Sunday, June 2, 2013

Other Perspectives on the Role of Entertainment in the Theory of Audience Engagement.

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

Note:  Mimi Roberts, Director for Media Projects at the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs is the winner of the random drawing to be our guest at the Dinner-vention event in September.

I got a number of responses to last week’s blog on the role of entertainment in the wider engagement ‘audience development theories’ currently in vogue in our field.  Some people thought I was on the mark, others took me to task.  Two comments came in that I thought offered interesting perspectives on the issue, and valid counter points to, and even criticism of, my thinking -- and (even though I might take exception with some of their thinking) I wanted to share those with you (basically in their entirety).

First, from Eric Booth, came this response:

“As I see it, entertainment and art live on a continuum. If successful, there is engagement across the continuum. But the quality of engagement differs. I think the variable is learning. At one extreme there is delightful confirmation of what one believes (entertainment), and the other extreme is transformative expansion of how you understand the world (a big arts experience). We in the arts always have to be engaging, whether our goal is toward the entertainment end of the spectrum or the ambitious arts end. We have many ways (only some of which we use effectively) to draw people into the curiosity or yearning for an empathetic entry a world that changes our sense of what is possible. My career has been about using ALL the ways we have to draw people into arts experiences--moving them toward the arts end of that continuum.  

Below are a few paragraphs from an essay of mine you might find interesting on that topic.”

“In the U.S. we define art by its nouns: individual works in artistic media, art buildings, items deemed art by experts. Particular nouns may spark debate: Is a large Brillo box a work of art? Is a Ricky Martin concert? Is Dancing with the Stars?—and what if one of the dancing stars is a certified artist? Is the Star Wars Overture performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra a work of art? I don’t engage in that kind of debate; I say “wrong question.” Art lives in a quality of experience far more than the object one is attending to. Indeed, I believe what distinguishes entertainment is that it happens within what we already know. Whatever our reaction—laughing, crying, getting excited—underneath, entertainment says, “Yes the world is the way you think it is.” Entertainment confirms. And this feels great; I will pay serious money to have highly skilled people create marvelous expressions of my worldview. It is empowering and comfortable fun.

Art, on the other hand, happens outside of what we already know. Inherent in the artistic experience is the capacity to expand our sense of the way the world is or might be. This amazing human imaginative, empathetic capacity provides the artistic experience. It isn’t the particular noun one is attending to that provides the art; art lies in the individual’s capacity to enter a “noun” one is attending to, any noun, and expand her sense of the possible. Yes, of course, the quality of what you are attending to matters, and, certainly, great “artworks” are exquisitely designed to reward an individual’s investment of the verbs of art (humans haven’t designed anything more rewarding than master artworks), but the nouns don’t produce the artistic experience, only the verbs do that. I have had many dialogues with people about their experiences of what most of us would agree is not art—pop and rock music, club dancing, Neil Simon plays, Thomas Kinkade paintings, Jack Black films—and the descriptions of their experiences make it clear they are having artistic experiences. They may be looking at entertainment schlock by my standards, but the experiences they are having open their world wider, resonate in them, and leave them changed and more interested in the world. They don’t say this because our social norms inhibit this moment, but they have every right to say, “How dare you demean my experience by condescending to give it a second rate label.”

Most Americans define art by the nouns, especially those high-art fancy nouns, and people in the arts tend to do everything they can to affirm that specialness, even though it works against their longterm interests. Most Americans feel they are allowed to visit, adhering to the rules and finances of the art world’s ways, but viscerally feel they have no real place in that world. Most Americans struggle with the verbs that create an artistic experience in the encounter with complex artworks, while they naturally and frequently engage those same verbs in “non arts” parts of their lives. They see something defined as “art”; they don’t have a rewarding or relevant personal experience (or at least not an experience that fits with a high ticket price); so they decide the arts are not for them. Meanwhile they are having arts experiences in bits and pieces throughout their lives, but don’t connect them with the arts at all.

Given those realities, I define art as a quality of experience, and believe all of us have the job of supporting people’s capacity to have such experiences. Everyone in the arts has the same job title—write it on your business card: agent of artistic experience. The musician, the choreographer, the lighting designer, the usher, the assistant marketing director, the sculptor, the museum janitor, all, all have the same job to support people’s capacity to have artistic experiences, expanding their sense of the way the world is or may be.

Second, in thinking about how we bring people into arts experiences, we must divide the people we are talking about into two groups. Group A is “the art club”—the small minority of Americans who feel comfortable, enthusiastic, and at home inside “the arts.” Members know how to “speak” at least one of its languages, understand how to navigate its offerings, and feel excitedly welcome in its buildings. I estimate that some seven percent of Americans are card-carrying Art Club members. There is another significant percentage who like the Club and show up more or less often; they pick up a temporary card upon entry, but don’t identify themselves as Club members. The Group B audience is everyone else—the vast majority of Americans, those who don’t have a feel for “the arts” as commonly defined, who may think of the arts in positive ways, but not as a part of their identity or lives. They may attend sometimes, but that becomes a special occasion. Another way to think about these two groups is as the arts insiders and the arts outsiders.

