Monday, May 27, 2013

Want to Engage Me? - then Entertain Me

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

In response to dramatically changing circumstances - from demographics to technology, from revenue streams to artistic needs, from audiences and supporters to internal organization and governance - we are on the cusp of trying to re-imagine how we can survive and thrive.  Everything is on the table.  Nothing seems anymore sacrosanct.  We aren’t exactly sure what path to take, what approaches to embrace - but there is a growing resolution that change is needed.

As we explore ways to become adaptive to what amounts to a very new and different world, we have internalized the thinking that artists, arts administrators, arts organizations - all of us - must learn to be nimble, flexible, able to dart in and out of myriad other sectors with skill and confidence, able to relate to all the other influences in the world (or at least the various “communities” in which we find ourselves.)  Rigidity - in systems, structures and most of all, in approaches to creation and problem solving, is the culprit.  We now talk in earnest about pluralistic curation, cross platform dialogues, the replacement of rigidity in defining boundaries with transparence and flexibility, the end of hierarchies and clearly defined specialties in favor of a new vision of multi-tasking.  In the past, we use to call this becoming lean and mean.

If there is a single overarching governing theme for all of this effort, it seems to be “engagement”. We want to engage artists and have them engage their publics, we want to engage our sponsors, stakeholders, donors, volunteers, staffs, boards and anyone else we interact with.  We want to engage our communities and, of course, our audiences.

We mean many things when we use the umbrella of engagement.  It refers to what some argue is the critical mandate to make connections within our communities - so as to become relevant, so as to reach out and become involved with the disappearing audience, so as to cooperate and collaborate across disciplines and platforms.  It refers to the involvement of audiences as active participants (though participants in what is often undefined).  It refers to somehow relating the transformational possibility of the arts to (not non-believers), but to the unbelievers; the agnostics rather than the atheists.

Engagement as a theory is a very big tent.  Something for everyone and then some.  And therein lies some of its problem - its’ lack of definition; its’ lack of standards and measurement; its’ mass attraction but the difficulty of its application.  Like art itself, I guess you are suppose to know it when you see it.

I must admit I am confused about what we mean when we put forth “engagement” as the dominant approach for all our efforts.  At its’ simplest, the definition is to “hold the attention of” or to “induce to participate.”  Hmm, I would have thought we were doing that all along.  But obviously we mean to do that now on a deeper level, perhaps more systemically - in ways we haven’t yet explored. Who can disagree that being more engaging is a good thing.  The devil, of course, is in the details.  And I have a problem with the ambiguous, indefinite meaning behind the concept.  And, from my reading of widely conflicting viewpoints, I think the sector is unclear on a consensus meaning too.

Take one small thread of the larger “engagement” tapestry - audiences.  The theory which has become the common currency of all our approaches is that we need to better engage our audiences. How?  The answers seem to suggest increased relevance, more direct community involvement, more avenues for direct participation by the audience, employment of the full array of technological opportunities from simple dissemination to social networking and beyond, and pollination of cross sector interests - presumably if not in the art itself, then in everything leading up to the art and coming after.  Noble, lofty pursuits all - but amorphous and non-specific in the particulars.

I wonder if we aren’t getting a little too enamored with engagement, at least on the levels we seem to be embracing it. Please don’t get me wrong, I am one of those who supports the concept, and who wholeheartedly embraces the notion that we must be much more sophisticated in our competency at being “nimble” if we are to survive.  I am not suggesting we abandon the efforts to engage audiences in the value of the arts on the deeper levels of what Bill Ivey termed the “expressive life”; nor that we eschew efforts to engage various communities in concerns specific to them. But I also wonder if we aren’t rushing to don the cloak of engagement as we not so long ago rushed to embrace Richard Florida’s panacea of the creative community, and that in the process we are giving short shift to the simple pleasure of being entertained by the arts.

We talk a lot about the transformational power of the arts.  How even a single arts experience can impact a life and change a person’s thinking, perspective and even behavior.  I have no doubt of this.  I have, as have countless others, experienced that power.  I have been moved by a painting, a musical piece, a dance performance.  And nothing has had more power in changing my life than the written word.  CamusMyth of Sisyphus wherein he deconstructs what he said was one of the two main philosophical questions of life - suicide - had a profound impact on my thinking. And while that treatise was powerful, it paled in comparison with Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy which addressed the same question in all its manifestations in only three hundred words or so.

