Using the word “gatekeeper” is getting me into a bit of trouble lately. I see why. It’s a loaded image—one that suggests control for the sake of control; power as an object rather than a means.
But the truth is, the recent history of the interpretive environment surrounding the serious arts is to some extent a story of control and power. As I wrote in my last post, the history of sacralization of the serious arts has left us with a structure for artsgoing that readily discourages audience-centered social interpretation. Instead of being invited into an active and robust hermeneutic environment, 20th century audiences were trained in arts etiquette. The goal was to teach them how to contribute to the perfect environment for the presentation of the arts event, which usually signaled a call for a silent and still audience.
It’s easy to understand why arts workers (presenters, producers and artists) were and are still invested in creating a reverent space for spectating. An assumption about the reciprocal relationship between silent listening/quiet viewing and deeper attention (and thus appreciation) has informed the way in which cultural history has been narrated as well as the way in which artists and producers have measured the success of their work (“The audience was rapt with attention.”). Beginning in the late eighteenth century, for example, concerns over proper etiquette inside music venues were conflated with the aesthetic theory of “attentive listening,” a term used to describe the kind of intellectual effort thought necessary to fully appreciate sophisticated music. As musicologist Matthew Riley notes, this emerging standard was a by-product of Enlightenment notions of “absolute music” and “art religion” demanding a “reverential attitude on the part of the listener that previously would have been more appropriate in a place of worship.”
Worshipping art is a beautiful and noble human predilection. But so is arguing about it. Gatekeeping promotes the former and marginalizes the latter. I contend that a healthy arts ecology (like any healthy environment) requires both.
Do we need trained, talented, professional interpreters in today’s arts ecology? Yes, of course. Interpretive expertise is related to the Latin word exegesis, meaning to explain, and the Greek word hēgeisthai, meaning to lead. The spirit of this etymology is worth considering: like all learners, audience members do need to be “taught” the information that informs the history and aesthetics of a particular piece of art. But it can’t end there. There are very sound biological and cultural reasons why the contemporary science of learning has redefined “knowing” from “being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it.”
I’m a college professor who teaches a range of subject matter around the performing arts, from theater and dance history to playwriting to arts activism. I make my living as a kind of gatekeeper, in the sense that I choose what items to focus on and I employ my knowledge base to contextualize them. But I hope that I use my expertise in order to cultivate a meaning-making environment rather than to prescribe the meaning. The word cultivate derives (I’m big on etymologies, so bear with me) from the Latin cultivatus, meaning “tilled.” In biology, for example, to cultivate refers to the tilling of micro-organisms in a nutrient medium.
When it comes to the contemporary arts industry, what is our nutrient medium? How do we till the environment around the arts events we produce in order to cultivate understanding and thus greater engagement and pleasure? In my new book I offer a nutrient in the form of audience learning communities.
The term “learning community” surfaced in the 1980s as a way to define a shift in attitude acknowledging learning as a cultural practice as opposed to an individual process. Based on the “communities of practice” work of social learning theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, a learning community allows participants to take new knowledge, skills, or attitudes and practice them by sharing their experience with others in the community and by actively reflecting on their process. In doing so, learners are thought to be participating in the negotiation of meaning.
In my book I explore the ways in which audience members are de facto learners (and I look carefully at the biology and social practices associated with adult learning). I also devote considerable space to describing strategies for engineering learning communities to support the desire to learn in and through our arts-going experiences. My goal is twofold: 1) to encourage arts workers to see meaning making as part of the art-making and the art-delivery systems; and 2) to help arts workers build a culture of productive talk (which by definition includes interpretation) into their organizations and communities.
Because I believe that audiences want to be engaged in a process of making sense of the world through their connection with the arts event unfolding in front of them. And I believe that people who experience the arts in an engaged hermeneutic manner find opportunities for critical and imaginative thinking, learn how to exercise and defend their own aesthetic judgments, and revel in their capacity to feel, to think, to communicate, to wonder and ponder, to share, to listen, and, perhaps, to collaborate toward the common good.
As Scott Timberg notes in a recent “Culture Crash” post, in our neoliberal culture art is being treated like every other commodity—it has to be measurably utilitarian in order to be valuable (and if it isn’t measurably valuable then by-god-tax-payers-shouldn’t-pay-for-it). Here’s my take on this: art isn’t inherently valuable. In fact, it’s nothing in itself. Art only becomes something once our minds and hearts get hold of it. Feeling through art, thinking through art, and talking through art is what’s valuable. (And to all you STEM-obsessed legislators, that experience of feeling/thinking/talking is worth paying for.)
Which brings me back to gatekeeping. I know from the feedback I’ve been getting that many arts workers are concerned about the public’s ability to formulate informed opinion about the arts. If we participate in structures that encourage social interpretation without some kind of gatekeeping mechanism in place, how will we ensure that the opinions being expressed are knowledgeable and valuable?
Honestly? I don’t think we can ensure that. But that’s okay with me. I’d rather live in a society where people feel free to talk about the arts, smartly or not, than in a society where they can’t be bothered. More than that, I’d rather live in a society where I, as an arts professional, take some measure of responsibility for cultivating active and engaged talk about the arts.