Arts Democracy Now!

sacre corpWe are accustomed to describing the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps as a riot. That’s what the history books say and that’s what Wikipedia says so there you have it.

But another way of framing Sacre is to call it one of the last examples of more than 2500 years of audience-centered social interpretation in the Western arts tradition. That infamous uproar was not so much an aberration as it was a continuation of the centuries-long tradition of the audience exercising its cultural right to publicly evaluate a work of art.

Which gets me thinking about the structure of democracy in an arts context. Today’s not-for-profit arts system is analogous to representative democracy, with the elected officials (the artists) on stage, the business interests and lobbyists (the management and board) in the executive suite, and the voting public (the audience) in the dark. The audience votes by buying a ticket, but beyond applause (and the occasional boo or walk out), the individual audience member relinquishes control of meaning making and evaluation to the elected officials and their support structure. Representative democracy is not, by definition or current practice, particularly participatory.

The Rite of Spring premiere, on the other hand, is an example of deliberative democracy. According to the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, deliberative democracy “emphasizes the right, opportunity, and capacity of anyone who is subject to a collective decision to participate (or have their representatives participate) in consequential deliberation about that decision. ‘Consequential’ means deliberation must have some influence.”

I’m not really arguing for Sacre-style rowdiness in our performance venues. But it strikes me as an interesting comparative point and a place from which we might begin to ask some hard questions. How would the establishment of a deliberative democratic ethos in and through our arts ecology impact the quality of the audience’s engagement? We are, after all, in the midst of a great participatory revolution in other areas of our culture, a participatory revolution that shares power by sharing the meaning making process.

In a deliberative culture, where meaning making is a duty of the citizenry (rather than the “right” of experts), productive talk about the serious arts just might have a chance. As I have noted before in this blog and in my new book, productive talk in an arts context is talk that originates in order to (1) communicate about a specific topic, (2) air publicly a range of opinions and perspectives on that topic, (3) listen and consider other points of view, and (4) work toward both collective and individual meaning making. The productivity here is both literal, involving the effective exchange of information and viewpoints, and symbolic, in that people finish the experience with a new connection to the information and ideas that came out of the exchange and a new understanding between participants.

The goal of deliberative democracy is to find a means of inclusion, a way to take up the scattered voices of a community. But deliberation isn’t limited to making sure I get to state my opinion as loudly as possible and then just walk away (or click to a different site that uncritically echoes back my core beliefs). Again I return to the Centre for Deliberative Democracy homepage:

It is also important for the listener to engage with the message or argument with an open mind; a willingness to engage with alternative positions, attempting to understand any merit that arguments might have. This contrasts with the kind of politics that is often witnessed where protagonists stick to their particular message, whatever the circumstances, refusing to adjust or accommodate. . . . Insofar as we can create these ideal kinds of conditions, there is indeed a good deal of change to the positions of individuals. Moreover, there is almost a universal increase in satisfaction on the part of participants, in terms of both the process and the outcome.


As arts workers, how do we take up the scattered voices of our communities? It is time to move beyond the one-to-many model of meaning making (the expert offering the meaning to the passive audience) and toward an authentic, deliberative conversation with our community.


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  1. says

    Back in 1913 the French audience did publicly react against Stravinsky’s performance. Bully for them. But history has shown that their expressive reaction was in fact misguided and that Rite of Spring is generally recognized as one of the great works of art of it’s age.

  2. Tony says

    I don’t know why Mz. Conner is so fixated on the Rite of Spring. Yes, there was a fracas at the premiere, but as I have written elsewhere, that may have been Nijinsky’s fault more than Stravinsky’s. Le Sacre had subsequent performances which were not rowdy and which received thoughtful commentary from reviewers and other intelligent performance participants. Nor was it the only riot in the concert hall in music history. Likewise, I have already mentioned Debussy’s premiere of Pelleas et Melisande in 1902 and Antheil’s premiere of Ballet mechanique in 1926.

    In 1926. Antheil assiduously promoted the work, and even engineered his supposed “disappearance” while on a visit to Africa so as to get media attention for a preview concert. The official Paris première in June 1926 was sponsored by an American patroness who at the end of the concert was tossed in a blanket by three baronesses and a duke. The work enraged some of the concert-goers, whose objections were drowned out by the cacophonous music, while others vocally supported the work, and the concert ended with a riot in the streets. This performance was followed by an extremely ill-fated concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1927, where it created such a fiasco–technically, musically, and sociologically–that it was not performed again for over 60 years. It ruined Antheil’s career as a “serious” composer and forced him to write scores for Hollywood for the rest of his life. Compared to this, the premiere of Le Sacre was a row in a kindergarten about who gets to play with a new toy.

