Judge Jack Megan: Randy, Paula, Simon...or Thomas?

by Simon de Carvalho '14

We all know America’s Got Talent—but does Harvard? This Friday, February 18, the residents of Kirkland House will try to prove that we do. The house will be hosting its annual talent show, this year dubbed Kirkland’s Got Talent! The show, which is open (without auditions) to any resident of Kirkland House, will feature acts across a wide range of disciplines including musical performance, stand-up comedy, spoken word, gymnastics and poi, the traditional Maori art of fire-juggling. Kirkland security guard and local legend Bob Butler will even be gracing the crowd with a vocal performance of his own.

New to the event this year are judges. Three judges from the Harvard community have been recruited to rate the competition and choose as winner the competitor they feel "best embodies the spirit of John Thornton Kirkland, the Harvard president for whom our house is named," says event coordinator and resident tutor at Kirkland House James Goldschmidt. The judges are Andrew Berry, a lecturer from the organismic and evolutionary biology department, Evelynn Hammonds, dean of the college, and Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts.

I interviewed Megan about the show and about his opinions on art in general.

How did you get involved in the show?

James Goldschmidt, a former Holden Choirs member, dropped me a line to say that he is a tutor in Kirkland. He told me about his plans for the Kirkland talent show and asked if I would be willing to participate. It sounded like fun—a real lark—and I figured why not! Frankly, I love Kirkland House. They have a great spirit over there, and their masters Verena and Tom Conley reach out to us with regularity to collaborate on arts-related events. So if I can give a little energy back to them, that feels great.

What are your expectations for the show?

I have a sense from James that the spirit of this is playful and fun, so I hope to contribute to that sense of spontaneity and community. James encouraged the judges to think of the American Idol model, which to me implies an earnest effort to judge fairly, but also to entertain in some manner.

How do you go about objectively evaluating something as subjective as art? Can talent-show judges really get it right?

Ah, there's the rub! Now you're getting down to it. This isn't quantifiable. The greatest home-run hitter hit the most home runs, right? The best running back ran for the most yards. What did the greatest artists do? How do we measure it?

Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic of the New York Times. He just completed a series of articles on the top ten composers of all time. I heard him speak the other day, and he said something interesting. I'm paraphrasing, but the gist of it is that the ranking exercise helps us sharpen our focus and think about what matters most. Who is greater? Bach or Beethoven? Take your pick (Tommasini says Bach, by the way), but you cannot pick without an internal barometer that directs you.

For me, it's about values. What matters most? Technical proficiency? Impeccable technique? Integrity? Innovation? Mastery of form? Ability to communicate? A way of seeing or hearing that is entirely different and unordinary? Emotional sweep? These are the things that come into play when judging contests. I can't weight them for you, but I can tell you that in various abstract ways, they all cross my mind as I consider anything artistic.

Is it possible to develop "an eye" for evaluating art? Do you have one?

Yes, it is possible to varying degrees. One can study anything and know more than one knew when one began—arts or otherwise. On the other hand, someone who can hear and readily understand harmonic progressions has a leg up on someone who lacks that facility. But I suppose everyone can improve. But even the most sophisticated critics know that smart, intuitive and deeply attuned people can reach different conclusions. As for the matter of my own aptitude in this regard, I'll leave that to Kirkland friends to consider.

What will you be looking for in the winner of this talent show? What does "the spirit of John Thornton Kirkland" mean to you?

What that means is that I'd better learn about John Thornton Kirkland by Friday night! As for what I will be looking for in addition to that certain Kirkland intangible, I suppose an artistic gift that connects and moves me in some way.

What sort of judge will you be? Are you Randy, Paula or Simon?

According to the New York Times, Justice Thomas on the Supreme Court has not spoken from the bench during arguments in several years. No one has gone for such an extended period without a question or comment in arguments. Maybe I'll be like that. The less said, the better! But I have a feeling that the occasion calls for more.

Kirkland's Got Talent! takes place 7 p.m. Friday, February 18 in the Kirkland House Junior Common Room.

[Caption: Judge Jack Megan]