Sunday, February 26, 2012

Addressing the Big Picture Perceptions?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..............."

JOKE:  Matt Kirsten's joke came in second place in a UK Daily Telegraph reader's poll of the funniest joke of the past year:  His joke was:
"I was playing chess with my friend and he said 'Let's make this more interesting.'  So we stopped playing chess."
I know, I know - this is anti-intellectual and even offensive.  But it's funny - based in part on the widespread stereotypical perception that chess is a game played only by egg-heads; that it is intrinsically boring.  Of course, for those who play the game - and there are legions of those people from all walks of life, all ages, all across the globe - the game is interesting, challenging and enormous fun.  But those are the fans.  It is still widely perceived as the province of a small elite group of people and not something for the average "Joe".  Perception -- not necessarily reality.

I think we suffer from the same prejudices and biases. And I can hear the same joke substituting opera or ballet or symphony music or whatever.   In many quarters the arts, for example Opera, is perceived of as boring.  The cartoon of the sleeping husband, dragged to yet another performance, is ubiquitous in the annals of humor.  Again for those that like Opera such talk is just stupid.  It is anything but boring, and again those who like - no love - opera cross every demographic and geographic line.  But the perception undeniably exists.

Those who like us aren't the problem.  It's those who perceive us as 'boring' - as a way to spend time by elite groups to which they do not (and perhaps do not want to) belong.  I suspect this perception is more prevalent within younger cohort groups, and perhaps with the less educated, but that just may be an erroneous personal perception.  While we wisely spend time pursuing those who might like us a 'little bit' (e.g., those who have attended one performance, but are not regular goers), it is the wider group for whom the inaccurate perception keeps far from our doors that is the bigger ultimate problem.   We hear the charge all the time - we are elitist.  Often this is political rhetoric parroted for ulterior motives.  More often it is just ignorance worn as a badge of reverse superiority of some kind, an offshoot of the anti-intellectual, anti-education thread that continues across the planet.

But it exists and I think it has enormous consequences for almost everything we do in terms of garnering support - whether the support of audiences or the support of public officials or the support of the media.  Alas we do not have the financial resources to mount some hundred million dollar ad campaign that would over a period of time help us to re-create the brand that is the "arts".  And even if we did, would that be enough to move the dynamic and make the "arts" hip, and cool, and truly embraceable by the "everyman"?

Probably not.  Changing widespread societal cultural perceptions is no easy task.  It builds on itself over time and generations and becomes the acceptable norm of unspoken conventional wisdom.  Hard to break that chain.  But it has to start somewhere.

There are things we can do.  Things we have been doing - with a modicum of success - for some time.  Making our case.  Telling our stories.  Word of mouth.  Engagement and experiential intersetions.  Unquestionably we have an excellent, and highly marketable, product.  Music, and dance and all the arts are intrinsically 'cool' and 'hip' - just not always our versions of those pursuits.  The internal debate as to how to go about this monumental undertaking lives within.  We debate the necessity of making content more contemporary; we ponder how to make relevant use of new technologies; we research and contemplate 'engaging' our audiences.  We market.  The jokes continue.  The perceptions persist.

There are things we don't do.  We don't often enough get angry about unfair stereotypes.  When we hear the beer guzzling old fart condemn some expressionist painting with the silly comment:  "My dog could paint that!" we smile to ourselves at the ignorance and stupidity.  Perhaps we should say out loud:  "No, not only can your dog not do that, but there are few people in the world that can do it."  We don't celebratize our artists in some attempt to capture media attention as the arts being 'trendy' as a means to elevate in the collective psyche the arts as worthy. There are no awards shows on television heralding our accomplishments; no 'red carpet' treatment of what we do as star studded.  No media coverage of our sector as part of the contemporary cultural scene.  The gulf between us and the popular arts of music and film remains wide.  I twice proposed to the President's Committee that the annual Medal of the Arts ceremony be a television special.  Anchored by the President himself, the combination of awards to known Hollywood life time achievers in combination with the lesser known fine arts achievers, would be, in my opinion, highly marketable television.  That suggestion fell on deaf ears.  Too pedestrian perhaps.

