It’s Me, Your Non-Visitor
23/06/2021 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
Reflecting on Labels Worth Questioning
How do you feel when you are addressed as a typical “non-visitor”? Are you missing something, do you feel deficient, do you feel addressed at all? Or are you actually proud of it? However you feel about this attribution, as a non-visitor you are in good company. You share this label with the vast majority of the population.
But what is it actually about? What is not being visited here? We are talking about the so-called “culture industry”, i.e. a specific infrastructure that offers specific services to the public under the vague label of “arts and culture”. Generally, this includes museums and exhibitions, opera houses, dance halls, theaters, concert halls, cinemas, and special institutions such as literature houses, design and architecture centers, as well as non-local offerings by cultural initiatives. Most recently, with the emergence of sub- and alternative cultural scenes, or at any rate independent cultural scenes, the “culture industry” is becoming increasingly difficult to grasp; with ever new innovations, especially in the digital media, any attempts at systematization are becoming increasingly frayed and make it difficult to once again make a categorical separation of visitors and non-visitors. And even profound connoisseurs of the cultural scene find it difficult to classify you and your cultural behavior accordingly.
Audience Development—On the search for the ideal visitor
Precisely because the cultural sector and the visitor habits associated with it have become so confusing in recent years, a new specialist context of “Audience Development” has emerged. Originally born out of the need to develop new marketing strategies that are as specific as possible to the target group, Audience Development now represents a cautious shift in cultural policy from the supply side to the demand side. But this is only possible if we know more about the audience. This includes not treating them as just some anonymous mass, to which certain characteristics are attributed, but also understanding them as dynamic co-actors in cultural events. Accordingly, there is a growing need for data that allows us to make justifiable assumptions about who, why, and under what conditions will accept what the cultural sector has to offer – and who will not.
The result was a multitude of projects on “visitor research”, all of which attempted to identify the typical visitor for the respective cultural offer, in order to create the best possible conditions for them based on the most secure data possible, to implement their cultural dispositions as easily and conveniently as possible in reality. As much as the study results differ in detail, they are united by a democratic annoyance: they show – by the way, largely unbroken for many years – that the typical visitor to publicly (co-)financed cultural institutions is clearly differentiated from the rest of society, especially in terms of income, wealth, educational background, and increasingly also gender affiliation. Obviously, the manifold measures of cultural education and mediation have only been able to change something peripherally. This is a quite precarious finding, which in the meantime indicates the danger of a comprehensive crisis of legitimacy, for example, in the theater sector.
If the visitors don’t tell us anything new, then we turn the spotlight on the non-visitors.
Because only a very modest amount of action-guiding knowledge was being gained from the usual research on visitors, hopes shifted to those who do not take advantage of what is on offer: the non-visitors. It is possible that they simply face insurmountable barriers that prevent them from taking advantage of the cultural offerings. Sufficient data would help to remove any obstacles, so that all those who have not felt addressed or even excluded so far can still be won over as visitors.
Pragmatically, this approach is easy to understand. Comparable to other sectors of the economy, an attempt is made to develop a market that relies on stimulating needs that can be satisfied by an apparently tailor-made offer. In terms of social theory, however, this attempt proves to be more complicated, for example when, at the latest with Pierre Bourdieu’s “subtle differences,” different social groups are attributed different cultural behavior (and thus also different cultural demand behavior), which cannot be changed at will by removing one or two hurdles. This is also indicated by attempts at structuring in line with the market, such as the Sinus-Milieu studies, which relate the respective cultural behavior to membership of certain milieus. The fact that the behavior of so-called “omnivores,” who are able to defy social boundaries in their cultural behavior, is itself an expression of a specific milieu should only be mentioned in passing at this point.
Does the cultural industry have to completely rethink its audience strategies?
These theoretical considerations have so far largely bounced off the desire for further harmonization of cultural markets in terms of the ability to influence user behavior through sophisticated marketing strategies. The cultural industry, which has been forced to completely rethink its audience strategies with the effects of the pandemic, increasingly fears that it will be pushed even further to the margins of public attention. After all, non-visitors represent a huge reservoir of at least potential users, which must be tapped better and more comprehensively after the end of the pandemic.
Admittedly, the problems here are not insignificant. On the one hand, there is the largely anonymous character of non-visitors, who are difficult to grasp as a predominant part of society. However, the discrimination aspect should not be underestimated: Talking about non-visitors inevitably refers to existing power relations. People do not declare themselves as non-visitors. This label is attributed to them from the privileged point of view of those who see themselves as part of the cultural establishment and draw conclusions from their cultural behavior with regard to the cultural behavior of all others. In this way, the ascribed status as a non-visitor all too easily acquires a denunciatory connotation: they lack something that the cultural establishment considers correct in terms of behavior and thus important and desirable for all people.
