Anyone who goes to the theater or to classical-music performances has long been accustomed to sitting among a sea of bald and gray heads. Even such technologically up-to-date enterprises as the closed-circuit opera telecasts transmitted from New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to movie theaters across America draw crowds consisting mainly of senior citizens. A sobering report issued in November has put statistical flesh on the bones of the anecdotal evidence of a looming disaster for the arts in the United States.
The latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the fourth such survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts since 1982, reveals an across-the-board decline in public attendance at fine-arts events of all kinds (it concentrates on performing-arts events in the fields of classical music and opera, ballet and modern dance, and plays and musicals). Specifically, “a smaller segment of the adult population either attended arts performances or visited arts museums or galleries than in any prior survey.”
Attendance figures for individual art forms are unvaryingly dismaying:
• Between 1982 and 2008, the percentage of adult Americans who attended at least one classical-music performance in the preceding year plummeted from 13 percent to 9.3 percent.
• Attendance at non-musical plays declined similarly during the same period, from 12 percent in 2002 to roughly 9 percent in 2008.
• Ballet attendance among college-educated adults has dropped by nearly 50 percent since 1982.
• In 2002, the year of the last survey, 10.8 percent of adult Americans attended at least one jazz performance. In 2008, that figure fell to 7.8 percent.
Most disturbing of all, the NEA survey confirms what had long been suspected by arts presenters:
From 1982 to 2008, audiences for performances in classical music, ballet, non-musical theater and—most conspicuously—jazz have aged faster than the general adult population.
It is worth noting that the 2008 survey was taken six months after the start of the recent recession, which presumably depressed attendance figures. The survey may also reflect that the growth in the number of American performing-arts groups, triggered in part by the founding in 1965 of the NEA, led to an artificial “bubble” in arts participation that has since burst. (It is worth recalling, for instance, that the number of regional theaters in America increased from a mere 23 in 1961 to an astounding 1,800 in 2003.) But even allowing for these possibilities, it is clear that the fine arts in America are in trouble.
Blaming this development on the decline of arts education in America’s public schools is a cliché beloved of editorial writers. But most clichés are more or less true, and this one—up to a point—appears to be no exception. According to the NEA survey, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who report “having had any music education in their lives” has dropped by a third, to 38 percent, since 1982.
Given the politicized rhetoric that is prevalent among contemporary artists and arts advocates, I suspect that many conservatives are inclined to be skeptical about the utility of arts education. But those who, like me, attended public schools at a time when it was still customary for students to receive traditional arts instruction have little reason to doubt that its subsequent disappearance has played a significant role in the near-simultaneous decline of American participation in the fine arts.
I grew up in a rural Missouri town whose schools offered a wide assortment of arts-related programs, ranging from elementary-school “appreciation” classes to applied instruction in music, theater, and the visual arts. By the time I graduated from high school in 1974, I had acted in several plays and musicals, learned a musical instrument, played in an orchestra, and sung in a chorus. I had also seen professional and college-level performances by several musical ensembles and drama companies, not to mention a large number of arts-related documentaries and other films that were shown in my classes. I am certain that this early exposure to the fine arts played a key role in my decision to embrace them as an adult.
The effects of such exposure were reinforced by the wider influence of what I call the “middlebrow moment” in American culture. For most of the first half of the 20th century, the mass media in America operated on the assumption that the upward mobility of middle-class Americans extended to cultural matters, and that anyone, educated or not, could appreciate high art as long as it was presented in an accessible, engaging way. Thus it was customary for commercial TV and network radio to broadcast fine-arts programming as part of their usual fare, just as Time, Life, and other mass-circulation magazines regularly covered the fine arts alongside pop culture and the news. In this manner, large numbers of ordinary Americans were initially exposed to the same art forms that were taught in the schools they attended, and a not-inconsiderable percentage of them went on to become lifelong devotees of the fine arts.1
The middlebrow moment, however, came to an end in the 1970s, at the same time that America’s common culture started to disintegrate and American elites, buffeted by postmodernism, suffered an attendant loss of faith in the universal significance of traditional Western art. American public-school teachers and administrators responded to this development by sharply de-emphasizing traditional instruction in Western literature and the arts, choosing instead to incorporate fast-growing amounts of “multicultural” subject matter into their increasingly politicized curricula. The fine arts soon fell by the wayside, and as public-school budgets were slashed, surviving arts programs became easy targets for cost-cutters who questioned their value.
A third force is exerting downward pressure on arts-participation statistics, one that is not so much cultural as technological. The decline documented by the NEA survey is also a manifestation of the long-term consequences of the mechanical reproduction of art—and, more recently, the emergence of digital media that make it possible to view or download at will a near-infinite number of books, films, TV shows, and sound recordings.
