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June 16, 2007

The Arts Experience vs. The ARTS (Warning!-- this entry contains a sports analogy)

by Lynne Conner

I'd like to argue for another definition of engagement from the one that we seem to be focused on in this discussion and in much of the current industry literature (e.g., Gifts of the Muse).

What I mean when I talk about engagement is NOT what happens in the moment of reception, when we are the butts-in-the-seats at a concert (play, ballet, opera). For me, the most significant opportunities for engagement come before and after the arts event, when audiences are invited to formulate and express an opinion in a public context. I believe today's potential arts audiences don't want the Arts; they want the arts experience. They want the opportunity to participate--in an intelligent and responsible way--in telling its meaning. Like their forebears in the amphitheaters of fifth-century Athens and the vaudeville palaces of nineteenth-century America, they want a real forum--or several forums--for the interplay of ideas, experience, data, and feeling that makes up the arts experience. They want to retrieve sovereignty over their arts-going by reclaiming the cultural right to formulate and exchange opinions that are valued by the community.

Consider, for instance, what it means to engage as a football game. I acknowledge that sports--with their emphasis on competition and tribal affiliations--serve a set of individual and collective impulses arguably distinct from those serviced by our contemporary definition of art. (Though I also take the opportunity to note that many forms of western art, including theatre, began in a competitive, tribal environment.) But perhaps sports attendance is so high in the United States because of the felt value of participating in the sports experience rather than in simply watching the sports event itself. Sports fans are constantly invited to co-author meaning and are regularly provided with experiential opportunities that facilitate that co-authoring process. The enormous amateur sports enterprise--enabling children and adults to participate on a physical level--supports a connection to and engagement with the professional industry. But even non-athletes can participate in significant and meaningful ways. Every day they can read in newspapers about their game of interest: its current conditions, its people, its politics. Every day they can watch and listen to expert analysis of their game on the television or the radio, and every day they can debate their own opinions with a coworker or a neighbor or make a call to radio and television talk shows. In our society opportunities for the analysis of and debate about sporting events are so abundant, in fact, that we can be democratic in how we field those opportunities. We have the cultural space, so to speak, to listen to everyone's opinion.

The distinction here is obvious: We do not have the same attitude or approach to arts as to sports. We rarely carry the energy of an arts experience into our work environment, and we seldom, if ever, feel knowledgeable or empowered enough to debate the meaning or value of an arts event. Sports fans, unlike their arts counterparts, have been given permission to express their opinions openly and the tools they need to back up those opinions. The experiences that surround the sporting event--from talk shows to twenty pages of sports writing in the daily newspaper--help the audience to prepare, to process, to analyze, and to feel a deep sense of satisfaction.

I ask you, if you put your average passionately engaged football fan in a room with a tv and turned out the lights, told her to be quiet, didn't give him any accessible background information (no newspaper, tv, radio or internet coverage), and didn't offer him or her any opportunities to talk about it before (no tailgate parties, no sidewalk or over-the-fence encounter with the neighbors) or afterwards (no call-in shows, no water cooler chats)--what would happen to the sports industry?

As every sports fan knows, the real pleasure, the deep satisfaction, of the sports experience is not limited to watching the game--it's in those public opportunities to prepare, to process, to analyze. Throughout the twentieth century, the sports industry has understood its responsibility to promote opportunities for public debate and civic discourse. The arts industry has largely neglected that task, and we are paying for it now.

Posted by lconner at June 16, 2007 6:45 AM


Thank you, Lynne! These days performing arts are often (somewhat jealously) compared to sports in conversations about audience egagement. Usually one blames the difference on the lack of "spectacle" (e. g. Robert Levine in his yesterday's post). However, as you rightly point out, the single most essential aspect of sports is COMPETITION, not SPECTACLE (think golf and cricket, baseball's English cousin, which have massive fan bases and generate substantial revenue). Anyone who dreams of towns engaging with and rooting for their local orchestras like they do for their local baseball teams should be able to imagine a competitive situation in which two orchestras face each other in a showdown (glad you mentioned the competitive 5th-century Greek theatre, though ancient Greeks judged the authors, not the interpreters - also an interesing thought).

Posted by: A. at June 16, 2007 10:29 AM

I think you are spot on that the failure of the performing arts to create a extended social engagement is a major factor in the failure to draw a larger audience- But I wonder if you might explore some practical solutions to the dilemma? 
must theatre become a contest? Must we bow to commercialism and have Budweiser blazoned across the back of Hamlet? Its TV that makes sports the social event that it is - if it wasn't televised or on radio, it could not exist.

The sports being talked about around the cooler are those that have fully engaged in the commercial aspects of their art - and is more analogous to a popular TV drama like the Sopranos than to the stage.

Look at the rise of Nascar a genre fully funded through corporate endorsements and merchandise sales-> probably the fastest growing sport in the United States, and recently gone international in Mexico and Canada. Is it because it is easier to understand than Mozart or Beckett? If you think so, then explain to me the inner workings of a carburetor - its simple enough to about 30% of the population(maybe not in the city, but im from rural oregon- just about anyone on the street can explain it to you). Becket is simple enough to about .005% of the population. Its not because he is harder to understand, its because 80% of the population has a car and has had to wrestle with all that it brings to their lives.

Who in this day and age are dealing with the death of God? We are in the U.S. - no one believes God ever died.

No one is going to sit around the cooler at work talking about the death of God.

I don't know. I get the point that the performing arts need to open up and try and engage a wider social network, but I just don't see it getting that much wider without something really extraordinary happening.

I'm up for that extraordinary thing! please - calling upon an Einsteinian figure to redefine the universe-

Posted by: joshua mcdermott at June 22, 2007 12:14 AM

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