Art Club members can turn artistic encounters into personal gold. They can find meaning in artworks that are widely accessible (like Shakespeare and Monet) and in more complex works (like Pina Bausch and Philip Glass). Group B lacks the background that enables them to reliably and confidently make meaning of an artistic encounter. Art Club members can read the program notes at the symphony and turn the information into enhanced experience of the music; Group B reads the those same traditional program notes and feels less welcome and less able to successfully connect inside the symphonic listening. Art Club members feel their pulse quicken and attention sharpen when they enter the concert hall; Group B feels insecurity and self-consciousness rise (they might screw up and be embarrassed), and their attention gets more fragmented. Granted, everyone gets lucky sometimes—serendipitous transformative encounters do happen—“Wow,” and “Aha” hits everyone. Family and cultural background strongly influence Club membership, but anyone may be stopped dead in her tracks looking at Disney Concert Hall, may begin to weep when hearing the Ode to Joy inside the Disney Hall, and may love life anew seeing Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. In addition to lucky thunderbolts, the capacities for making meaningful artistic encounter can be learned (and deepened in those who already know how); people can develop a taste for, a feel for, a place in the arts in a variety of ways. This is partly (although decreasingly) why we have arts education in schools. This is why nearly every arts organization has outreach programs. This is why, increasingly, artists learn how to engage with a wide public to help draw people in. This is why teaching artists are so important. My three and a half bestsellers are all ideas that emerge from my thirtysomething years of practice as a teaching artist.”

And from Carter Gilles comes this well taken exception to my offering:

“This post was especially provocative, and I think you might be interested in my take on this issue (whether you agree with it or not).”

“I would point out that the same vagueness adheres to the idea of  'entertainment'. We all know it when we see it, but that doesn't mean we are any closer to a consensus of what it is and what things count towards it.

And so I'd put it to you that the flaw is not so much in the nebulous character of some of the words we use. Odd-job terms with inconsistent usages are a vital part of how we communicate, and clarity is not always dependent on unanimity or uniformity. We can still understand what we mean by them, and if necessary through further defining and limiting cases we can narrow down just what sense of the words we are employing.

There are many ways to be entertained, and some may be more appropriate than others. If entertainment is a virtue then it isn't simply one thing but many, it isn't something with clear boundaries but has blurred edges, it isn't inspired by any consistent source but can be found in all the nooks and crannies that humans are capable of looking, and even then it springs forth differently in different people all the time.

It seems that the issues of entertainment and engagement in the arts can be viewed both in terms of what they aim at and what they reflect. It can be an arrow in a quiver and also the target. In a sense, entertainment is more concerned with presentation and engagement more with representation. And, as you noted, they are not mutually exclusive.

If we look at the role of the arts as a form of entertainment we can see that the value is strictly presentational, that the arts are then a means to the ends of entertainment: the arts present themselves as a form of entertainment, or as useful for this or as good for that. They serve some other goal. Its easy to view the arts, then, as being yet one more commodity in a consumer society. Rather than having intrinsic value it matters more for its extrinsic qualities as the means to certain ends (The same statements can be made for taking art as edification, art as inspiration, art as provocation, etc.). Not to disparage the capacity of art to entertain, but if that is construed as its primary role then art stands on a level playing field with all other forms of entertainment and is in direct competition with them for how well it is able to sustain an audience's interest. It needs to be more entertaining or suffer the consequences. End of story. (And I know you are not even remotely claiming that art is only good for entertainment. Your post seemed to suggest, however, that the main reason for you to personally attend art events is sometimes purely its entertainment quality, and so I will treat that extreme version as a thesis to explore. A straw man, I know, but possibly also illuminating.)

One question is whether if we value art as entertainment we are potentially subverting other qualities and values. By framing it as entertainment are we changing the nature of the public's perception and expectations for art? Are we essentially changing 'art' itself? Changing how it is made and exhibited? Rebranding art (as possibly something more trivial and accessible) for the folks who might 'get it' in this easier more palatable form rather than as sometimes challenging and difficult? If we are selling the arts as entertainment are we potentially motivated only by its capacity for appeal? Will artists be swayed by aiming at this other goal? Puppies and flowers? Dulcet tones and the color blue? Passing on a high caloric and tasty soufflé with little or no lasting nutritional benefit? Easy on the eye, easy on the brain? Puff pastry?

If, on the other hand, the arts are viewed more as representational then we can see that their value lies in what they represent, a point of view, a way of looking at the world, something more integral than a choice between "things that merely entertain". Rather than simply the means to consumer ends, the arts then are the noble ends in themselves. They are virtues in themselves. They represent what things matter to us in a deeper sense than mere transitory extrinsic "worth a good laugh" entertainment. If the arts have value in themselves, then one example is not just as good as another (so long as it entertains us). We can be entertained by anything, almost, and if that is our goal then whatever does the job fits the bill. The playing field is entirely level in that regard. And art isn't necessary to entertainment. There are plenty of other non-art alternatives. And there are persuasive reasons people would choose things besides the arts to be entertained by. Arts as intrinsically valuable means something different, and the question is how personal engagement in the arts differs from being entertained by them.

