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June 14, 2007

Response to "Something Better..."

by Laura Jackson

In response to Doug McLennan's post: Something Better Comes Along...

It might be helpful to distinguish between live artistic experience and the exposure to art and music through technological means.

Doug writes:
"Bringing art to the people is hardly the problem these days. The choices are overwhelming, and, just as cheap prints of great paintings and recordings of famous artists revolutionized people's relationship with music and art, so too is digital distribution transforming audiences' relationships with all artists and arts organizations."
He continues,
"If we can have whatever we want, however we want it, whenever we want it, perhaps we value the art we use in a different way. It becomes everyday, not special-for-company..."

I agree that digital distribution has a tremendous impact on us and connects us more deeply with artists and ensembles because we can listen repeatedly and become familiar with the nuances of their interpretation, phrasing, and quality of sound. However, I think the conclusion that having such easy access to "whatever we want" might lessen our perception of its value implies that a CD or a digital download of a piece of music gives us the same experience that a live performance offers. While I agree that one can have a profound experience listening to recorded music, I think it is different than the experience one has sitting with others in an audience experiencing the spontaneous interaction of a group of people realizing a work of art.

I would argue that our access to recorded music makes listeners want live performance even more. If a twenty year old has five CD's of their favorite rap star, they are probably going to knock themselves out to attend a live performance if the opportunity arises.

Posted by ljackson at 10:38 PM | Comments (0)

Victorian Zombies & Opera Freaks

by Vanessa Bertozzi

In his post, Robert Levine refers to Lawrence Kramer's article in the New York Times about classical music as analogous to the museum and their cultural significance as sites of "revival." I'd like to comment a bit about revival--specifically about what brings the life back.

Perhaps it's true that classical music is just one niche among many now. It will attract its segment of the population, just as there is a thriving subculture right now called steampunk. The people who choose this style, aesthetic, and guiding lifestyle theme (one choice out of so many!) are buoyed by interest in all types of gadgetry steam-powered, made of brass. Think oily Victorian leather waistcoats, goggles, and jaunty, hand-built machines that chug along on steam. On the surface, steampunk seems anachronistic, oddball, "totally random" (...why this choice out of so many?). But when you talk to people who consider themselves steampunk and observe them, they don't just "like steampunk." They dress up in it. They invent gadgets and build them themselves. They write and illustrate manuscripts of science-fiction set in an alternate 19th century universe. Many of their friends met through steampunk activities--or rather, they and the people whose company they happened to enjoy in the first place found others and created this subculture from scratch. And so you can start to read expressions of identity from the ways that these people create and access media, art, and social situations. They value intellectual curiosity, an engineer's hands-on capability, a quirky difference from the mainstream-- born of a realization that their way of life is teetering on the edge of complete technological obsolescence.

When talking to opera fans, I get a vertiginous feeling, similar to meeting steampunks: these people are fascinating--because of their knowledge, dedication and fascination with opera, steampunk, manga, baseball, etc. People within these interest groups have so many stories to relive with each other, so many activities to partake in, so many opportunities to boast about their esoteric knowledge, so many ways of relating specific experiences into guiding principles for a way of life. The present day interpersonal dynamics and expressions of meaning are the very things that bring the Victorian imagination back to life. Or a certain performance of Aida in a particular theater as vivid as it might have been in the 1870s.

When looking at a subculture from the outside, things look very different than when you're inside and fond of a certain way of doing things, when you get the inside jokes. I think part of the problem here is that for people who haven't grown up with classical music, they have understood it as high culture which others tell you ought be good for you--that is, dead. For those who live inside the looking glass of classical music, what brings the music back to life for you? What are the expressions of identity from this subculture and what do its participants value? Maybe romantics are different from modernists, and opera freaks are different from chamber music fans. I can't quite say, though I'd be interested to hear from those of you who would know.

Posted by vbertozzi at 9:41 PM | Comments (1)

...same as the Old World?

by Robert Levine

I'm not used to not having a lot to say on a subject, but that's where I am at the moment. So let me add some comments on what's already been written.

