The Audience – The Unknown Entity
17/05/2017 | By Michael Wimmer
Thoughts on the publication of a new European Commission study on Audience Development
Recently during a rehearsal in the Burgtheater a stressed, young director burst out: “I hate the audience.” And far and wide, no one had opposed this. Quite obviously this young hopeful, with his aggression against those for whom he produces art, is not standing alone.
Perhaps my fallacy already lies in the attribution of how a theater producer like him would make theater for somebody. It is much more likely that this counterpart does not even exist in his imagination (or, at best, in the form of a few selected critics). Rather he is concerned with the art itself, which would have to stand on its own, and for whose production, spectators are regarded as bothersome, at best.
Art as a Matter of Affirmation or as a System of Communication
Art sociologists, such as Arnold Hauser who wrote his now classic The Social History of Art and Literature over 70 years ago, have sparked a broad discussion about the interrelated relationship between art production and art reception; the idea of the pure work of art, which has not been tarnished by viewers, is celebrating a comeback in many new ways.
Unfazed, a traditional concept of the artist still stands at the center of a cultural sector, which is having difficultly anticipating the future development of art as a communication system. In such a logic, art would have the task of combining the two groups of actors, production and reception. In the meaning of a work of art, which first becomes meaning through the eye of the beholder, both sides are equally responsible for the fact that a shared artistic sensation can occur.
Good artists on stage know about this form of reciprocity; they rely on that feeling of shared enthusiasm. Erwin Wurm, who recently exhibited at the Austrian Biennale Pavilion, also tries to involve the audience actively in the process of creating art in his On-Minute-Sculptures.
Halb zog sie sie halb sank sie hin (Goethe)—The Focus Shift of Cultural Politics
Cultural politics has only cautiously reacted to the creeping spotlight-shift from the ruthless art defenders to those who are starting something. Nevertheless, in the last few years, with the motto “Vermittlung” (mediation), a slight tendency can be observed in the direction of a conceptual re-establishment of the relationship between art production and the reception of art. Not least because of the growing pressure of a right-wing populist suspicion of the elites (we can remember the election campaign of Norbert Hofer, who spoke of an out-of-touch “Hautevolee”), it seems to cultural policy makers that we are dealing with a symptomatic problem of democracy here; in the long run this problem cannot be escaped by issuing the statement that art is not democratic. Therefore, it is high time to put those who have previously been considered as a necessary evil in the audience, at the center of cultural-political interest.
Audience Development on the European Agenda
Against this backdrop of such a cultural-political shift of interest, it follows that the European Commission has made “Audience Development” a focus within the framework of the current cultural program, “A Creative Culture.” To this end, a study by the European partners Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Culture Action Europe, ECCOM Progetti, and Intercult has recently been conducted in order to answer the question of: “How to place audiences at the centre of cultural organizations”. The authors have looked at a total of 87 projects in 25 European countries, but have not reached any surprising results: In most organizations, there is still a clear lack of understanding of a conceptually-based attitude towards their potential users. This understanding should also not be confined to a “marketing approach” such as a “missionary agenda,” which is believed to be the sole possession of artistic truth.
Instead, they argue for a “long-term process that embraces the whole organization and is about the different types of audiences in a strategic perspective.” Among other things, the authors recommend
the establishment of sustainable cooperation with educational institutions, but also with those of other professional groups, the development of artistic participation models with the active involvement of non-artists, the use of places where mixed audiences can more easily come into contact, and above all, an improvement in the knowledge about those they might interact with as future recipients.
In a nutshell: in most European cultural institutions there is still a blatant lack of awareness of their audiences; what is more, we must assume that the people working in cultural institutions are far too often not even interested in learning more about their audiences. It almost seems that ignorance in this respect is to be proudly presented as a sign of distinction—and the often merely tolerated facilitators are required to compensate for the associated consequences as best as they can.
You Should Recognize her at the Bar
A lot of important information could be gathered with enough curiosity. An example from my personal sphere: My daughter has a student job in a Viennese concert organizer’s restaurant. She reports that the core audience’s different communication and consumer behaviors can be used to identify the background of different music genres. I am not aware of the fact that this information is used in any particular way, which would be worth a separate study. I was very fascinated by an article in the journal Merkur from the year 1995 on the subject of “differences”. The US-American sociologist Paul Fussell reports on his very enjoyable journey through the American status system along the outward appearances of people of different social origins. His contribution is not without stereotypes, and yet I always find myself, upon observing my respective fellow visitors, noticing that, many of them look and act differently, and also express approval or rejection in different ways, depending on the location or the program. Put simply: audiences collectively represent a distinctive phenomenon, where they are just as diverse as the artists they came for.
