Who Gets to Tell the Meaning?

Building Audience Enrichment

Lynne Conner

Oh chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the hole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
  — by William Butler Yeats

When William Butler Yeats created his sublime poem about the relationship between form, function and being, he articulated an ontological question that has been a part of Western civilization at least since the beginning of our cultural self-consciousness. How can we know an object from its maker?

We can’t know the dancer from the dance, of course, as Yeats makes clear. But the meaning of the poem is much bigger than the problem of differentiating between art object and art-maker. For standing just outside of the artist/art object binary is the critical third party: the observer. We might extend the poem by asking, how can we know the audience from the dance? Is it ever possible to understand the meaning of a work of art as separate from the way in which we receive it?

The “Arts Experience”

What occurs in the concert hall or the gallery or on the playhouse stage is a complex interaction of intention and reception that no one person or institution can forecast or contain. A meaningful definition of art does not originate solely from knowledge of the art object (the plot of the play is centered on a young king’s ability to find out who murdered the former king) or from understanding the artist (he intended to teach a lesson about the dangers of excessive pride) or from analyzing the audience (the people felt pity and fear at the sight of the young king’s anguish). Instead, a meaningful definition of art acknowledges the interplay of these three discrete components (artist, art object, and audience) in its meaning and the experience of it. In short, the meaning of a production of Oedipus Rex is not reducible to the words on the page or to Sophocles’ intentions or to the Athenian audience’s reaction. Instead, the meaning is centered on the active and engaged interplay of all three elements of the arts experience.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us the following definition of the word experience: “the fact of being consciously the subject of a state or condition, or of being consciously affected by an event; personal knowledge; to feel; to undergo.” I’m most interested in the last definition: to undergo. To experience something means that the receiver has taken a journey. It means that there has been a shift in perception that has allowed the receiver to become the perceiver, to move from passive to active.

When I am leading a post-performance discussion, I often like to invite audience members to think through the art event they just experienced by physically locating its three discrete parts. First we find the art object (the play or the dance we’ve just seen) by locating it on the stage. Then we find the art maker (the playwright or choreographer, the actors or dancers) by finding them on the stage (or the page). Then we find the audience by locating our place in the auditorium. Once we’ve established a physical reality for all three component parts of the art event, I invite the audience to visualize a synthesis of these three discrete parts. I call the synthesis the arts experience (I used to call it the “art thing” but gave that up), and I locate it as a phenomenon that is literally hanging in the air around us. I point upward and claim that it is there, in the air, where the real meaning of what they’ve just seen and heard lies.

While this may seem terribly literal, it is a surprisingly effective tool. It has been useful with sophisticated contemporary dance and theater patrons as well as with college students and children. It works for a simple reason: by locating a physical space for the production of meaning, we introduce the idea that making meaning is a process and that the audience is a necessary part of that process. It is a visualization of the fact that the audience is the “co-author” of the art experience. I find that once co-authorship has been established it is possible to go on to discuss sophisticated and complex concepts related to making meaning. In my observation, when an art event has been opened up into an arts experience, audiences are eager to talk productively and to share ideas. And they are — as a general rule — intelligent consumers.

How Audiences Lost Contact: A Brief History

Many theater historians place the beginnings of the concept of a modern theater in two key conditions of the nineteenth century stage: the emergence of realism in plays and in performance techniques (acting and directing), and the advent of electric light. Electrification on the stage and in the auditorium began in 1881 at the Savoy Theatre in London and spread rapidly. The benefits were myriad, from focusing attention on the actors instead of the audience (thus helping to create the illusion of reality — a deep goal of the realist movement) to making the playhouse significantly safer and more comfortable (lighting by gas caused headaches).

As the audience moved into the darkness and the actors moved into the light (or the dancers, or the symphony musicians, or the opera singers), a fundamental shift took place. The playhouse or concert hall moved from being a site of assembly (ripe for public discussion and collective action) to being a site of quiet reception. At the same time, audiences moved from being active to passive participants in their own entertainment. As Richard Butsch notes in The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750-1990:

Critical to any conception of public sphere and also to any potential for collective action is conversation, for the opportunity to assemble and discuss and come to consensus about what to do. Suppressing theater audience expression therefore eliminated the theater as a political public space. Quieting audiences privatized audience members’ experiences, as each experienced the event psychologically alone, without simultaneously sharing the experience with others. During the middle of the nineteenth century managers in many theaters (and the courts) began to strip audiences of their “sovereignty” and to prohibit vocal and rowdy behavior, to bolt chairs to the floor, and in other ways restrict audiences’ actions and movements. The changes culminated in the latter part of the century with darkening the theater during performances, a “benefit” of electric lighting. (p. 15)