Greg Sandow wrote:

I'll leap to a grand proclamation. (See? I can't resist pontificating.) The arts -- as traditionally understood -- are over. It just doesn't make sense, any more, to talk about some grand collection of plays and music and poems and paintings, which uniquely express our human condition, which stand apart from everyday life, and which we all ought to learn about. We're learning about ourselves in many other ways now; we're forging the uncreated conscience of our race (to use Joyce's phrase from the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) in many other places."

I think it makes as much sense to talk about canonical art as it ever did. There's always been lots more art than just the canonical works, and creators of what became canonical borrowed freely from that fast-flowing stream. Bruckner and Schubert stole landler, Bach stole hymn tunes, Mahler stole from everything around him. The difference between now and then - or even between now and 30 years ago - is that it's as easy for some unknown composer in a basement to make his/her works available to a worldwide audience as it was for, say, Stravinsky at the height of his career.

The fact that there is still a canon of art music is implicitly recognized by its repeated use in popular culture to signify "classiness."

Ed Cambron wrote:

"As any good marketer knows, word-of-mouth is your best friend. Technology has only made word-of-mouth even more important, as people can communicate instantly and to many, many people at the same time. ..

What does this mean for orchestras? First of all, we rarely present programs that run long enough to even begin to leverage word-of-mouth as a tool to make a choice. Museums, on the other hand, have had major success in mounting exhibitions which have long runs, creating the opportunity to leverage audiences and their voices. Imagine for a moment what might happen if a major American orchestra took a risk and scheduled the same concert for six months, or repeated a program five times in a year."

Aside from the fact that the musicians would go out of their minds? This is, in fact, what the major American opera companies do (not to mention theaters and movie houses). Either there's a qualitative difference between a drama (opera, musical, play, film) and a symphony, in terms of the nature of the audience experience, or orchestra audiences are simply a lot smaller.

Lynne Connor wrote:

"Who cares whether the audience is "engaged" or not? And furthermore, why is that my problem? Making (or delivering or professionally evaluating) art is what I do. How audiences connect with it is up to them.

If we think of our jobs as being restricted to providing the arts event, then this whole discussion on "engagement" will seem extraneous (or worse, the product of yet another cynical incarnation of marketing science).

But, if we see ourselves as part of a larger cultural operation in which the quality of the audience's experience is as important as the quality of the arts event we deliver, then we can have a meaningful discussion about the role and function of today's audiences."

I see myself as a musician who'd like to remain employed for the next decade or so and who'd like to see my younger colleagues employed for a lot longer. So I do care about audiences. I'd love to not have it be my problem, but that's not a choice I get to make these day. Orchestras will never be able to pay the bills solely from earned revenue, but it'll be impossible to raise funds to cover the difference if butts aren't in seats. People don't want to fund failure.

But she does allude to something I think is fundamental in this discussion. Orchestras do one thing very well; we perform that small segment of our musical history written for orchestras. If we are going to survive and thrive, it will be as orchestras, doing what we can do well. There are severe limits to our ability to morph ourselves to meet public taste. If there aren't enough people who want to hear that small segment - even though it represents one of the highest achievements of humanity - we won't survive. But if there are are - and I think there are - then the question does become how to engage them.

Lawrence Kramer wrote an article in the New York Times two weeks ago on the subject of orchestras as museums, asking in essence "so what's wrong with that?" He wrote in part:

Whenever people discuss the familiar plight of classical music in America - financial problems; aging audiences; above all, a loss of cultural authority - someone is sure to bring up the museum analogy. Classical music, we are told, may be old and valuable, but it is as remote from contemporary life as an old fiddle. Its culture is a museum culture. The public doesn't care about new works, and the old ones have been worn out with reuse like antique coins with faded faces.

But the museum analogy shortchanges both the music and the museum. ... The classical music world may have something to learn from the success of today's museums, where the art of the present elicits fascination, and the art of the past impresses visitors as the very reverse of stifling, myopic or merely out of date...

