This is the final post in a triptych [What If There is no Excellence? and Everybody’s Got One] investigating what I am calling the “excellence equation.” In many ways it is the most difficult post I’ve written since I launched the “We the Audience” blog in late January of this year. This is because, in the serious arts industry, we don’t talk much about race when it comes to the audience experience. (Or, if we do, it blows up into tangled web of posts and counter-posts, like the recent mess over actress Janet Suzman’s ill-conceived and ahistorical comments about theater as a “white invention.”)
Instead, we talk about “diversity.” When we talk about marketing and outreach, that is. But what is our definition of diversity besides trying to figure out how to expand our audience base beyond the white professional class? I find very little discussion that attempts to understand how qualities of difference impact our efforts to partner with our audiences, and even less discussion on ways to honor difference when it comes to the meaning making process.
Side note: If you are interested in a smart analysis of the institutionalization of the diversity agenda in American culture see philosopher Adriel Trott’s recent blog post. The arts industry could learn something from her assessment of the ways in which that institutionalization process actually works against any meaningful diversifying.
What I want to focus on in this final installment, then, is the impact of ethnicity on the operation of meaning making. And to suggest that many of the industry’s taste-makers and gatekeepers hold a bias about how meaning is made based on the privileged position of our white, European-derived traditions. This bias assumes that we all go about the process of interpreting meaning and value in the same way, regardless of our cultural traditions.
Most of the existing discussion about ethnic differences in theaters and concert halls is couched in terms of behavior (or “etiquette”). The mainstream definition of appropriate viewing/listening behavior is based on a white European-derived definition of attention.
To get our bearings: Cognitive scientists define attention as the “focusing of sensory, motor, and/or mental resources on aspects of the environment to acquire knowledge.” Attention allocation is “deciding what to focus those resources on, whether the decision making is conscious or subconscious, based on current task needs and the benefits and costs relative to what is known.”
In Europe, an assumption about the reciprocal relationship between silent listening and deeper attention (and thus appreciation) began in earnest in the late eighteenth century with the introduction of the aesthetic theory of “attentive listening,” a term used to describe the kind of intellectual effort thought necessary to fully appreciate sophisticated music. As musicologist Matthew Riley notes, this emerging standard was a by-product of Enlightenment notions of “absolute music” and “art religion” that demanded a “reverential attitude on the part of the listener that previously would have been more appropriate in a place of worship.”
But other cultures have different definitions of attention, based on their own mores and traditions, and thus differing views on what constitutes proper levels of appreciation (and etiquette) when inside a venue. African American audiences, for example, have constructed and maintain an active interpretive ethos that illustrates a different modality for participation and meaning making.
According to communications scholar Julia T. Wood, people of Black African descent often participate in what she describes as a circular discourse defined by rhetorical conventions such as call-response. 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.”
Socio-linguist Geneva Smitherman identifies call-response as a basic organizing principle in Black American culture where “there is no sharp line between performers or communications and the audience,” allowing for an attendance construct where “virtually everyone is performing and everyone is listening.”
These cultural differences can become points of tension in the contemporary arts ecology, where Eurocentric definitions of appropriately attentive behavior are understood by many gatekeepers and audience members as an absolute truth rather than as a culturally constructed condition. A more accurate assessment of audience behavior would acknowledge the fact that the black idiom for being an audience member is simply different from that of the white idiom. Chicago theater blogger Kelly Kleiman points to this distinction between the cultural protocols of white and black audiences and suggests, wryly, that the unwelcoming rules in most contemporary theaters are off-putting to “black people…whose experience of performance is likely to include interactive church services and concerts of music where failure to clap hands or tap feet is the sign of someone’s being dead.”
Some will argue that this is an issue of audience decorum, not meaning making. But I think that’s a false distinction, since decorum (understanding and behaving according to the given rules) is an essential part of paying attention. And paying attention (focusing of sensory, motor, and/or mental resources on aspects of the environment to acquire knowledge) comes in many different forms. In an active learning environment, for instance, information processing is emphasized over information delivery, or, to state it more directly, learning happens when learners work at understanding the information rather than simply receiving and storing the information. Modalities for active learning vary widely, from discussion groups to “think-pair-share” modules where a small group of students discuss an idea and then present their findings to the class. But they have in common one important quality: peer-to-peer talk. What learning research reveals is that information is often processed into learning more effectively in circumstances where ideas are run through the verbal mill.
The contemporary Euro-centric view is that meaning making happens best in a quiet, still body. (Or at least it has been the view since the 19th century—before then our talk-filled auditoriums, stretching back at least to ancient Athens, were the very essence of active learning environments rife with peer-to-peer learning). The Afro-centric view is that meaning is made through patterns of active call-response.
But the rule—based on the privilege of an industry dominated by white professionals—is that the silent and still approach to meaning making is the correct one.
There are no absolutes here, scientific or otherwise, about the nature of attention and its impact on a given audience’s meaning making process. And that is just the point.
What if we were willing to change the frame? What if we thought about our audiences as learners who make meaning in a variety of ways? Would that impact our ability to welcome a much greater portion of Americans into the audience experience? If we really want to diversify our audiences, then we will have to diversify the rules for audience etiquette and audience-centered meaning making.