Portrait Christos Carras
© Stavroshabakis

Art is not a gadget for the upper class, neither solely a market to protect or if it is one, only to the same degree as scientific research in advanced laboratories.

Who cares if you listen?


Christos Carras — Zahlen oder Werte: Audience Development – ein kritischer Ansatz

In a way, audience development started in reverse, almost 100 years ago, in the Klangforum's home city, Vienna, with the creation by Arnold Schoenberg of the Society for Private Music Performances. In the statement of aims of the Society, Alban Berg writes: "The attitude of the public toward modern music is affected to an immense degree by the circumstance that the impression it receives from that music is inevitably one of obscurity. Aim, tendency, intention, scope and manner of expression, value, essence, and goal all are obscure; most performances of it lack clarity and specifically lacking in lucidity is the public's consciousness of its own needs and wishes." (1) 

In a context of violent changes in social dynamics in the wake of the shockingly murderous First World War, the radical new musical language pioneered in Vienna could not find receptive ears, even among the traditional 'cultured' class. The Society therefore aimed to create an enclave in which musical works could make themselves "rightly understood" by a sympathetic audience. It was a form of audience development because it involved intervening creatively in the structure of music distribution and performance in order to enable an art form to reach an audience. It was 'in reverse' when compared to today's strategies because it involved closing in rather than 'reaching out'.

With hindsight, anachronistically and running the risk of projecting motivations and thoughts onto the Society, one could also say that this initiative was 'in reverse' in the same way as Paul Klee's Angelus Novus in Walter Benjamin's oft-quoted interpretation: propelled at full speed towards the future, looking backwards at the massed debris of human history. (2) In the following years the mass of debris kept piling up on the trail of authoritarian total administration of culture and has kept growing, though not soaked in blood, through the marginalisation of art forms that took formal or expressive risks. The retreat of such art from the mainstream of cultural consumption to a degree reflected and reflects the Angel's horrified expression.

This marginalisation was not always, however, that of the outcast. Post-1945 in the 'West' at least, an almost academic avant-garde found or created niches of institutional support in which to continue existing in a new kind of relationship to society. In the approving words of Hugues Dufourt: "Art is not a gadget for the upper class, neither solely a market to protect or if it is one, only to the same degree as scientific research in advanced laboratories". (3) This position, whose extreme expression was perhaps the (in)famous title of Milton Babbit's 1958 essay "Who cares if you listen?" is one pole of the isolation of non-commercial music in the post WW2 decades, that of the researcher performing advanced work; the specialist with whom the broader public shares little. The other pole coalesces around the persistent fault lines that mark our lives; the evolving class divisions that up to a point are masked by an almost universal consumer society but which are nonetheless real in their implications for access to education and culture. The "shock of strangeness and enigmatic form" that Adorno refers to in many writings, those elements that make new art "hard to understand", most notably the liberation of form, are "cipher[s] for the liberation of society", as he writes in the Aesthetic Theory, rendered incomprehensible by the standardisation of cultural consumption. This system in turn functions as a repressive regulator of resistance and a stalwart foundation of the status quo.

And here we are today, in a world in which full employment and not emancipation is the goal, in which neoliberalism is slowly constricting the social space left open to innovation that does not follow the logic of a start-up. A world in which 'elitist' is spat out as invective at art which pursues its own logic as a priority rather than primarily seeking to reach an audience; surely the supremely cynical "democratic" excuse for the restriction of the freedom to experiment and challenge.  It is in this situation that we need to reflect upon the necessity and contradictions of audience development.

The necessity can be identified at two levels. First of all, many of us involved in what we have a hard time naming and defining but call a variety of things such as 'new', 'creative' or 'contemporary' music feel that our work should be heard more widely. As the practice of making new music finally emerges from the post-war period, along with so many other social instances, so it is perhaps necessary to rethink how it has institutionally positioned itself in relation to society. We share a common preoccupation about how to make the music and sound art of today, that doesn’t benefit from extensive commercial support and is generally concerned with “pushing the boundaries” of form and practice, more relevant, interesting and intriguing for a wider public. Secondly, as institutional support in the form of research institutes, academic institutes, public grants etc becomes scarcer by the day and competition for every Euro increases, the attitude of “who cares if you listen” has become politically and financially and not just socially inacceptable. Artists and organisations are obliged as a priority to justify their projects on the basis of their efforts to increase audiences in a measurable way. Funders, public or private, want to know that their money is being used in worthwhile and measurable ways and not being squandered on "elitist" projects that only engage a small audience.

