the tyranny of distance: audiences and performers/texts in high and low art forms

Laura has asked an interesting question here on a previous post:

…I would like to ask a question about “the everyday”, in those CS quote marks – is consumption of canonical or high art an everyday activity, and if it isn’t what is it? Posted by: Laura at August 7, 2006 03:30 PM

I think the man to answer this question is right up there in the cs canon (or at least the audience studies canon). Take it away Henry Jenkins
I skip about a bit in the next part of this post (I’m a bit distracted, so I can’t really take time to formulate a sensible argument)…
I think the key point (in my approach, anyhoo) is not so much the nature of the actual text or practice, but the way it is institutionalised, commodified and ‘valued’ by various cultural and social forces.
I’ve been looking at this issue in reference to dance (of course), comparing the way ballet and vernacular dances like hip hop or breaking are approached by audiences.
[In an aside, the discussions on wikipedia’s project dance (esp the talk pages) – people want to capitalise the names of specific ballet choreographies, but aren’t so sure about how to capitalise vernacular dances like lindy or hip hop].
I’ve also noticed that the way swing dancers – DJs in particular – approach jazz is quite different to the way the genre is approached by jazzniks. One of the clearest and nicest illustrations of how different groups imagine jazz lies in the way Bennett’s Lane puts on gigs (Bennett’s Lane is a well respected local jazz venue – devoted to ‘quality’ jazz). They are very strict about noise during performances, and do NOT allow dancing. This is such a strange and bizarre contrast to the way jazz functioned socially in the 20s, 30s and 40s – it was pub music. It’s also a serious contrast to the way I experience and enjoy jazz at the Laundry in Fitzroy on Saturday afternoons: it’s loud, it’s full of smoke and drinkers, the band members will get down off the stage and kick audience arse if they give them trouble. They don’t care if we dance, and there is – as a consequence – a really exciting and dynamic relationship between dancers, musicians and audience at these gigs.
But at Bennett’s Lane (and other venues around the place), there’s a definite positioning of jazz as ‘art’, which must be ‘appreciated’ from a distance, rather than enjoyed with the body, up close and personal. There are quite culturally specific ways of demonstrating appreciation going on. Just as Jenkins noted that Checkhov fans used different language to describe their interest in theatre, there are clear differences in the way certain groups approach jazz and music.
Here’s a quote from chapter one of my thesis about the relationship between audiences and performers, audiences and texts in dance:

Considering dance, whether vernacular dance or performance dance, as a public discourse, allows us to analyse it for ideological content, for the ways in which identity markers such as class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age and so on are represented and valued by a particular community of people. Reading vernacular dance as everyday discourse encourages us to see social dance as an exchange of ideas, and as a site for the negotiation of identity and social relations between individuals and groups within a community. I draw clear distinctions between vernacular dance traditions, where dance occurs in everyday spaces, between ordinary people, and concert or performance dance traditions, where dance is relegated to particular ‘dance spaces’ which are separate from the everyday spaces of a community. Ward makes this distinction: “there is a categorical divide between dancers and the audience in performance dance …that does not exist between dancers and spectators in social dance, where those roles are interchangeable” (18). I read this dynamic relationship between the roles of ‘spectator’ and ‘dancer’ in social or vernacular dance as a clear example not only of call-and-response, but also of the ways in which readers participate in the making of meaning in textual interpretation. (pg5)

Later on I add this:

The word ‘vernacular’ in a discussion of dance refers to the everyday or ordinary, common dance of a particular group or culture. Vernacular dance is distinguished from concert or theatre dance through its positioning in everyday spaces, rather than existing only as a formalised, and usually choreographed, performance of a particular dance on a concert stage. Vernacular dance is intrinsically participatory and happens in all sorts of spaces, both public and private. It is also necessarily mutable and reflexive, responding to the cultural needs of its performers. (pg9)

I wonder if one of the key differences between ‘low’ and ‘high’ cultural forms and practices is this issue of distance – there is (in Western culture …?) a divide between the audience and text/practice in high art forms, whereas the ‘low’ forms encourage close proximity between audiences and texts – you have only to consider the Big Brother website and voting system to see how particular industries and textual forms encourage audiences to get close to texts. If only so that they can be more easily targetted by advertisers.
It can’t be an accident that high art forms like ballet and opera have trouble keeping audience numbers up, and that various marketing strategies that aim to make these sorts of forms more approachable to wider audiences are at once endorsed, yet also regarded with some suspicion by those sections of our community which have a vested interest in maintaining social heirarchies.
…there’s a good article by Joann Kealiinohomoku on reading ballet as an ‘ethnic’ dance that examines how race and class work in high and low art form (and in anthropological approaches to ‘culture’ and ‘society’): Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism. Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49.

2 Replies to “the tyranny of distance: audiences and performers/texts in high and low art forms”

  1. Nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd NERD!
    You’re right of course. It’s incredibly annoying when people frown at dancing and making noise at places like BL, and I can’t help thinking of it as a very European, middle class response to want to control people’s (natural) behaviour in front of a jazz band so closely. Being in England reminds me of that all the time. Zzzzzzzz

  2. “Nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd nerd NERD!”
    …well, you’d hope so, considering this is what I’ve done my phd thesis on, and what I’m teaching a hundred or so undergrads about.
    You have no one to blame but yourself, so far as the trials of uptight Britdom go – there’s a damn good reason my family fled as soon as they were able.

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