Saturday, February 23, 2008

Response to "a Serious Problem"

This entry is in response to a great thought-provoking post entitled "A Serious Problem" by blogger Greg Sandow and it nicely gets to the heart of a lot of issues that I've been trying to work with...

Greg, I too think this post is very important and I appreciate your detailed thoughts on the subject and the seriousness of your tone. I’ll try to be brief and I hope that my thoughts don’t get too discombobulated because I’ve been working on some of these ideas for years…

Education, in general, has traditionally been, and almost exclusively continues to be, a top-down information exchange. Adults lead classrooms as experts disseminating information. Adults create these “cover the history of the world in 300 pages with illustrations” types of textbooks that are often the only resource used in classrooms. Adults set up standards of achievement for certain grade levels and then take away resources when these standards are not met. Children are powerless in this educational exchange. They are merely objects in the process and it’s been that way for a very long time, but I don’t think that it can stay this way for much longer.

I don’t think see it as much about classical music culture vs. popular culture, but at a larger level, it’s more about an increasing disconnection with the actual experience of growing up in America today. It is an increasingly media-centric world where 6.5 hours of actual media consumption (8.5 if simultaneous media use is separated) is the average for young people! (Stats are from the ubiquitous Generation M report.) Young people have much more access and exposure to information from an increasingly wide variety of sources than in the past. Tastes and sensibilities are increasingly under the influence of peer groups and what is found in the general media than by what adult/authoritative figures say are important.

So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that the balance of power has shifted. In-person consumption of the arts (performances or attendance at exhibitions of visual arts) is not a given for people who have so many ways to spend their time. In order to maintain relevance to our current, and hopefully future, audiences, arts organizations must better define what it is what makes their art form compelling, but most of all, inculcate a sense of curiosity—a sense of why the art form is worthy of further exploration.

I agree, it’s not just about one authoritative person explaining how wonderful a Puccini aria is. But my personal approach would perhaps be to engage in an actual discussion of why it might be wonderful. Through skilled facilitation of this discussion (without the often divisive use of terminology that would separate those with more classical musical experience from those with little), I think that, without switching the choice of repertoire, one could bring about the complexity and the layers that seem to be desired.

Once again, I don’t quite think it’s about classical music culture vs. popular culture, but I think it’s more about building educational programs that actually engage an audience in the taste- and meaning-making process. I think we often sell audiences short: we provide them with a product and then they go home and often forget about it before they hit their driveway. But I do think they want more out of the experience and depth of understanding is one way of addressing this and it’s a gift that keeps giving. It’s not about disseminating information, but about allowing an audience to develop it’s own conclusions. Development of a deeply engaged audience member is the ideal method to increase the arts audience—they will not only attend more events, but an inspired audience member can also serve as the most effective advocate for the art form.