But those transformational moments are few and far between. Different for everyone, yes.  But for the most part people do not avail themselves of the arts for those moments.  Those moments don’t happen every time one is exposed to the arts. Selling the arts as “good for you” is like telling a six year old to eat their carrots because they are good for you; true as it may be - it is not a persuasive argument.

What I never hear in all the talk about engaging our audience is any mention of our “entertainment” value.  I enjoy going to arts performances.  Some are excellent, some boring.  I go not to be engaged on some deep level, but really to be entertained. Entertainment as a concept is anathema to us.  Being entertaining is low brow, something that appeals to some baser instincts, hardly worth the effort of the arts.  We are above that - more meaningful and important than that.  We are “transformational”. Yet being entertaining ought to be at the centerpiece of engagement efforts, because that’s what people want.  They want a diversion, they want to be amused, they want to escape, they want to enjoy the experience.  If you really want to engage people, you have to entertain them.  We eschew the very idea as unworthy of our efforts.  Our mantra has been that it isn’t the job of the arts to give people what they want.  We give them ‘art’.   But those who defend that position fail to appreciate that ‘art’ - at least art that has resonated with the public - has always been entertaining and enjoyable.

Entertaining doesn’t have to mean mindless, base, insipid  or any other negative thing.  Note that I am not arguing that artists should be guided in their creative efforts by some maxim that they have to be entertaining.  But I am suggesting that if we want to more richly engage audiences, then the entertainment factor cannot be ignored.  Artists can do what they like. Audiences can come or stay away - and, unfortunately, they are increasingly staying away.

Much of the art that has meant something to me over a lifetime - whether an exhibition or a performance or something else has invariably been entertaining - a diversion, fun, enjoyable. Whether or not the artist had any notion of engaging me, my concerns, the community, or whatever - I was entertained by their creativity. I enjoyed myself.  Isn’t that enough?  Must I have had a profound epiphany, a life altering experience in order to be engaged?  Must it all have meaning?  Must the artist have meant to use ‘art’ as a tool to be relevant, to address community concerns?  Must their motivation have been to impact behavior or even just thinking. Isn’t it enough for the artist to simply ‘create’, and if it meant something to some of us - all to the good?  We sell ourselves short by excluding being entertaining as part of the mix.

I go to the movies.  Not as much as some people, but a dozen times a year or more.  Many of the movies are disappointing.  I accept that going in; it’s entertainment.  I go to more movies than arts performances for the simple reason that it is easier - more convenient and cheaper.  I don’t have to get dressed up, I don’t have to drive far, I can go pretty much on the spur of the moment, parking is often free, and the cost of admission (while getting more and more expensive all the time) is still relatively cheap.  I get some of the same benefits of going to an arts performance - the camaraderie of friends at a social outing, the possibility that something may stay with me, and I am engaged in the movie theater.  Is it transformational?  Not very often, but sometimes it is.  Yoda’s remark to a young Luke Skywalker as he mentally levitates Luke’s spaceship out of the muck , when Luke says:  “I can’t believe it” and Yoda replies “Yes, and that is why you fail” was as profound an epiphany to me as was my first viewing of Van Gogh’s The Harvest.  Movies are entertainment, and I think qualify too as ‘art’; indeed, we include film as part of the wider arts.  But as an industry, the movies wouldn’t fare well at all, if the only concern in green lighting a project were that it engaged the audience on deep levels, or that it addressed the concern of specific communities.

How do we make the arts more entertaining?  I don’t know, but it ought to be a goal. (Here's one example:  The Rijksmuseum in Holland had an idea:  "Let's bring the art to the people and then, hopefully, they will come to see more - at the museum. They took one painting of Rembrandt's from 1642, "Guards of the Night" and brought to life the characters in it, placed them in a busy mall and the rest you can see for yourself here .")

We seem to rely too much on the "classics" - be it theater or opera or symphonies or whatever.  Unless you are a Thorton Wilder devotee (or your son or daughter is in a high school performance) how many times can you see Our Town and still be entertained.  I saw the Godfather again for the first time in years, and it was a joy to watch again, but if my local movie cineplex offered it every week I wouldn't be going. Where is the original programming?

We do lots of studies with our audiences.  We survey them, put them in focus groups, query them on why they don’t come more. What we ought to be doing is spending more time with those who are not in our audiences - ever - asking them why they don’t come at all.  My guess is that beyond issues of convenience, time and cost, one of the primary reasons is that their expectation is that they won’t be as entertained as the other options available to them.  This is part of the crux of our challenge. People aren’t going to eat carrots if they don’t like them, even if they are good for you. The Arts are good for you argument is a precarious foundation on which to pin our future, at least as a strategy to expand the audience.  Even if we can keep every audience member we already have (and it appears we aren't) , it simply won’t be enough for the future of our sector.

