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August 9, 2007

Art as a shared experience

Bridgette Redman

Last fall, my husband and I began playing a game with several diverse groups of friends. We tried to find five books that everyone in the group had read cover to cover (skimming didn't count)--and children's books were included. Most of the time, we couldn't do it.

One particular instance stood out to me. We were at a wedding reception and all of the people at the table were well-read, highly educated people who were involved in one way or another with the artistic community. Many of them had liberal arts degrees, a few were teachers. There was an age range of about 15 years, touching upon different generations but still close enough to expect that we would have similar cultural experiences. We were able to come up with only four books--most of them children's books though, oddly, the relatively obscure Maus was the one adult choice. (The others were "Tom Sawyer," "Green Eggs and Ham," and "Charlotte's Web.")

When my husband and I played the game alone, the list stretched longer that we were able to mentally keep track of. Part of what contributes to the strength of our marriage is that we have a huge foundation of shared ideas. We've spent most of our lifetime engaged in critical discussion about those ideas. This has given us a common vocabulary, a vocabulary that lets us share humor at life's events and to work intuitively together in times of crisis.

What's true for a marriage can be true for the wider society. It's part of the role that art plays. It gives us a common language to speak so that we can appreciate the admirable qualities of those we live with and enable us to work together when challenges are laid before the community.

I'd also venture an argument that it is why mass media has been so compelling. It brings people together and helps them form a commonality in experience and language. People easily slip into conversations about "Lost" or "American Idol" because they make the presumption that the people they are speaking to has seen it.

It's also the appeal of the Web because people can start a conversation by sending the link. It's far easier than buying someone a book, waiting for them to read it, and then having the discussion. It's even easier than listening to the radio, going to the movies, or watching television.

Art has struggled in recent years in part because it doesn't reach the masses of audiences that popular culture does nor does it have the easy accessibility of Web offerings. However, within its communities, it forms a far tighter bond because the experience tends to be of greater intensity. It also ties them more directly to people whose faces and voice they recognize.

Several years ago I attended an outdoor production of Shakespeare's Richard III at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. The scenes where Richard and Richmond extort their troops was done on opposite sides of the stage, switching back and forth between them. On this particular night, there had been a storm raging in and out. However, the audience stayed despite the pouring rain so the actors continued to perform. During that scene, while Richard talked of bad omens, the wind picked up and whipped his banner off its stick, blowing it away into a pile of water while Richmond's continued to wave proudly. Later, lightning cracked the sky above Richmond's troops as they marched in from the voms to the final, fatal battle. It was special effects by God that night.

Years later, anyone who was in that audience has an immediate connection to all others who were there. We may not know each other's names, but we talk about our shared experience with a passionate "remember when" that would rival any family reunion.

Also, those who hear the stories about live productions also get the chance to share in the experience and when the story is compelling and memorable enough, it becomes part of the shared culture that ties them to their neighbors.

It's one reason that I hesitate to measure art by the numbers. What happens with high art is important--even if it is not directly experienced by the masses or creating a profit that rivals other businesses or forms of entertainment. Art must be able to sustain itself because it, in turn, sustains the community and the people who live in it.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at August 9, 2007 2:00 AM


This is a good entry. I used to wonder why anyone would base their reading on the best seller list or on the Oprah show, but the reason is now clear: Doing so gives you an opportunity to talk with someone else about what you've just read. I'm very much in favor of the NEA "one book, one city" program for the same reason. You miss something when there is no one to share a reading experience with.

Posted by: gary panetta at August 9, 2007 11:24 AM

Agreed. I've always been glad that Oprah was so active in promoting books, but until I started working for a book Website, I never paid the slightest bit of attention to the bestseller list. Once I did, I realized that much of it was because it gave people the chance to talk to each other about what they were reading.

I suppose another interesting discussion would be how such shared readings affect our values as a culture.

Here's another thought: We'll go to an art museum alone and spend time with a painting or to a gallery to experience an exhibition. However, how many people would go to a theater if they were the only one in the audience? In fact, people will get uncomfortable if there is only 30 to 50 people in the audience. What is it that makes us want to have a crowd experience one art form with us while the other we're perfectly content to experience alone?

Is it the presence of the artist at the point of the work's reception? Does an audience need backers if they have to look the artist in the eye?

Posted by: Bridgette at August 9, 2007 12:00 PM

When I first glanced at your entry, I had to stop and think: By theater did you mean "movie theater" or "live theater." Of course you meant "live theater."