...concerts and museums purvey the same experience: revival. As collections, museums house objects - paintings and sculptures, artifacts and the paraphernalia of past life - that people often go not just to visit but to revisit. Many of us have favorite objects in museums. When in Philadelphia I generally make sure to spend a few moments with Thomas Eakins's "Concert Singer"; in Chicago I try to spend at least part of Sunday in the park with George: Georges Seurat and his "Sunday La Grande Jatte - 1884." Building an assembly of such favorite things is a primary means of experiencing and sustaining cultural values. In this way a museum visit can refresh our feeling for the meaningfulness of experience.

But that is exactly what classical music is supposed to do, and in the same way. The work of art does not change on the wall, and the fully composed work of music, though it does change from one performance to another, remains recognizably and durably itself. We keep returning to these works as cultural resources.

Now that's someone who gets it.

Posted by rlevine at 4:33 PM | Comments (1)

The new world

by Greg Sandow

I'm not always fond of these conversations, even though the book that provokes this one seems pretty interesting.

But I'm wary of all the pontificating arts people do, including me. We've all got opinions, but do we ground our opinions in facts? By facts, I don't just mean anecdotes, or the occasional study, but instead a truly accurate, thorough view of what's really going on in the world.

Case in point: Barry Schwarz's essay in the book, unfortunately not available for download from the blog site. I'm afraid I have to disagree with Alan Brown (hi, Alan). To me, Schwarz's piece was mostly sound and fury, with nothing much underneath. Schwarz worries that we now have too much cultural choice, and that therefore we'll only choose the culture that we like, ignoring things that we ought to know about, or that might challenge us.

And his authority for this? Nothing but studies, which appear to show that people faced - under certain limited conditions -- with too many choices end up choosing fewer things, instead of more. But what actually happens out in the real world, and especially when people make cultural choices? (Which, as Schwarz himself notes, almost none of the studies deal with.)

And here the mountain disgorges a very tiny mouse. His students, Schwarz says (he teaches at Swarthmore), don't make critical judgments about the movies they see.This is his only real-world example of the problems he sees. I can't argue with his experience (or with what he thinks is his experience), but as a global observation -- or something we're meant to expand into one -- this is just crazy. People make critical judgments about everything these days, more than they ever did, and beyond doubt a lot more publicly. A few weeks ago, as I amused myself by watching one of the really tacky movies the SciFi Channel produces, I went on the IMDB movie website, and found well over a hundred posts about exactly how bad the movie was, some of them written in considerable detail.

A far, far better approach: the chapter by Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi. Here we learn what's really happening. It's raw data. We don't yet know what it means. But teens are finding their own kind of art -- recording songs on their computers, using oddball sounds they themselves invent. (And then getting a record deal, and going on tour.) Or they're writing and drawing comic books about pivotal things in their lives. (And getting their work published.)

Or they're inventing things that can't be classified, because they're so new:

Fourteen year-old Antonia...wears a different "look" to school everyday....Her love for the Harry Potter books led to a major Hogwarts phase. For an entire year, she wore British school uniforms to her Massachusetts public school. Now Antonia reads the webcomic Megatokyo and uses its imagery for her patterns.While she has become more active in meeting people with common interests online and at conventions, her main outlet is high school. Antonia finds the jeers and dirty looks of her classmates "amusing" and enjoys playing with people's expectations in an environment that often defines people through their external appearances. Because of her level of self-reflection, one could see her activity as performance art....Antonia goes online to learn more about periods, genres, or media properties that she wants to emulate through her work. She wants to master every detail of these imaginary worlds, and as she does so, she moves from the specific details--the colors of a herald, the buttons on a coat, the Japanese droopy socks--towards a larger understanding of the cultural traditions that shaped those details.

This -- from everything I've seen -- really does show us the new world that's emerging, This past fall, my wife (Anne Midgette, the New York Times music critic) and I spent a few days in residence at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. We were asked to sit in on a meeting of an interdisciplinary faculty committee, charged with inventing a new core arts curriculum.

