Whose Audience?

Or, should I ask: who’s the audience? I launched this blog in late January, but up to now I haven’t really discussed the considerable complication associated with use of this word. I’d like to begin to do that with this post.

In English-speaking contexts, the term audience (from the Latin auditorium, or hearing place) is generally interchangeable with spectator (from the Latin specere, to look), though the shift of emphasis between hearing and viewing has some implications in American culture. Here the word spectator is more frequently associated with sports going than arts going.

Whatever term is used, this temporary gathering of loose individuals has consistently been understood as a monolith: The Audience. And this monolith has been discussed (and fretted about) in Western culture throughout recorded history.

In sociological terms, The Audience is sometimes a “crowd” and sometimes a “public.” A crowd is unwieldy. A public, on the other hand, exhibits “a dimension of debate or discussion absent in crowds or mass.”

In political terms, The Audience has often been construed as dangerous: feared for its ability to incite civil disobedience, to become violent, or to spread prurience and disease. The Elizabethans closed down their theaters on a regular basis in order to stop the spread of infectious outbreaks such as the plague. When the Puritans took over, they shut it down in order to stop the spread of infectious ideas.

In aesthetic terms, The Audience can be friend or foe: capable of lifting the arts experience through the power of a positive reception but also alarmingly susceptible to making the “wrong” choices about what constitutes “good” art. In the fourth century B.C.E, Plato famously complained in his Laws  (700a–701b) about what he pejoratively refers to as the “theatocracy”: a low-brow crowd with the tendency to make “judgment by uproar” (instead of by thoughtful analysis). In the early 20th century, Pittsburgh audiences were known for “sitting on their hands,” a term employed to suggest that the Scots-Irish conservatism of the region made for a tough sell. In the early 21st century, Broadway audiences are loved and denigrated for their insistence that every show they personally attend warrants a standing ovation.


In industry terms, arts professionals create sub-monoliths known not as The Audience but rather as My Audience. We devote considerable time and effort to declaring the differences between my theater audience and your dance audience and her museum visitor. Many would argue that the physical operation of spectating in a museum is fundamentally different from spectating in a darkened auditorium; the nature of a performance event positions the audience inside a single space and thus renders them a collective, for instance, while the visual arts, in galleries and exhibit halls, process individuals. And many would also argue that their respective cognitive operations are fundamentally different; following story lines (as in a play) fires off different neurons than organizing abstract physical spatial patterns or tone/rhythmic sequences.

What doesn’t receive a lot of attention in the industry, however, is the issue of cultural heritage and the impact of ethnicity and/or race on the formation of an audience type. I myself have not devoted very much time to this kind of analysis in my publications on audience behavior because I have written mostly about arts-going protocols derived from the Central European tradition. My historical analyses come from data collected from primary sources produced by European Americans. This is because the industry infrastructure that produces the “serious arts” in the United States is modeled on that tradition and continues, to a very large extent, to adhere to it.

And therein lies the challenge for me and for other arts workers. I cannot write about and analyze a monolithic (and thus essential) American audience any more than I can write about and analyze an essential American. Obviously, social constructions of ethnicity and race (as well as gender, class and age) impact what an audience is and how it functions in a given place, time, and community. As do other less determined qualities, such as the specific conditions of an arts-going moment. Participating in that ubiquitous Broadway Standing O I referred to earlier in the post is not so much a result of a personal taste portfolio (“that’s the best musical I’ve ever seen!”), for example, as it is a strategy for enjoying an expensive vacation: from a consumer perspective, a product is automatically “good” by virtue of my having invested significant funds in order to acquire it.

We all know that many of the issues associated with Western arts reception are not shared by non-Western cultural traditions as they exist in 21st-century America. It is clear, for example, that African American audiences have constructed and maintain a more active interpretive ethos inside and outside the concert hall and playhouse, one that reflects its own set of long-standing cultural traditions and values.

It’s also clear that when audience traditions and values mix, tensions arise. To my way of thinking, these tensions are sourced in important differences between African American and European American communication protocols. This is because, as I explore in my book, the way we talk is directly linked to the way we make meaning, and the corresponding relationship, what I call social interpretation, has an enormous impact on the pleasure we derive from our arts going experiences. In White culture, formal communication tends to adhere to a linear pattern in which the speaker delivers information to a quiet group of listeners followed by a highly structured question and answer period, after which the dialogue is understood to be complete. As a result, White discourse incorporates a formal division between the designated speaker and the designated audience. That division is then iterated in standards for audience behavior inside concert halls, playhouses, even museum galleries.

People of Black African descent, on the other hand, participate in what is sometimes described as a circular discourse defined by rhetorical conventions such as call-response. As sociolinguist Geneva Smitherman has written, call-response is a basic organizing principle in Black American culture wherein “there is no sharp line between performers or communications and the audience.” The call-response structure informs the rhythm, style, and tone of Black discourse, allowing for a construct where “virtually everyone is performing and everyone is listening.” Importantly, the circular nature of the call-response pattern evokes a communal experience in which “participation is considered by many to be a responsibility—not just an option—for listeners, who are supposed to do their part to make communication vigorous and effective.” 

These cultural differences can become points of tension in the contemporary arts ecology, where Eurocentric definitions of “polite” behavior (silent and still) are understood by many gatekeepers and audience members as an absolute truth rather than as a cultural construction. Many arts organizations, whether consciously or not, promulgate White middle class tastes and values when it comes to signaling appropriate audience behavior in their venues. This is a form of cultural imperialism—when we insist on a specific type of behavior we insist on a hierarchy of cultural importance. The irony is that we do this even as our outreach departments are working to bring diverse audiences, with decidedly different spectating traditions and values, into our spaces.

I don’t have easy solutions to this tension or to the larger question of “whose/who’s audience” we’re talking about. But I do think that part of the cultural sea change we are now undergoing must include respect for difference in styles of audience reception. And I know that respect starts with the active acknowledgment of how privilege both structures and supports one form of audience behavior over another.



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  1. says

    You describe audiences in sociological, political, aesthetic, industrial and cultural terms, but I’d like to suggest adding another perspective.

    In rhetorical terms, audiences can be divided into those who are persuaded to participate and those who are not. Framing the analysis in a rhetorical context could help us understand why audiences are disappearing at such an alarming rate, and why the way we’ve traditionally communicated with potential audiences is no longer working.

    To answer your question from an Aristotelean perspective, the audience belongs to whoever can motivate them to act. Sadly, the arts are much better at telling people how wonderful they are than they are at telling people why it’s in their interest to come.

  2. says

    We need to be cautious in our over generalizations.
    Not all ideas about art that have Euro-centric origins are “monolithic”. Not all ideas about art that are Euro-Centic based or originated from predominately white Modernistic sources, even predominately white male Modernistic sources are bad ideas. Dadaism, Stravinsky, Karouac, The Beatles, Jackson Pollock aren’t necessarily “polite” white behaviors that should be scorned. And not all Black American art interactions involve a “call-repsonse” model, let alone one that white people should automatically feel privilege to emulate.
    Let’s be careful mixing the political and the aesthetics in our desire to come up with overly simplified economic solutions to today’s arts struggles.


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