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.

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