Another assumption of engagement as related to our audiences seems to be that people want to be more involved, participate more, in the experience.  I’m not sure what that means exactly.  Do people want to have some role in the creation process?  Do they want to have some extra in-theater role as a play or dance piece is presented?  While I believe in the theory that people want to act as their own curator in the process of experiencing art or the arts, and that certainly applies to the employment of new technologies, I don’t know if that means they want something more than having some art presented to them from which to choose.  I go to the theater or a dance performance or a music concert to have artists present their vision to me.  I want it to be entertaining on some level.  More often than not, it is.  I am perfectly satisfied with that role.  I don’t necessarily want an expanded role or relationship.  If it addresses some critical community or societal need, ok. Great.  But it doesn’t have to.  If there is a transformational aspect for me personally, great.  But that is a bonus.  Does that mean I am now an aberration?  Even if people who do not really want a much deeper and higher level of involvement is a declining percentage, the question is whether or not that percentage is still large enough that we ought to take into consideration their preferences.  Engagement means as many different things as there are people.  Do we pick an approach and just go with it to the exclusion of those that aren’t within that cohort?  Risky business that.

In a wonderful Op-Ed piece written by Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Gary Gutting, puts forth the view that the real purpose of higher education ought to be “engaging students in certain intellectual exercises”.  (Thank you again to Thomas Cott’s blog.  What would I do without his unearthing so many thoughts for me to access).  But college students are a captive audience, and the higher education setting allows for engagement to be somewhat controlled.  Not true for our audience development efforts to attract the people who never come to our offerings.  Even if engagement with communities to embed the arts more in their concerns is a valid approach to audience expansion to those who never come to our events, I think we can’t ignore the value of being entertaining to the success of those efforts.

If we aren’t entertaining - not by our definition or standards, but by the definition and standards of the people who don’t come to see us, then I think we are in deep trouble. WE have to do the adapting, not those we want engaged with us.  We have to give some credence to what engagement means to the people we are trying to engage.  And on many levels, a large portion of those people simply don’t care about how we relate to our communities, whether or not we play a meaningful role in addressing the challenges of social justice, health care or any other purpose we may want them to internalize.  They want to be entertained.

It seems a bit of a conceit to ascribe what is important to people based on our projections of what they should think.  It is virtually impossible to expose people to the power of the arts to give them a sense of the great pleasure of intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment, if you can’t get them to partake in the arts in the first place.  There remains in the public psyche the feeling that the arts are not really all that entertaining.  Not true, but a persistent mindset that stifles all our attempts to truly engage those we most want to reach out to -- those who never come to our performances and exhibitions.  Maybe I am just dense and the value of ‘entertainment’ is inherently woven into the whole concept of engagement - so essential as not to even need identification.  But then why isn’t it more discussed?

I am also concerned that as we grapple with the new realities and altered circumstances beyond our control, and sincerely and genuinely try to move with the changing tide, that we are become too enamored with our own newly created vocabulary and lexicon.  I fear that, except in academic circumstances where it may be entirely appropriate and even necessary -- on the daily playing field, even just with each other -  we are beginning to blur our understanding of what we talking about by our fascination with “big” words to describe “vague” concepts.  Engagement seems to mean very different things to different people.  If it is to be one of our governing principles, we need at least some consensus of what it means.

Cross section this, shared commonalities of whatever, paradigm shifts, curatorial engagement.  Sure, we know what this all means, but it does get confusing and there is a great danger in assuming that what someone else thinks it means is the same thing you think it means.  (I am as guilty of this as anyone.)  And it has the unfortunate consequence of making us appear even more elitist and distant from the ‘common man’ in the street.  Making it all too complex on its surface and too academic (at least in the way the public can access our dialogues - and the public can now access every field's dialogues), and the net result is anything but engaging.  I wish we could talk a little straighter with each other - not dumb it down - but make it all easier for everyone to be on the same page by jettisoning the growing addiction to a vocabulary that, while it sounds elegant and erudite, is really not improving our understanding of just what the hell we mean.  I think of myself as reasonably intelligent, but I am constantly reading reports, studies, opinions, articles and more - and coming away with the sinking feeling that I am not sure, at all, what is being said.  The differences of opinion on 'engagement' - its' meaning, application and even the reasons why it makes sense are all over the map.  I am reminded of the sage advice:  “Keep it simple, stupid!”

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit