As soon as I saw the first four lines of a post Seth Godin made last month, I knew what I wanted to write.
Then he wrote a lot of it for me.
Want to go visit a nudist colony?
I don’t know, what’s it like?
You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.
Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.
Well, actually, you won’t.
You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people.
The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience.
He goes on to say that we often try to put a new experience in a familiar box in order to insulate ourselves from the fear of a new experience.
My initial impulse was to write about how seeing video of performance or pictures of objects in a museum doesn’t provide the actual experience of encountering these things live. I was also thinking of writing about how in recent years even those people who do travel to see something live use an electronic device to mediate the experience for them.
But I also got to thinking that the reverse is also true.
We in arts and culture like to criticize participants and potential participants for avoiding an authentic experience and deciding they know about the experience after accepting some form of substitute.
The truth is, the arts and culture sector reinforces to this by talking about their work in the context of other work. While this does provide a frame of reference for entirely unfamiliar experiences, it does the experience and the creators a disservice to frame their work in terms of “just like artist Y,” “if you liked Z, you will love X.”
It is done to sell an experience and we all gotta eat right? People increasingly look for this type of information since their online buying experience so frequently features this form of recommendation. Replicating this process helps people make decisions about participating in an arts and culture event.
But then you can’t turn around and accuse people of being averse to trying something unfamiliar if you continually use the simplest common elements to frame complex and nuanced experiences.
There were stories in November about the works of Jin Yong being translated into English, each which proclaimed him the J.R.R Tolkien of China. Amateur translations of those works have been a guilty pleasure of mine. I can tell you the comparison is only true in the broadest terms. (Like showers and nudism.)
Likewise, if you decide changing expectations and perceptions about what an artistic/creative/cultural experiences are will require rethinking the whole experience, simply scaling down current practices and placing them in novel settings isn’t ultimately going to be the answer.
In the article upon which I based my post yesterday about a health clinic in Minneapolis that started experimenting with pop-up arts offerings I saw some parallels with arts engagement practices.
Neighborhood clinics like the one depicted in the story are an attempt to bring health services offered at places like hospitals closer to the people who need to be served. That has helped up to a point (not to diminish the work of a clinic that has served a community for 45-50 years). The executive director identified barriers for people: disinterest in health classes/discussions, anxiety, distrust, etc.
Clinics like the one in the story have started to expand their definition of what health entails.
You’re doing the art sitting next to people and you start talking to each other,” Shella said. “It creates community and is therapeutic in the sense that the hospital becomes less sterile—it gives it a sense of beauty and helps people feel more at peace and connected to others.”
Shella said that such activities have emerged from health care providers’ desire to give patients a positive experience. This means seeing them as “whole people,” not just a specific problem or organ that needs fixing. “It’s the recognition that people also have psycho-social needs,” said Shella.
One of the tactics they started to employ is using the pop up arts events as a conduit for information, discussion and lowering of barriers with the focus less sharply on health and more on creating community.
In the same way, the recent trend in arts and culture has been to broaden the definition of what constitutes arts, culture and creative activity. As we have seen in the recent CultureTrack report, the general population has already changed their definition of these things to focus more on food trucks and less on museums.
In the long run, arts and cultural organizations are going to have to continue to re-imagine what it means to have a creative experience. I suspect that means a transition from doing things like scaled down pop-up performances in bars, shopping malls, airports, etc and manifesting in a way that builds community.
I am not saying there is anything particularly wrong with these type of experiences. Obviously, the intersection between health services and a scaled down creative experience has had significance in Minneapolis. I just don’t think that the concept of taking activities to where the people are should represent an end point. There is a next step and new manifestation(s) that haven’t been realized yet.
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