Professor of the Practice, Department of Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University
Tina Seelig is Professor of the Practice in Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering and a faculty director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. She teaches courses in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) and leads three fellowship programs in the School of Engineering that are focused on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Seelig has also been a management consultant and entrepreneur. She is the author of 17 books, including Insight Out, inGenius, and What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. She is the recipient of the Gordon Prize from the National Academy of Engineering, the Olympus Innovation Award, and the Silicon Valley Visionary Award
Arts on the line in cultural revolution
In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts put out a genuinely surprising report: Audiences — those attending jazz, classical music, opera, dance and theater performances — were in serious decline as a percentage of the adult population of America.
Yet worse, the data implied that all of the effort to diversify those audiences had not worked. The audiences of 2002 looked very much like the audiences of 1982: disproportionately white, affluent, educated, older and female. The NEA tried to put an optimistic spin on its findings (it noted that Sept. 11, 2001, had disrupted lives), but it was still the rare NEA report that actually interests a newsroom like this one.
I recall the discussion in the then-heftier arts section of this newspaper: Had not the Wallace Foundation, a national philanthropic entity established by founders of the Reader’s Digest Association, just spent millions in grants to orchestras, dance companies, theaters and the like to (a) diversify their audiences and (b) increase them? Sure it had. And so a no-nonsense Tribune reporter of the time, Charles Storch, called up the Wallace Foundation and asked if this report meant that it had wasted all that money.
What I found out this past weekend, when I heard a speech by Steven Tepper, dean of Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and an expert on audience engagement, is that the Wallace Foundation did not know what to say to Storch, a tough interrogator, and thus called Tepper for help. How did the foundation refute this charge, and it surely wanted to refute it, when the pesky Storch of the Tribune was armed with this devastating NEA data?
Tepper’s fascinating speech, delivered as part of a Los Angeles event organized by Zocalo Public Square, the nonprofit cultural-journalism think tank run by a former Los Angeles Times columnist and a former Wall Street Journal reporter, was an expansion of what he told the folks at Wallace.
His answer, in essence, was that the cultural world was changing far more radically than most people have understood. In fact, the NEA, the Tribune and the Wallace all were looking in the wrong place for the engaged and diverse audience. That audience just wasn’t warming to the legacy institutions.
Storch’s Tribune story, the evidence now suggests, was prescient. For we are now going through the second radical revolution of expressive life, the first revolution being the invention of movable type by Johann Gutenberg more than 500 years ago.
That first revolution, to paraphrase Tepper’s own argument, led to earth-shaking revolutions in religious practice (the Reformation, say) and in politics (the Enlightenment, say). But this new revolution, the one going on right now, is not about religion or politics but is all about the radical democratization of American life. And the new battlefields are culture and story.
This moment, he said, is all about “the exuberant expression of self.”
You may have noticed. And it’s not good for an arts organization that expects its audience to sit down and be quiet.
To my mind, what Tepper had to say also has a bearing on several other matters in the firmament over the past few days. Take the recent attacks on critics. In Chicago, there has been a fevered, grass-roots protest against a review by Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss, not over behavior or ethics, or even a review killing a show at the box office (the usual complaints of the past), but the ideological content of some of her cultural reviews. And even as some in the Chicago theater rose up against one of the longest-serving female critics in America — not that many noted the irony — a group of academics also mounted a simultaneous protest against two male critics at The New York Times, Ben Brantley and the newly hired Jesse Green, alleging that their reviews of several plays this Broadway season were “blatantly prejudicial” and calling for more women as critics. Given the number of female critics who have been under siege this year, it might have been wiser to also call for keeping some of the fine ones we already have.
A few days earlier, social media heaped scorn upon David Mamet for his detestation of post-show discussions. (Mamet, determined that his plays should speak for themselves, had threatened to impose fines on theaters doing his shows.) The internet also turned on the estate of Edward Albee, for protecting what it believed to be the author’s wishes when it came to the casting of certain roles.
The young understand what is going on better than the old.
To wit: I took my 12-year-old son to see “Pass Over,” the intense play by Antoinette Nwandu at the Steppenwolf Theatre about young African-American men dodging bullets on street corners and the catalyst for protests against Weiss. I’d decided that his fortunate young self needed a lesson in how many of his fellow Chicagoans could not walk the dog with the same level of safety as with which he walks the dog on the North Side. I figured we were in for a rough ride in terms of language — and we sure were — but I also know he hears that same language on his headphones and I knew I could trust Steppenwolf to employ it with democratic purpose. After the play I asked him what he thought.
His immediate reply? “I think you should be very careful when you write about that show, Dad.”
I liked feeling protected by the kid, but I waved that off: He didn’t need to protect me from the Facebook hordes, I said, and I had an ethical obligation to deliver an honest opinion. He was supposed to be telling me what he thought. And learning about racial inequality. This was a play about young people, not much older than him, in real danger. In our city. The day before, I’d been at a funeral of a fine young man killed by a gun on the street. But what my 12-year-old immediately grasped that I did not, and what the events that played out later suggests, is that reviews now are different kinds of battlefields. Who is writing them is just as important — perhaps more important — than what is being reviewed. The old agreement, that the critic should de-emphasize self in deference to the artwork and a presumed diversity of readership, has fallen apart.
Why? Well, critics are part and parcel of the professionalism of the arts, which was a 20th-century phenomenon and now is, the evidence suggests, also falling apart. Potentially with dire consequences for major nonprofit cultural organizations.
Like the newspapers that employ them, critics grew up with industrialization and urbanization and we were at our peak in the first half of the 20th century, when workers needed savvy guides to their newly structured, and painfully limited, leisure time. Prior to that, in the first half of the 19th century, the arts were something you more likely did yourself. You sang around the piano at home. You likely knew some Shakespeare or biblical prose, whatever your walk of life. . You tried to learn how to draw some. You were not up for review. You were not charging money. You were expressing yourself.
Alas, this new radical democratization threatens critics, just as it does well-paid artistic directors, executive directors, curators and all kinds of other gatekeeper types in the cultural universe, which explains why some say we/they react defensively (see above!) to any grass-roots rebellion.
People are doing art themselves again: Tepper pointed out that half of 18- to 22-year-olds have made their own music. Half of them say they have taught themselves something. Many have spent more hours playing video games than it takes to master the violin. And consider this Tepper statistic: If you had asked random Americans in 1950 if they thought themselves important, about 12 percent of them would have said yes. By the 1990s, that number had risen to 85 percent. No wonder everyone has an opinion, and social media and cheap technology now has provided the last piece: an egalitarian megaphone.
Is all this good for America? It’s not really a relevant question; it’s happening anyway.
One problem is that professionalism provides income for both artist and critic, and as we return to self-producing art and opinion in this radical-democratization thing, those streams dry up like the price of a taxi medallion in Chicago. Yet even as the audience has declined, the number of nonprofit arts organizations in a city such as Chicago has massively increased. There are way too many of them. The desire to be in an audience is waning. It’s too passive.
The other problem is the decline of empathy. We’re all so busy responding to the next thing in our feed, the most recent outrage, that the brain becomes overstimulated and forgets how to walk in the shoes of another. This is why we all seem to be in silos, shouting and screaming on Facebook at each other and never understanding how the other feels. We don’t even want to normalize the mode of expression of our ideological rivals. There is no longer a shared understanding of what constitutes acceptable speech.
So what to do? There’s hope in the new slow-food movement for slowing down, which also explains the rise of music festivals and other cultural events where you can unplug. But really, the truth is that everyone working in culture, and hoping to survive, has to provide much more opportunity for engagement than now is the case. Festivals work because they foreground a social experience over the actual performance; the best of them understand you’re not really coming for the music. You’re coming to be with your pals and curate your own weekend.
Tepper’s solution for arts organizations: “Open-source everything you do.”
Terrifying. That would suggest an artistic director should step aside and let the audience, or maybe the artists, pick the season. But then, how does the artistic director justify a salary?
It will get harder and harder. Administrators, artists and critics all have to get used to the intensity of amplified opinion, and the widespread desire for empowered involvement, that now surrounds their work. Which does not mean I am going to let you write my reviews.
But even as I huff and puff, I can see that professionalism is on the decline. I took a taxi this morning. My driver said exactly that about his world, too. I said there was nothing he could do, but it wasn’t fair.
Still, I’ll more easily allow that Mamet is on the wrong side of history. Young people don’t just want to talk about our culture, they want to be engaged in the storytelling and, most definitely, in the process of judgment.
The biggest question is how we all still get paid.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.