It may be hyperbolic, but there’s something important embedded in this oft-quoted Harry Truman line. For me, studying the past (and analyzing it) is a way of thinking. And when we think with history, to evoke cultural historian Carl Schorske, we learn to apply the complexities of the past as a means for orienting ourselves to the complexities of the present.
So here’s the history lesson: social interpretation used to be a standard way to measure both the value and impact of the arts.
Here’s the application: There is a clear historical link between a given community’s interest in attending an arts event and the opportunity to inform its meaning.
And here’s the orientation to the present: This reciprocal status between interest in attending an arts event and the opportunity to inform its meaning reflects a healthy balance between the needs of artists, producers, and audiences.
Before the twentieth century, most arts environments were open to public interpretation because the arts event itself was a form of community property. The function of interpretation was understood as both a cultural duty and a cultural right; the arts event/object’s meaning could be discerned through a thorough interpretive process, which, by definition, included the audience’s perspective. This does not imply that there was regular, or even much, consensus in the process or protocol of interpretation; the history of arts reception is full of vivid examples of the violent ways in which artists, producers, and audiences disagreed. But that is just the point—art did not arrive with a fixed meaning. Rather, it was received by the audience as an inherently flexible commodity yielding ever-changing interpretations.
An arts experience, including witnessing an arts event/object and having the opportunity to participate in the articulation of its meaning and value, was a form of cultural capital negotiated largely through a wide array of public, internal, and backchannel discourses. The public context, what I call social interpretation, happened both inside and outside the arts venue. I write at length about both types of social interpretation in my new book. The stories I tell illustrate the ways in which western audiences, up to the end of the 19th century, exercised a kind of agency over their experiences with the arts—an agency that allowed them to interpret freely and with a sense of authority. And they reveal just how seriously audiences of the past took their aesthetics. Concern over the level of the acting at the Pittsburgh Theater in the early 1830s, for example, prompted the audience to hiss the theater manager off the stage during a curtain speech; he was accused of bringing in third-rate performers while saving his top-tier actors for his other theater in the more cosmopolitan Philadelphia. In the same decade in New Orleans, a touring Italian opera troupe cut the final scene of Rossini’s Semiramide (presumably for the convenience of the company) without warning the audience. The resulting riot nearly destroyed the theater and the next night the company restored the missing scene.
Importantly, a significant part of the audience’s power arose from what I call audience–community exchange: the audiences’ participation, as individuals and as members of various subcultures, in a variety of activities centered on public meaning making and evaluation taking place outside of the playhouse, concert hall and gallery. Prior to the twentieth century, audience-community social interpretation was commonplace in Western society in the form of querelles, pamphlet wars, audience leagues, arts appreciation societies, and many avenues of casual public arts talk. Early water cooler chats took shape in a variety of ways: the public debates that surrounded the annual tragedy festival in ancient Athens; the daily arguments in the coffee houses that lined the streets near the theaters of eighteenth-century Paris; the animated street corner conversations in early nineteenth-century Venice, where opera productions were a constant topic of conversation. Like contemporary sports talk, arts events regularly drew the attention of the public outside of the venue and fueled everyday conversation long after the event itself was over. Like contemporary sports talk, arts talk made its way into the fabric of everyday life.
This aspect of our arts going past, while not nearly so well known as more sensational forms of social interpretation (the riots and outcries that greeted Hernani, Rite of Spring, and The Fountain, for example), is fertile territory for understanding the relationship between interpretive agency and engagement. Where there is an audience engaged in some form of social interpretation there is inevitably evidence of how meaning making is constructed and how specific cultures enable it to flourish or to fail.
These and many other stories from my book underline the fact that historical audiences felt authorized to comment on aesthetic matters. And they point to how important the free expression of that commentary was to their sense of citizenship. The ability to engage with the aesthetics of an arts event/object was sourced in the audience’s belief that art played a significant role in defining their communities and their social selves within those communities.
CAVEAT: Of course I understand why many of us don’t want an audience interrupting our work (I personally can’t even handle the popcorn eaters at the movies, let alone people talking during one of my plays). But wouldn’t we like an audience so well informed and so invested that they had the capacity to interrupt with the kind of ferocity and authority exhibited in the examples above? What pulls me into these historical anecdotes is the vibrancy embedded in these audience behaviors. The knowledge. Commitment. Passion.
What can arts workers learn from the past? How can we begin to think with history in order to distill this vibrancy and make it relevant to 21st century arts going?