By the end of the nineteenth century, a “well-behaved” audience was associated with the middle and upper classes attending “elite” forms of performance, like the symphony or the opera. Populist forms of performance, like vaudeville and melodrama, still allowed some audience sovereignty (shouts of approval, catcalls, hissing, etc.). As Butsch makes clear, however, the urge to control the audience’s reactions was as much an economic function as it was an aesthetic one. The result was the eventual “quieting” of all performing arts audiences — a process that was essentially complete by the first two decades of the twentieth century.

My Goals

My goals here are to establish a useful, working definition of the arts experience (as I hope I have done) and to offer some insights into methods to increase an audience’s engagement and enjoyment in and through the arts. When effectively employed, these methods or practices result in what I refer to as audience enrichment.

My recommendations are rooted in the ideal of increasing meaningful engagement in the arts experience rather than increasing the number of participants. Many studies and initiatives have been undertaken with the latter aim in mind. Obviously I, like all artists and arts educators, would like to see the numbers grow. But I have come to the opinion, based on nearly twenty years of work in the arts, that numbers will only grow after engagement increases.

What I mean by “audience enrichment”

Over the years some artists have rejected the idea of audience-centered programs (in all forms, from playbill essays to post-performance talks to pre-view interviews in newspapers) because they often perceive them as exercises in “telling” the audience what a work of arts “means.” The source of these objections is valid. Didactic programming tends to reduce the power of the metaphor; after all, a metaphor is first put into place to transcend the limitations of everyday language and logic. Poorly handled arts education programming (whether for adult audiences or school children) is an unfortunate phenomenon of contemporary culture — well intended, to be sure, but often ill-designed and unprofessional.

The problem is rooted in a misconception about the definition of audience enrichment. What I mean by “enrichment” is not reducible to telling an audience what a work of art means. Nor is it reducible to stepping in and solving controversies or fixing misunderstandings related to an artist’s politics or social agenda. Audience enrichment is not reducible to what the artist wants or needs any more than it is reducible to what the arts institution wants or needs any more than it is reducible to a political agenda or to an individual audience member’s point of view.

The radical notion here is that a viable philosophy and practice of audience enrichment is centered on the assumption that what an audience really wants is the opportunity to co-author the arts experience. They don’t want to be told what the art means. They want the opportunity to participate — in an intelligent and responsible way — in telling its meaning. They want to have a real forum (or several forums) for the interplay of ideas, experience, data, and feeling that makes up the arts experience.

I like to use the sports industry (from production to consumption) as a way to demonstrate my thesis. Sports fans are constantly being invited to co-author the meaning of a sports event. Everyday they can read about their game: its current conditions, its people, its politics … all they need to do is pick up the daily paper. Everyday they can watch and listen to expert analysis of their game … all they need to do is to turn on the television or the radio. And everyday they can debate their own opinions … all they need to do is talk with a co-worker, or a friend, or a neighbor. In our society, opportunities for the analysis of and debate about sporting events abound.

Sadly, the same is not true for arts lovers. If you have an interest in theater or dance, for instance, and you want to learn more about the history of the work or genre, or you want to listen to an expert discuss a recent trend, or you want to express your opinion about a play to someone who actually cares, where do you turn? Where is the opportunity to analyze, formulate, and debate your own response to a work of art in the same way that sports fans can analyze, formulate, and debate their opinions? In most cities, you’ll need to take some significant steps — enrolling in a university course, buying a season subscription to qualify for the post-concert discussion groups, or organizing a play-going group among your co-workers.

The distinction here is obvious — we don’t have the same attitude or approach to being an arts fan as we do to being a sports fan. We rarely carry the energy of an art-experience into our work environment, and we rarely (if ever) feel knowledgeable or empowered enough to debate the meaning or value of an arts event (unless we are arts professionals and then we feel perhaps too empowered). Why is it, then, that sports fans don’t hesitate to analyze and debate? I firmly believe it is because they have been given the “permission” to express their opinions openly and the tools they need to back up their opinions. Because, as every sports fan knows, the real fun of the sports experience is not limited to watching the game — it’s also located in talking (analyzing) and arguing (debating) about it the next morning.

