What is Artistic Quality? On Dog Art, One Minute Plays, and The Musical of a Generation


Rent was a huge component of what got me interested in adaptation. La Boheme turned 90’s Aids Crisis, how did Jonathan Larson, musical wizard, create this masterpiece?!? That sincerely spoke to me when I was in high-school, full of angsty and artistic dreams.

But there are moments of the story that can come across as heavy-handed or cliche. It’s not perfect. A 1996 reviewer for the New York Times states it well as “one forgives the show’s intermittent lapses into awkwardness or cliche because of its overwhelming emotional sincerity.”

This staging of RENT at Theo Oubique had a stunning balance of pluck and intimacy. It was an incredible set for the performance and the artists made the audience feel as if they were another member of the circle of friends.

This staging made the elements that are still relevant today shine. The foibles of humanity and the persistence of homelessness became particularly poignant. Today, with a crazy presidential election, embracing others as equal and as other humans feels somewhat threatened. We are just as angry at “the system.” But the play proposes no real actions toward solving these issues, which is perhaps an example of why they have persisted.

There is this moment when Mark is filming a homeless woman  and she lashes out against him. It is awkward and awful and all sorts of things.

“Hey artist, you got a dollar? Yeah, thought not” she says.

He flaunts his self-righteousness as an artist. This moment approaches the nuance of social issues and the sometimes problematic intersection of the arts, but then, it veers right back to fantasy.

This moment is one of few that has a more of a mocking edge to this artistic self-centeredness. (There’s a great article about why Benny is a good guy compared to his artistic friends, here) Real issues are touched upon in the musical, but I don’t think would much more depth in real societal issues would make the musical as popular. Seriously, who would want to watch two and half hours of songs about the fair housing act or zoning ordinances??

Rent can’t do everything, but this production did bring to light some of these nuances that are relevant today along with the touching story we know.

Homelessness, isolation of technology, and urban violence were some of the prominent themes at the One Minute Play Festival at The Den Theatre. The festival featured over 70 plays written by female-identified artists.

The festival was a powerful litmus test to get a sense of the themes on the minds of Chicago artists. Although, some works came across as poignant while others heavy handed. With so many plays, the experience sort of began to blend together and some themes became tedious. They were clumped together, but perhaps spreading out themes would have given more variety to the evening.

One play struck me because I think it explored just enough of a tough topic without being to broad. There was a male motivational speaker downstage. While he spoke about “not taking no for an answer” and being aggressive in the workplace, violence and rape imagery were acted out in the background. The play exposed that our culture teaches aggressive principles to get ahead in business, but that these principles can get translated into our daily behavior. Yikes! I thought the balance of shocking and simple was done well in this play.

Although, moments of the play festival were reminiscent of a popular trope on shown in this SNL skit.

Flexing artistic muscles is important, but finesse should be taken to avoid sensory overload. We should touch on the big issues, but not to a point of over-exertion. I don’t think many would argue that the SNL skit on “The Earth” is of high artistic excellence.

Levels of expertise varied across the play festival. Some similar critical issues to Rent, but they weren’t celebrated Broadway works. Neither iteration is La Boheme level of sophistication, but would that be relevant the audiences these plays reach?

There already seems to be a barrier to entering the art world and then another barrier to creating “real” art. Lots of people have the fear that what they’re making isn’t any good and lots of critical people are ready to jump. Does the invisible barrier between high and low art discourage people from participating in art making?

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the burdensome distinctions of high and low art in Big Magic.

 “I beg you not to worry about such definitions and distinctions, then, okay? It will only weigh you down and trouble your mind, and we need you to stay as light and unburdened as possible in order to keep you creating.”

These unclear distinctions can muddle reception of artwork. But how can artists be challenged to deepen their craft from amateur level to essential works in the canon? How do we avoid SNL high school level to ascend to something like Rent? What resources do we have in place for future great masters? How is access to these resources made available to artists of all backgrounds and demographics?

We deepen our understanding of concepts, of techniques by experiencing any level or form of art. By this reasoning, all art has value in that it expands our critical lens and awareness of other sentiments, voices and opinions in the world. We just need to experience as much of it as we can.

Let’s leave it at, take in as much art as you can everywhere and together let’s pave the way for the artists of the future. Everyone’s a critic, but inspiring magic in one person from art can transform.

AND… Here’s some dog art!

You know how people really love their pets and think kind of silly pictures of them constitute as art? I thought this was the most purely aesthetically “cute” art with no further meaning that I could create.


I didn’t really need any type of special skill to make this. BUT when you think about it, there are some base skills that I have (and you almost certainly have as well). I can frame a shot to include the subject because I’ve seen a lot of pictures in magazines, on billboards, on the internet in general. I think this shot captures my pet’s cuteness because I’ve seen cute and ugly pets, on any dog show on tv, walking down the street, again, the internet. We can get a strong baseline of skills from just interacting as humans in the world.

Our questions can maybe be narrowed down to: How do we then refine our skills to mastery? What are the nuanced details that we aren’t yet perceiving?

Anyone can decide whether they like my pet picture based on how cute they think it is, but determining whether or not it is high art is nebulous. I feel pretty confident in saying I wouldn’t profit from this picture nor would it be likely any museum or gallery would be eager to pick it up.

It’s mysterious what art will speak to different people. We shouldn’t be afraid to explore big issues in art-making, but should perhaps consider what is the appropriate depth for the project.

So let’s keep making dog art and things that make us smile! But not neglect art that can challenge perception, embrace tough topics with courage and thoughtfulness.


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