an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

What's in a name? Lots of problems, that's what

The Arts Presenters conference in New York, like so many other professional events in the arts over the past years, had a special focus on presenting 'world music'. Lots of sessions explored the state of world music, the particular challenges of programming it to American audiences, the visa issues, the lack of professional infrastructure in other lands to support the presenters' work. All great stuff in an effort to broaden the palette of performing arts available to communities across the country.

Yet behind all the interesting and well-intentioned discussions was an undercurrent of confusion: what, exactly, is world music, and does it help us to assign categories that cannot be defined?

Of course, most would answer that 'world music' is non-European music, or compositions, cultural expressions, and performances from cultures other than the traditional performing arts fare. It's music from the Middle East, China, Africa, Israel, Nepal, and so on. And we categorize it because it makes it easier to talk about it, program it, and present it to an audience -- we can have a 'world music' series and everyone will know what we mean.

The problem is, such categories seem to cause more problems than they solve -- both from a business and aesthetic perspective.

From the business side, it's another example of arts organizations defining their work in a way that's completely disconnected from their audience. Lots of studies have shown that arts audiences don't buy based on the music category or even the composer being performed. Instead, they buy a certain quality of experience that the program offers them (a quiet and reflective moment, a night out with someone they care for, a connection to collective experience). If anything specific, audiences seem to buy the artist rather than the category or genre (Yo-Yo Ma, John Mayer, Youssou N'Dour, The Chieftains, etc.).

Any marketing professional will tell you how far you get by defining products and services on your terms rather than your audiences' -- ie, not very far. So, at the very least, we should begin to think about how categories like 'world music' help our audiences connect (or not).

What makes matters worse, however, is that categories don't really serve an aesthetic function either. They don't tell us anything about the work, itself. And they lead to a whole series of odd exclusions that only confuse more (for example: Is music composed in Europe not part of world music? What about music composed in America and Canada, aren't we part of the world? What if it's composed by an immigrant? Does it include performance that integrally involves dance and movement? What if it's composed by a Western-European artist but has the flavor of another culture?). In short, categories don't even do what we think they do -- make it easier to discuss what we do.

Finally, a quote from John Dewey -- the patron saint of aesthetics -- on the subject of categorization. In Art as Experience, he suggested that even the broadest categories of art are limiting and dangerous, such as visual art, performing art, theater, dance, music. Says he:

An enumerative classification is convenient and for purposes of easy reference indispensable. But a cataloguing like painting, statuary, poetry, drama, dancing, landscape gardening, architecture, singing, musical instrumentation, etc., etc., makes no pretense to throwing any light on the intrinsic nature of things listed. It leaves that illumination to come from the only place it can come from -- individual works of art.

Clearly, we need categories as professionals to short-hand our conversations (all these ensembles have potential visa issues, all these performance styles are unfamiliar to our audiences' cultural experience, etc.). But extending the use of these functional categories to also define our programming, our marketing, and our business models, only limits our ability to do our work.

It's the art and the artist that connect, not their nationality or their historical era.

posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2004 | permalink