February 22, 2011
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Originally written for my week guest blogging at The Atlantic.

Whenever I go to the theater or the symphony these days, I risk another standing ovation. Boston audiences are especially prone to jump to their feet for artists from storied places far away, such as Manhattan, but you see it everywhere. We don't trust our judgment and we don't trust art to be itself: we insist on that everything be a world-class, once in a lifetime marvel.

Great performances are performances that were great for you, at a particular time and for a specific audience. I once saw a Noel Coward's Private Lives performed in the basement of an Australian library, and it was incredible; every joke worked, every line sang.

Because we want every museum visit and every concert to be perfect, we've grown conservative and timid. We don't hear new music or see new plays, and most of us don't read a lot of new media. It's a blunder: famous names, costly tickets, and huge crowds can't always get you what you want.

When everyone went down to the theater to see what Aristophanes was doing this year, the artist knew a lot of the audience and the audience knew him. Next month, I'm finally going to get to hear Michael Druzinsky's symphonic composition, Roslyn Place. I've known Druzinsky for years. I knew Roslyn Place, the street where he lived. Less focus on best-sellers and more focus on connection would reward us all.

One pathology of our current Web is that people can make money selling vast numbers of worthless ads views. The payment for exposing you to an ad is derisory, a fraction of a cent, but if you can get millions of viewers, it adds up. This further focuses our attention on things we don't care about – silly celebrity sex stunts – at the cost of letting art that might matter find us.

To find the work that matters -- whether in music or theater or on the computer screen -- you must trust yourself. You can't be looking around the theater to see whether everyone else is standing. You can't be watching who gets the grants and who got tenure, who published seventeen papers this year, whose book sold 864 copies in Detroit last week. If you’re hiring people or you’re on a tenure committee, you can’t just count citations and measure publications and you can’t run a popularity contest. If you’re thinking about voting, you shouldn’t care who is likely to win (unless you’re in the UK, of course, where tactical voting is a fact of life.)

You've simply got to trust your judgment.