And it’s not through lack of exposure to the beautiful game. I was taken to a match (Wolverhampton Wanderers led by Derek Dougan) when I was at primary school, where I was also required to participate myself on a far too regular basis. For unaccountable reasons I was once made captain of the Second XI for a match that we naturally lost, since I had, if possible, less idea of what a captain did than of how to play the game in the first place. If that were not enough, television constantly broadcast the performances of football’s stars. I was eight when England won the World Cup, an event that captivated my peers but left me, beyond the excitement children pick up from those around them, indifferent. When I was a student, a friend persuaded me to try again. A goalless draw at Crystal Palace one freezing New Year’s Day only confirmed my complete detachment from this aspect of culture. Today, I live close enough to the Forest ground to hear every roar and sigh, with someone who watches every international that’s broadcast.
So I know what I’m missing, I really do. I’m just not interested.
So what is it about this perfectly commonplace explanation of one person’s taste that the arts world finds so hard to understand? After all, I imagine that many who work in it feel the same about aspects of the myriad dimensions of culture valued by different people. It’s not a big leap of the imagination to see that, just as I know and don’t care for football, others might know and not care for the things I like, such as books or music or ancient buildings.
The arts and audience development
The arts world can’t risk such thoughts. The part of it that depends on public funding is committed to the idea that people who don’t ‘engage’ in what it produces are prevented from doing so by a range of incidental barriers. They don’t know it’s available. They can’t afford the prices. They can’t get there. They think it’s ‘not for them’. All those things may be true, in different degrees, but they are only part of the story. Since the 1950s, when European welfare states became concerned with the democratisation of culture, a rich body of thought has grown up around the idea that removing such obstacles would give people access to art they would value, enjoy and be enriched by, if only they knew. Audience development exists to persuade people, with market research and ingenious schemes, to want the available offer.
The possibility that people who stay away understand that offer well enough to know that they don’t want it is unthinkable. And yet you couldn’t get me to a football ground, however far you reduced the ticket prices. Offers and promotions have no appeal since I don’t want to go at all. The football industry makes no effort to attract me because it has enough supporters, and, being relatively independent of public funds, it feels under no obligation to achieve an equitable distribution of its goods.
A self-protective faith
Belief in the universal value of Western culture is a faith. Its adepts do not believe that anyone could remain unmoved by contact with it, because to do so would be to acknowledge that it might not, after all, be universal and transcendent—just rather good. So, like the faithful everywhere, the arts world protects its belief system by interpreting even the mildest scepticism as a moral or intellectual failure on the part of the person expressing it. Lack of interest in opera, theatre or contemporary art is taken, of itself, as proof of an ignorance to be overcome through education. With enough time, sympathy and careful explanation, you will see the light.
School visits, the presence of the arts in the media and online, and the sheer growth in the supply of public arts goods since my own childhood must mean that most people now have a fair idea of what theatres, concert halls and art galleries offer. Many of them do face real barriers in accessing that offer, including money and proximity. But we must also accept the possibility that they know what is available and they just don’t want it. In other words, it’s the offer itself that is the problem, not what surrounds it.
We all deserve to have our choices recognised and respected. Tell me that I’ll love football if I give it a try and I’ll just think you’re not listening, which is not a good place to start a conversation about whether I might change my mind. Unless you you can respect my experience, my opinion and my taste, we’ve nothing to talk about.
The illustrations on this page (by Patrick Duffy, Emily Forgot and Crush) come from the ACE 2011 publication, Arts Audiences: Insight, which is available here. The research divides us all into 13 groups with names like ‘Urban arts eclectic, Dinner and a show and Limited means, nothing fancy’, according to our perceived engagement with the arts. This way of thinking—now so widespread in consumer society—strips away human agency to construct a world divided between doers and done-to.
As the 2015 general election draws nearer, the market researchers have reduced the electorate to just six groups at which the politicians can pitch their offers, as the BBC explains here. I tried the test and came out 47/53 between categories: so much for procrustean classifications.