Last time (Deadly Sin: I) I wrote about arrogance with respect to the work we present, the art of European Aristocratic Culture. This time I’d like to focus on arrogance in our beliefs (conscious or unconscious) about the people we need to reach to become/remain viable. The following is an inelegant statement of such a belief:
Appreciation of Art of the European Aristocratic Cultural Tradition requires education, intelligence, and sophistication. Unspoken: [Some/many] are not all are capable of doing so.
This is far more toxic than arrogance about our art. The toxicity is, of course, a moral failing. However, on the practical level it is the core of the inability to form constructive relationships with individuals and communities beyond our current constituencies.
- Unconscious assumptions about the sophistication required to “get” EACT art lead to frustration and problematic responses. Here are just two such responses:
- Dumbing Down
Not infrequently a concern is expressed about the perceived need to “dumb down” presentations to reach new constituencies. The arrogance of the phrase “dumb down” should be self-evident. If that “dumbing down” includes injudicious cutting of material, that does a disservice to new communities and represents a lack of respect for them. (At the same time it should be remembered that there is a long tradition in both music and theatre of making cuts to improve focus and to enhance clarity and concision.) And, of course, the assumption that there is a need to “dumb down” is a glaring example of disrespect for potential new patrons.
More to the point, anything that requires education to appreciate places the burden for that learning on the purveyor. (I own a light that will not turn on if I push the “on” button. I have to tap and release it instead. The manufacturer had a responsibility to tell me that.) If our work requires education to appreciate, it is our responsibility (and a key to our survival) to provide it in a world in which that education is not available in schools. The fact that people have not received that education elsewhere is not their fault.
- “Outreach” Programming
For decades there has been an assumption that “pops” concerts (and their equivalent in other arts) is the best means to provide entry into an art form. Yet, I keep reading research saying that approach doesn’t work. People do not transition from a Star Wars medley to Symphonie Fantastique. There is even evidence of a hunger for deeper experiences in the arts (and some disdain for the “pops” offerings) among those who are currently non-attendees, but assumptions have gotten in the way of creating pathways for them.
- Dumbing Down
- Conscious assumptions that many people are incapable of valuing EACT art, a “dirty little secret” in our industry, create an impenetrable barrier to engagement. They also preclude imagining any programs that might make what we present meaningful to a broader segment of the population. [If the existence of this type of assumption does not ring true in your experience, I am ecstatic for you. Trust me, though, it does exist out there.]
Every category of artistic expression from every culture (including popular culture) contains work of greatness. Every community, every individual responds to art that helps them better understand and respond to the human condition. All are worthy of respect. To ignore this diminishes us and imperils our future.
Assumptions are almost always based on ignorance, or, at best, limited or misunderstood information. The antidote is found in knowledge stemming from the process of building meaningful relationships with new communities. In this context, the foundation of that is humility. And that is where I will begin next time.
Alan Harrison says
“Yes, but it’s Shakespeare!” is a phrase I heard for years in defending the production of the poetry from several hundred years ago. And it’s true, most of it is pretty good.
However, in 2023, you’d better have a better reason than that to produce it. What charitable need is fulfilled (at least, according to the 501(C)(3) statute) by producing Shakespeare in the Victorian manner? You’d be better off going to the traditional – boys playing women, no real costumes, groundlings seeing the shows for next to nothing, and olio acts of jugglers, mimes, and sword swallowers. Stop with the tights and pumpkin pants – it only appeals to a certain (elitist, white) demographic. Today, that’s not enough.
Thank you for this terrific column, Doug. You’re spot on, once again.