Convenient excuses for low arts attendance

I'm going to start blame World of Warcraft for the decline of Classical Music audiences--damn you, Thrall!
I’m going to start blaming World of Warcraft for the decline of Classical Music audiences–damn you, Thrall!

Joe Patti posted an excellent rebuttal of the idea that arcane terminology and practices are killing the arts.  Not exactly the phrase used, but soul-sucking and alienating have pretty negative connotations too, eh?

This is something we hear all in relation to how relevant the arts are to today’s audiences.  That no one has the time to learn the concert etiquette for Classical music, or that no one has the time to listen to a two to three hour performance, or that no one wants to spend the time to learn about the jargon that arts insiders and fans have which allow them to converse meaningfully about a performance (or the practice) of an arts event or field.

Patti doesn’t “think the need to learn a complex set of terms really comprises a significant impediment to becoming an participant or spectator” — rather, he “think[s] it is just a convenient excuse.”  And I agree wholeheartedly (as you can see from my comment in his post).  He gives a counterexample in World of Warcraft:

There are plenty of instances where people willingly engage in the time consuming process of learning special terminology. Take MMORPGs like W.O.W. where people will be exposed to terms like: tank, buff/debuff, AoE, aggro, autoloot, cooldown, PvE, PvP, grinding, griefing, among thousands of others. Players are expected to master the terminology, understand the role their character fills and how to use their abilities alongside others to achieve a goal.

And correctly asserts that “[t]housands of people happily undertake this challenge every day.”

Structurally analogous examples I gave in my response, which I’ll post here for convenience:

I think another “convenient excuse” that gets tossed around a bit is that “most people don’t have the attention span for the Opera, Symphony, Ballet, Theater” and yet some of the biggest blockbuster movies approach the 3 hour length, right? Most superstar pop concerts will be a few hours in length. How many hours are Sports games? How many hours are popular television miniseries or full length series?

Ditto with ticket prices when we think about how much a superstar pop concert or sports game ticket will cost.

I think they’re all just convenient excuses.

If something is really affecting attendance, then these are just side-effects of that underlying reason, I think!

Not one of my more profound comments (if I ever really have any) but it just seems like this is lazy reasoning.  Which is ironic as these are the types of reasons given for the supposed decline in arts attendance on a fairly regular basis.

Sure there is some real data out there in particular areas (e.g. ticket pricing) which might be a contributing factor explaining some decline trends, but there is also some real data out there in other areas (e.g. parking) which might be surprising to some folks.  Then there are all kinds of areas which haven’t begun to be explored or have barely been looked at — we really aren’t in the best position to attribute some “ultimate theory” to explain all the data yet, and we may never be.

In the end, as I said in my comment above, I think most of these are convenient excuses with no causal connection to actual or merely apparent audience decline — a side-effect –and we all might be better off taking a more comprehensive and nuanced look at the data.

8 thoughts on “Convenient excuses for low arts attendance

  1. Yeah … At its heart, I think the classical music world’s problem is the whole “sit down don’t touch that no you may NOT speak or get up be quiet sit still we didn’t tell you you could applaud yet” attitude. It’s no one thing, no one magic bullet, just a generalized hostility to its audience’s very existence.

    Pop and other forms of music seem to promote a sense of ownership of the music on the part of the audiences. WoW is participatory — the audience isn’t an audience but a bunch of people who get to DO IT. Sports despite being passive somehow manages to tap into something very patriotic and primal; let’s face it, it’s pretty much sublimated warfare anyhow.

    Being a non-insider in classical music is a bit like being a girl gamer (for want of a better gamer-oriented metaphor); you always get the sense that your kind is an interloper and the rest of the crowd isn’t sure it wants you there, and the past history of attempts by your kind to come in are punctuated by no small hostility. I really think that’s all it is. And I think it’ll get better … slowly.


