Monday 16 September 2013

The reconquest

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Washington DC (Photo: bigbirdz on Flickr)

In Ancient Greece, drama was part of what, nowadays, one would call pop or mass culture. Ancient Greeks would fill their theatres in the thousands. They would bring food with them, as they would spend the whole day at the amphitheatre. They would eat during performances and they would throw food or shout at the actors if they didn´t like what was being presented. They would also intervene, ask questions or express opinions regarding the plot.

Shakespeare´s audiences, quite heterogeneous in their social composition, were as loud as the Ancient Greeks. Poorer people would pay almost an entire day´s wage in order to stand in front of the stage. And they did pay it. It was important for them to be there, it meant something to them, both because of what was happening on and off stage...

A few centuries later, in the late 1800s, audiences are reported screaming and standing on chairs during classical music concerts. And… clapping between movements or whenever they got enthusiastic with the performance.

Why am I saying all this? To remind us all that things change, habits change, tastes change. What used to be acceptable, is not anymore. And what is today, will not be tomorrow. Things are once again changing. There are people, for instance, today who like to talk during classical music concerts or share a theatrical experience live through twitter or use all sorts of gadgets while visiting a museum. This makes other people quite nervous and resistance is actually building up.

Calls for the return to a more ‘pure’ theatre / music / museum experience are multiplying these days. At least ‘pure’ the way some people feel it, people who enjoy assisting in a classical concert in absolute silence or visiting a museum and simply contemplating a work of art. This is one way of doing it indeed. It´s not the only way. Ans frankly, it´s not a more meaningful way either.

The issue was once again raised recently by Judith Dobrzynski in the New York Times, in an article called High culture goes hands-on. Lamenting the quest for an ‘experience’ that has taken gigantic prorportions, forcing cultural institutions into a multitasking race that makes them all alike, Dobrzynski clearly misses “ages past, [when] art museums didn’t need activating”; she writes about “the thrill of standing before art”, reaching the sad conclusion that “this is not exciting enough for most people”; and finally she is warning us: “This is all in the name of participation and experience — also called visitor engagement — but it changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors. It changes who will go to museums and for what.”

Two days later, Dennis Kois was responding with Song of experience, basically reminding us that there is not one, valid, meaningful way of doing things. Different offers may exist for different people with different needs; and actually, people may enjoy things in more than one way. One kind of experience is not more meaningful than the other; they are different and it depends on the people themselves what it is that they will come away with.

This is exactly what I thought when I read the following statement by Mark Rosen regarding Metropolitan Museum visitors: “...almost everybody comes here, tries to see everything in four hours or less, Instagrams the hell out of the place and leaves, remembering nothing." Rosen is involved in an initiative called Museum Hack, which proposes all sorts of “non-traditional museum tours”. In the case of the Met, they take people through short tours presenting them with overlooked pieces of the collection. I find this great. And as much as I am sure that people joining do enjoy and learn a lot from this, I am also pretty sure that one-time tourists to New York will still find it more satisfying and feel it is more meaningful to them to try to see and instagram everything in four hours. And they´ll remember something.

All sorts of experiences are needed, they are different entry points, they mean different things to different people. Nina Simon said it beautifully a few years ago in her post I am an elitist jerk. A national parks lover and experienced visitor, she confessed her dislike at visiting national parks that draw the masses. She admitted being na elitist. Which made her think about her advocating for accessible and participatory museums. “On this trip, for the first time, I truly understood the position of people who disagree with me, those who feel that eating and boisterous talking in museums is not only undesirable but violating and painful. For elitists, it’s impossible to ignore the ways others are degrading what is for you an intense aesthetic and emotional experience. I get it now.” At the same time, though, Simon goes on to say that national parks don´t only belong to her and those more popular ones are na important entry point for people who actually chose to be there, because it meant something to them. One day, some of them might actually try a more remote and ‘difficult’ park.

Or museum. Or theatre. Or concert. Our knowledge and experience is something we build up. According to our needs, according to the context we find ourselves in. I have attended classical music concerts in absolute silence, together with people who “knew exctly when to applaude” and savouring the last note until the moment it disappeared and I (we) could start breathing again. But I have also enjoyed classicl music concerts in open air theatres, together with hundreds of people who were picnicking on the grass and talking about everything, related or not to what was going on on stage.

It is undoubtedly not always easy to cater for different needs at the same space. Actually, it has always been a challenge. But there are two things that seem important to me: 1. To acknoweldge the fact that there exist different needs; and 2. Not to judge one experience as more valid than another. This goes for culture professionals. It goes for some audiences too.

Still on this blog

More readings

James Durston, Why I hate museums

Mark Tapson, Should museums be more entertaining? 

Peter Funt, Theatre for Twits

Richard Dare, The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained

Alice Vincent, Orchestras must 'shed elitism' to survive, says Universal Music boss

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