I'd like to suggest that entertainment is sometimes often importantly passive, and therefor something that happens to us rather than something we necessarily do. We are acted upon rather than acting out. The things that we actively do are things that reflect our autonomous self identity. Its how we are engaged. Its how we manifest in the world. It expresses who we are. They are intrinsic rather than extrinsic qualities. We are farmers, and so we farm. We are mothers and fathers, and so we mother and father. These are not passive entertainment values but actively engaged qualities.

So, in a sense, engagement also offers us the representational view of who we are. And if we think of activities as playing out between things that we are entertained by and things we are engaged by, then sure, we often choose to be entertained. Who doesn't like to occasionally kick back and soak it in? But if a new thing comes along that entertains us better, or our tastes change, then we may also choose to move in different directions. Our commitment to the things that entertain us is brief and impermanent. Its variable. It is purely instrumental, and therefor doesn't extend very deep. The things we are engaged by are the things that we have already and more deeply committed to. They are ends in themselves in the sense that they reflect something about who we are. And while the qualities of entertainment are not foreign to our engagement in activities, in these circumstances they are more side effect than objective. Being entertained by the things we are engaged by is not the goal of our engagement, nor, perhaps, even the means to an end. The entertainment value is incidental and subservient.

And this points to your analogy with food. If we are always swayed by an argument of our taste buds, then it will never be the case that we eat food simply because its 'good for us'. If we think of food solely as 'entertainment' then the taste buds invariably win out, and one night it is Chinese, and Italian the next. Its all whim and fancy. There is no deeper commitment possible if all food is (or most importantly is) is a means to our entertainment/enjoyment, if its purely instrumental in appeasing our taste buds. We are committed to the enjoyment, not necessarily to the individual food things that lead to it. Chocolate? Sure! I'm almost always in the mood. But maybe not while I'm eating pickles and sauerkraut and drinking beer while smoking cigars on a hot summer evening playing cards with the pungent unwashed survivors rescued from a month long imprisonment from a pit in the jungle. When its a matter of taste, virtues are contingent and circumstantial. When its a matter of principle and commitment, of identity, circumstances are irrelevant.

There have been studies recently that examine the relationship between what we do and what we like. The old adage that we do the things we like doing seems a safe enough truism, and this perhaps explains our attraction to the things that entertain us. What the studies also uncovered was the more surprising finding that we also tend to disproportionately like the things that we do. In other words, by being engaged in an activity, by being invested in it for non entertainment reasons, we then also find that we enjoy the activity as well. Its the whole appeal of the DIY movement, the backyard garden impetus, and interest in things like shopping locally. Thinking that the only reason we have for doing these things is because we enjoy doing them puts the cart before the horse. While we may like doing them it is in some instances more a side effect of our deeper commitment: That we enjoy them precisely because we are committed to them.

And if the arts are only viewed as entertainment, as something that people only do for its entertainment value, then we stop well short of that participatory engagement and we might as easily be satisfied by alternately watching a baseball game on TV, watching the grass grow, swinging on a porch swing, etc. If we are not invested in one form of entertainment over another but simply to BE entertained.... If the only reason we have to choose between two activities is how well we are entertained, then art often comes out on the short end. And rather than seeking to make art more entertaining, to compete with the glitz and glamor on that playing field, we need to affirm the other reasons we have for doing it.

We are asking the question of "Why be interested in the arts?" and it is important to define what motivations are in the driver's seat. Entertainment is of the moment. It is about what good its doing me now, not the long term benefits. It may be eye catching and mouth watering, but its ephemeral. Hit the taste buds and then its gone. Maybe a pleasant memory at most. Entertainment is not always a good facilitator of commitment and longevity.

Engagement actually IS a form of commitment, and it inspires longevity. If art is only the means to entertainment then entertainment is the goal, and art is in service to that end and is judged strictly by how well it entertains. It could be achieved by other means and that would satisfy us equally. If, on the other hand, art is something of an end in itself, then being entertained by it is incidental to the value of the art. A nice side effect, perhaps, but not its reason for being. Those other reasons include the various forms of commitment and engagement that justify its importance in our lives.

The question I'm posing is whether the best way to engender sensitivity and appreciation for the arts is possibly to breed more doers, more artists, more people engaged in the arts. If we don't simply do what we like but also like what we do, then it behooves arts activists to put as many people in the position where they are DOING art themselves. It may turn out they are given more reason to be committed than if they were merely stuck passively with their butts in seats enjoying the show. In the long run they will also find it entertaining, but it will be the joy of a long committed relationship rather than a serial interlude of one night stands. There's a reason people get engaged before they are married. Lets get more people engaged to the arts!”

Thank you Eric and Carter.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit