The Talking Cure, Part II (discussion and debate)

Conversation is a way of cooperating with other people in a public way. It is a reciprocal undertaking. In participating in a spontaneous social conversation, for instance, we engage in a culturally determined and understood set of rules (you talk and I listen, then I talk and you listen). The word itself refers to a structure of turn-taking between speaker and listener. The Latin roots—conversari (to associate with) and convertere (to turn around)—are visceral reminders of this. Conversation brings us together and it can turn us around; that is, it can lead us to new information, new insights, and new opinions.

As I have indicated in earlier posts, I am deeply interested in uncovering ways in which we can facilitate our audiences’ capacities to engage in more intentional conversation about the arts and to explore the role that both authentic dialogue and rigorous discussion can play in strengthening our pleasure as audience members. To be clear, dialogue and discussion are not synonymous but rather two distinct discursive modalities. Dialogue, from the Greek dialogos  (logos meaning “the word” and dia meaning “through”), is organized around the willingness to suspend personal opinions in order to listen and to learn from others.

The object of a dialogue, as David Bohm, author of the widely admired On Dialogue, explains it, is “not to analyze things, or to win an argument, or to exchange opinions. Rather, it is to . . . listen to everybody’s opinions, to suspend them, and to see what all of that means.” Bohm’s notion of dialogue is a method of achieving a shared appreciation of multiple meanings, out of which, he stresses, “truth emerges unannounced.” For him, the “picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding.”

This definition of truth—something new that arrives from listening and observing—is extremely appealing in an arts context, since it serves the idea and ideal of multivalence. With the fluidity of meaning that defines great art, it just might turn out that opinions (no matter how well informed) are indeed all assumptions. And, if we can share in an appreciation of various meanings, we may find that the talk surrounding an arts event is both fundamentally more democratic and more interesting.

debating cartoon

But in a robust arts ecology, there has to be room for a good argument too—fueled by strong opinions and well-reasoned points of view. We need heated discussion (from the Latin discutere, “to break up”) and rigorous debate (from the Old French debatre , “to beat down”). Both terms imply a battle over territory as individual perspectives and opinions are presented and defended. The object is to engage in an analytical process (break up), and the underlying goal is to convince or persuade others (beat down).

In the Arts Talk model, I envision arts experiences where discussion and debate are as at home as they are in the sports experience and its attendant sports talk (or in a wide variety of other geographies of cultural activity, such as social television, popular music, etc.). The kind of experience where people disagree with gusto and walk away from exchanges about the serious arts buoyed by the adrenaline released when arguing over things that matter. Contemporary Americans generally do not equate the arts-going experience with this kind of pleasure, but, as I’ve written in a previous post, our audience forebears most certainly did.

The value of discussion and debate lies in the stakes—when we care about something we are more willing to enlist our critical thinking skills in order to support the process of argumentation.  So how do we move our adult audiences into dialogue, discussion and debate around the arts? By creating environments that support productive talk.

More on that in my next post on the talking cure.


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  1. says

    At the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga TN we’ve been exploring this idea for a while now and one of our programs, art + issues, has really taken us into the arena as we invite non arts people who are passionate/engaged in an issue of community interest (homelessness, lgbt rights, role of church in community, poverty cycles, immigration resistence, clean water needs, diversity issues, development of a young professional entrepreneur community etc) and have them use a work of art from our collection that they choose as reflective of the issue about which they are passionate. Then on a designated evening, the public is invited free of charge to sit in the gallery and engage with the individual and the work of art in a discussion of the art and the issue of their choosing. The very diverse (and often not clearly narrative) works of art selected by these speakers, most of whom have little or no previous experience with art, as well as the level of engagement of these diverse audiences with the art and the idea have been powerful testaments to the power of the art in going beyond the simple surface value into a deeper meaning. And it in turn causes a bonding and relationship between those participating and the selected works (we have a successful offshoot program called artful yoga which does something similar – a yoga instructor selects a work that expreses the “intention” of their practice and we hold a community discussion about the work and the intention before leading into a yoga practice). You can see videos of past art + issues programs here on the museum’s youtube channel –
    While this program still has areas that could improve (and we are constantly self and community assessing to try to remedy these issues) it is proof positive of the power of conversation in and around the arts.

    • says

      Thank you, Adera, for bringing your truly important work at the Hunter to the attention of “We the Audience” readers (myself included). I just spent a fascinating hour looking at your YouTube site and watching the Art + Issues program in action. It is right in line with the Arts Talk model. I hope my travels will bring me to Chattanooga soon so that I can experience the program in person.

  2. says

    Joseph Campbell said that the purpose of art was to turn oneself outward from your world. It’s in the transcendent and intrinsic aspect of art where the value of art in our human life lies.
    A yoga instructor may be able to express the intention of the practice but can that person correctly express the intention of the artist whose work of art the yoga instructor selected?

  3. Suzanne Ishee says

    Great post! If we want to find the art form where robust dialogue is already taking place, we need look no further than Television. The television industry is moving away from a ratings-dominated production decision-making process to more of “giving the audience what they want.”

    I have noticed, during “March Madness,” there is as much social media conversation about play-by-play game action and wins and losses as there is about who did what to whom on “Scandal,” “The Good Wife and “House of Cards.” Furthermore, discussions are leading to debates both online and in the office long after the show has aired.

    Perhaps there is something in this popular cultural phenomen worthy of consideration to promote vibrant conversations within the realm of the “serious” arts.

  4. Anne L'Ecuyer says

    Thank you, Lynne. I particularly appreciate the notion of suspension in dialogue and how that relates to the heated situations. I’m interested in the skills required to facilitate such conversations and the tactics used in them, particularly outside formally structured dialogue. There’s a ‘wild west’ among arts conversations and that’s where our cultural capacity to handle difference is revealed. What do arts managers need to say and do to invite it?

    I’m new to your blog. Very nice to know your work!

    • says

      Anne, thanks for your comment. I love the “wild west” language and I agree that it is in those moments of engaged audience-generated conversation that arts-going becomes an act of citizenship. I’ve tried to address your question of what arts workers need to do in order to support this kind of conversation (what I label Arts Talk) in my new book. In my next post I’ll lay out some of the values that engender productive talk around the arts–in those values are cues for arts workers interested in participating in this emerging model of “arts appreciation.”

  5. Ramesh Raghuvanshi says

    My personal experiences are taking to other person even most trained psychologist not so helpful than writing journal ,In writing journal your unconscious mind help you tremendously and you can bought real you .Reading journal you are yourself amazed how our deepest thoughts came out.When you sit on couch of psychologist you prepared your mind first what to confess to him that is not spontaneous speech same is true in conversation with friends.In writing you can writing spontaneously.


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