Though it would be perverse to argue that making challenging new music part of more people's lives and thus potentially a dynamic element of the social change is not a good thing, some of the rationales can be criticised at many levels. Most notably it seems highly problematic to tie the perceived value of – and hence support for – art in terms of metrics that prove how attractive the Return on Investment by the state is in the cultural sector, or how significant festivals are for the hotel industry. It's not that these things are unimportant, but the trend, of reproducing market based business models as a basis on which to construct cultural policies runs the risk of conflating incommensurable dimensions of human activity and, at an even more radical level, fundamentally different embodiments of value.  At the very least they are extremely far from capturing what is really socially beneficial about art and specifically art that challenges preconceptions. The value of a product or service is not the same as the value of perceiving, understanding and feeling the world in new ways or the value of engaging in collective activities that result in the creation of situations, objects or experiences that stimulate and enrich the social imagination.
At a very real level, it is dangerous to simultaneously pay lip service to the specific value of culture for society and to construct the policies for its support on mechanisms that generate radically different categories of value. Making the market the judge of what can or cannot be undertaken as forms of artistic activity is tantamount to a new and pernicious form of censorship. It is even more dangerous for us to forget that the specific values of creative cultural activity are necessary, even though not sufficient, for the continued existence of societies that are founded on humanist attitudes that we have got so used to living with that we may potentially not notice their significance until we destroy them.

Faced with this uncomfortable and conflicting double necessity - the need to find ways to release the potential of new music in society and the need to justify one’s attempts to do so in terms of economic and demographic metrics - we need to examine artistic practices that creatively approach these problems. Practices that take the need to break out into a wider social sphere as an artistic imperative and not as a financial or funding imperative. Practices that search for ways in which to integrate such strategies into the formal and expressive dimensions of the works or, even better, practices in which the formal, expressive and contextual dimensions evolve simultaneously.

This is, of course, the ideal situation. But it cannot be taken for granted. Many of us who are involved in producing and promoting contemporary work will have found ourselves thinking about designing interactive or immersive environments, about performing work in unexpected spaces, about creating hybrid works that bring various media into play, about involving the audience in various participatory strategies. The danger of course is that one can end up producing “gimmicky” events, events which present music + something designed to amuse and capture the attention of an audience that, deep down, we imagine to be incapable of “really” listening or uninterested in doing so. And an even greater danger is that we might ourselves end up inciting audiences not to listen, thus having succeeded in increasing our audiences but having at the same made the music secondary: a rather self-defeating process. But it does not need to be this way and certainly within the field of education, the potential for reaching out to new, young audiences is considerable.

Audience development is by definition a policy of cultural administration. As such it is inevitably imbued with contradictions: it seeks to remedy the problematic access to culture without being able (or willing) to tackle the underlying causes; it seeks to create spaces for cultural action whilst at the same time being motivated by the economic impact of the 'cultural and creative industries'; it seeks to control a desired zone of freedom. Nonetheless, it would be a big mistake not to engage with the problems of audience development and an even bigger one not to do so critically. I take courage from a (rare) optimistic phrase by Adorno: "Whoever makes critically and unflinchingly conscious use of the means of administration and its institutions is still in a position to realise something which would be different from merely administrated culture." (4)

—Christos Carras, 2017

(1) Berg, Alban: Society for Private Music Performance, A Statement of Aims, reprinted in Strunk, Oliver (ed.), Source Readings in Music History, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998, p. 1461

(2) see Benjamin, Walter, Über den Begriff der Geschichte, in Illuminationen, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., 1977, p 255

(3) Dufourt, Hugues, Musique, Pouvoir, Ecriture. Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1991, p. 143
(4) Adorno, Th. W.-, The Culture Industry, ed. Bernstein J. M., Routledge, London / New York, 1991, p. 131

 in Features