The [New] Rules of Engagement

Classic Arts Features   The [New] Rules of Engagement
Cultural historian Siva Vaidhyanathan muses on contemporary culture and how using technology can create gateways to new audiences. He tells the Metropolitan Opera's Elena Park that arts institutions can no longer sit back and simply deliver content.

Elena Park: You believe in the importance of cultural democracy. What role does opera or classical music, which has traditionally been seen as very elitist, play in that democracy?

Siva Vaidhyanathan: It's hard to generalize about opera because there are some works that are going to remain relevant and hip for a hundred or a thousand more years, and there are some that won't.

But we do have to concede that in a pure market environment, opera would not survive today for long, and I think that we have to also concede that it's worthy of investment because it's an important thing. Even those of us who have no discernable European roots have to recognize that opera matters in the stories we tell about ourselves and in our own cultural conversations. And there's also a lot of fun to be had!

EP: So you're optimistic about the popular appeal of opera?

SV: I am. But of course we're not going to push Shakira off her global perch with opera.

There is great potential once it is taken out of its temple or once it's clear that its temple is not the end of the story. Among cultural institutions in New York City, there is a deep desire to use digital technology to at least present a gateway, especially for young people, to build audiences in future generations. The key is to remain no more than three steps away from something that young people already care about.

So that's a big marketing challenge. But people in these institutions are mostly excited about the challenge rather than depressed about it. They're not really worried about the issues that used to be big hang-ups — cheapening, commercializing, or "dumbing down." Those are less important concerns now.

In the 1960s American cultural policy was clearly geared toward correcting market failure. If something did not obviously fill up a concert hall, the government was there to step in and supplement the effort. Sometime in the 1980s, our national cultural policy turned towards a much more limited and almost populist notion. Attacks on the NEA and NEH were sometimes couched in ideological terms, but a lot of it came from a pretty straightforward policy question, "Wouldn't it be better to support bluegrass festivals and quilting competitions rather than opera and 20th-century composers?" That's a legitimate question, and the reaction to that has been generally healthy. Institutions have had to get more savvy and really push to prove themselves relevant.

There have been horror stories — museums that have gone overboard in the product placement area. Nobody wants to see a giant Miller billboard behind a performance at a major cultural institution. Nevertheless, the idea that you can push a lot of this material out into high schools, out on the street or the plaza and not just in the building — that you can put stuff on the Internet — is really exciting. Only in the last two years have we reached the point where millions of Americans can watch high quality audio and video on the Internet. We've been hoping for this technological moment for 20 years.

EP: The Met is actively using technology to move the operatic art form forward. What are the challenges?

SV: The challenge is to empower your potential audience to engage in conversation. Delivery is no longer enough. It's important to have web sites with commentary so people can engage in conversations, sites that keep people apprised of new events and trends. No matter where you're sitting in the world, you should feel a part of the Metropolitan Opera.

The big challenge with connecting to new audiences all over the world is to make them feel part of the process, and not that they are merely passive recipients. That might mean encouraging people to remix materials. Or to release video clips in a format that might allow this technological remixing.

Culture is conversation. It is an argument over time. And sometimes you can get heated, and sometimes people just break into song and dance, and that's the beauty of it. But those are the risks you take, and as more and more cultural institutions realize that that is how culture works — in a circle rather than in a line — the more relevant they will remain.

EP: How has the rise of delivery mechanisms such as TiVo and Flickr affected the consumption of culture? What are the implications for an art form such as opera, which often spins out long stories with complex music over extended periods of time?

SV: [One view is that] the Internet and television have made us incapable of focusing for more than 20 minutes on anything, and certainly in New York that's what you think is going on. But now, all over the U.S., there are 12-year-olds playing video games for six, eight hours straight. These are examples of deep and sustained immersion, and are satisfying [experiences] only with deep and sustained immersion.

EP: What new avenues should arts institutions explore?

SV: The idea of posting archives in video format is really exciting. Anybody who's involved in voice training would find the highest-quality performances presented in digital video inspiring and exciting in ways that CDs or the occasional TV program are not.

The dramatic and musical arts must become more portable in a sense — and I don't think portability is necessarily an erosion of quality. It's complementary to the live event, not a replacement. If you see an inspiring video clip, you're not likely to think, "I don't want to see this live." You're more likely to think, "I do want to see this live, and I'm going to find some way to get to New York and get a ticket."

It is really about connecting with audiences over time and space, because artists are hooking into the familiar and bringing it to a new level, giving it a new interpretation and sending the audience to an unexpected place. Part of the challenge for any cultural institution is to be able to create those hooks. To bring people in who are surprised to find that they are into it.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is the author of The Anarchist in the Library.

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