Updated: Jan 16, 2021
What can we learn from what’s not there?
ℍappy 2021! Like many others, I have been thinking about possible resolutions to carry into the new year. Most resolutions I hear about seem to occupy a place of growth — new habits to start, or (if you are savvy on how to sustainably change) tweaking existing habits into something more desirable. Which makes sense — especially in the context of late capitalism, we are primed to believe that growth is always good. However, I would like to reconsider an idea that periodically resurfaces in our culture: negative information can provide powerful insights. This information can come in the form of things we have explicitly rejected (to give an extremely topical example, sedition), or it can come in a more subtle form — people, things, or ideas that haven’t necessarily been negated but are simply absent.
I was reminded of this idea in a novel I recently read: there was a murder with no evidence left behind, and the detectives had to rely completely on negative information to (not) solve the case. Those passages made me recall Pierre Bourdieu’s commentary on sociological methodology. (That name might sound familiar to some readers. I wrote about another aspect of his work — the role belief plays when we ascribe value to cultural works — in a previous post.) His research utilized massive surveys of the French people, their culture and their lifestyles. He observed that socially similar groups of people left similar types of questions unanswered. He theorized that there were certain segments of the population who felt like they were not entitled to have an opinion on topics they perceived to be outside of their social standing. While he goes on to explain the importance of taking this negative information into account when undertaking survey methods, I think we can take a similarly productive lens as we discuss the arts in our culture.
The question of who (or what) has been absent from our artistic spaces, and why, can be a surprisingly useful one. Historically, institutionalized artistic spaces were privileged spaces. While the middle class may have gained considerable access to these arenas beginning in the nineteenth century, we should not overlook that the newly emerging middle class remained a largely homogenous group. I suspect that despite good intentions, even today we remain habituated in such a way that we do not always notice who is not in the audience, on the stage, or on the program.
Turning our attention to this negative information allows us to see the entire picture more clearly and conceive of more possibilities for the future. For the cultural context I am most familiar with, classical music, artists and organizations are starting to use negative information to drive future trajectory, particularly in regards to programming and outreach. There is growing recognition that there are blindspots in regards to whose music we include on our programs, and many organizations are committing to creating programs that are more balanced in regards to gender and race. Outreach strategies may be draped in neo-liberal speak about untapped markets, but they draw on a similar idea that there are gaps we have previously failed to notice. Inviting yourself to observe the places you occupy with this mindset may be illuminating and offer new insights.
But, to continue with the example of “high art” audiences (i.e. museum and concert goers) — while I think the exercise of identifying absences is important, digging deeper into why these groups are missing is the more critical (and more interesting) exercise. I am not necessarily asking the question “why are certain segments of the population underrepresented, and why didn’t we notice until recently” — that answer is complex but fairly straight-forward, and centers largely around Western culture’s colonial legacy. A question more along the lines of “what about this culture is making it such that people do not want to opt in” is far more interesting to me. In the United States, at least, it is not necessarily a matter of many people being exposed to artistic cultures and self-selecting out; many are choosing not to opt in at all.
Which brings us back to Bourdieu and his commentary on methodology. It may be that one of the root causes for the decline of art appreciation (for lack of a better word) in our culture stems from a significant segment of the population reluctant to have an opinion on artistic culture and therefore do not engage with it. I can think of several intuitive explanations for how this came to be the case — these art forms originated within the confines of the church and aristocracy; music and art critics came to prominence during the nineteenth century, and their work handed readymade opinions to the new cultural consumers in the middle class; the rise of pop culture in the twentieth century offered a more easily consumable alternative on a mass scale. Not to paint this group with a broad stroke, as the complex relationship between social status, economic realities, and racial legacies makes each case a unique one. But, the end result is the same: a person who thinks “this space is not made for me.”
But, I maintain that there are certain topics everyone is entitled to have an uneducated opinion on, and the arts are included in that category. I do not maintain this view for everything — if you are espousing your view on, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would be more inclined to demand an educated opinion. But the arts occupy a different space. While they do have a long history, and some may find their appreciation of various art forms increase as they learn more about it, it is perfectly valid for anybody to have impressions, reactions, and opinions about a particular artistic work. Some of the most useful education and outreach work, then, may involve offering tools that help develop audiences’ ability to articulate their thoughts and reactions about artistic experiences. Post-concerts events, such as the ones LunART hosted after the “Human Family'' Virtual Festival can be a casual way to invite audiences to share their impressions, and can provide modeling on how to express their ideas. Cultivating the ability to articulate thoughts about cultural works may help bridge the gap between getting newcomers in the door and getting them to stay in the room.
So, for 2021, perhaps our resolution should be to examine what negative information we are receiving from the spaces around us. Who have I overlooked that I might not have noticed? Why have I overlooked them, and what is going on that makes them stay away? In our culture, we are habituated to expand, to grow, no matter the cost. Switching that mindset around and looking in those negative spaces can, paradoxically, show you opportunities that you may have simply overlooked. What you discover might surprise you.
Allison Jerzak is a classical pianist based in Madison, WI. She is a passionate advocate for increasing classical music’s approachability and relevancy. Leveraging her experiences working in tech, she hopes to bring a unique perspective that bridges the traditional approaches predominating the classical music world with a more future-oriented vision. Allison completed her B.A. in piano performance at UW-Madison and her M.M. in piano performance and pedagogy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently studying privately with Christopher Taylor, and plans to pursue a degree in historical musicology.