The two experiences are worth contrasting. At a live theater, I wouldn't want to be caught dead being the only one in the audience. The idea that all of these people on stage would be doing all this work just for me would be embarrassing. The live stage demands a "we" not an "I" to see it.

Not so with movies. I have no problem seeing a movie all alone because there aren't real people up on the screen -- just shadows and light.

You posed the question: How do shared reading programs affect our values as a culture?

The key, I think, is how institutionalized and long-lasting a program like this can be. Social change sometimes looks as if it comes out of nowhere, but it nearly always has deep, deep roots. For instance, in my town of Peoria, the NAACP was founded in 1910. Decades passed before this group could really accomplish anything in the way of major change. But when opportunities presented themselves -- briefly in the 1940s and again in the early 1960s -- this group was ready to take advantage of them and push for positive change. If "One Book, One Town" can become a habit instead of a temporary program, it may lead -- when the time is ripe -- to other changes as well.

Posted by: gary panetta at August 9, 2007 8:06 PM

The difference between painting/sculpture and books, theater, movies, or television is that the later have a very strong verbal component. No matter how visually rich, there is a text at the core of a book or a play, one we can all point to, quote, paraphrase.

But the visual arts occupy a realm where the language is less specific. The pink found in a Monet and the pink found in a Warhol are very different, even as the word we have for the color remain the same. Any sort of description will fall short. Thus, when we attend a play or read a book, we can feel a certain assurance that the rest of the audience or others who have read the book have had very much the same experience and share a language--indeed the same language that was used in the performance or the book--but for the most part we lack a vocabulary to discuss our visual experiences. Not that such a vocabulary does not exist. But the American education system does little to foster educational growth and development in this area. A pity, since the visual can comprise so much of the message we receive in so much of life.

Posted by: Carrie at August 10, 2007 5:39 AM

Nice entry, I really enjoyed it. Now, my town of about 60,000 souls has a self-image of an industrial blue-collar, male dominated white society. The reality is that the factories have shut down, a service economy rules, African-Americans and Hispanic people of many countries now comprise over 30% of the populas and women do a whole lot of very important jobs here. The generation of those in their 60's subscribe to this. Those of us in the younger generation are able to paint a more realistic portrait of the city. Shared arts experiences? These people are proud of their shared experiences of long ago and the younger generation is fractionalized and without a rudder when it comes to the arts. The schools are run by the old guard who fund football, football stadia, and the young people who 'do battle', but our 'cultural center' doesn't have a piano.
How does a 'shared experience' fit into my mid-sized metropolis? It is a date-marker, yes. Mass book reads tell tales of other lives and other worlds. I want to know how do we get our people to focus on the real shared - experience of the right here and right now? We need this in the arts, but we also need it in the City Hall and the parks and playgrounds and the shopping malls and the pharmacies, etc., where people congregate. Let's not share fantasies with each other, let's get our realities to be sharable, and then shared. Realities make a marriage, a city, a larger community. I'm seeking a way to make those more relevent- palatable, interesting, vital, and sharable experiences. Then we'll get to arts funding and the truth that arts are necessary for everyone to share.

Posted by: Katrina at August 10, 2007 7:02 AM


You seem to be addressing somewhat of a "split demographic" in your town that is probably much more widespread. As the general landscape of the United States continues to change, I believe that the only way to achieve a "shared community" is to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity it harbors. When the baby boomer generation currently in power is replaced by younger generations, the idea of coming together over common experiences will hopefully be somewhat less of a daunting prospect. As a 21-year old girl who has only spent my time in Los Angeles and New York, I am clearly not informed enough to speak authoritatively on this, but thought I would at least present my general philosophy on the issue . . . :)

Posted by: Allison at August 10, 2007 2:40 PM

Great entry. It seems to me that the best seller list is the only way we have to take the pulse of what people are paying for, and how that relates to how books are marketed/displayed/etc. Plenty of people are going to the library, the web, and sharing books with friends, but those activities don't have dollar figures attached to them.

A live performance is an interactive experience; you wouldn't want to be the only one in the audience, for the same reason you wouldn't want to play tennis alone. An art gallery or museum can be an interactive experience, too, but it can also be a quiet communication between the artist to the viewer.

I think it is great that it is difficult to find five books in common among groups of diverse people. With all of the quality publications out there, how great would it be to tell each other about the greatest book you've ever read, and hope your description will inspire one of them to read it as well?

Posted by: Mimi at August 11, 2007 9:40 AM