And the people on this committee talked very much like Jenkins and Bertozzi. They were dazzled by their students -- students who might not respond to traditional ways of teaching the arts, but were self-motivated, full of projects of their own, and eager to learn everything they could, to make those projects work.( I'll add that it's well-known -- an old story by now -- that college students, in introductory music classes, actively resist learning about classical music. Their teachers might just as well try to teach them Latin. But this doesn't mean that kids are unmusical. Just the opposite -- they're making their own music, on a scale we've never seen before.)

I'll leap to a grand proclamation. (See? I can't resist pontificating.) The arts -- as traditionally understood -- are over. It just doesn't make sense, any more, to talk about some grand collection of plays and music and poems and paintings, which uniquely express our human condition, which stand apart from everyday life, and which we all ought to learn about. We're learning about ourselves in many other ways now; we're forging the uncreated conscience of our race (to use Joyce's phrase from the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) in many other places.

And in fact arts studies take a defensive, even alarmist tone these days. (See, for instance, the Wallace Foundation/RAND Corporation study, Gifts of the Muse, or the scathing study of arts organizations and their failure to involve younger people, from the Hewlett Foundation.) Where do we fit? What's our future? How can we prove that the arts still matter? (The book we're masticating here is surely another example.)

The truth, I'm afraid, is that we don't matter all that much, and that we've become an interest group, angling for support and market share, almost as if we were a failing corporation (Kodak, maybe, trying to survive after coming far too late to digital photography).

But art survives. God, does it ever! It takes new forms. And along with these new forms, the old forms will coexist. And surely mingle. We don't know what the future of all this will be; it's too early to tell. We might be entering an age when art isn't removed from everyday life, as it wasn't in traditional African culture, and wasn't in our own 18th century, when the very notion of a work of art (as we understand that today) didn't really exist. (See Lydia Goehr's book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works for an astounding view of that history, as it applies to music.) But to think we're in trouble, just because not enough people care about our kind of art, is point of view that's wildly restrictive -- and, I think, transparently self-interested.

Posted by gsandow at 10:41 AM | Comments (3)

How do we deal with choice?

by Ed Cambron


As one of the bloggers working in the trenches trying to put butts in seats, and keeping them there, I hope I can add something to the dialogue that gets us thinking about actions, especially in the orchestra world.

Reading through the essays, I kept coming back to the issue of choice, and Barry Schwartz's thoughts on the subject in the essay Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming? How do we help audiences make choices? What are the unique barriers in the orchestra world? Could we learn something from other institutions which seem to be doing a better job of helping people make choices, or at least rising above the noise of all the choice in the marketplace?

As any good marketer knows, word-of-mouth is your best friend. Technology has only made word-of-mouth even more important, as people can communicate instantly and to many, many people at the same time. The press is no longer local, but global as people pick up and spread whatever someone says. So what is word-of-mouth really doing for us? I'd argue it is helping people make choices. If Barry is right when he says, "The twin phenomena of buying only the culture that you want, or relying on filters to tell you what you should want, is becoming pervasive - a response, I believe, to overwhelming choice in the world of culture," then the viral power of word-of-mouth is the ultimate filter.

What does this mean for orchestras? First of all, we rarely present programs that run long enough to even begin to leverage word-of-mouth as a tool to make a choice. Museums, on the other hand, have had major success in mounting exhibitions which have long runs, creating the opportunity to leverage audiences and their voices. Imagine for a moment what might happen if a major American orchestra took a risk and scheduled the same concert for six months, or repeated a program five times in a year. Could they create an opportunity for audiences to make a choice based on the music, and not just the generic choice of going to the concert hall? Does the fact that we don't allow for this kind of choice explain why a very large percentage of people go to a concert and wait years to return? Are those people viewing the experience in a very generic way?

Posted by ecambron at 9:20 AM | Comments (0)

La plus ├ža change . . .

by Lynne Conner

Doug has opened this group blog with the question: "how do you engage an audience when it's constantly looking across the bar for something better?" And Alan Brown has volleyed by asking: "Whose job is it to nurture and engage the citizen artist?"

