Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ancient Greece 2.0: Arts Participation before the Industrial Age

When we talk about making museums or performing arts organizations more participatory and dynamic, those changes are often seen as threatening to the traditional arts experience. Audience commentary, comfortable spaces for eating and talking, opportunities for amateurs to contribute to professional work: these are often considered intrusions into formal, classical settings for enjoyment of arts.

But what if the "traditional" arts experiences is a myth? What if historic arts experiences were actually a lot more participatory? This week, I read a fabulous essay that made me feel a new kinship with the past in the quest to advocate for active audience engagement.

In In and Out of the Dark [pdf], Colby College professor Lynne Conner argues convincingly that the current refinement of the Western fine arts experience is an aberrant blip in a long history of participatory audience engagement. From the Ancient Greeks through the 1800s, audiences were rowdy, engaged people. They had the freedom--and in some cases, the obligation--to make their own meaning and share their interpretations of art with each other in structured and informal ways. They voted on the best plays in the days of Sophocles, stormed the symphony halls when confronted with artistic dischord, and talked and wrote about what they saw and what they thought. If arts managers fear bloggers today, imagine how they would have felt back in the good old days when the audience was yelling and throwing things at the stage.

Conner posits that it was only in the last hundred years that the passive audience was "constructed" via a confluence of cultural, economic, and technological changes. From Conner's perspective, this construction has led us to a bifurcated cultural landscape, in which people seek out active audience experiences outside of the fine arts structure because the passive audience experience is not as satisfying or enjoyable as the alternatives. Conner argues that open mics, poetry slams, even professional sports events, are thriving because they offer audiences diverse opportunities to co-author meaning as participants, not just consumers.

What exactly constructed the passive arts audience? The big cultural shift came in the increasing distinction between highbrow and lowbrow art, which Conner describes as "the result of a deliberate effort to create a cultural hierarchy in America." The arts were sacralized and professionalized in their funding and presentation. Museums no longer showed human horns alongside historic documents; theaters made differentiations among types of live entertainment. Arts institutions began publishing instructive placards and documents to train audiences to behave more formally and to treat artists and artworks with silent respect. Proper audiences were like docile children, seen and not heard.

Conner is a theater person, and the technical changes she documents in theater that accelerated the quieting of audiences are fascinating to me as a novice in that world. Seats which once were moveable became fixed. Advances in electrical lighting allowed theaters to put actors in light and audiences in darkness. What was once a democratic forum became increasingly defined by the dividing line of the stage. As Conner puts it:
Eventually the combination of environmental forces (i.e., the dark auditorium and mandated etiquette) and the growing gap between the societal position of the artist and the arts patron effectively quieted the audience. By the early twentieth century people of all social classes were expected to treat arts events as private experiences. They were to sit still, to refrain from talking, and to keep their opinions to themselves. In the process opportunities for public discourse about the arts and the attendant opportunity for formulating and exchanging sets of opinions about the arts event itself were, for the most part, lost.
This perspective--that audiences were "silenced" during the past 100 years--creates a new kind of arsenal for those who support democratization and increased audience participation in the arts. We are honoring the deep history of serious arts engagement by pursuing participatory approaches. You could even argue that the "activist" conservatism of the past hundred years has done disturbing damage to the sharing, experiencing, and support of art in the U.S. In a time of intense socio-economic division, the concept of cultural hierarchy smacks of elitism. Arts organizations are seen as part of the 1% instead of forums to bring together 100%. Perhaps it's time to turn back the clock a little further when we talk about the good old days.

P.S. Lynne Conner has a book coming out next year called We the Audience. I can't wait. And thank you to Lauren Shultz, who introduced me to this article in a recent Museum 2.0 comment thread.
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