Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Culture Warning: Fall Arts Guides may be dangerous to your health

By Barry Johnson

Because the importance of broad participation in culture-making is going to be coming up intermittently here at Arts Dispatch, I wanted to insert this little essay that I wrote for Oregon Humanities magazine. It came out in the September issue, and while its news "hook" was the annual Fall Arts Guide that so many publications generate, the central idea involved the importance of participation.  I encourage you to visit the link and read the other stories.

 For the past 30 years or so, I’ve spent late summer thinking about, writing and editing Fall Arts Guides for either Willamette Week or (mostly) The Oregonian. I now think that was mistake – and not just because it meant missing out on those delicious, precious Oregon summer days. No, it was more pernicious than that.

Yes, “pernicious.” Those guides encouraged us to think of ourselves as culture consumers, as shoppers in a mall of aesthetic delights. So, we might wander into the classical music shop, scan the merchandise and select a little Yo-Yo Ma here, perhaps, and possibly a “Pagliacci” there. At the theater store, where the offerings are quite varied, we stroke our chin and consider “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or “Sunset Boulevard.” Hard to choose!

Those Fall Arts Guides were the catalogs of the shopping experience. As critics and editors assembling those catalogs, we were dazzled by the shiniest possible objects, the Big Celebrities and the Big Productions, the bigger the better. Known quantities – the visiting soloist like Joshua Bell or actor like William Hurt – received special attention. After all, we were writing about art experiences that hadn’t happened yet. We didn’t know what strange and wonderful brews were simmering in unknown workshops, studios and rehearsal halls around the city. Or, if we did, we had no idea how palatable they would turn out to be.

But the real problem, the pernicious problem, isn’t about the limits of those guides, the inability of any critic to foretell when and where magic is going to show up in the next three months or so. The problem is thinking about our readers as “consumers” in the first place, as people who have two choices only, to buy or not to buy.

We don’t need arts consumers. We need audiences who accept responsibility for the culture, the local culture, we inhabit together, audiences to give it guidance and shape and meaning. What do we really need right now? What satisfies that need best? The more we participate in the consideration of those questions, the likelier it is we will create the conditions that satisfy our needs. And those needs – for places to meet together and think about who we are and where we are going – are the deepest I can imagine.

Participation: The consumer model has also encouraged those arts groups to think of themselves more as “content providers” and less as participants in a continuing discussion about crucial issues. They aren’t as practiced at creating forums to think about and discuss where we want and need to go as a culture. They aren’t democratic in the broadest definition of the word – as facilitators of open-ended, open-minded considerations by members of their communities of how to approach the future.

So, yes, all those Fall Arts Guides I worked on? They came in handy sometimes, just to let you know what’s happening. But now I wish they hadn’t so eagerly embraced the passivity of the consumer, the metaphor of the mall, at the expense of real discovery and solving real problems. I really think I owe you an apology. So, sorry guys.