Thursday, January 13, 2011

Invisibility & Traces

In American cultural history, there is very little attention given to audiences, even enthusiastic ones. Why?

First, most historians of the arts focus on making, either in aesthetic terms that account for notable authors, performers, and styles; or in production terms that focus on manufacturing, technology, and distribution. Creative lineages and changing styles are primary; diverse people reading, listening, or viewing is secondary.

Second, there is little evidence of audiences’ experiences. In the context of the Western star system, creators and performers in the public eye have been expected to attend to the legacy of their work; their notes, manuscripts, journals, account books, and personal correspondence have been preserved and deposited in public archives. The everyday experiences of audience members remain anonymous. Why would an ordinary theater-goer record his enjoyment of a show? To whom, exactly, would an avid reader share the logic behind the organization of her bedroom bookshelf?

Of course, these conditions are related: not looking for evidence of audience practices means that you never find any. My research is about trying. When you do so, the first thing you learn is that the readiest glimpses of audiences in the public record come from critics amused or alarmed at popular audiences' intensity, unfashionable behavior, or excess. Audience exuberance is sometimes an ignorant mania to be mocked, sometimes a dangerous disease to be cured; it is always distortedly described, from the outside, from above, and at arms-length.

The second thing you learn is that, if you are patient, audience members reveal themselves in other places: on ticket stubs or programs, a page in a family scrapbook, hints in letters and diaries, the design of buildings. I spent eight years reading old diaries, one by one, for traces of music audiencing—any reference or phrase or description. After reading multiple diaries about farming or accounting, stumbling on an entry like “She played ‘Old Folks at Home,’ with variations, which quite carried me away” can be positively magical! (Historical research is all about the small triumphs).

Patiently accumulating those glimpses, one at time, over years, eventually reveals patterns--representations of audiences in the past. Like stepping back from random pixels on a screen and seeing an image.

No comments:

Post a Comment