All previous attempts to make the amorphous field of non-visitors more describable have so far quickly reached their limits. So far, only a few case studies exist, such as the one by Martin Tröndle, who focuses on a very limited group such as the students of selected universities and their cultural behavior.
If we want to come to an understanding about the relationship between visitors and non-visitors – via one or the other specific gain in knowledge – then we cannot avoid the question of the social constitution together with the cultural conceptions associated with it.
Culture as a Strategy of Inclusion and Exclusion: The History of Non-Visitors is a Long One
This brings us unawares into a line of tradition in which the cultural establishment (in its architectural, programmatic or personal manifestations) has been reserved for an elite whose cultural behavior has been at least reserved, if not dismissive, of the rest of the population. No wonder, then, that the latter has not been interested in what the cultural establishment has to offer, has developed a fear of contact, and feels excluded. So, with a few individual exceptions, it did not even occur to those concerned to seek access. On the basis of this tension, there have been repeated attempts to counteract cultural policy, most recently with the requirement that special efforts be made to reach out to the “socially disadvantaged,” “educationally disadvantaged” or otherwise “marginalized. Just as the apostrophized did not knock fiercely at the gates of the cultural establishment in order to gain admission, the demands of cultural policy could not avoid the suspicion of paternalism. The associated undertone that these groups lacked something or needed special care stuck with them.
The following reasons can be identified for this cautious paradigm shift in cultural policy:
First, there are growing problems with the legitimacy of public cultural policy in particular. According to the few data available, a majority of the population believes that state-funded cultural offerings primarily meet the cultural needs of those who are socially privileged anyway, while those who do not take advantage of publicly funded cultural offerings cannot benefit from public measures. Thus, of all people, those who, as the “socially disadvantaged,” have recently been the focus of cultural policy measures, are disproportionately in favor of an end to state involvement in the cultural sector (this view is particularly consistent with the line of argumentation of right-wing populists, who advocate such a withdrawal of the state.
The second reason is due to the increasing marketization of the cultural sector. As such, it has also been drawn into the maelstrom of a comprehensive growth ideology, which has recently even led professional observers to speak of an “overheating” or “oversupply of the cultural sector. To the extent that competition intensified, along with a considerable increase in cultural offerings, the demand for more visitors and – associated with this – more revenue also intensified. An evaluation system based on this was further promoted by an increasingly economically controlled cultural policy: Where artistic quality increasingly eluded objectifiable evaluation procedures, quantifiable criteria such as quotas or the level of third-party funding acquisition increasingly came into play.
The comparatively lowest priority was given to the democratic-political justification context, which was still of outstanding importance in the 1970s and 1980s for opening up the cultural sector to “culture for all. After all, at that time culture was understood as a constituent of a democratic public sphere in which everyone should participate to the same degree.
The separation between visitors and non-visitors is closely linked to the overall social condition
An adequate discussion of the significance of non-visitors will not be able to avoid taking into account the serious changes in the social constitution.
After all, the founding of large parts of the established cultural sector, which still receives the greatest attention in cultural policy, took place in the phase of a late feudal, organized class society. The few well-educated people already alluded to formed the culturally affine sponsors of the state-subsidized cultural sector. They were opposed by a larger part of society that had only very peripheral contact with these offerings and did not experience this as a social deficiency, even if it was because the majority of people had other concerns.
In an attempt to overcome class society, a reform policy (strongly influenced by social democracy) worked its way from the 1970s onward, which was supposed to lead à la longue to a far-reaching harmonization of society. The basic assumption was that lasting economic prosperity would lead to a general understanding. This would also level out the cultural differences of the class society. Above all, with the expansion of educational opportunities for all, sooner or later the entire society would gather under the umbrella of the cultural sector to share common cultural values. Thus, on the basis of an expanded welfare state, a “New Cultural Policy” developed since the 1970s, which would lead to a considerable expansion of the offerings that would represent these cultural values; the users would then come quasi automatically.
By the 1980s at the latest, this dream of social harmonization was over. There was a renewed deepening of social inequalities that could no longer be traced back solely to the basic contradiction between different classes. A series of new fault lines became visible. However, they no longer ran only along class lines, but along diverse social, ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender- and generation-specific, but also geographic lines of demarcation, which are currently finding their most eloquent expression in the renewal of the identity discourse.
This fragmentation is accompanied by the penetration of the cultural sector with a market economy logic that stimulates competitive relationships. On this basis, new winners and losers are constantly being produced, promoting a drifting apart of society that can no longer be adequately compensated for with state resources. The result is a growing pluralization, heterogenization and diversification of societies. This is expressed, among other things, in the development of different milieus, each with different cultural interests/attitudes/expectations.
Into this new cultural diversity erratically protrudes a historically evolved culture industry that has not yet fully anticipated that the society around it has fundamentally changed since its inception. Accordingly, its appeals to the importance of its offerings for the cohesion and further development of society are increasingly echoing into the void.
