Complete cultural and intellectual rot in America gets ever closer, thanks to people who think and act like the honchos at New York’s 92nd Street Y.
It sponsored an evening of conversation between art critic and New York Times Magazine writer Deborah Solomon and Steve Martin, who is many things: a comedy writer, a wit, a banjo player, a slapstick comic, a serious actor, a novelist and a playwright. (Also a second-rate Inspector Clouseau.) In this case, it was the novelist Martin who had come to chat; Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty, has just hit the book stores to rave reviews. But the sold-out audience of 900 and pay-per-view television audience apparently didn’t want or expect to hear THAT Steve Martin…they wanted the one with the arrow through his head and “happy feet.” So many of them complained, some in e-mails send during the event, and after the subdued and erudite session was over, that the Y sent them refunds, with this note:
“We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y. We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening. We will be mailing you a $50 certificate for each ticket you purchased to last night’s event. The gift certificate can be used toward future 92Y events, pending availability.”
This was an insult to both Solomon and Martin, disrespectful, and a breach or courtesy and fairness by the Y, when the real culprits in the apparent fiasco were the supposed art lovers who blamed Steve Martin for their own ignorance, laziness, and low standards. He was invited by the Y to talk with an art critic about his novel, which is about art. That’s exactly what they did. The fact that the audience expected to see a wild and crazy guy shows that they did not know who it was paying to see (Martin is, like many comedians, extremely serious when he is not performing, though always witty and interesting) or do the barest level of advance preparation. That is their fault, and their disappointment their own doing. For the Y to send out a notice suggesting that the event failed to meet previous standards of “excellence”—as if Martin talking about what it was like to play “The Great Flydini”—his fictional magician who magically produces silks, eggs and other, er, things from his open zipper—would have more innate cultural value than his reflections on An Object of Beauty , is inexcusable. If people are determined to be trivial, fine–I like to be trivial myself—but Y has no right to show disrespect to those who aspire to something more substantial, especially when they 1) were the main attractions in a Y program and 2) talked about exactly what they should have been talking about.
I took my mother to a production of the Lanford Wilson play, Serenading Louie, a few months ago. It is a grim, grim play, and my mother was disappointed: she assumed that the show was a musical comedy about Louis Armstrong. I did not request a refund. And she did not deserve one. Had the theater sent her a letter of apology admitting that the show had failed to meet previous standards of excellence, there would have been some angry actors the next day, and justifiably so.
Of course, the decision to offer a refund is a legitimate customer relations tactic, even if the audience for Martin’s interview didn’t deserve it. This has happened to him before: early in his career, Martin’s serious star turn in a dark Depression Era movie musical called “Pennies From Heaven” was inexplicably marketed as a standard wacky Martin comedy, and audiences were unpleasantly surprised. In that case, I thought a refund would have been justified because the advertising was misleading. If the Y wanted to soothe its disappointed patrons, it should have apologized for not making it clear that the event would feature the sober, intellectual Steve Martin and not “The Jerk.” Blaming Martin and Solomon, however, is an outrageous breach of accountability.
Solomon put it well. “I think the Y, which is supposedly a champion of the arts, has behaved very crassly and is reinforcing the most philistine aspects of a culture that values celebrity and award shows over art.”
Now if only she had said it with an arrow through her head, the Y’s audience might appreciate it too.