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.
I agree with the basic premise of your piece, that there is nothing natural about liking football or the arts, and that much of the implication from those who run sport or the arts is that anyone that doesn’t like them obviously hasn’t understood what is being offered or have not been educated properly. However, I differ with you on a few points.
My main issue is that the world is not divided into black and white like this. There are different shades of liking football for example. I support Derby County – but I don’t go to every match. I like The Archers but I don’t mind if I miss a few episodes and yet there are people on either side of the scale of interest or want to ‘engage’ in different ways. If I was working for DCFC or the BBC I would want to understand who those supporters (or not) were and ideally adapt what we were doing to accommodate them.
And there are plenty of football clubs who have interesting community and audience development schemes if I can call them that. I was interested in the Luton Town scheme to encourage Young Asian women to attend football yesterday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-26682606 . I don’t know much about it except from what I have seen in the news and there are some problematic elements to it (not least its ‘head scarves to football scarves’ tagline) but I admire its aim of encouraging a wider range of people to the ground. You were lucky enough to be taken along to see two (albeit rather dull) football clubs and you could make a choice but not everyone has that opportunity.
Likewise, I was lucky enough to be taken to see the theatre occasionally as a child (although our chances were limited in South Derbyshire) and actually it was a couple of great teachers who explained what we were seeing that made it come alive.
I too dislike patronising attitudes that can exist within the arts profession although I have a slightly different target than you. My experience is that those speaking and attending the conferences which you dislike are usually quite respectful, imaginative and open minded about people, it’s their bosses that they return to after the conference is over that are determined to keep their worlds ‘protected’ from such democratic dangers that can be a problem.
Thanks Jonathan – of course, I agree that we respond to things by degrees, not in simple black and white terms, but football seemed a good illustration because I’m sure that no amount of audience development work would change my feelings about it. On the other hand, if a friend asked me to go, I would, and perhaps, like arts audience members going to keep company with friends or partners, I might find more in it than I expected. So the human factor, which you stress at the end, is essential and I know from experience that many people in audience development are respectful, imaginative and open-minded as you say. But my concern is with the culture within which we work, not individuals, a culture which seems to prefer seeing lack of interest as a matter of ignorance rather than choice. In truth, it’s probably a bit of both and some other things too, but if I want to persuade someone to see my point of view I think I should start, for intellectual and human reasons, by respecting their existing opinion.
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