainment, a story and characters predictable, and to feel good — engagement versus distraction.
In the movies, this dichotomy has long existed: independent cinema versus superhero blockbusters. Only with The Last of Us Part 2, the blockbuster is not a distraction. In this case, the blockbuster challenges us to engage and doesn’t mind alienating, potentially, more than half of its audience.
Whether this is a bet that will pay off business-wise remains to be seen (it looks promising). To me, it is a bet that has paid off creatively and emotionally.
This week, I facilitated my first physical workshop in months. Together with a group of young cultural leaders, we discussed business models for culture in a post-COVID-19 world. The workshop was part of the LiNC programme in Utrecht.
COVID-19 has made it clear that most cultural business models are unsustainable in the long run. All participants in the workshop had lost revenue because of the crisis, and some feared for the future of their organizations. Most cultural organizations are dependent on physical visitors and tourism for their income. Although we have been talking about community engagement for a long time, few organizations have managed to turn their ties with a local or global community into financial sustainability.
One ‘business model’ in culture is the blockbuster. The blockbuster as a strategy has long been contested. Already in 2012, Colleen Dilenschneider showed how it might not be a sustainable business strategy for museums. Ross Douthat, the author of The Decadent Society, goes further and states that our dependence on blockbusters shows we have reached the limits of our creative potential as a (capitalist, individualistic) society. Just before the COVID-19 crisis, Meta Knol, director of Museum De Lakenhal, publicly renounced the blockbuster. They’re an addiction that is unsustainable and increasingly unreasonable for a mid-sized institution with a local mission. COVID-19 has put additional emphasis on the fragility of the blockbuster as a model.
In response to Meta’s provocation, Paul Mosterd and Marlies Kleiterp defended the blockbuster (Dutch article) as a tool to emancipate people through a story that needs to be told. As an example, they describe a Surinam Exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk (my translation):
Was this exhibition, which turned out to be one of the most visited in the Nieuwe Kerk, conceived as a blockbuster? Most certainly. We wanted to reach a large audience. We had a story to tell. Did we know we would be successful? No. Many in the museum world had their doubts. But we had confidence and hope, and we worked incredibly hard to make it so. Many did.
As an aside, working hard is also a hallmark of the gaming industry. Naughty Dog, but also other AAA studios, are known for their long hours and extreme working conditions. As the first line in the (disputed) article about Naughty Dog mentions in a statement that will resonate with many other workers in the cultural sector: “Artists are often overworked and undervalued.”
Thursday I experienced a very different ‘business model’ for culture. Composer and art activist Merlijn Twaalfhoven invited me to join him at a presentation in The Hague of Symphony 2030. With this initiative, the Residentie Orkest tries to use music, performance, and cultural participation as a tool to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. On Thursday, they presented some projects and discussed the road ahead.
One project that touched me is Stage Your Voice. In this project, musicians and the team of the orchestra help young people who have a story to tell to find and amplify their voices and have a real impact. We watched a live performance of Raquel, who through music could tell a story of not being accepted for her sexual orientation. And we saw a video of three spoken word artists and their work about fear, loneliness, and exclusion. I’m sure these videos will come online soon. For now, to get a sense of the project, you can look at a ‘best of’ of their auditions.
Afterwards, I spoke with a teacher at a local vocational school. In the coming school year, they will give their students a chance to be part of Stage Your Voice. These are students that often, for a variety of reasons, do not have the same opportunities as others in society. Some of them will no doubt turn down the invitation to ‘stage their voice’. Others may change their life and make music, art, and activism part of their identity.
What I love about Symphony 2030 is that it offers an invitation to new people to enjoy the arts and express themselves through it.
This other business model of culture, to a large extent, is based on generosity and by extension, reciprocity. The musicians of the Residentie Orkest share their talent with aspiring youngsters. The youngsters bravely give their time, energy, and vulnerability. The local government and other funders generously make their collaboration possible.
And everybody, no doubt, worked very hard to make this happen.
Thank you for signing up to this newsletter. To be honest, I’m humbled by the number of people that signed up. Also, you are the people I look up to and learn from almost every day. And if we haven’t met yet, I’m sure I will learn so much from you. Please see this as an invitation — without expiration date — to connect.
Special thanks to Seb Chan, whose exceptional newsletter planted the seed in my head to move to this platform and medium.
I didn’t write about a video we made of a 103-year old peace hero, cycling for sustainability, socks, the links between heritage and nuclear waste, our Europeana research, War and Peace, my garden, or the craziest RFP I ever received. All that, and more, next time.