In order to better understand the implications of this for the cultural sector, I propose a four-phase model, each of which is characterized by a different set of visitor and non-visitor characteristics. From a historical point of view, these phases do not fit together seamlessly; in their history, they represent a multi-layered conglomerate today, whose groups of actors seek to influence cultural policy decision-making on the path to democratization, including that of the cultural sector, depending on the balance of power.
It starts with the principle of elites, in which a comparatively small elite claims cultural leadership. Because of their excellent social standing, they have interpretive authority over cultural developments. Equipped with the necessary educational prerequisites, they have the material and immaterial resources needed to take advantage of the cultural offerings. Through their participation, they gain considerable distinction by setting themselves apart from the rest of society, which is largely considered to be “uncultured.”
Most recently, with Austria’s participation in the European integration project, the market principle has also gained the upper hand in the cultural sphere. Its specific emancipatory potential lies in the fact that everyone, regardless of their social affiliation, can take advantage of what is on offer. On the other hand, the disadvantages of the market principle are the extensive commodification of the cultural offer, which reduces the users to their role as passive consumers. With its appearance on the market, the cultural sector puts massive pressure on the justification for its state prioritization. While art and culture funding could still legitimize itself for a while as a “value-oriented market correction” (Kurt Blaukopf), the dissolution of a generally binding concept of quality (driven by the fighting concept of the avant-garde, according to which everything can be art) brought related arguments to their limits. In the meantime, they are limited to different production conditions but also to different audience appeal (quotas).
The even greater challenge for both the cultural sector and cultural policy is the diversity principle. This takes into account the fact that the growing heterogeneity and pluralization of people’s working and living environments has also led to the formation of very different, also culturally defined scenes that are subject to permanent change. As such, they can no longer be squeezed into a familiar hierarchical structure. Whether they like it or not, they are related to one another in a variety of ways, overlap, compete with one another, form temporary overlaps or try to distinguish themselves from one another.
These are actually good conditions for helping the break through of the principle of democracy, which has accompanied and provoked the cultural industry for more than a hundred years, but especially now. And yet, the question of how a democratically legitimized cultural policy could or should react to this has so far found very few groundbreaking answers.
The thesis that national societies enter the phase of recipients or users after the phase of producers, could prove to be a guiding principle for future cultural policy action (see, among others, Anna R. Burzynska (2016): Joined Forces – Audience Participation in Theatre). This could mean linking the stock interests of the cultural establishment with curiosity for the audience. In this way, cultural institutions could develop not only as places of cultural production, but also as places of cultural public sphere that are attractive for people from different milieus who meet there, have something to say to each other, exchange ideas, and, in the best-case scenario, also interact with one another in a very concrete way.
“The need for post-pandemic interaction will be gigantic” (Nicholas Christakis).
If we are to believe the U.S. medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis, “the need for interaction after the pandemic will be gigantic.” Accordingly – this much can already be said – the profile of the cultural sector could develop further from an art production site to a place of mediation. Of course, this mediation aspect will not be limited to training young people as the “audience of tomorrow” in specific cultural behavior; rather, it is a matter of reflecting the sometimes very different cultural self-understandings of social groups in diverse cultural offerings as well, and thus making them equally accessible to as many as possible.
The art negotiated there would no longer be limited to its representational function, but could be used as a catalyst for cultural negotiation processes in which artists and their audience meet at eye level. This would probably also have an impact on the future profile of artists, who would have to locate themselves much more than before in the tense relationship between art production and communication with their users. All of this is not new, but has been thought about by the various currents of the artistic avant-gardes since the beginning of the last century, or at least tested on the fringes of the culture industry.
A transformation of the cultural sector based on this would have considerable implications for a new agenda of cultural policy, which has recently lost its political goals and thus thought it could do without a more precise knowledge of the respective user or non-user behavior. Equipped with a new interest in the cultural behavior of the population, a better knowledge and a stronger involvement of the audience could lead to a democratization thrust; various experiments around participation models such as cultural government or the establishment of citizens’ forums show the readiness for a broad cultural-political discourse that points far beyond the practiced consumer behavior. Already, some artistic experiments are creating new venues for public conversation that have largely ground to a halt elsewhere. At the same time, it releases comprehensive learning processes among those involved, in order to restore the audience to its right as a co-actor, as a co-creator of the cultural enterprise.
At the end of these considerations, it should be pointed out once again that technological developments have always been decisive driving forces for the further development of the cultural industry. As such, they have always led to a readjustment of the relationship between producers and recipients, and have even seen themselves as a decisive factor in the democratization of the cultural sector. This is especially true in the current phase of digitalization of all areas of work and life, which – exacerbated by the pandemic – will not stop at the cultural sector.
In the endless expanses of digital spaces, which are now used by (almost) everyone, the dividing lines between visitors and non-visitors are becoming blurred. Whether they will again want to be divided into these traditional categorizations in real space, I dare to doubt.
Picture: Kaiserkorso ©Torben* (Flickr)