I have to admit, I did not learn many new things about audiences from the study. With the help of a largely self-organized grid, the authors distinguish between “Audiences by habit,” “Audiences by choice,” and “Audiences by surprise.” While the former are accustomed to being part of an audience, the latter groups—without being socially or culturally disadvantaged—are so busy with other things that they rarely find the time and leisure to take notice of a cultural offer. On the other hand, the surprise audience feels tacitly culturally excluded, and feels that the cultural offers tend to be created against them, and therefore need a special approach.
The Elite and the Many
The more intensively I engage with the aspect of Audience Development (The Cultural Management Education Program of the University of Hildesheim has created a separate subject area with Birgit Mandel), the more I suspect that we are dealing with a fundamental democratic policy problem. After all, we have been confronted with a largely irresolvable contradiction in cultural policy for at least a hundred years. This is the fact that culture is traditionally represented by a small, educated, and affluent elite who, with their participation as informed and interested users, carry the cultural sector. And then there is the great rest of the population, which was originally denounced as “cultureless” and excluded, and subsequently put under the general suspicion of only having interest in easily consumable, commercial mass culture. With the reconsideration of class relations, the dividing lines have become softer, and yet they continue to work in a sustained way and do not really seemed to be questioned by cultural policy concepts in favor of a “broad cultural understanding.”
The Available Cultural Representations Forms of the Liberal Elite
Just as before, the state continues to privilege the cultural forms of representation of an informed elite. However, the legitimacy has changed. The current argumentation strategy is to involve not only oneself, but all other parts of the population (especially socially disadvantaged, lower educated groups, migrants, and youth,…) in the frame of reference for creating cultural events, although without ensuring any necessary improvement for new social conditions. In the meantime, mediators of all artistic disciplines (who mainly come from these elite contexts themselves) have either eagerly or desperately struggled to interest people in something, that in no way corresponds to their ever-worsening social situations and where they do not bring the requisite educational requirements (a circumstance that cannot be compensated for in short-term, otherwise more attractive projects).
This fundamental social dilemma—which seems to me to be constitutive of any mediation effort that attempts to go beyond existing social barriers—does not exclude individual success stories as a cultural-political strategy; it is driven by an idealistic longing, for the offered, and in some cases highly elaborate, cultural activities, to be able to be understood by everyone, and for me it seems doomed to failure now more than ever. At the other end of this tense relationship is the claim that each social group creates its own cultural forms of expression and emancipates itself from the state-dictated cultural domination of a self-proclaimed elite with this capacity of cultural self-responsibility. In terms of cultural policy, this would mean abandoning hierarchical aesthetic quality concepts in the future and relying instead on a comprehensive diversity of cultural forms of expression alongside their different social circumstances. In doing so, the existing privilege of a small group of specifically culturally-minded people would be called into question.
The cultural policy tactics used so far have attempted to avoid confrontation in this respect and to warn of an “envy-based society” in order to keep the same results. This is all the more the case as the cultural elite have thus far benefited increasingly from hiding under a liberal mantle and the assertion that everything can exist side by side (in any case, as long as the subsidized flows have not been redirected at their disadvantage). The truth, however, is that young people living in precarious circumstances pay the full price to see their favorite band in concert, while wealthy opera-goers will receive massive state support in the realization of their taste preferences.
Culture as a Democratic Political Problem: Representative versus Direct Democracy
With the current strengths of right-wing populist movements in Europe (which, in my view, are essentially the result of an intensification of social inequality), the cultural sector is also under a new imperative: That entails, on the one hand, the growing demands of a representative culture against the demands of taking culture into one’s own hands. The associations of the demands of right-wing populists, forms of direct democracy (with their authoritarian character) against the old system of representativeness are obvious.
In this contrast between representational and plebiscite forms of democracy, culture is suddenly found again. And it is only too easy to let those who stand for the continuation of a state-privileged cultural sector get away with the assertion that they are at least indirectly there for everyone, as out of touch beneficiaries of disproportionate relations stand there. This information is not especially helpful, as right-wing populists would limit possible alternatives to a nostalgic look back at their supposedly homogenous national culture, that has never really existed.
Audience Development is not Possible without Societal-Political Stances
In the face of the dramatic political and social turmoil that is shattering Europe at the moment, I would have liked the Audience Development study to have at least discussed these political implications, which, in my opinion, have a decisive influence on cultural behavior. Nevertheless, the recommendations provide hope that the efforts for Audience Development will encourage a new understanding on the part of the cultural sector for its users. The young director at the Vienna Burgtheater may not say, “I love the audience,” after reading the study; It would be enough if he were in the growing chorus of those who can say of themselves: “I am curious and am interested in the audience.” This attitude change will be decisive for the continuation or further development of what we now know is the growing legitimization need in the cultural sector.
P.S .: Irene Knava and Thoas Heskia have been intensely involved with audience in recent years. Kava has also published a book on this subject with the publisher facultas and offers occupation ISO-certifications.
P.P.S.: In the Anlgo-American countries Audience Development has a long tradition. That these efforts have not led to liberal attitudes in the majority in terms of cultural identity has been made painfully clear by Brexit.