Things Change

I have always been a sucker for revelations about how social, cultural, and technological change has impacted arts experiences. I was blown away when (many, many years ago) I heard a presentation at the College Music Society’s annual conference highlighting the fact that before the 20th Century, the loudest thing typical people ever heard (by far) was a symphony orchestra. No machines, no cars, certainly no jet airplanes. So the effect of hearing a large orchestra playing forté (or fortissimo!) in an auditorium must have been mind-boggling rather than merely entertaining. Similarly, I vividly recall a show at the National Gallery in London that showed the impact of putting oil paint into tubes. It made plein air painting practical.

This is why Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 post from last July–Ancient Greece 2.0–was so exciting to me.  (Nina, once again, thanks for the inspiration.) In it she discussed research by Colby College Professor Lynn Conner who has a book coming out next fall titled We, the Audience. Among the things that most grabbed my attention was the observation that with the advent of electric lights, actors could be illuminated while the audience was “in the dark.” What a profound transformation of the experience!

But Dr. Conner’s main point was that arts audiences have become, in the last hundred years, passive observers. I’ve talked elsewhere about the growth of spectator vs. participatory culture (Quality and Community, as one example), but that’s been more about the transition of art forms themselves, not the nature of the observation. Most of us are aware that music and theatre performances used to be rowdier (vendors in the aisles–now you get the picture with this post?, catcalling, tomato throwing?!) and longer (3+ hours) than is true today. The arts experience, even the “high arts” experience, was significantly different from the norm now. Dr. Conner tells us:

From the Ancient Greeks through the 1800s, audiences were rowdy, engaged people. They had the freedom–and in some cases, the obligation–to make their own meaning and share their interpretations of art with each other in structured and informal ways. They voted on the best plays in the days of Sophocles, stormed the symphony halls when confronted with artistic dischord, and talked and wrote about what they saw and what they thought. If arts managers fear bloggers today, imagine how they would have felt back in the good old days when the audience was yelling and throwing things at the stage.

Dr. Conner  lays the blame (or credit, depending on your point of view) for the change at the feet of those who were creating cultural institutions in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (At least that’s how I read this. I don’t want to put words in her mouth.) To me, this seems traceable to the cultural inferiority complex that permeated arts in this country through the first half of the Twentieth Century.

What exactly constructed the passive arts audience? The big cultural shift came in the increasing distinction between highbrow and lowbrow art, which Conner describes as “the result of a deliberate effort to create a cultural hierarchy in America.” The arts were sacralized and professionalized in their funding and presentation. Museums no longer showed human horns alongside historic documents; theaters made differentiations among types of live entertainment. Arts institutions began publishing instructive placards and documents to train audiences to behave more formally and to treat artists and artworks with silent respect. Proper audiences were like docile children, seen and not heard.

Ms. Simon’s takeaway from this is that one source of the disconnect between the arts and the broad public was self-inflicted and, if it was self-inflicted it can be rectified. (Again, this is my interpretation of what she said.) I am not suggesting we encourage projectile spoiled produce as cultural criticism in our performance venues. I am saying it’s long past time to open dialogues with the communities we hope to serve about what they like, what they don’t, and what they want/need that we are not providing. In dialogue we can communicate about our expertise (what reflective art can offer) as well as listen–really listen–to the interests of those outside our inner circles. Sometimes that dialogue is rooted in the nature of the arts experience itself. Other times, it’s before and after.



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  1. says

    At WaterFire, our art is created by community. If you’ve never participated before, we invite you to come to Providence, RI and help us transform an otherwise dark downtown into a magical art experience open and fee for all to enjoy.

  2. says

    Thanks for this post and for all you do. I do think that “engagement” is a key word, if not THE key word in the future of the arts.

    I have a question arising from your post on Reflective Art and Visceral Art, a formulation which I like and which I think can lead in several important directions. In that post you write “These categories are not hard and fast nor are they, like aesthetic focus, mutually exclusive.” Am I reading you incorrectly or are you saying that the aesthetic focus categories “depth of content” and “immediate impact” are mutually exclusive?

    • says

      Ah, if clarity is next to godliness, then that sentence is wallowing around in the nether regions. Here is the new sentence, as updated moments ago: “These categories are not hard and fast, and, like aesthetic focus, they are not mutually exclusive.” Thanks for raising the question!