Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A New Arts Appreciation

On my summer reading list is a book that came out last year, Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. I'm reading it, among other books on the current crisis in education, not only because I am alarmed about this spring's harsh and ignorant treatment of teachers in response to state and local budget crises but also because of more recent threats to government support for the arts. We are living in an extraordinary time in which the humanities and fine arts are not only losing significant government funding support at the federal, state, and local levels but are being progressively diminished in public education in favor of more narrow degree-to-job vocational frameworks. 

Part of what's so sad is that we, as a society, lack a discourse for even valuing the arts and creativity in the first place. It seems far easier to talk about boosting science and engineering for the nation's economic health. As I heard on the news this evening, "scientists and engineers lead innovation in the economy and therefore we need to excite students about these subjects." This is the language of STEM, and somehow it seems to make sense to most Americans, whether or not they are themselves knowledgeable about the sciences. 

It's more difficult to talk about the arts in this way because of a perceived distance of the "arts" from the "economy," and an inability to understand what the arts are for, or how they relate to the accepted primacy of the bottom line. This is not a new problem in America. John Adams's elevated conception of the arts as growing out of the process of nation-building, from 1780 (“Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain”) was never really understood in his own time and was lost by the early 19th century. In the midst of the "market revolution" in the United States, engagement with the arts, whose commodification had always been problematic, became a suspicious life pursuit. Thus, for example, in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne worried about his ancestors' opinion of his chosen profession (‘A writer of story-books!...Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!’”). 

The STEAM initiative is a good start to creating a new discourse for the arts in already established frameworks of science and technology. What I want to suggest, in addition, is that we think carefully about what exactly we mean by that additional "A" for the "arts." Too many times, it seems to me, advocates for the arts education fall back on vocational frameworks of understanding. The assumption is that students will be making forms of music, visual art, drama and that such activity has demonstrated benefits for improving cognition and creative problem-solving. All well and good. But what is not often discussed is the social life of art, in which "audiencing" may be the primary activity. Audiencing is typically either dismissed as a mindless consumerism or left rather undefined as the end of the creative process. But recent studies in reception theory have shown the extent to which audiencing is itself creative, actively building community, shaping identity, and helping us to think about and respond to the changing world around us. I have written about this before in terms of music, but I think it is true for all the arts; understanding the arts only in terms of "authorship" prevents us from seeing its actual breadth and power.

There used to be a movement, in the early nineteenth century, that promoted arts appreciation, but it was rather classist in its mission of "uplift" and refinement. I am interested in a new movement that will more radically recognize the varieties of arts engagement. More fully valuing and including audience practices--across genres and tastes and cultures--in our discussions of the arts might better capture the arts' participatory function in daily life and make a stronger case for advocacy. As audience members, we are all engaged in art in one way or another. We listen to music on iPods, we admire the design of websites, we hang images in our homes, we laugh at each others' stories, we stand and look at buildings, we go to museums or concerts with friends, we talk together about tv shows, plays, musicals, movies, and novels. The arts cannot be so easily marginalized or dismissed if they are understood with a wider perspective that includes audiencing. That perspective would make cutting the arts not just an instance of cutting government support of esoteric studio classes or experimental drama (which some might wrongly see as not properly focused on making a living) but a more self-destructive diminishment of the participatory fabric of our daily lives, an erosion of the activities and actions that constitute the very environments in which we live and work, as well as our experiences and habits and identities.

Why is it that many are reluctant to cut, say, social security? It's because such a move would not only entail cutting a "government entitlement" but a deeply-embedded social institution. For better or worse (depending on your political persuasion), it has become a significant part of how Americans conceive and live their whole adult lives. I think there is an even stronger case for understanding the arts in this way, if we are willing to think more broadly about their definition and role and more boldly and consistently articulate that definition. Narrow ideas of artistic creativity and participation only enable those controlling wealth to rationalize cuts to arts education and to prioritize their own conceptions of what is significant in our society.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fans Crossing the Line

The news in the world of "Glee" is that during a recent live performance in the TV show's national tour, an overly enthusiastic fan pulled one of the performers off the stage. It was almost a repeat of an incident a couple of weeks ago, during Rihanna's "Today Show" appearance, where a fan hugged her during the performance and wouldn't let go. These moments are clear breaches of etiquette; there are fairly strict rules today that separate music performers and audiences at concerts, from the presumed "fourth wall" of the stage to the security personnel that are sometimes hired to police it. Nevertheless, such breaches happen quite frequently.