And perhaps our greatest sin is that we don't adapt as quickly as might be necessary to make art more accessible to our public.  We are reluctant to expand beyond our bricks and mortar locations via technology; unwilling to respond to the dynamics of changing generational thinking.  Clinging to the past may just be costing us our future.

There has been considerable (and intelligent, probing) dialogue of late centering on the issue of moving forward to expand access to our performances via technology - to adapt to a changing world and changing demands.  There is general agreement I think that nothing will ultimately replace the experience of the live performance, but the issue is positioned not as an "either / or" choice.   It has been posited that if we do not adapt and expand, that our agenda is too narrow, and really unworthy of our efforts.  I completely agree with that thinking.  We cannot change ingrained perceptions by narrowing the breadth of those who sample our offerings.  And I suggest our failure to adapt to expanding access will only fuel the jokes about our being elitist and boring long into the future.  And that is a perception we simply cannot allow to continue.

Note:  I don't usually promote events (too many worthy contenders to pick among), but this one is organized by my next door neighbor and takes place in my own neighborhood.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.


  1. Thanks for encouraging me to leave my comment, Barry. Here is the pared down version:

    The truth behind that joke was that it played on a stereotype. Stereotypes betray a limited perspective on things and an unwillingness to put ourselves in the position of others. We simply can't see why someone else would do what they do. The truth we know often fully circumscribes our curiosity. Outside that circle of value we often simply don't care.

    And so that joke thrives because too often we cannot see the values and virtue that other people have access to. Its the capacity of an open mind that allows for a broadening of perspective. And so its a cruel irony that the reason the Arts are sometimes downgraded or mocked is that the audience itself has lost some of its curiosity. They fail to see as 'artists'. We don't understand the Arts because we ourselves have become alienated from our own creative capacity. Its not just a desire to understand that is lacking, but the underlying ability to still be curious.

    As adults we mostly stand outside the creative process these days, and encounter it as consumers rather than creators. And its this unfamiliarity with our own creative powers that stalls our curiosity. Its as if our curiosity has become damaged. As children we approach the world as explorers. We don't yet know enough to NOT be curious. But as adults we learn our truths and the exploration often comes to an end. We stop asking "why?" and instead take what we are given. We are not so used to doing our own digging, or coming up with our own reasons and results. As adults we so often trade the openness and creative self determination we knew as children for living out stereotypes according to the rules of society. The deeper irony of that joke is that we ourselves become the stereotypes....

    So it seems that the less we are creative in our own worlds the less curious we become, and the more willing we are to simply be fed what to think and what to do. Is it any wonder that trendiness and conformity play such large roles in our society? The less curious we are the less we are open to unfamiliar and differing perspectives. We bottle ourselves up inside the marketing dreams of an ad exec, proselytiser, or someone selling something.

  2. My comment was too long to post whole. Here is the second part:

    So I would say that the ultimate reason the value of the Arts falls so often on deaf ears is that we have not done enough to keep ourselves curious. We have not encouraged the kind of flexibility that can grasp more than one set of values. Its not just a matter of being exposed. If a mind has already been made up it won't address the possibility of new value. It requires keeping that slender thread of curiosity alive. And we have simply not done enough to nurture the non-conformist creative exploration in our lives, as adults and even as children.

    Maybe the best way we can secure funding for the Arts is by selling its importance to industry and bureaucracy. Obviously we need even more funding than we are getting. Funding helps sustain Arts practices. But the only way we can actually keep people interested in the arts and gain new audiences is to help make more folks like open-minded explorers. You can't change minds that can't be changed, and you can't argue your case if you are talking to folks that are no longer curious about other truths. To sell the public on the arts we must first make them more like artists themselves, curious and inquisitive.

    And the true value of art is not just the beauty of opera, painting, or other manifestations. The true value is that we remain curious. That's not the means, but the ends of why art is valuable. Creativity is not important because it gives us these wonderful things. Curiosity isn't important because it opens people up to things like opera and painting. Its important because remaining creative is itself important, that curiosity is more about how we confront the world than simply how we appreciate art. Perhaps we are sometimes too focused on saving our institutions and not enough on saving creativity and curiosity themselves.....