Art as a shared experience
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.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog