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A Pop Conversation

David Seals

In the height of the 2007 football season, shortly after the Audience Experience Initiative project began talking about a new vision for audience engagement, I found myself on my Monday bus commute after a Steelers defeat.

“What if these people felt as opinionated about what happened at the ballet this weekend as they do about the Steelers?”, I thought. Be careful what you wish for.

Last week, Squonk Opera had the moxie to place their critically-acclaimed work in front of an incredibly unforgiving audience: three judges and millions of viewers on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.

The initial responses (which, in the long run may be the least important result of this experience for Squonk) seemed to be abject confusion—both from the judges and the Twitterati. The comments were not exactly the sort you’d find in a theatre review, but the gist was a lot of strong opinions ranging from visceral reaction to technical critique.

Squonk had the challenge of condensing its 90-minute performance into as many seconds, and yet its work was probably seen by more people during that small window than in the previous 20 years combined. This raises a question: Was this a good thing? (Knowing Squonk, I’ll be interested to hear their take.)

Two weeks ago, nearly 4,000 Pittsburghers showed up at a rally to welcome home an amateur dancer and his partner who had won a national competition together. The celebration included participatory dances and a proclamation by the Mayor. Would we say that this was a good thing for dance?

The amateur dancer was Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who with partner Kym Johnson, won ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. Would this have happened if Mr. Ward hadn’t been an icon for the trophy-obsessed Steeler fans? Perhaps not. Is it still a good thing for dance?

I absolutely love the Pittsburgh Dance Council. Paul Organisak has curated some of the most intellectually and emotionally rewarding performances I’ve ever seen. In the past year, I also saw brilliant dance from Attack Theatre and from choreographer Kyle Abraham set on the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, to name just two.

And yet, it’s getting increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that last season, more people saw Hines Ward dance during one hour of television than saw all of these incredible Pittsburgh performances combined. What does that mean for arts and culture?

What are we to make of these two forays into pop culture? I’m not sure. But I believe two things: 1) It means something, and we ignore it at our peril, and 2) This volume of arts dialogue is what we’ve always wanted, and now we have to guide its meaning before mass media gives it meaning without us.

According to the Arts Experience Initiative arts audiences “Want a real forum—or several forums—for the interplay of ideas, experience, data and feeling that make up the arts experience. In short, they want to retrieve sovereignty over their arts going by reclaiming the cultural right to formulate and exchange opinions that are valued by the community.”

This is exactly what we’re seeing, for audiences of all kinds.

As I watched thousands of people I’ve never met share strong opinions about a performance on America’s Got Talent, one thing struck me most: a distinct lack of meaningful art criticism in the stream. Where was that voice?

If artists and arts workers don’t want a culture where dance is relevant only when there’s a star involved, or where a theatre performance is judged only in 90-second increments, we have to participate in the dialogue that will happen whether or not we join it. Fear or revulsion for this pop culture phenomenon only makes us look like we no longer believe our most basic conviction: that art is powerful in people’s lives. That art is something people want, not just something to which they should go. That people really want to own and love artistic performances and exhibits.

But people want to own and love art on their own terms, no longer willing for its meaning to be controlled by an oligarchy of curators.

If those of us who presume to be the culture-bearers refuse to help them do so by coming alongside them in the conversation, perhaps they will move on without us into a future where truly great work is lost or marginalized into obscurity.

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