Replacing Arts Appreciation with Arts Talk

Lynne Conner

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
  — Benjamin Franklin

In 2004 I wrote an essay for this journal titled “Who Gets to Tell the Meaning?” In it I made a clear distinction between marketing objectives (butts in seats) and engagement objectives (deepening experience). I described the active nature of Western historical arts audiences, whose free-form, talk-oriented meaning making was an essential characteristic of past arts ecologies. And I argued that contemporary adult audiences show a similar eagerness to talk productively about the meaning and value of the arts, when invited properly. The ensuing decade has seen dozens of engagement initiatives and related projects that truly deepen the audience’s experience of the arts. These efforts are clear markers of the arts industry’s growing awareness of the importance of acknowledging the audience as subject rather than object.

It is not all good news, however. I believe that something critical is missing from current audience engagement practices — the audience’s voice. In most engagement programming (live or digital), the emphasis is on creating social connections and on providing learning supports (expert lectures, program/website essays, artist panels, behind-the-scene tours, talk-backs, etc.). As a result there are plenty of opportunities for audience members to socialize in arts venues and to expand their knowledge of an art form.

But when do they get to help construct the art form’s meaning? Or to put it bluntly, when do they really get to talk back? The vast majority of today’s enrichment programs do not aim to generate audience-centered talk about the meaning and value of an arts event or object. Indeed, most of our current audience engagement programming follows the twentieth-century arts appreciation model, in which experts determine and deliver the meaning to a largely passive audience. This one-to-many communication paradigm is woefully out of step with the many-to-many ethos of 2.0 America.

I envision arts experiences where discussion and debate are as at home as they are in other types of cultural consumption. That is part of the reason why we like sports and premium cable shows and restaurants and movies, because we know how to debate their content and we enjoy the rush of adrenaline that comes from arguing their relative value. A look at contemporary leisure culture reveals that people seek out intellectual stimulation — from the pregame data mining and analysis routinely performed by sports fans, to the careful postviewing dissection of plot and story exchanges between what television critic Adam Sternbergh calls the new TV “superviewers.” In both examples, participation is intellectually critical: spectators conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information gathered from observation, communication, and reflection. Here, engagement is analogous to the word’s original usage: the action of gears built into a mechanism. When the gears engage, the mechanism gets to work. Emotionally and intellectually, people engage when they feel a sense of involvement in the process.

Why hasn’t the arts industry been able to construct a similarly engaged interpretive landscape? Why isn’t arts talk as public, as common, and as democratic as TV talk or book talk or movie talk or food talk? Perhaps because we have not paid enough attention to the audience as a group of thinkers and learners. In this essay I set out an agenda for replacing “arts appreciation” with what I call Arts Talk, a new modality that reframes the critical role that productive talk can play in the organization of a healthy arts ecology. Arts Talk connotes not just literal talk but also a spirit of active inquiry among people who share an interest in the arts. I argue here for a new era of arts appreciation pushing beyond the twentieth-century one-to-many model (in which experts determine and deliver meaning to a largely passive audience) in order to encourage adult audiences not only to post an opinion but also to participate in conversations where information is gathered and new ideas are shared.

What are the actions we can take to get people really talking about the arts?

A Brief History of Arts Appreciation

In the contemporary arts industry, we tend to think of meaning making as a habit of mind we teach to children and then expect to see many years later fully functioning in adults. To that end, we continue to pour a notable percentage of arts funding into secondary-level programs centered on arts learning.

It is interesting to note, then, that arts appreciation (understanding the operations and value of a work of art) in the United States has its roots in two successive nineteenth-century education drives targeted at adults rather than children: the lyceum and Chautauqua movements. Lyceums — the name evokes the garden at Athens where Aristotle lectured — supported, through public programs and course work, the sharing and airing of ideas, opinions, and aesthetic expression. Chautauquas (named for the lake in western New York State where the first event was held in 1874) began as short summer retreats offering “education and uplift” through lectures, entertainment, political debates, and reading-based course work. A magazine article from 1912 describes the growing Chautauqua phenomenon as “grown-folks’ university, in which the educationally belated make up for the deficiencies of early training by this mature entrance into the realm of wider interests and world knowledge.”1 The lyceum and Chautauqua movements were built on the ideal of prosperity through continuing education. Both movements enabled aesthetic education in the form of exposure to a variety of arts forms, from opera, balalaika bands, and Shakespeare to bluegrass, bell ringers, and early moving pictures. And both encouraged critical engagement in the form of discussion and debate.

Other types of nineteenth-century arts appreciation also catered to adult learning. Music appreciation books, for instance, first originated in Europe in the 1830s in order to “instruct ignorant lovers of music.” In the United States, W. S. B. Mathews published How to Understand Music in 1888, followed a year later by Henry Krehbiel’s widely distributed How to Listen to Music: Hints and Suggestions to Untaught Lovers of the Art. According to the early twentieth-century musicologist Percy A. Scholes, these music appreciation texts were necessary because “love for a thing may come (and very often does) as the result of understanding it. What we do not understand is generally repellent.”

In secondary education, arts appreciation emerged as an aspect of Progressive Era reform. Inspired by John Dewey and other educational theorists, early practitioners believed that bringing culture to children would by default bring culture to parents and thus to the average working-class home. This trickle-up effect was implemented using Picture Study, a secondary-school pedagogy in which teachers handed out tiny reproductions of Western masterpieces for examination and discussion and allowed students to take them home. These picture cards also contained quotes from literature, complementing visual aesthetics with canonical poetry, plays, novels, and scripture. The goal of this pedagogical bricolage was to encourage critical thinking by asking students to search for the connections between the art forms represented. The preface to a widely distributed Picture Study text from 1927 notes, for example, that the “subject matter of a picture is more than its execution, style or technique. The good picture from an educational standpoint of view is either like a sermon teaching a great moral truth or like a poem, idealizing some important aspect of life. It must palpitate with human interest.”2

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a second modality for teaching arts appreciation was introduced: participation in studio activities (painting, sculpting, playing an instrument, reciting a dramatic monologue). The studio modality steadily gained traction over the course of the century, while the interpretive modality faded. Today there are few secondary arts learning programs that emphasize or even facilitate the interpretive process (outside of literature classes and the occasional arts history course). I do not mean to discount the valuable work of curricular initiatives, such as Lincoln Center Education or the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, which include lesson components emphasizing the interpretive process. I do assert, however, that American arts workers tend to hold by a generally accepted conception that when one practices an art form, one is by default capable of and comfortable with interpreting the meaning and value of other people’s art.

As arts education was institutionalized over the first half of the twentieth century and became associated primarily with children, the notion of adult-centered arts appreciation mutated from a learning/critical thinking construct (understanding the technical elements of a painting, quoting a passage from Shakespeare, having the confidence to articulate a point of view about a performance) to a behavior construct (knowing when to clap, remaining quiet and physically still, and looking to the experts as arbiters of value). Gradually, the notion that the arts-going experience might also include discussion and debate about the meaning and value of the arts event faded away. The legacy of this shift in focus is clear; today, we do not think of that kind of intellectual work when we think about adult audiences. But we should, because where there is active meaning making, there is engagement.

Audience as Learning Community

The term learning community surfaced in the 1980s as a way to define a shift in attitude acknowledging learning as a cultural practice as opposed to an individual process. Its definition is based on the “communities of practice” work of social learning theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. A learning community operates via a sense of shared experience and a culture of praxis, a term defined in educational theory as “doing with built-in reflection.”3 In this model, learners take new knowledge, skills, or attitudes and practice them by sharing their experience with others in the community and by actively reflecting on their process. In so doing, learners are thought to be participating in the negotiation of meaning. The emphasis is not solely on the exchange of interpretations but rather on the collective process of making meaning.

