Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Your mom goes to the opera: the ever-threatened fine-arts audience

Ever notice how the arts are always dying? They’ve been in a perpetual swoon since I can remember. Periodically, a U.S. study is released stating that arts attendance and participation are lower than ever, and that “something must be done.”

There have been forays into topics of the moment, such as “Jerry Springer: The Opera” and a newly proposed piece about the life of Anna Nicole Smith

Orchestras, museums, theater companies, and other entities are constantly trying to reach the coveted 18-35 demographic by feigning hipness, good cheer and snarky humor in their promotional materials – and showing some skin doesn’t hurt either.

Fine-art appreciation is stereotyped as a rich man’s pastime. In fact, many times high-art tendencies are supported and perpetuated by people with disposable income and a desire for prestige. And, many times, they drag themselves to high-falutin’ cultural events for reasons of social distinction, not on the basis of enthusiasm or deep appreciation. Yep, those dudes in the tuxes are just as bored as you.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining and expanding arts education and participation for school-age kids. A recent proposal by Colorado’s Boulder Valley School Board to reduce or eliminate 5th-grade music programs has raised parental uproar, but is a typical move for a financially distressed school district.

But is there much you can do to lure audiences of young adults to the concert hall? I doubt it. Should you try? I say get Grandma and Grandpa gussied up and send them down to the cultural events only they are capable of appreciating!

Japanese philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi split art, for the sake of analysis, into three categories: pure, popular and marginal. Pure art requires a certain level of expertise and knowledge from both its creators and its consumers. In popular art, the creator is still a professional but the audience is undiscriminating. Marginal art is everything else – from decoration to gesture – the raw material of aesthetic creation and response in everyday life.

So pure art is smart art. It needs the audience’s critical tools to complete the communication circuit. It requires contextualization, intelligence, education, and indoctrination; it has connoisseurs, cognoscenti, specialists and interpreters. Smart art aims high, features demonstrations of technical expertise, and to be sure errs on the side of seriousness and significance and pretentiousness. Accordingly, it has a much higher failure rate. It’s despised, made fun of and marginalized by a populist reverse snobbery that discourages explorations that can’t be easily packaged or sold.

The very things that are unique about these niche arts are what marketers and publicists are trying to overcome. Instead of trying to make them palatable, perhaps their best move would be to emphasize these points of difficulty.

Smart art doesn’t require money – it requires passion. Occasionally, art bridges the categories of pure and popular for a time – opera in the 19th century, jazz up to the bebop era. Its popularity phases out, or never develops, but the art form stubbornly persists and continues to speak to its audience, however small.

Smart art also requires maturity – that dreaded word! Hopefully, the longer life goes on the greater the stock of life experiences and learned lessons grow within each person. Those who age successfully develop a tolerance for ambiguity and complexity, develop longer attention spans and more nuanced receptivity. And I think that those closer to the end of life have a more keen appreciation of artistic work that asks hard questions.

Smart art has a research and development arm – it’s called life. Life grows the gray-headed, always-dying-off audiences that mysteriously maintain the arts in America, replacing the fans that pass away with others who have aged out of the commercially bombarded demographics into the more deserted areas where, at last, they can sit down and look and hear and feel and think.

Now, get cracking!


 A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings; Sir Denis Forman, Random House, 1994.

The New Penguin Opera Guide; ed. Amanda Holden, Penguin, 2001.

The Grove Book of Operas; Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy, Oxford University Press, 2009.

The Metropolitan Opera Stories of the Great Operas; ed. John Freeman, W.W. Norton, 1997.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, 1994.


"P.D.Q. Bach: The Abduction of Figaro," dir. Kaye S. Levine -- 1984.

"Anna Russell Sings! Again?," Anna Russell, CBS Masterworks, 1953.

"Das Ring Gott Farblonjet," by Charles Ludlam, 1977.

No comments:

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

  ‘Gregorio Cortez’ Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez October 1929 2:31 The corrido is a Mexican balla...