August 03, 2012

Classical music's biggest audience development problem may be its current audience

You may have heard about an incident last weekend of aggressive rudeness on the part of some London concertgoers to a cougher in their midst. You might assume the story was exaggerated, unless you’ve seen for yourself the muted surliness of many classical music patrons in moments when they have to interact with each other. Yet smart writers are still extolling the virtues of the arts in building empathy and tolerance. Is that just a story we culture-lovers tell ourselves?

I once saw a German opera audience pounce — verbally, I mean, but with hissing gusto — on someone who unwrapped a candy too loudly. That was downright courteous compared to what the New Statesman's music critic, Alexandra Coghlan (pictured), reports happening to her companion the other night at the BBC Proms (a venerable concert series once known for its festivity and youthful informality):

I was attending the concert with a university-age girl... A chronic asthmatic, she had coughed a little during the first half, but infrequently, and had stifled it to the very best of her ability. After the first piece a man turned round and told her off (not a whit of sympathy, concern or even basic politeness to his complaint). We apologised, and moved to some empty seats further away. When the interval arrived three middle-aged men accosted us in the foyer. My companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there, and the parting shot from one — “You dirty bitch” — was announced loud enough for everyone nearby to hear (including two ushers, who did nothing).

Remarkably, Coghlan is able to offer a thoughtful, balanced analysis of the incident in her article. She also describes how...

One of the angry men followed us as we walked out, stopping us to elaborate more fully the reasons for his frustration. Music was, he explained, something he wanted to immerse himself totally in without distraction or exception. A rock concert, he laboriously added, was quite a different scenario, and there we would (and should) feel free to cough as much as we liked.

His attempt to cast classical and rock experiences as opposites has one obvious truth in it: amplification does make certain audience behaviors possible (something I've blogged about here). But it also embeds an old, increasingly creaky notion that classical music is somehow better, more meaningful than other kinds, and therefore more deserving of protection (from, for example, aural intrusions). After all, it’s one of ‘the arts,’ and therefore associated with a higher class of person: more sophisticated, better behaved, more likely to display liberal values like compassion, reason, and pluralism.

As my teenage daughters would say: Seriously? You would think the claims for a link between civility and classical music had been discredited by all those Schumann-whistling Nazi guards at the death camps. Yet coincidentally, it’s just that link — the idea that art has an ‘ethical power’ to reduce human cruelty and intolerance — that’s on the mind of the formidable humanities scholar Elaine Scarry these days. (Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard. She used to be called an English professor.)

In a long essay in the current Boston Review, Scarry hails “the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world.” Beauty, she argues, gives us “sudden relief from our own minds,” taking our focus away from our own concerns about ourselves and thereby eliminating the self-regarding ‘asymmetry’ that leads to injustice. ...

(Scarry has in mind literature, not music, and a certain kind of poetry in particular. But she talks about several forms of art, and she cites Walter Pater, the 19th century English critic who gave us the memorable if dubious proposition that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.”)

I’d like to believe Scarry, but the reality seems messier and more troubling. The men who hassled Coghlan and her companion at the Proms were presumably well read and plenty ‘cultured.’ But they were also snobs who like their art under wraps, sanctified — which is exactly how it’s been during most of their lifetimes.

Increasingly, I’ve come to suspect that we spent much of the twentieth century putting culture in a glass case (what is the nonprofit structure but a way of protecting the arts from market forces? what is the rule against clapping between movements but a way of protecting the concert experience from emotional spontaneity?). Maybe the kind of people who still feel comfortable inside that box aren’t representative, socially or psychologically, of the broad society. Maybe they’re the ones who are going to complain the loudest — and least politely — as we undertake the messy work of breaking the glass box and reconnecting the arts with lived experience and the rest of culture.

What do you think? Under what circumstances should you speak up to stop distracting behavior at a performance? And under what circumstances should you speak up to defend someone who’s being scolded? 

(Note: If you’re interested in the broader story, start with this review of a recent book on race and music by Candace Allen — a review that occasioned this lament about classical music’s continuing socioeconomic exclusivity, which in turn sparked further comment on the blogosphere.)



1 Comment »
Luyuan Xing — September 10, 2012

As a passionate proponent of the arts, especially classical music, I find it a thousand times more terrible when people come to the concert hall, make nice small talk with their companions - and promptly nod off for a nice nap. What could be a greater insult?

In the scene described above, it seems as if the man had mistaken a live, public, concert for a private listening session in his living room. It is ironic - whereas music recordings have traditionally attempted to mimic the experience of a live performance, nowadays listeners bring expectations cultivated from private listening into the public hall!

While I cannot disagree that classical music's current audience plays a big part in audience development problems, I am not sure that this thinking would give way to a real solution. Art can be defined as much by their audience and the culture around it, as by scholarly evaluations. Perhaps the questions we ask should include, "why does classical music have such an audience?" - is it a generational phenomenon? or is there something deeper? and "what are the cultural characteristics surrounding classical music that lend themselves to these behaviors?" In other words, if that man was truly a snob, why is it that he feels it is okay to publicly express his snobbishness inside a concert hall?

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