How Do I Know If I Should Be Impressed?

I was intrigued by an article in The Guardian last month that wondered if we enjoy art when it is anonymous, without any preconceived expectations about what we will experience. During the Dance Umbrella Festival at Sadler Wells, one event featured a mix of well-known and unknown choreographers being presented anonymously.

The concept is to allow (or force, depending on your point of view,) people to evaluate a performance on its own merits absent of any bias about whether they are supposed to like what they see.

This idea chimes with broader research in neuroscience on how influential our beliefs are in creating our experiences. For example, put people in a brain scanner and do a blind tasting with two different brands of cola, and you get a fairly even split in terms of preference. But tell them what brand they’re drinking and their brain’s pleasure centres actually light up more if they think it’s their preferred drink. Brand loyalty is a powerful thing. And perhaps what’s true for fizzy drinks follows for Mozart, Godard or Merce Cunningham. Psychologist Paul Bloom writes in his book How Pleasure Works that this leads to a feedback loop. You think you like Pinter. Because of that you get more pleasure from watching his work, which reinforces the idea that you like it. And a fan is born.

The responses to this gambit were a little mixed. Critic Judith Mackrell reeeaallllyyy wanted to know who did what, though she also found it liberating.

Sarah Bradbury at The Upcoming seemed to be able to focus more on the dance and didn’t really reflect much on the experiment.

It got me wondering if there is benefit in doing similar experiments at other events. For example, if you dress actors in Elizabethan clothing and have them perform a period piece by Moliere or Oscar Wilde, would people who subsequently went to see a Shakespeare comedy find they enjoyed it more thinking they had already seen a Shakespearean play?

The reason I suggest Moliere and Wilde is because the language and behavior would be a little more formal and stilted than contemporary conversation so audiences would perceive it as strange, but accessible. Note that I did not suggest outright telling people they were seeing Shakespeare. Outright deception like that is a thorny question I haven’t quite resolved yet.

Thinking along these lines also raised the question of whether people would enjoy a Gilbert & Sullivan light opera if it avoided the stigma of the word opera and was referenced as a musical.

But from another point of view, does calling it a light opera cause people to be more open to seeing opera? The Most Happy Fella really straddles the line between opera and musical. Porgy and Bess is usually placed firmly within the opera category. Would injecting a little category flexibility based on one’s agenda help lower perceptual barriers for opera?

I am not entirely clear how this might work for visual arts, but there might be some good opportunities inherent to leveraging a little ignorance. I recall when I visited the Salvador Dali Museum that many of the works on display are not what people initially envision when they think of his work. Using that sort of anonymity might be a good place to start.

Getting people to consider whether they like the piece more before they know it is a Dali (or whomever) or after may help people recognize that there may be something of value in work they are dismissing simply because a famous name isn’t attached to it. I am not sure this realization will slow people down as they rush past galleries to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or a special exhibit at their local museum, but maybe they linger a little longer on the way out.

Works that aren’t instantly identifiable as a particular artist’s can also help illustrate that creation is a process. Dali did a lot of sketching and other relatively unremarkable work before he developed his distinctive style.

Any thoughts on this? Have you ever stumbled across a performance, movie, piece of music or work of visual art that you liked but didn’t know the creator? Upon learning his/her identity were surprised you enjoyed the work of someone you had intentionally been avoiding? Has a positive experience you had acted as a gateway to trying a related experience you were previously pretty sure you wouldn’t enjoy?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “How Do I Know If I Should Be Impressed?”

  1. Joe – Interesting. I am reminded of a session Artistic Director of The Discovery Orchestra George Marriner Maull did at an inner city (Newark, NJ) boys school. In one class he introduced the piece before listening to and exploring it and immediately lost them through groans. In another class he helped the boys listen to and explore the same piece before announcing it was 300 year old “classical” music. They were not phased at all, apparently, and appreciated the music lesson.

    We in the Western World, particularly the USA, are obsessed with applying labels to absolutely everything, and bask in the preconceptions they entail. Removing those labels (i.e. unidentifying a creator), is bold, challenging, exciting, unnerving, and unlikely to inspire the sort of funding the Arts Establishment has come to rely upon.


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