Sunday, 20 September 2015

Intellectual access and not an easy way out

All too often, the promotion of intellectual access by some in the cultural sector is discarded as ‘dumbing down’. Recently, I read the following in Rob Riemen’s “The eternal return of fascism”:

“In the culture of this society [the mass-society; our contemporary society] there is an ongoing trend towards the lesser, the lowest level, because this is where one finds most things people can share. This is exactly why university education indicators are levelled down, so that ‘everyone’ can study and obtain a degree. And the same will apply to the arts, because they will have to be accessible to all, not only in what concerns tuition fees, but also at the level of comprehension. After all, the fiercest indignation is directed towards what is difficult. Because what is not understood immediately by everyone is difficult, that is ‘elitist’ and therefore undemocratic.” (my translation from Greek)

It is because of this passage - a defence of intellectual values, humanism, critical thinking, individual freedom and responsibility, love of life – that I am writing about what intellectual access means to me.

First of all, I do not believe that everything must be understood by everyone and I don’t defend levelling down. Knowledge is precisely a construction which can take us higher and higher, it can elevate us, but one doesn’t move directly from point A to point Z (we’ll assume a point Z exists for the sake of the argument). Actually, some people might just stay half way, either because, intellectually, they cannot go further or because they find no further interest in what is proposed to them. On some subjects, I stay half way. I don’t defend, though, that everything I don’t understand or personally appreciate should not actually exist or be supported, because, even if I don’t directly take part in it, I understand its importance in the construction. And this, I believe, is the whole point.

I believe it is perfectly legitimate for, let’s say, a museum to organize an exhibition with an expert audience in mind. Experts are one of many museum audiences. The problem is I have never seen a museum assuming that one of its exhibitions is mainly addressed to experts. On the contrary, too many museum exhibitions are made by and for experts and are then officially presented as addressed ‘to all’. Then, when people do not visit, we try to understand what is wrong with them – the people -, what their problem is.

In a debate this year, some colleagues from the visual arts field questioned why one of Lisbon’s biggest cultural institutions doesn’t have more visitors, although it presents an excellent programme of exhibitions. They attributed it to people’s low cultural level, lack of interest and love of football… My counterargument was that perhaps we should first try to understand what kind of people the institution aims to attract, because, considering the content of its exhibitions and the way they are communicated, I believed it might be interested mainly in an expert or initiated audience and, thus, very happy with what it gets in return. And if this is truly the case, then that’s fine.

My first point is that working for an expert or initiated audience is perfectly fine (as long as this position is assumed). My second point is that not everyone aims to do that or is entitled to limit it to that, namely public cultural institutions.

Cultural institutions have a role in the construction of knowledge and the promotion of intellectual values; and public cultural institutions have a responsibility towards all citizens. Thus, they cannot forget that not all of us have reached point Z and that there are always people at A, B, C – people of all ages and not just children and teenagers. Most visitors to museum exhibitions are not experts, neither will they become experts by visiting an exhibition. Providing intellectual access in this case is creating contents that will allow non-experts to get an introduction, to become aware of and interested in issues that are new to them or to acquire more knowledge or a different interpretation on things they thought they already knew. Communicating with someone who does not share our knowledge and language may be an ever bigger challenge.

Image taken from the website of Roadside Theatre

Likewise, we need theatres or orchestras to also consider the needs and interests of those citizens at A, B, C within their programme. But this is not achieved by dumbing down, but rather with respect and without patronizing audiences; this is done by experts with a clear view of who the people are they are addressing and what is the reason they are addressing them. Many times, this may be done in collaboration with other museums, orchestras and theatres, creating necessary pathways for those wishing to keep on walking through cultural encounters. I don’t wish those experts to treat me as if I was stupid. I wish them to treat me as an intelligent, interested and curious person who wishes to know more.

The third point I would like to address is how to communicate what is complicated to understand, innovative or experimental to those who will not take directly part in that realm. In a recent post (The message, the language, the options), I discussed the inadequate way artists argue in front of a large audience in favour of the state’s responsibility to support the arts. All too often, considering the extremely diverse profiles of this audience, it’s the wrong person or the wrong language in the wrong media. People have the right to understand why it is important to invest taxpayers’ money in something they might not personally enjoy or even understand. This will never happen if the sector feels unaccountable, feels it doesn’t have to explain anything to anyone because state financial support is a right. It must adapt the language and the message to the audience it wishes (or has to) communicate with.

So, my reason for defending intellectual access in the cultural sector is that cultural organisations are about people and life. If we wish to help construct a better world - a world that recognizes and defends absolute intellectual values and embraces truth, beauty and justice in life -, help elevate the human being, then cultural institutions are one of the places where this can occur. For that to happen, they have to find ways to involve and engage people - more people, all people who are open and interested. It is a process, one that doesn’t take us directly from A to Z. It involves building on what is known to reach towards the unknown, the uncomfortable and the experimental. And it can and must help instigate appreciation and support for culture, even if not all people understand everything, but because they believe in the ultimate cause.

One needs to understand, though, what the ultimate cause is and what the benefits are for everyone. This is what intellectual access means to me and dumbing down is definitely not part of the equation.

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