Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Is an audience participating?

In the current edition of the National Campaign for the Arts newsletter, Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts Network says this:

‘Actively participating in the arts or crafts helps us get more out of life, bringing us understanding, reflection, camaraderie and much more. But what do we mean by ‘participation’? To me participation means rolling up your sleeves and joining in. No one ever suggests that 70,000 people ‘participated’ in Manchester United’s last home game but in the arts some people still use ‘participation’ to refer to audiences. Is the audience at a performance of The Messiah participating?’

Understandably, given VAN’s consitituency, Robin wants to see a greater emphasis given to people who take part in the arts actively through making, singing, dancing and so on, in their communities, amongst their friends, and on-line, as well as professionally. As someone who started in the arts working ‘voluntarily’, editing a poetry magazine in the evenings and weekends after shifts as a head chef, I think he’s right that Britain has historically undervalued (and failed to measure) that part of our culture. (You can read my particular story alongside others in a VAN publication Making the Leap: From Labour of Love to Earning a Living.)

Where I differ is in his comments about audiences. Being in the audience is – if it’s a good event – participatory. If the audience don’t lean forward into the event, you soon know it as a performer. His comments about football crowds give it away. Ask Sir Alex Ferguson if he thinks the crowd participate – of course he does, that’s why he criticises them instead of his players. (Of course any football supporter knows that our involvement from the stands doesn’t always make a difference to the result on the pitch!) Think of the crowd participation at the recent Munich anniversary game.

I suggest we banish forever this idea that an audience is passive and think about how we make the most of their experience and open it up to more people, including those who currently prefer to make rather than watch. We should also recognise that for many people there is a continuum between the two.

You have a chance to have your say about the voluntary and amateur arts by taking part in the first nationwide survey, commissioned by DCMS and Arts Council. You can find it here and you’ve got till the end of February to take part.


Robin Simpson said...

Thanks for your reaction to my article, Mark. I completely agree with you about audiences actively engaging - and do so often myself (see my personal cultural highlights and recommendations on my blog at We could argue over the semantics of 'engaging' and 'participating' but the main issue for me is to see all this as part of a continuum rather 'artists' and 'audiences'. Best wishes, Robin.

Mark Robinson said...

The art that caught me strongest when I was young - and the best of which still resonates - was punk and post-punk which dissolved that artist/audience barrier really strongly. (Greil Marcus wrote brilliantly about that in Lipstick Traces.)