We have been hearing for several decades now that the arts have to compete with all entertainment. Since the advent of the “24/7” work schedule, wherein everyone is supposed to be available all the time, made significantly worse by the advent of technology, people who work have less and less available free time. The assumption has been that people want to be entertained rather than challenged intellectually in this limited spare time. This assumption has never been tested, and may well be unprovable, but it does presume that the entire working population follows this brutal work schedule. Since the chase for younger audiences surfaces about every decade, it may be possible that our younger corporate workforce is not yet able to use our museums, theaters, symphonies and the like. Curtain times in the performing arts were moved from 8:00 to 7:30 pm about twenty years ago, so that people would arrive at performing venues while it was still light. If the ticket holder wants to go to dinner before a performance, you’d have to start your evening at 5:00, when most people are indeed still at work. Thus, corporate support became abstract: our corporate friends have been generous in making donations to our cultural institutions, but their own employees are disempowered from attending. If you work downtown, you might zoom into either the CAC or The Taft for a twenty minute quick tour, if you are using your lunch break.
It thus became easy to get your entertainment from a computer, and more recently all sorts of apps, so that you control when you listen to your music, watch videos, and the like. The entertainment versus educational paradigm is thus a false one, as the system causes the disconnect in a time when electronic geegaws are pandemic, and we could claim that their hyper-use is a default choice as well as an elected one. We cannot expect our younger workforce to have the time or energy to enjoy our rich cultural resources until their workloads are modified (I do not believe that working 12 hour days enhances productivity; what it enhances is exhaustion and the perception of promotions). Our corporate friends can’t have it both ways, and not everyone wants to go to a late night party at a museum, starting at 10:00 on a Friday night: those are student hours, not working hours. Although students constitute some version of a future audience, I fear that they may next surface as cultural users in their forties, as the demands of work replace the simple ability to attend cultural activities.
One of the responses from our corporate and civic leaders has been the increasing use of festivals on weekends. Although festivals can and do enrich a city’s image, and do bring people into the city, the individual experience of, for example, looking at an art exhibition, is being lost in the shuffle. Festivals coordinate nicely with the 24/7 attitude, and provide a neat fix for those unable to go anywhere during the week, but I fear that we are losing the ability to enjoy works of art in a quiet, meditative manner, within a museum, in the process. This new festival attitude is in sync with the 24/7 idea, and with the idea that people want to be entertained rather than educated. I do not buy this construct as a one size fits all solution to how we use our cultural institutions, and where their futures will go.
The opening of art museums to large groups, be they school children, art students, docent led tours, or other such group activities may help raise the numbers of attendees, which in turn raises the possibility for count the number grants, but such thinking is losing the core experience of one viewer/one painting, if you will. It has become very unusual to see a person lovingly studying a work of art, whether in a contemporary show or in a permanent collection, at a museum. Museums, since their founding, generally brought such people to it during the day. Educational departments are looking for groups, rather than individuals, and the vast wealth that our two main museums here have in their permanent collections are generally the least looked at parts of the museums. Temporary exhibitions are great, but their function is to enhance the permanent collections, not to compete with them, and their intention is not to keep us away from the permanent collection, but to enhance our interest in it. Our culture has completely devalued the scholar, the aesthete, the dilettante, the amateur; not everyone wants to be entertained: others want to be informed, educated, enlightened, transformed.
When Aaron Betsky first arrived as director of the art museum, he had a variation on one key speech that he made around town. He believes that people go to museums to connect with how objects in the museum interact with things in our daily lives. He used, as an example, the fact that he was going to show an exhibition of how the tops of coffee cups are designed, and he also showed vintage cars all the way through his tenure. He added that he did not believe that people go to a museum for transformative experiences. It was clear from this opening speech that a profound interest in popular culture would define his tenure here, and that he would move the museum more into a contemporary art mode. It is a fascinating vision, and one with which I profoundly disagree. The transformative experience is what changes us, educates us, informs us, and causes those small epiphanies which great art can do, and which may be the core experience of real art lovers, which can include anyone, educated or not. Whether wall labels and headsets with descriptive audio aid and enhance these experiences may vary from person to person, but I believe that the one-on-one experience with a great work of art is what has been lost in the debate over entertainment and audience development. This is a profound loss, both to and as individuals, and ultimately for us as citizens in a democracy. We are often getting the discounted experience, the cheaper version, the easy way out.
I am not suggesting that art need be difficult or incomprehensible, but I am arguing about a loss of feeling, a loss of intellectual delight, a loss of privacy, and a loss of personal transformation which affects us in every aspect of our lives and culture. Festivals are fine, and enhance our lives as urban citizens, and they help the city itself and its ongoing renewal. But lighting up music hall may be a fun outdoor experience, but it is not transformative, and it is not aesthetic: it’s a gimmick, if an appealing, but I worry that these experiences are replacing genuine aesthetic ones, as entertainment continues to encroach on what art is ultimately about and for. We are replacing genuine aesthetic pleasure with the oooh and aaah experience, which lasts but a moment. Let’s be sure we know the difference between re-urbanizing our city and the personal aesthetic moment, and let’s not lose the latter in favor of the former. Entertainment is fine, fun and healthy, but when it replaces more personal and possibly difficult educational potential, and when our leaders are only interested in numbers and in the on-going transformation of one part of the city (Over the Rhine), we are headed into a kind of mindless superficial series of experiences, consistent with the decline in government, the public good, the preference of the group or team over the rugged individualist.
By: Daniel Brown