I was climbing a sea cliff this weekend when I noticed a lighthouse I had been looking for fairly close by. Even better, from my vantage, I noticed the trail that lead to the lighthouse as well. I descended and walked back to my car for water and sneakers (I know I am becoming more local because I am doing bizarre things like clambering up cliffs in sandals rather than “proper” shoes.)
As I was making my way across a field toward the trail, I had to walk over some loose chunks of basalt. Despite testing the stability of each rock, one tilted beneath me and I ended up scraping up my hand, knee and a good portion of my lower back. Undaunted, I pulled myself up, washed my wounds with my water bottle and continued on…until I saw a tour bus pull up and disgorge a horde of folks.
I have already established that I am rather anti-social so regular readers may not be surprised to read that human company stopped me where wounds dripping blood didn’t. It was more than that though.
We have all read or had experience with people with poor cell phone etiquette and that is annoying enough. But I have really come to believe of late that people are afraid to be alone with their own thoughts and feelings. I was over at the Kilauea volcano last Christmas and as my mother and I approached the awesome vista, a woman behind us pulled out her cell phone and related moment by moment to a friend.
Perhaps she was just being an idiot, but many incidents similar to that make me wonder if she and other people just don’t know how to process magnificent sights like that without the insulation of a television or computer screen. In order to cope with the swirling emotions they are experiencing, they need to distract themselves with technology.
There is a safety in movies and television. Even the roller coaster in an amusement park has all sorts of safety mechanisms. But you can walk right up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and there aren’t any safety rails (or at least there weren’t the last time I was there.) While it isn’t the mythical abyss staring back at you, it is pretty overwhelming and frightening to stand there with nothing but your own caution and restraint to keep you from falling in.
It makes me wonder if as many people have attention deficit disorder as seem to. It may be more the case that rather than deal with reality which brings creeping thoughts of economic, social, personal, spiritual, educational, etc., woes and concerns, people are seeking solace and distraction in phones, PDAs, computers, video games.
So what does this all mean to arts management? Why did I choose to categorize an entry that starts with a story about my bloody knee as Audience Relations rather than General Musings?
As I drove away from my hiking excursion, it occured to me that arts people trying to educate new and existing audiences about what they do not only have to instruct people about understanding their art form, they have to make them comfortable with the personal silence needed to process the experience.
The idea that you have to stop and think about a work probably seems self evident when you teach people what to look/listen for. But it may be a false assumption these days. In days of instant gratification, if you have taught someone to look at an artist’s use of light, he/she can deal with Rubens even if they had no previous exposure to Baroque art. However, if they come in contact with an artist who has no concern for use of light, the viewer, having no familiar point of reference may quickly pass by. Even if their teacher constantly used the phrase “what is the artist trying to do”, they may not stop to consider that question when faced with unfamiliar elements.
It may not be enough just to “teach a man to fish” anymore. Now you have to teach the person the critical thinking skills to recognize they are in a situation when the goal of getting fish from the water remains the same, but the fishing tool provided is not appropriate in this situation.
The bad news is, this probably will take a major shift in mindset and way of life rather than the intermittent interaction with the arts to achieve. (And that isn’t even acknowledging that this is even more to do with less funding available.) It has to be schools, arts people, Oprah and Dr. Phil and then some talking about it.
The good news is, recently groups have started to really advocate getting away from technology (but is it enough?) I have seen TV ads in the past week or so for the Take Me Fishing website and read an article about a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
These efforts obviously don’t address contemplation of the arts directly, but do advocate activities where people have to spend quiet time with their thoughts (lets hope the lake has poor cell phone reception) and critical problem solving skills (like alternative routes that avoid crossing a field of jagged basalt) that allow people to formulate alternative criteria with which to assess a painting.