Audiences too are learners, engaged in a process of making sense of the world through their connection with the arts event unfolding in front of them and with the community that surrounds it, artists and fellow audience members alike. As such, audiences are de facto learning communities. I believe that audience members are successful learners when they take charge of their own interpretive process, and are often happiest when that process happens in a social context. But the sacralization of the serious arts has left us with a social structure for arts going that readily discourages the formation of learning communities among individual audience members. As I have explored in previous publications,4 for nearly 2,500 years Western audiences enjoyed a culturally constructed understanding that their part in the interpretive operation — their role as decoders of meaning — was central to the way in which the arts functioned in society. But late nineteenth-century efforts to “raise up the masses” by establishing the rules of high art (and commencing war on low art) encouraged audiences to be silent, passive receptors taking their cues about meaning and value from prescribed gatekeepers. The audience’s sovereignty over meaning and value was actively discouraged, turning what had long been a three-dimensional arts experience — witnessing an arts event/object and having the opportunity to participate in the articulation of its meaning and value — into a two-dimensional encounter often lacking the depth of intellectual engagement. This has been an enormous loss for the arts, since the hard work of interpreting meaning and value is a practice: a thing we must do again and again in order to get the most out of it. When audiences are consistently disenfranchised from the meaning-making process, they lose their interpretive chops.

Learning communities operate best when all participants are able to identify as insiders whose presence is felt to be necessary to the process. When the talk-back session, for instance, becomes a space for discovery, reflection, and meaning making, it moves from a mere transaction of information to an opportunity for transformative learning. Transaction of information is fine, but as recent findings from the science of learning have shown, it is not to be confused with learning. Many contemporary audience members are not all that interested in information for its own sake; instead, they seek the pleasure of applying that information to the processing of an artwork’s ideas, concepts, problems, themes, and issues. They seek the pleasure of interpretation. What this means for the arts is that audience enrichment programs designed to enhance audience pleasure and engagement work best when they take on the intellectual values of a learning community, including emphasis on discussion rather than lectures or speeches, and encouragement of multiple perspectives and diverse communication styles.

Arts Talk

As philosophers, artists, brain scientists, and our own common sense tell us, whatever is interpretable is, in principle, open to an infinite array of interpretations. How do we arts workers loosen our grip on meaning making and encourage our audiences to move beyond passive spectating and toward more intellectually active forms of audience engagement? How do we encourage our audiences to be comfortable with colliding truths and mindful about how complexity leads to insight? The answer, I propose, is to build opportunities for Arts Talk.

The Arts Talk model is designed to turn the legacy of the intellectually passive audience around by (1) creating a transparent relationship with the audience, and (2) employing facilitators and/or facilitation structures that ask, listen, and request rather than tell, lecture, or direct. The model is predicated on the idea that significant opportunities for engagement come before and after the arts event when audiences are invited to formulate and express an opinion in a social context, which I label social interpretation. The goal of social interpretation is to foster productive talk that helps us to communicate. The productivity here is literal, involving the effective exchange of information and viewpoints, and symbolic, in that people finish the experience with a new connection to the information and ideas coming out of the exchange. In an environment where productive talk is encouraged and supported, community spirit flourishes.

Productive talk is not about oversharing or spotlighting ME! It is about authentic conversation (from the Latin conversari, “to associate with,” and convertere, “to turn around”). Authentically productive talk brings us together, and it can turn us around; that is, it can lead us to new information, new insights, and new opinions. People who participate in social interpretation gain opportunities for critical and imaginative thinking and learn how to exercise and defend their own aesthetic judgments. I would argue, in fact, that productive talk builds audience spectator skills by pushing us past our ingrained habits of viewing and perception. In my experience, when audiences are included in transparent and democratic social interpretation, they are more likely to respond well to adventurous programming because they have better tools for making sense of that (sometimes) challenging experience. This should be good news for arts organizations and artists: the better our audiences become at talking about their arts experiences, the less we need to worry about the “accessibility” of our programming.

But why social interpretation? What is wrong with internal, private meaning making? Nothing, of course. The quiet and private contemplation of an arts experience is a critical form of authoring meaning and is a part of every receptor’s experience (the human mind is biologically determined to be constantly interpreting its surroundings). Nevertheless, while internal, private meaning making is the reflexive, evolutionary starting point, it is not, for many people, the ultimate destination. For many of us, talking (whether through our vocal cords or our thumbs/fingertips on a keyboard) is key to firing up the brain and juicing the neural pathways. Talking about something converts individual knowledge into group knowledge. It creates community. And as our “going viral” culture proves on a daily basis, it produces interest.

