More on Artists and Engagement

BeethovenThe principal focus of this blog is arts organizations, but occasionally issues related to individual artists come up. The two primary categories where that’s true are the applicability of community engagement to expanded opportunities for artist-entrepreneurs and the role of artists in the arts and community engagement (as in my last post, I Blame Beethoven). This is more about the latter.

I recently had a comment/reply conversation with an individual artist who took me to task 1) for suggesting that there was merit in fostering the creation of more art that grows out of relationship with the community and 2) for pointing out that some artists consider the fact that “the public” doesn’t understand them to be a badge of honor.

Taking the second point first, I have known some artists who in the privacy of their own minds and aloud among like-minded peers do not believe the person on the street is sophisticated enough to understand their work. I have often asked arts professionals (artists and administrators) who say that “The arts are for everyone” whether they really believe that their work is for or can speak to Bubba or Bobbie Sue. There are many, many, many artists who say “Yes” and demonstrate the truth of their answer. Others are silent; a rare few admit out loud that they don’t believe it is or can. And that attitude is one (relatively small) brick in the wall between the arts and the public. No one wants to enter into a relationship with someone who looks down on them. It’s not a factor nearly as significant as the structural, financial, and training elements that separate arts organizations from the public; but it is one worth mentioning in the context of this blog.

I respect the fact that some artists don’t believe that any of their peers actually think this way. In the nearly two years of writing this blog I have become very aware that my experience is simply my own, that others in the industry have very different backgrounds and that age, art form, region, and place of operation (academia vs. “in the trenches,” for example) have a huge impact on our understand of “what is.” That said, at least to some extent, I don’t think my experience is a complete aberration.

  • In the 1950’s Milton Babbitt wrote an essay titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” Granted the title was not his; it was imposed by an editor who knew a sensational headline when he thought of one. However, the essence of the article was that composers needed to separate themselves from the public for the purpose of moving the art forward. (Yes, I know that’s an over-simplification, but this is a blog post, not a book.) This view held sway for years in academia, where Babbitt suggested composers should reside.
  • In the late 1970′s I was working on my doctorate in composition at the Eastman School of Music. Aaron Copland came for a guest presentation. In the Q&A session an undergraduate student castigated him for “selling out” by writing accessible music. To some in the audience that young man was a hero for speaking truth to power.
  • As a composer, it took me some time to become comfortable enough in my own skin to write the tonal, lyrical music that best expressed my aesthetic sensibilities. There was much peer and, to my mind at the time, “academic industry” pressure to write what can aptly be described as esoteric or austere music.

I know that the times have changed and that more accessible new music (and all other arts as well) is easier to find now than it was back in the day. And the fact that some of this attitude may still exist is entirely understandable, given the evolution of the arts infrastructure. I addressed this in my inaptly titled previous post. The evolution of the idea of the heroic artist who is always out ahead of the public was a valuable addition to the field. However, we also need artists who want to connect with and be a voice for the people today. I guess what I am attempting to do here is assure artists who might like to try something more community-focused that it’s intellectually and artistically acceptable to do so.


Regarding the first point above, contrary to assumptions some make, community engagement does not even remotely mean churning out Lion King sequels.

But this post is running long, so I’ll pick up here next time.



Photo: Some rights reserved by saigneurdeguerre

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  1. says

    Thank you for allowing me to have a conversation with you regarding artists, their role in society, and the role of arts administrations.

    I’m just going to set aside my objection of how you continue to portray artists as a source of disengagement, like it was somehow our vault that “bubba or bobbie” doesn’t know the first thing about contemporary art, and instead ask if you could define what you mean by community engagement or art that is more community-focused?
    What does a individual artists who is a “voice for the people” look like? Every artists wants to connect with some part of an audience, that’s a given. Even the most esoteric of art forms appeals to some audience. But how is giving an audience what they want not heading down a slippery slope of Lion King sequels, or populistic propaganda and an American Idol sensibility?

  2. says

    One size does not fit all. There is no one art that fits both Joe and Jody Sixpack and Mr. & Mrs. Brie. Rather art – performing and visual – is ore of a supermarket with some people easily entertained by television and others who find it mindless. Same for the many varieties of visual arts. Perhaps the best approach is to understand your audience and respect it while pushing their depth and knowledge. If someone feels they have a mission so elevated that only they can fully appreciate it, well, goodbye and good luck.

  3. says

    Good debate. Quick response.

    Are Lion King sequels, popularist propaganda and American Idol REALLY what ‘people’ WANT? Is art in any or all of its forms what ‘people’ WANT? Who drives all our supposed needs and wants? The people? Arts organisations? Artists? Etc…

    My point is simple. People (of all backgrounds) need to have VOICES – a multitude of indicators voices, communities of voices. These narratives will sometimes find commonality, never completely conflict, always disagree. But we EVERYONE must have a voice. So perhaps it’s not about artists giving or not ‘giving’ people a voice but rather about how people can express their own authentic voices with or without participatory art, The Lion King, or even American Idol…