Live music was the first of the fine arts to be threatened by the rise of mechanical reproduction. No sooner was the phonograph invented than prominent artists warned that it would kill off amateur music-making. In 1906, John Philip Sousa went so far as to tell a congressional committee that “talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.?.?.?.?Music develops from the people, the ‘folk songs,’ and if you do not make the people executants you make them depend on the machines.”
Sousa was right. Once you could buy a piano roll or a 78 of the “Moonlight” Sonata instead of learning how to play it yourself, the art of making music became professionalized, and people who had made their own music now began to consume it passively. And by making it possible for the owner of a phonograph to listen to recordings of the standard classical repertoire by the greatest orchestras and soloists of the day, the musicians who made those recordings also unwittingly undermined the institution of the public concert. It took the better part of a century for the effects of this development to become manifest, but today they are self-evident to everyone in the shaky business of giving or presenting classical-music concerts.
The invention of motion pictures and, later, the development of TV would have a similarly destructive effect on live theater, so much so that the theatrical play has long since come to be generally seen as a cultural backwater. While important plays continue to be written and produced, few people see them unless they happen to be made into movies.
This process has been sped up dramatically in recent years by the emergence of the “on-demand” culture made possible by digital downloading. Today most Americans under the age of 30 are habituated to experiencing art not in the communal setting of a public performance but wherever and whenever they may wish to experience it, be it at home, in a plane, or on the beach. For them, live performance is not the normal condition of art but a tiresomely inconvenient alternative to consuming art on demand.
It is possible, then, that we are witnessing not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon. If this is the case, it makes perfect sense that many performing artists are showing their unwillingness to face up to the ominous realities of life in the on-demand age. When I reported the NEA’s findings about the shrinking audience for live jazz in the Wall Street Journal last year, my piece provoked a firestorm of protest from enraged jazz musicians and fans who, ignoring the data, denied that any such thing was possible.2
Judging by the response to my piece, it will be some time before the jazz world engages with the problem of audience development, dire though it may be. But just as classical musicians were the first performing artists to be adversely affected by the rise of mechanical reproduction, so have they been the first to respond to its long-term consequences. Instead of denying the NEA’s findings, the League of American Orchestras has chosen to embrace them, releasing a report of its own that admits that classical music audiences are graying “faster than the general public” and that orchestras “cannot assume [as they once did] that people will attend more as they enter the 45+ age group.”
Today the vast majority of classical artists, presenters, and commentators freely acknowledge that the old ways of doing business no longer work, and many major orchestras are now developing aggressive new audience-development strategies aimed at under-40 listeners. In the words of Alex Ross, the classical-music critic of the New Yorker, “classical musicians essentially need to be in the business of adult education if they are to keep their audience and their livelihood.”
Regional theater companies, which have been hit especially hard by declining audiences in recent seasons, are also starting to look at new approaches to programming. In Boston, for instance, the Huntington Theater Company is seeking (in the words of Peter DuBois, the company’s new artistic director) to “rethink our relationship with our home community” by producing more plays by local and regional authors.
It is unlikely that the fundamental desire of human beings to attend public performances in one another’s company is in imminent danger of dying out altogether. Organized sports, after all, remain enduringly popular, while Hollywood, much as it did when network TV was introduced in the late 1940s, is now responding to the challenge of on-demand video by developing new technologies like digital 3-D projection that supply a unique experience that cannot (as yet) be duplicated in the home.
To be sure, what might be dubbed “the Avatar solution” is of limited relevance to symphony orchestras and theater companies. But they, too, must find their own ways of meeting a like challenge—that of offering potential ticket buyers an appealing artistic experience significantly different in kind from that which they can obtain at home. At the same time, they must also find effective new ways to spread the word about the availability and desirability of such experiences, now that the mass media are rapidly losing interest in covering the fine arts.
And if they fail? There will never be a world without the fine arts, which speak to the deep-seated longing for beauty in the soul of man. But it is hard to imagine what the fine arts might be like if eager men and women no longer gathered in groups to experience their life-transforming power. Art itself would survive the loss of such communal experiences; the theater survived the Middle Ages, after all. But a world without audiences would be a world denuded of one of the things that makes art an act of self-transcendence, a way of embracing the world and its myriad possibilities.
To read The Cherry Orchard behind closed doors or to listen to The Rite of Spring through earbuds is to miss out on one of the most important aspects of why these great works of art were brought into being. Save for the reading of fiction, the experience of art has always been a fundamentally social phenomenon, one that brings human beings together and encourages them to submerge their differences in the shared pursuit of joy and understanding. Therein lies an essential part of the meaning of art—a part that is now at risk.
1 For a longer discussion of this phenomenon, see my essay “The Middlebrow on Sunday Night” (COMMENTARY, March 2010).
2 “Can Jazz Be Saved?” (the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9, 2009)