I am just back from two weeks on the road. I spoke and “workshopped” in Toronto and Austin. (Temperature contrast! The highs in Toronto were in the teens; in Austin, in the 70’s.) Thanks to everyone in both places for great hospitality and the opportunity to field test the ideas I’ve been developing around audience and community engagement.
And, as usually happens, due to this work a new thought is creeping into the equation. Anyone in the arts who is serious about audience engagement understands the need for explaining their work to the lay public and the lengths to which they must go to do so–the more esoteric or abstract the work, the greater the lengths. I admire the efforts a great deal. The interest in connecting is genuine. But as I was listening to someone discuss their work, it occurred to me that we are expecting a lot of the non-initiate if, in order for them to appreciate or understand our work, we must provide an extensive crash course in contemporary aesthetics and the practice of the genre.
Don’t get ahead of me. I’m not going where some of you may think. I understand the need for explanation and for “experiencers” to make an effort to grow with great works. It’s one of the facets of reflective art about which I’ve written before. But the greater the need for “them” to have things explained, the more the art is the center of everything, the more one-way the relationship becomes. One-way is not good for relationships. So here’s my budding thought. What if we had an internal gauge that said, the more I need to explain my work, the more I need to be a learner about the lives and interests of those I am seeking to reach? Reciprocity seems fair. This would have the effect of leveling the playing field a bit, ensure that a relationship is begun, provide insight into even better ways to explain, improve the art by opening up new horizons/possibilities, and go a *long* way toward making the arts seem less remote to the general public. There is, of course, also the possibility that when we evaluate how much learning is required in order to understand our work, we may be moved to clarify the product–a bit like Word’s green squiggly line under long, convoluted sentences suggests we might want to employ some more punctuation.
This has also got me thinking that there may be a set of rubrics (like this one could be) that could be developed to measure the depth of audience or community engagement. More on that to come . . . eventually.
In response to my post An Engagement Continuum, Barbara Schaffer Bacon, co-director of Animating Democracy, left a comment. She tried to share a graphic that illustrates her points but the system does not allow for that. So, to help better understand, here is that graphic: