Raising Up the Masses?

Crowd Silhouettes

In the launch to this blog on January 27, I asserted a hyphothesis: the more audiences are invited to participate in social interpretation the more sophisticated and adventurous arts consumers they will become.

This hypothesis is based on an observable problem and a proposed solution.

The problem: It is widely agreed that we’ve been delivered into a live + digital world where we expect to be able to participate in meaningful ways in a range of activities. Importantly, our participatory nation is, by nature and increasingly by practice, also an opinion nation; most of our participatory structures are in essence vehicles for the formation and dissemination of opinion.

But evidence suggests that the arts industry in the United States isn’t fully prepared for this “re-democratization” of the audience’s position in the power structure of arts creation, delivery, and valuation. Some arts workers don’t want the audience to take over the meaning-making process, since control over meaning is central to their vision of what it means to be an arts industry professional. Other arts workers, though energized by rising audience-centered hermeneutic practices, don’t know how to facilitate those practices, how to participate in them, or even when to get out of the way of them.

The problem goes deeper than identity issues among arts professionals, however. The evidence also suggests that twenty-first-century audience members, silenced by more than a hundred years of “audience etiquette” and a surrounding culture of hierarchical interpretive gatekeeping, are decidedly unprepared to take full advantage of this potential renaissance in the meaning-making process. They lack data, they lack analytical skills, and, perhaps most significantly, they lack the will (desire?) to enter the interpretive process with a level of preparedness and energy appropriate to the level of the art work itself. In short, they aren’t that good at interpreting meaning and ascribing value.

How come? As I described in my last post, Western audiences of the past exercised sovereignty over meaning making right up through the end of the 19th century. Since then, the steady decline of audience agency has been shaped by a variety of socio-economic forces that can’t be reduced to a series of dominoes falling. Nevertheless, there are some notable patterns. Cultural historians locate a rupture in the post–Civil War period, for instance, when discrete but complementary factions of intellectuals, artists, wealthy patrons, and religious officials initiated deliberate efforts to create a cultural hierarchy in order to “raise up the masses.” The corresponding concept of culture as something to strive for (like cultivating a pearl) was borrowed from British critic and poet Matthew Arnold and put into place as a tool to compete with Europe’s assumed cultural superiority.

In his groundbreaking study, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence Levine calls this shift the “sacralization of culture,” tracing a complicated path from audience sovereignty to arts-industry sovereignty. Much of this social engineering was organized around efforts to control the corporeal presence of American audiences of all classes and in a variety of venues. Around 1880, for example, institutionalized changes in arts going etiquette began to impact popular-priced theaters such as the Keith-Albee vaudeville “palaces.” In these venues the new standard for audience behavior included enforced seating, the elimination of eating (except easily consumed items sold at the venue’s concession stand), a new definition of “applause” (foot stomping was prohibited), active shunning of catcalling and other loud, physicalized audience gestures, and restrictions on clothing (women were asked to remove large hats, for instance). In order to educate Americans in these new rules, Keith-Albee patrons were handed flyers advising them how to behave.

Elite venues soon joined the campaign; in 1891, the management of the Metropolitan Opera House placed notices in the opera boxes (frequented by some of the city’s richest families) “requesting” that talking during performances be discontinued. At about the same time, Metropolitan Museum director Luigi Palma de Cesnola told a newspaper reporter that he had ended the display of “offending personal habits” of the working-class visitors to the museum. Under his tight control, he boasted, there was “no more whistling, singing, or calling aloud to people from one gallery to another.”

A similar storyline comes from the evolution of the symphony orchestra industry. Led by conductors defending both their artistic rights and the “sacred” nature of orchestral music, American symphony orchestras started promoting their “divine appointment” in the mid-nineteenth century. They ended the long-standing practice of mixed programming in which popular music was played along with orchestral scores because, as Levine states, “The urge to deprecate popular musical genres was an important element in the process of sacralization.”  They also insisted on greater and greater control over the performance environment, culminating in the wholesale invention of etiquette “standards,” such as holding applause until the end of a multimovement work. As Greg Sandow has amply documented in his “The Future of Classic Music” blog, applause between movements and indeed over the music was a standard feature of European concert fare from its inception and into the twentieth century. Clapping was not only normal, it was desirable. Even among artists. Beethoven once stated that “silence is not what we artists wish—we want applause.”

It is easy to understand why arts workers would promote sacralization and all its behavioral accommodations. But why would late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American audiences nurtured on active behavior and bred to assert control over their cultural experiences go along with the sacralization campaign? One theory points to the rise of a professional class in large US cities, which brought with it calls for “self-cultivation,” an aspect of progressive era social reform centered on the ideal of reason over emotion. The self-cultivation movement eventually came to encompass many aspects of American middle-class life, including personal hygiene, dress reform, aesthetic expression, even sex education (euphemistically referred to as “self-knowledge”). Not surprisingly, self-control over personal emotions also extended to audience behavior. As cultural sociologist Richard Butsch puts it: “One had to learn to respond with studious thought rather than spontaneous feeling to music, art, and ideas.”

This call for an internalized processing of an audience member’s reactions went handily with the need for a new kind of arts appreciation and an attendant protocol for arts education. The proliferation of daily newspapers and popular journals during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reshaped the definition of arts appreciation by producing numerous critics and other self-appointed curators whose role was to evaluate the social and aesthetic value of arts products for the average reader (as opposed to earlier generations of arts critics, who wrote for a small, educated elite). Chief among these journalist-critics’ self-conceived duties was the dissemination of rules of behavior, reframed as “arts etiquette,” and the dissemination of the rules of taste, reframed as “aesthetics.”

A pause to ponder this notion of the “rules of taste”: As students of cultural history know, anxieties about the personal and collective tastes of any given cultural moment are as constant as the Northern Star. The elite of the Western tradition has always told the public what to value when it comes to the arts, and gatekeepers have always been concerned with identifying appropriate taste makers. As I investigate in detail in Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, the very concept of taste (biologically, socially, psychologically) is so emotional and so completely conflated with issues of class, cultural identity and industry-derived standards of “artistic excellence” that we have a lot of trouble even knowing where to begin a productive conversation about it. I’ll return to explore this issue in greater detail an upcoming post.

Arts education took its institutional shape over the first half of the twentieth century primarily as an activity associated with children. At the same time, the notion of adult-centered arts appreciation mutated from a learning construct (understanding what elements distinguish a good painting, being capable of quoting a passage from Shakespeare, having the confidence to articulate a theory about why an arts-going experience was emotionally moving) to a strategy by which the professional class could climb the next rung on the social ladder. Salaried white collar workers might not be in the economic position to buy a season subscription, for example, but they could gain cultural capital by occasionally attending the symphony with the boss and demonstrating that they knew enough not to clap between movements. Gradually, the idea that the arts-going experience might also include discussion and debate about the meaning and value of the arts event faded away. For the average white professional-class American of the mid-twentieth century, it was enough to be appropriately dressed and politely present.

The Problem (restated as an opportunity): Arts audiences are de facto learning communities, gathered together to take in and process new information about the world of art that surrounds them. Audiences are successful learners when they take charge of their own interpretive process and are happiest when that process of meaning making is social. But the history of sacralization of the serious arts has left us with a social structure for arts going that readily discourages the formation of learning communities among individual audience members. This is a serious problem for the arts industry; without the capacity to learn together, a given audience community cannot sustain itself (since learning is a form of adaptation to changing cultural circumstances).

The Solution? The formation and support of audience learning communities. In my next post I’ll explore how can arts workers can participate in (indeed, how we can lead) the creation of a new modality for arts appreciation in the 21st century.


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  1. says

    I’m not sure it’s correct to position the audience, “silenced by more than a hundred years of “audience etiquette” and a surrounding culture of hierarchical interpretive gatekeeping” in friction with the arts industry or arts workers, as you do.
    There is a world of difference in the intentions and roles of an arts administrator and that of an artist, yet they become lumped together as a force that you contend is keeping audience opinions squelched.
    And are they squelched? We live in a time where the professional critics voice is rarely heard in the media and people’s opinions can be easily expressed in social media, blogs, and youtube videos. It’s become almost more popular to read the Tweets produce during a public event or program than the event itself.

    I’m not following your contention that the change from Civil War era or vaudeville audience behavior somehow indicates a lack of audience “agency” today. And what does “audience agency” even mean?

    Insisting that we appropriate opinion, either individual or en masse, as valuable, without a means to determine if that opinion is knowledgeable and valuable in itself, seems dangerous when it comes to thinking about the arts.

    • Peter de Klerk says

      It’s hard to argue with the many disagreements in Richard Kooyman’s comment since there is not even any anecdotal evidence to support his positions. Nonetheless, his basic assertion seems to be that there are indeed lots of opinions being expressed about public arts events. Furthermore they ought to be suppressed unless they are deemed “valuable”, “knowledgeable” and free of danger (???!!!) by some unnamed authority. (Who is this authority if not the presenters, I wonder?). This comment is emblematic of the sort of artistic elitism and paternalism that marginalizes the arts today. It is precisely the kind of thinking that makes Dr. Conner’s blog all the more relevant and important.

      • Richard kooyman says

        Where does the notion that artists are “elitists” originate? Not with the artists. It’s the makers, the producers of art in all forms that decide what their art is and what it means. That doesn’t make them elitist.
        How you react or interpret that meaning is a separate event.


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