Nourishing Arts Talk

Earlier in this essay I stated that we tend to think of audience-produced interpretation and meaning making as habits of mind we teach to children and then expect to see in adult audiences. But the evidence does not support this notion. Generations of Americans schooled in various arts appreciation modalities have not, in fact, yielded audiences who feel comfortable talking about the serious arts. The takeaway from this negative equation is not that arts education is invalid, but rather that it should not end with school-age children.

As the philanthropic community continues to explore ways to support audience engagement strategies, can funders widen the aperture enough to include social interpretation as a critical component of the arts creation and delivery systems? Are grantmakers willing to help arts workers build a culture of productive talk into their organizations and communities? And are they willing to consider alternative funding models, including direct support of audience-centered meaning making?

Here are two possible actions for supporting audience-centered social interpretation.

1. Train Arts Talk Facilitators

In my observation, the best audience-centered interpretive experiences are rooted in good facilitation. But here is the key: the facilitator is an instrument dedicated to creating a hospitable learning environment, not an ego looking to be fulfilled. The facilitator does not make the meaning and give it to an audience. The facilitator establishes the environment and the tools for audience members to make the meaning together.

Like all professional skill sets, facilitation must be studied and deliberately practiced. A funder-driven initiative designed to train Arts Talk facilitators and then to embed them in existing institutions would solve a significant challenge facing arts organizations, many of which simply do not have the personnel or the time to develop professional and effective facilitation practices.

In my recent book Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, I distill ten key values and strategies for facilitating productive talk gleaned from a wide range of modalities (including, among others, conflict resolution, business communications, and various therapeutic and religious practices). Though space limitations prohibit me from listing them here, I do want to emphasize two key practices I encountered in the most effective talk environments. The first is hospitality, because for adults the ability to position, define, and create meaning is dependent on a welcoming learning environment. In an arts context, this means that audience members must feel that their prior experience and their taste portfolios are welcome as a starting point for the new, often difficult learning that is about to occur. The second key practice is the coupling of powerful questioning with active listening. Good facilitators enable productive talk by framing and asking powerful questions that stimulate response but do not tell people what they are supposed to be thinking and feeling. And good facilitators listen authentically.

2. Support Audience Leagues

In the American past, audience leagues nurtured independent thinking about the arts by encouraging patrons to share observations, debate opinions, and generally take ownership over their cultural experiences. These social interpretation incubators, often called “teas,” were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but gradually disappeared as sacralization took hold.

Happily, the digital era has brought them back — when it comes to popular art forms, that is. Television audiences, for example, “meet” on the Internet to do exactly the same things that their nineteenth-century theater-going forebears did in person: share observations, debate opinions, take ownership. Because of the impact of sacralization in the serious arts sector, however, if we are going to see a renaissance in audience-led social interpretation, someone is going to have to provide the amniotic fluid. The twenty-first-century version of an audience league could take the form of live, physically co-present Arts Talk dialogue sessions held in a coffee shop, a local bar, or the community library. Or it could be a digital hot spot hosted by a local arts council website. Or it could be some emerging digital-live hybrid site/tool that I cannot yet quite imagine. The important point — the key criterion — is that audience members are in charge and lead themselves (with, perhaps, a trained Arts Talk facilitator to help the community of learners get established before then getting out of the way). Not everything that gets said or typed is going to be brilliant. Not every comment is going to be 100 percent on topic. And not every point of view will be shared among the participants. But like sports talk or TV talk, audience-led Arts Talk has the potential to turn passive spectators into active learners and thus more engaged patrons.

By stressing the importance of social interpretation, I am not creating a hierarchy of value about how meaning should be made. I am instead attempting to acknowledge the fact that participatory activities can also include meaning making around the arts. I am arguing that a culture of Arts Talk increases our arts literacy, our capacity for adventure and risk taking, our sense of connection, and, most importantly, our pleasure as audience members.


  1. Walter Hines Page and Arthur Wilson Page, “The Great American Forum,” World’s Work 24 (1912): 554.
  2. Oscar W. Neale, Picture Study in the Grades (Stevens Point, WI: O. W. Neale Publishing, 1925).
  3. Jane Vella, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 32.
  4. See, for example, Lynne Conner, “In and Out of the Dark: A Theory of Audience Behavior from Sophocles to Spoken Word,” in Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, ed. Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey (New York: Routledge, 2008); and chapter 2 in Lynne Conner, Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).