A couple weeks back I wrote a post about the latest research report from the Irvine Foundation, in response to which several people posted smart comments. My post dealt to a large extent with Irvine’s general recommendation to arts nonprofits to respond to audience demand for more active participation. Around the same time my post was published, the performing arts world (the theater world, in particular) was buzzing a bit about two audience member cell phone infractions that made the news. First, at the July 2nd performance of Hand to God in New York City, a young patron rose from his seat, ambled onto the stage, and plugged his cell phone into a fake outlet on the set just before the performance was set to begin; then, a week later, at a performance of Shows for Days at Lincoln Center Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone out of the hands of a patron who wouldn’t stop texting.* Lupone says she may walk off the boards for good she’s so unnerved and annoyed by audiences who can no longer restrain themselves. The misguided patron says he was drunk and didn’t understand he was breaking any rules.
Some have weighed in over the past few weeks to express sympathy and irritation at the constant threat of intrusion by phones at performances generally, while others have suggested that it’s time for performers and producers to loosen up and evolve their practices and expectations. Among those in the we-need-to-adapt camp is Scott Walters, who wrote a widely read post for The Clyde Fitch Report—Patti LuPone and Cellphone-gazi. Scott acknowledges that his own thinking on the issue has changed since he was an actor back-in-the-day; he now thinks, “If we really want theater to become a vibrant part of our culture again, [then] we need to get over this obsession about quiet.”
Lynne Conner and The Quieting of the Audience
Walters defends his stance in part with the argument that the quiet audience is a relatively new phenomenon and that for centuries the audience at the theater was an active participant. The same argument appeared a week after Walter’s post in a San Francisco Classical Voice article on what the arts can learn from sports marketing. The article by Mark MacNamara opened:
It’s important to keep remembering that the prim and passive persona of the performing arts audience these days is relatively new. Broadly speaking, the audience experience of old — from say, the Theatre of Dionysus to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées — was in tone often much like right-wing talk radio: political, raucous, even violent and unhinged, but also profoundly communal, and thoroughly democratic.
We can thank, in part, theater historian (and AJ Blogger) Lynne Conner for much of our renewed awareness that being quiet in the theater is a modern phenomenon. In numerous articles and books, Conner has reminded us that it was only in the 19th century that the audience lost its authority at the live theater; after centuries of talking back to, and talking about, the theater, patrons were put in the dark (thanks to the invention of the electric lightbulb), instructed to mind their manners, and intimidated into leaving interpretation to the experts. MacNamara writes:
The gist of [Lynne Conner’s] argument is that modern audiences have lost their “sovereignty” and the meme of the day remains, “Sophisticated audiences do not interfere with great art, and unsophisticated people should confine themselves to other spaces.”
While she has a relatively new book out that explores this arena, Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, I first encounted Conner’s thoughts on this topic in a chapter in the 2009 Steven Tepper/Bill Ivey compilation Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life. Conner urged organizations to consider ways to democratize the arts and make them more engaging. I found her research and reflections inspiring. That same year I was giving a talk called “surviving the culture change” in which I was making arguments along the same lines.
While I have been among those nudging arts organizations to think about how to make the live arts experience more relevant, meaningful, and dynamic, over the past few years I have begun to feel we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Yes, some arts organizations need to lighten up and stop scolding the audience; yes, some arts programming is hopelessly out of touch with changing values and demographics in many cities; and yes, as a result of overemphasizing the lines between amateurs and professionals, some arts organizations have inadervertently discouraged a relationship to the arts among most people.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the revocation of audience control in the 19th century emerged in response to concerns that certain audience members were becoming too distracted and disruptive. That they were showing up at the theater more focused on socializing (flirting, drinking, eating, and chatting) than on the action on stage. Such behaviors began to cause consternation among performers and, notably, more sophisticated (read: wealthy and educated) patrons. While we now use the term passive in a somewhat derogatory manner to describe this newly restrained audience, this was not always the case. At the time, the taming of the audience was generally perceived to be beneficial. When the ragers and revelers left the building, those that remained began to pay more attention to what was happening on stage.
So here we are again. The consumer is king and some audiences have, once again, become too distracted and disruptive. Some want to outlaw cell phones and create stricter guidelines, even if that drives certain patrons away (a move which seems to be history repeating itself). Others argue that there will be no audiences in the future if the live arts–across the board–don’t adapt to the changing times. Scott Walters suggests in his post that theater needs to step up its game rather than beef up its policing efforts:
We can’t keep the 21st century outside the theater much longer. People come through the doors (if we’re lucky) and they are carrying cell phones. That’s a fact. Sometimes they forget to turn those cell phones off, and they ring. Get used to it. It happens everywhere, and it will continue happening. Accept it, and make it irrelevant. Earn attention, don’t expect it. Overcome the distraction of the age by being so compelling that people can’t look away, and can’t be distracted by someone texting.