    1. I think my question is how much does any of that matter in the grand scheme of things? We humans are willing to learn all kinds of arcane and irrelevant kinds of practices when we actually care enough about something, right? So if there is a decline in classical music I’m not so sure it’s simply because of those rules and practices that classical music is on the decline (if it really is).

      I almost always feel like an outsider at pop concerts and despite playing as many (or being at as many), if not more, of them I’m no more comfortable at them them than a classical concert. Then again, I’m constantly performing/attending events by ethnic groups and I feel as much of an outsider at those too. At a Greek festival I was drumming at there was a point when some of the relatively drunk young Greek girls wanted to get on stage with us and dance which apparently wasn’t allowed (probably for insurance reasons) and an argument broke out between the bandleader, Lazaros, and the girls in Greek which went on for several minutes. Lazaros relented and let them dance on stage for a couple of tunes

      Panegyri Greek Festival 2010 (Cincinatti, OH)

      and eventually we ended the night, perhaps earlier than we might have otherwise. I already thought it was incredible to see hundreds of people line dancing to the music in front of the stage (the following video doesn’t really convey how amazing the long and sinuous line of dancing was)

      I felt slightly embarrassed by the whole exchange, and completely an outsider since I had no ideas what the specific rules were for this festival, and only had vague notions of how Greek-Americans are.

      I had a different (and more performer related) experience at the Festa Italiana in Louisville which one of my groups used to regularly play where I learned that if you’re a member of the ethnic group, it’s ok to throw a “non-ethnic cover” in your set but not if you’re a member of the outgroup (even if you were invited to perform).

      Sometimes you learn etiquette the hard way and I guess placing the onus of change on the presenting community creating the etiquette and behavioral expectations seems to be making an assumption that audiences can’t or shouldn’t learn how to change. If that makes any sense?


      1. No, I agree with you that the details and customs aren’t a barrier. But in a lot of these sorts of environments (I used gaming as an example but there are many), the issue is different. A lot of tight communities have a dislike of accepting newbies that rides just under the surface, so they don’t really want newcomers who aren’t like them or who make them question their identity, and then they wonder why no one is around.

        I’m agreeing with you that it’s not about secret handshakes and stuff like that. It’s more about the fact that this relatively tight community of insiders has — although they’d loudly proclaim otherwise if you pinned them on it — a disinclination to broaden themselves. That’s really all it is, and as you say, there’s no need to appeal to decoder rings to explain it.

        The girl gamers who have traditionally had a tough time in that community and still do don’t tend to stick to the outside or even not come into the community at all because they can’t manage all the insider shibboleths and specialized language. They simply accurately perceive that they aren’t really wanted.


      2. Ah–I see what you mean now. Yeah with the girl gamers–I’ve seen that happen in the geek community (whether it’s games, comics, conventions). And yeah, there definitely is some of that “we don’t want you in our club” with classical audiences (or arts audiences in general maybe?).

        I think that’s just part of the whole ingroup/outgroup behavior and it might be easier to pick out the exclusivist (is that a word?) behaviors that are obvious–I know I felt that at an art opening I went to recently where all the hipsters hang out (goes back to some of your comments about the young hipsters using their alt-culture as a way to create their own brand of elitism).


  2. Great discussion Jon, and I agree. I believe the creative challenge is how to utilize great instruments – like the cello or the symphony – in music that engages and moves people without needing specialized education or jargon. (I think that may mean taking the creative control of new “classical” music away from academia-sanctioned composers.) Then, if the venues and conventions of traditional concert going can be evaluated and updated, there’ll be a relevant future for these great instruments.


    1. Yes!

      Though I think we’d be hard pressed to say that many younger composers are really benefiting from the academia-sanctioning nowadays and I really think many of them (the younger composers) are doing exactly what you suggest!

      I wonder if there’s a good way to “translate” some of that old jargon (and the education that presupposes it) into something that would be more comprehensible for modern audiences?

      Thanks for your comment, Eugene–it’s an honor and privilege to have you here!


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