(Arts marketers and advocates are fond of invoking the arts experience that changed their lives, and the one that presumably could change yours if only you came to this next show. But are most arts experiences on has as an audience member really like that? In this post from three and a half years ago, I argue no, and that if we’re searching for transformation we might be looking in the wrong place. -IDM)

Punchup mirage

“mirage” by Flickr user Punchup

For a long, long time (as in, literally, months now), I’ve been meaning to respond to an essay by Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer lamenting what he sees as “the greatest sacrifice arts workers make” – the inability to recapture one’s first, “innocent” experiences of the arts, the ones that presumably convinced the person in question to pursue a life in the arts in the first place. Here’s the crux of his argument, succinctly:

No, I think the more significant – and unique – sacrifice arts workers make is that we lose the capacity for full, innocent and glorious enjoyment of the very art that our passion for drove us to make our life’s work in the first place. What do I mean by this? Think about your earliest experiences with the arts, your first encounter with Matisse, or Chuck Close; your first time in the audience for Sondheim, or Verdi; that time you first saw Baryshnikov on stage, or Judith Jamison. Remember that childlike joy – even if you were not a child – that total immersion in the art where the whole world disappeared and you were unaware of time, of the person chewing gum next to you? Now tell, me when was the last time you felt that? Sure, you are still passionate about the art form or all art forms, you still go to museums, or opera, or theatre, but something has been lost. Admit it.

Culturebot’s Andy Horwitz had more to say here. Gary’s essay drew a strong and enthusiastic response from more than two dozen arts professionals on his own blog and Huffington Post, with much agreement that the arts experiences those individuals were having were by and large uninspiring. Most commenters seemed convinced that this phenomenon was the result of their own position, a casualty of getting so caught up in day-to-day drudgery that they could no longer take a step back and let the art work its magic like it always did before.

Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that at all. I don’t think the problem is with us, or our jobs. I think it’s with the art. Or to put a finer point on it, I think the problem is with our expectations for what art can do for us.

My memories of my earliest experiences with the arts are a bit fuzzy, but I can tell you with certainty that they were not that special or amazing. I recall being taken to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts a couple of times and finding it utterly boring. I had some mild enjoyment of and fondness for The Nutcracker, but otherwise classical music left me cold. During my tween years, my older sister was involved in a few dance performances and a family friend participated in a play or two; I attended them or watched videos, but remember being more confused than inspired.

I didn’t really experience the arts’ magical properties until much later, when I was a senior in high school. I’d had no formal musical training up to that point, although my violin-maker downstairs neighbor did teach me how to read music at the age of 12 when I was looking for cool songs to program into my computer’s internal speaker. But previous music appreciation classes and a lot of singing in the shower had been enough to convince me to try giving music more of a role in my life, at least for that year. So all at once, I enrolled in a music theory AP class, joined the high school Glee Club, and started composing on my own (to the point where I decided to spend my independent senior project – a five-week stretch of no classes during which most students completed an internship – composing and recording a primitive “rock symphony”).

That year completely changed my life. First of all, I loved singing in chorus. Hearing the music come together from the inside, over time, was a totally different experience than listening to the finished product from a seat in the audience. I felt like I gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation of each piece by virtue of so intimately being a part of it than I ever could as a spectator. But even more than that, I loved being a composer. I loved the process of imagining a sonic landscape, articulating it in a common language, working with other people to bring it to life (I found that music was a wonderful vehicle for helping this socially anxious soul make new friends), and most of all, hearing my creation in my own ears, given breath by a community of people who were inspired to share their time and talents with it.

For me, that was magical. But none of it involved being in the audience for anything. It involved doing art: actively involving myself in the creation or production of an arts experience. (Not to say that all of my early experiences with that were magical either. I acted in a school play around the same time and hated it. Why? Because I sucked at acting, that’s why. I enjoyed music in no small part because I was good at it, and part of the magic no doubt lay in self-validation.)

When we limit our discussion of arts experiences to ones in which we participate passively, I imagine that the bar for something “transformative,” something magical, is far higher. It does happen, don’t get me wrong. But how often, really? The first truly transformative live arts experience that I can remember in which I was solely involved as an audience member did not occur until I was 21 years old – long after I’d already decided that the arts were going to play a big role in my life. I was traveling in Europe for a couple of weeks on a summer fellowship, and happened to catch a Japanese guitar-bass-drums trio called Altered States at an experimental record store in Rotterdam. They played a two-hour, 100% improvised set of jazz-rock fusion that was unlike any music I had ever heard before, and I can honestly say it changed my life in profound ways. Some months later, I saw renowned Polish conductor Jan Szyrocki perform with the Szczecin Technical University Choir at Yale in a concert that just blew me away and totally reframed my concept of what was possible in choral music. Since then, I can report that I’ve had deeply moving or inspiring arts experiences like that as an audience member at a rate of perhaps one every other year. To be sure, that’s a lot more than I experienced during my teenage years – but it’s also only one out of every several dozen events I attend!

I think that the people who had transformative arts experiences as youth of the kind that Gary talks about – where they heard Verdi or saw a Matisse and were hooked right then and there – just got lucky. They were in the right place at the right time and were bringing to the table just the right cocktail of personal background, talent, and curiosity to have a magical moment. I bet if you polled arts professionals more broadly, though, the vast majority would report having their minds first blown by the arts during an active state of engagement. Laura Zabel, now executive director of Springboard for the Arts, just recently wrote a lovely thank-you note to the Tulsa Ballet for visiting her small town in Kansas when she was growing up and getting her hooked on the arts. Not by performing, mind you – though they did that as well – but by welcoming her into their production of the Nutcracker.

Getting out and seeing a show now and then is always nice. But getting to be in the show – that’s what’s truly transformative about the arts.