Last month, it happened to U2 in Mexico City. It also happened to Shakira:

Recently, Lady Gaga encountered a fan gesturing along with a song on stage in Japan:

Brittany Spears had something similar happen the year before:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

USA v. Spain, In the Stands

The U.S. Men's National Team faced 2010 World Cup Champion Spain this past weekend at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The game was a disappointment for the United States, with Spain adroitly running circles around the U.S. team and winning 4-0. With 60, 000 in attendance, however, it was still a festive event. People like me have as much fun studying the crowd as the game.

The wearing of national flags is typical at international events, especially soccer and tennis. And I mean, literally, the wearing of a flag:

It's a powerful statement of national loyalty throughout the game, and, of course, comes in handy at moments of fervent cheering:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Journals Focusing on Music, Audiences, and Fandom

I'm on a slight break while I finish up the semester. In the meantime, check out what my colleagues from England are up to! Dr. Lucy Bennett is guest-editing a special issue of the journal Participations, on music and audiences, while Dr. Mark Duffett is guest-editing a special issue of Popular Music & Society, focusing on fandom. As an old fogey who remembers a time when human fans (instead of decorative fans or industrial blowers) were almost completely absent in scholarship, this is fantastic. There much to discuss--I hope that some of you out there will consider submitting a proposal. Each call for papers follows below.

Proposals are sought for a special issue of Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on music and audiences. The theme of this issue will be an examination of the music audience from a range of perspectives, with both theoretical and empirical research welcomed on all aspects of music and reception. The issue would also particularly be interested in proposals that consider music audiences in the context of debates over technology and the Internet, and in articles which focus on issues of genre, different music fan cultures, or the specifics and particularities of music audiences, due to contexts such as sexuality, generation or nationality.

Proposals are welcomed on, but not limited to, the following possible topics:

-Music fandom (s);
-Music audiences, technology and the Internet;
-Music audiences in regional, local, national and international contexts;
-Representations of, and audience responses to, gender and sexuality;
-Film, television and the music audience;
-Music taste(s) and genres;
-Responses to political engagement in music;
-Generational music audiences;
-Celebrity and stardom;
-The live music experience;
-Discussions of music engagement and meaning.

Please submit article proposals of no more than 300 words, along with a 200 word author biography to Dr Lucy Bennett ( by 11 July 2011. Please also contact Lucy with any queries or requests for further information. Completed articles will have a submission deadline of 10 January 2012. Please note that Participations operates an open-refereeing policy. For more information see the website (

Popular Music and Society invites article proposals for a new special issue. Fandom is both a personal expression of emotional conviction and a complex, changing, multi-faceted social phenomenon that now encompasses both online and offline activity. The study of fandom is a scholarly niche that exists at the intersection of a wide range of interests and connections. It can be contextualized by wider media research (theory by scholars such as Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills; reception analysis; celebrity studies; ethnography; subcultural theory) and by direct research into popular music culture (ethnomusicology; research on listening; live music audiences; studies of music in everyday life). We invite papers with themes that may include, but are not limited to:

Fans as musicians / musicians as fans
The consumer marketplace, perceptions of the music industry
Collecting, listening, and other fan practices
Live music, local scenes, and fandom as living culture
Stereotyping, self-awareness, media representation, literature and fiction
Fandom and social identities (such as gender, age, disability, race)
Methodology, research practice, cultural theory
Histories, critiques of fandom as a response to mass culture
Taste, cultural capital, and the canon
Online participatory cultures
Case studies and ethnographies; personal narratives, memories, and investments
Stardom and celebrity; identification, reading, and textuality
Legacies of key representations (e.g., Fred Vermorel and Judy Vermorel's book Starlust)
Modernity, religion, pathology, and the "cult" analogy
Differing fandoms / specific music genres
The fan community: insiders, outsiders, and the "ordinary" audience
Fan culture and the paradigm of performance
The uses of fandom: political activism, heritage, and tourism
Fandom, the family, and / or the life cycle

Send proposals of up to 500 words in the first instance. Contributions will be peer-reviewed for potential inclusion in the main section of the journal. Polemical papers will also be considered for inclusion in the Forum section. Indicate the name under which you would wish to be published, your professional/academic affiliations, a postal address, and preferred email contact. Deadline for submission of proposals is October 31, 2011. We would hope to commission articles by December 31, 2011, and deadline for submission of the articles will be July 31, 2012. Please email proposals to guest editor Mark Duffett at