Both are great questions, but I'm not going to try answering them. Instead, I'll ask yet another question that I think reflects the true thinking of a lot of arts professionals (producers, administrators, artists), even if they don't dare say it out loud (at least not to me).

Who cares whether the audience is "engaged" or not? And furthermore, why is that my problem? Making (or delivering or professionally evaluating) art is what I do. How audiences connect with it is up to them.

If we think of our jobs as being restricted to providing the arts event, then this whole discussion on "engagement" will seem extraneous (or worse, the product of yet another cynical incarnation of marketing science).

But, if we see ourselves as part of a larger cultural operation in which the quality of the audience's experience is as important as the quality of the arts event we deliver, then we can have a meaningful discussion about the role and function of today's audiences. As I argue in my chapter, "In and Out of the Dark: A Theory About Audience Behavior from Sophocles to Spoken Word," this notion of audience sovereignty over producing the meaning of an arts event (what I call "co-authoring") is not new, but rather both ancient and long-standing. Only in the late 19th and 20th centuries did the hierarchal idea of arts reception--in which great art will automatically find its true audience without mediation of any kind and without opportunities for public discourse--emerge as a kind of industry truism. In fact, this notion that we need to let the arts event speak for itself is simply ahistorical. If we take the time to look at the histories of our art forms, we'll see that there is an historical relationship between a given community's interest in attending an arts event and the opportunity to inform its meaning; it is a reciprocal status that reflects a healthy balance among the needs of artists, producers, and audiences.

I'm a playwright, a critic and a theatre educator. In all of those capacities I have come to understand that it is simply not enough to hand over my product (play, review, essay) to my audience and expect that to be the end of my responsibilities in this relationship.

I have to be there, listening, when the audience talks back.

Posted by lconner at 7:43 AM | Comments (2)

What If Video Saved the Radio Star?

by Molly Sheridan

Hi, everyone. Thanks for including me in this great conversation. I've been wondering if we're getting carried away by this "broadband is changing everything" supposition. I'm under 30. Too old for Facebook, perhaps, but young enough to have made my only career out of online content delivery. Yet I still buy tickets to real plays, museums, and concerts, even if I make the purchase online because I followed a link from flavorpill.

If the little sphere I walk around in indicates anything, the technology isn't dictating a drastic overhaul in what artists want to create or cultural consumers want to experience at the base level--no fundamental truths about the human condition have been nullified by the clips posted on YouTube. (Yet, anyway.) What current circumstances are forcing is a massive overhaul in access. Right now, you can go back and experience that video whenever you want, whether or not MTV ever broadcasts it again. You can adapt it. You can see what they're doing to it in Japan.

In the chaos this explosion is currently creating, the traditional institutions that will step to the fore are the ones willing to truly learn the language and concentrate on how they can grow and position themselves to lead the pack. Because yes, after years of massive domineering corporate control, maybe we're a little punch-drunk on the power that we've gained to create and promote the art we love, regardless of the $$ potential. Hey, ever dreamed 22 million people would watch you rock out on your guitar? Think you can make a better TV show than the network channels? Try it. You're guaranteed it will be better than The Bachelor, at least.

Yay! I can take photos for everyone, not just mom's fridge. Creative culture is more a part of the everyday lives of Americans because they are being encouraged to create. Isn't this what we wanted? But so far it still takes a name like Will Farrell to make it profitable online. No matter how great access to 6 billion options sounds, we're paradoxically on a hunt for the cream and access has made us very tough critics. This is where our established institutions can take their street cred and step into the fray.

Not sure how to proceed while you're learning this new language? Sad that the local paper has fired your arts critic? Take a step, open a door, start small and simple. Find three popular bloggers in your town and offer them press tickets to your next show. See what happens. Access doesn't have to mean giving away your art for free.

Posted by msheridan at 5:42 AM | Comments (0)