As much as I agree with Walters that the theater cannot command attention but must earn it, I worry about the loss of the arts experience that merits and rewards a quieting and a focus. For too many years we’ve shamed people into paying homage to art they don’t understand or like; now it seems we may be heading toward an overcorrection in which we shower people with stuff that will hook their attention in fifteen seconds and that they can immediately grasp.
Perhaps we could aim for someplace in between?
Active and passive participation are historically contingent concepts whose meanings have changed over time. Moreover, our sentiments about the virtues and vices of each have also changed. I’m not opposed to the development of more active forms of participation in the live arts; to the contrary, the rampant experimentation is exciting. I just hope we are not throwing in the towel on so-called passive arts experiences.
What I learned teaching a course in aesthetic (and human) development
Despite the need to change some practices, we still need environments that enable the focused attention that some art works (whether performing or visual) require and merit. Unlike beauty in nature, the internal logic of a piece of art cannot always be grasped instantly. Aesthetic judgments in art can’t be made on objective measures or even, quite often, from immediate sensory perceptions. While one might have an initial sensory response, an aesthetic judgment comes from within and often requires a quieting, a focus. Conner and others problematize the quieting of the audience because it reduces the audience’s sovereignty. But quieting the audience could also be interpreted as creating the optimal conditions for someone to have an aesthetic encounter.
The course on beauty and aesthetic development that I taught this past spring at the University of Wisconsin School of Business (to 22 undergraduate business majors) was, to a large extent, about doing just that. The students of the course discovered something about being present in the world in a different way when they turned off their phones, focused their attention on a sunset, stopped multitasking and really listened to a symphony from beginning to end, sat in the balcony of the Overture Center and watched Hubbard Street Dance, or stood silently in front of an artwork for 30 minutes (an activity captured in photo at the top of this post).
The class was an experiment and many of the choices I made this first time around were developed out of personal experience (thinking about how my own tastes and capacity to make meaning from arts experiences evolved over time) and from reading research on the nature of the aesthetic experience. One seminal book that guided my thinking was The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick Emry Robinson. Csikszentmihalyi equates the aesthetic experience to that of flow. He arrived at this conclusion as a result of a qualitative and quantitative study of experts in the art world (who, unsurprisingly, have aesthetic experiences more frequently than most of us). Flow is an experience in which one is deeply absorbed, one loses a sense of time, and one feels joy and mastery while performing an activity (whether writing a section of a novel,operating on someone, having a conversation, playing a video game, or experiencing a great artwork). In other words, the meaningful aesthetic encounter is not a passive one.
Importantly, it is difficult to achieve flow if one is stretched too far beyond one’s natural capabilities; arguably, many audiences come to arts events without the requisite knowledge or previous experience to feel mastery.
In planning the course I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the optimal order of experiences; and I made adjustments over the course of the term in response to subtle forms of feedback from the students. At each step, I wanted them to feel challenged but never incompetent. Moreover, I refrained from giving assessments for several weeks. I wanted the students to focus on the experience itself; and I wanted them to cultivate the ability to make and articulate (internal) aesthetic judgments. I also frequently encouraged them to generate a creative response to each experience (make a drawing, write a haiku, etc.) If I teach the class again I will continue to experiment with its methods. I’ve become compelled by this notion of finding better ways to help people cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. My aim is not for them to become patrons of the arts, per se (although that could be a beneficial outcome, as well); I simply believe that there is great value in this way of experiencing and approaching life.
If we want people to feel engaged (rather than bored) at orchestral concerts, museums, dance performances, and theater pieces there are many approaches we can try. We can try letting them keep their phones on and Tweet from the back row. We can try producing more spectacular works and encouraging people to jump out of their seats and shout back at the stage when they feel moved to do so. We can try taking performances and exhibitions to nontraditional settings and letting people eat, drink, and socialize as they experience the arts event. And we can try inviting the people to create the work and bring it to life with us. Many organizations are trying these very methods–and many others–with great success. Alongside these experiments in active participation strategies, however, I hope some arts organizations will also (continue to?) experiment with ways to make the so-called “passive” artistic experience more meaningful and rewarding, especially for newcomers. Something wonderful can also come from sitting quietly, doing nothing, and focusing one’s attention on the work.
* An earlier version of this post stated that LuPone stopped the performance to take the cell phone from the patron but this has been corrected to reflect that she took the phone during a stage exit during which her character was blocked to shake hands with audience members.