A Few Truths about Audiences

Meaningful and sustainable audience enrichment programs can only be built by individuals and organizations who have a committed understanding of the difference between an art object and an arts experience and who have the desire to participate in the journey toward creating an arts experience. The first step in the journey is to understand three truths about people when they are part of an audience. Everyone wants:

  • To be valued for more than her ticket price.
  • To be supported in his quest toward understanding the art event.
  • To feel included; that is, to know, tangibly, that what she thinks and feels is relevant to shaping the meaning of the arts experience.

Values and Ethics

The next step in the journey is to acknowledge a set of values that come along with building audience enrichment programming.

  • A Golden Rule: people want to talk through their reactions (i.e., feelings, confusion, passion, disinterest, disgust, pleasure). Talking is a way of processing an opinion. If there is no opportunity to talk, there is likely to be no “opinion” other than a vaguely expressed sense of disengagement.
  • Leave the arts programming alone. Cultural participation should not interfere with the need and desire among arts producers to program challenging work (whether “challenging” means something with a new form or something from another culture or time). True audience enrichment does not mean choosing art objects that are easy to understand or stand lower on the high/brow low/brow ladder. True audience enrichment means providing the tools and venues for including the audience more effectively in the total arts experience — whatever its nature.
  • Leave the art object alone. Nobody, including the artist, should be put in the position of dictating what a work of art “means.” Instead, validate the arts experience by acknowledging the role the audience plays in co-authoring its meaning.
  • Learning really is a life-long enjoyment. A great deal of attention and money and human resources has been poured into “arts education” programming for children. It’s important to acknowledge that adult audiences also seek to learn “in and through” the arts. Knowledge equals enjoyment because it equals power.
  • True audience enrichment is not “audience development.” Marketing strategies for “developing” (that is, increasing in numbers) an audience for a given organization may be valuable, but they are not the same as enrichment. In traditional audience development strategies the audience member has been objectified and remains objectified throughout the “development” process. True enrichment programs individualize the people who make up the audience.
  • Enrichment is not just a word — it’s a value. An arts organization interested in building participation in a meaningful way will have to commit serious resources to the notion of audience enrichment. Audience enrichment is like walking a tight-rope. If you pretend, you fall.
  • Effective audience enrichment practices will dismantle the notion of art object and art maker as “enlightener” and will replace it with the ideal of art object and art maker as participants in a civic dialogue. This implies a redistribution of power. Some artists and some arts executives will resist this.

Some Good Practices

  • Go into the audience and find a point of connection, then use that connection to pull the audience to a new level of understanding.
  • Break down the high art/low art hierarchy by endowing all arts experiences (and thus all responsible opinions) with importance.
  • Infuse audiences with the ideal of art as a tool for thinking, living, and enjoying life. Offer audiences the possibility that art is a means to another, more relevant end, like the general good of the community.
  • Provide guidance in how to look at art and art-making. Organizations that can give their audience aid in how to make thoughtful observations will be highly rewarded. Organizations that acknowledge the difficulty of looking at (or hearing, etc.) something new (in form, function, or theme) will be highly rewarded.
  • Mediation in the arts experience is often necessary. Mediation can be a very good thing. Most aspects of our society require some kind of mediation, even those based on metaphor. Think, for example, about religion. What is a priest, if not the mediator of a certain system of metaphor? In the arts industry, anti-mediation rhetoric often appears in avant-garde clothing but is in reality a conservative fox. (If this seems fuzzy, see my point above about the redistribution of power.)
  • Trust audiences to have a meaningful response. If you sponsor a talk-back program in which an expert of some kind (a scholar, a critic, an artist) comes out and bullies the audience, then you don’t really trust them and you probably aren’t truly interested in their response. And they won’t return.

Some Hard Realities

  • Success equals expertise, and expertise equals people. Effective audience enrichment programming is dependent (like all output — creative or otherwise) on human resources. Arts organizations that are truly interested in audience enrichment will need to invest in the audience enrichment specialists capable of creating, facilitating, and sustaining that programming.
  • Short term success will be impossible to measure, and long term success will require true commitment from all the key players. Just as in any learning complex — you may not ever be able to touch, feel, and see the effects.
  • Old maxims won’t help us now. The repeated truism that “quality art is the best form of audience enrichment” is simply untrue. Just because something is high quality does not mean that people will support it. Not long ago I sat in the Heinz Hall and listened to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony under Mariss Jansons. It was a sublime arts experience and I was utterly fulfilled. Still, there were many empty seats around me. Will they be filled in the future if Jansons refines his baton technique? Or if the string section is a little bit tighter? Let’s be honest — they will not. There has to be another answer.