    The Centre for Democracy quote is the kind of nonsense that followers of the Second Viennese School, Boulez and the teachers at the Darmstadt summer composition courses used to justify their “compositions,” which are mostly c*** and which caused contemporary music to drive audiences from concert halls to the degree that contemporary music is performed rather sparingly by symphony orchestras and created an even greater chasm between musicians and audiences. Fortunately, synthesis composers of today have abandoned strict atonality and serialism, tone clusters, Balinese gongs and aleatory scores and rediscovered tonal harmony in combination with a judicious use of all compositional techniques at their disposal.

    In this case though, I tend to agree with the author’s blog inasmuch as audiences voting with their feet have overthrown the academic dictatorship in music in favor of something that actually communicates with audiences who aren’t experts in 1950’s – 2000’s avant-garde in music. The problem is that not many composers still writing in avant-garde academic style are very happy with the development and that they’re now being overtaken by composers like Sallinen, Rautavaara, Egk, Schnittke and late Henze, who either never completely gave up tonality or returned to it and who didn’t go gaga over 12-tone row themes.

    I also agree with the author that it would be a better audience experience if listeners at live concerts either boo’ed and hissed or clapped and cheered the music they had just heard (at the end of the piece, not during). But that requires understanding what they’re hearing, and I would argue that few people at live concerts today do understand what they’re hearing. If they did, today’s complacent standing up and cheering even bad or mediocre performances wouldn’t be so ubiquitous.

    That brings me back to my original thought: Any kind of democracy requires learning, reading the news (there’s nothing on TV today that’ll contribute positively to any kind of democracy) and active engagement in the process. You can’t form intelligent opinions and debate politics if all you do is watch FOX or MSNBC all evening long. Likewise, you can’t form intelligent opinions and debate art if know nothing or very little about it, because any demagogue like, e.g., Boulez, will be able to convince you that what s/he says is the only correct way of looking at music. Boulez wrote “tonality is dead” in imitation of Nietzsche, and all too many composers and composition teachers fell for his claptrap until they realized that their works might get one performance and then never be heard again because the vast majority of audiences couldn’t stand listening to their music. Once they figured that out, they slowly started distancing themselves from Boulezian aesthetic philosophy.

    The author writes: “productive talk in an arts context is talk that originates in order to (1) communicate about a specific topic, (2) air publicly a range of opinions and perspectives on that topic, (3) listen and consider other points of view, and (4) work toward both collective and individual meaning making.” I am with her until we get to point (4).

    What is both “collective and individual meaning making”? Apart from being an oxymoron, it doesn’t make sense. Unless the author defines the “collective unconscious” in terms of Jungian analytical psychology, For as Jung wrote in “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” this collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.” If taken at face value, this does not really lead to any kind of “meaning making” given that it is not an active trait of human intellect.

    Now, I will grant something such as a “collective subconsciousness” exists on national levels with the caveat that it can – and most often does – change with time and historical events. To return to music in this context, a Czech will feel something tugging at his/her heart strings when listening to Smetana’s Ma vlast and an Italian will experience something similar when listening to Verdi’s “Va, pensiero.” However, unless someone bothers to play these pieces and explain them to their kids, chances are that people will feel more connected to rap music rather than music that defined several generations’ national identity. If this can happen in Europe, where there is a strong national link between composers and the countries from which they hail, how will America fare when a national canon of “classical” music was never created and never served as a unifying force for the country?

    Sadly, today’s “collective and individual meaning making” is formed around Ice-T, Kanye West, the Kardashians, Peyton Manning, etc. etc. Not by any particular cultural elements that require some education and intelligence in order to be understood. I don’t have a problem with hip hop music, celebromania or football – I’m sure they’re all very entertaining and that they make millions of people happy. Nonetheless, this is “collective and individual meaning making” at the level of the lowest common denominator. The point of any art, I think, is to elevate our minds above and beyond mere entertainment (though great art can certainly be very entertaining) and towards thinking, contemplating and learning. Without those elements, “collective and individual meaning making” cannot take place.

    I would therefore suggest to the author that point (4) should read “work toward learning and understanding collective meaning making in the sense of understanding the canon of interpretation and historical context of a given piece of art.” Then add a point (5) “individual meaning making through the exchange of ideas involving the effective exchange of information and viewpoints, and; symbolic, in that people finish the experience with a new connection to the information and ideas that came out of the exchange and a new understanding between participants on the basis of a knowledgeable debate.”

    Now that would make sense to me.

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