What’s Culturally Significant? (Part 2)

A few weeks ago, I joined a gathering of about a hundred professionals from the arts, entertainment, and creative communities in Philadelphia to discuss the concept of “creative vitality” in our city. The fact that all of these talented individuals still see themselves in silos gives credence to the idea that Americans have very different ideas about what’s “culturally significant.”

The city planners who organized the meeting viewed it as an opportunity to celebrate our city’s ability to attract and retain the kind of “creative class” professionals. They asked us to think about what we could do to promote the strong creative culture in Philadelphia and in our entire region.

Yet, the conversation in the town hall meeting and at the reception that followed quickly turned into an evaluation of which particular art forms deserved “saving” during an era of rampant government budget cuts. One attendee suggested that public buses and trains should be required to play the ethnic music of the neighborhoods they pass through. Another professional brainstormed whether business owners could be legally required to spend a portion of their annual revenues to sponsor live arts events in their own buildings.

Many of the conversations and brainstorms I heard that night hinged on two premises:

* American audiences have divorced “popular culture” from “true culture,” sending “Black Swan” to the top of the box office chart while many real-life ballet companies struggle to survive the recession.

* Cultural significance, in a capitalist society, correlates with amount of money the public  is willing to spend to support that culture.

In practice, that kind of thinking suggests that the Black Eyed Peas are our nation’s most culturally significant artists, and that their halftime performance at Super Bowl XLV will represent the very best of the early 21st Century.

Cheap shots aside, thinking about cultural significance through the filter of money doesn’t serve us well. Nor does measuring audience presence. You could attend a sold-out arena show where the audience chatters through the headliner’s entire act, or you could squeeze into a small club where 200 listeners in rapt attention will take you down if you so much as sniffle during a set.

We used to measure cultural significance through sheer income. When the equation changed, we started measuring audience presence. As the tools we use to connect audiences and artists evolved, we talked about engagement.

The start of the 21st Century marks a new kind of yardstick for cultural significance: audience empowerment. It’s no longer enough to just engage with your fans. You have to empower them to support you financially, while guiding them to extend your message through street teams, listening parties, fan clubs, house concerts, and other personal networks.

The concept goes beyond “patronage.” Artists often talk about that concept as if we could return to the Renaissance. Listen to classical radio, and you’re hearing the Black Eyed Peas of centuries ago: you’re hearing the works that pleased kings, queens, and landowners enough to sponsor their development. You’re not hearing the work that landed in the 17th century equivalent of the cut-out bin.

The blessing and the curse of the 21st Century artist is that she needs less money to pursue her craft, relative to cost of living, than any artists of the past five centuries. What can’t be bought, even today, is the combination of audience interest, engagement, empowerment, and support that separates culturally significant artists from hobbyists.