We don’t need your traditional legitimate taste, or, how the youth are redefining culture

by Jane

The Puppet Show: Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1963

In the past few weeks, interesting commentary on the state of youth and the arts has come out of two studies: Australia’s TheatreSpace Preliminary Report, and Norway’s Changing Relations: Class, education and cultural capital.   Encompassing vastly different research practice, focus, and intent, they nonetheless together have interesting things to say about how we define culture in relation to young people, and how young people define themselves in relation to culture

An article provocatively titled Are The Arts Irrelevant to the Next Generation? speaks to the Norwegian study which showed that between 1998 and 2008 there has been a “marked decline in interest and use of almost every form of culture that is identified with traditional legitimate taste” (emphasis mine).  The study took on a much broader glance at relationships between cultural knowledge and interests with economic backgrounds, but through a study of university students the ideas of a generation can be drawn.

The Norwegian study points towards a shift in interest towards musicals, to pop/rock concerts, and to crime/suspense novels, and appreciated the shift towards “privatisation of cultural consumption”.  While these are all (to a greater or lesser extent) a part of “popular culture”, I take consistent umbrage with the exclusion of these from “traditional legitimate taste.”  What is it about these which means they not of “legitimate taste”?  What is it about the new which is illegitimate? What is it about the non-traditional which instills fear?  What is it about the traditional – the opera, the baroque – which legitimises its place in culture, be that theirs or ours?

The TheatreSpace report, a study of nearly 3000 young theatre-goers in the Eastern state capitals, confuses things somewhat by buying into the current arts definition of “youth” as aged 14-30 – and thus conflating reports from high-school students with those in their twenties.  While the notion of studying youth and culture is one I obviously appreciate, a high-school student attending a weekday matinee with their class is having a vastly different relationship to the work than a “young professional” attending on a Friday night with their friends.  The study tends to skew towards the high-school, curriculum-based experience.  Is the artistic community served by assuming all youth are having the same experience?

What the report does well is question what young people are seeing on stage in relationship to their own cultural background.  In the study, 40% of young people attending live theatre in NSW are from non-Anglo backgrounds.  22% of respondents speak a language other than English at home, most frequently speaking Chinese, Vietnamese and Arabic, and 1.73% of respondents identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Of the nineteen productions from which feedback was solicited, only one included a language other than English, with Yibiyung, surveyed at Malthouse Theatre, featuring an introduction in Noogar language.  While several were adapted from non-English texts, these were all from Europe: there were no Asian or Middle Eastern texts, adaptations or otherwise.

In terms of gender, 63% of the respondents were female: 34.5% of the texts were written by women, 29.3% were directed by women.

Is it any wonder we have conversations about the youth not attending art when they can’t see themselves on stage?  Where is the impetus to continue to engage with a cultural event post schooling which doesn’t reflect your culture?

The Norwegian study, despite some panicked overtones on what it will mean for the future of arts funding, showed 31% of respondents interested in baroque music, 11% interested in opera, and 57% interested in “classic” theatre: in such a new country as modern Australia, what would the figures look like here?

Perhaps, when we start to decree the end of culture in this generation, could we stop for a moment to think exactly what we are decreeing the end of – and what we are seeing the start of?

When the end of “traditional legitimate taste” is called out in panicked cries, what is failing to be appreciated is how young people are perhaps more involved in culture than ever before.  While some might decree youtube and twitter as the root cause of the lack of attention spans of a new generation (helpfully drawn to our attention this week by Peter West writing in The Age how “young people do pretty much anything they like” at the opera – hooligans, the lot of them), I propose that rather than a dumbing down, a constant access to culture via the internet is allowing us to hone and define our tastes and our expectations in ways that were never before possible.

I, white Australian, feel no cultural connection to opera (and I’m not even sure I could accurately identify baroque).  How can we expect young generations immigrating here from across Asia, Africa, or the Middle East to see these heritage artforms with any relevance at all?  What culture are we curating when our subsidised stages are so mono-cultural?  Why would the youth abandon self-definition of culture online for  someone else’s definition of a large scale culture they should be participating in?  Where do new generations of Australia fit into “traditional legitimate taste”?

Where does Australia itself fit into “traditional legitimate taste”?

Beyond increased ideas and representations of culture, isn’t it also possible that young people have actually been afforded a wonderful opportunity to define taste, and good work, in a way maybe they never have before?  In a way which is less confined by bounds of disposable income and geographical barriers.  Youtube, home of the short video, is of course overrun by cat videos and people making fools of themselves.  But it is also a place for wonderful discoveries of art.

With a short-form focus, the best short-films and web-series which exist on that platform have an knowledge and appreciation of brevity, of telling stories economically, of an emotional impact which can be found in minutes.  When we can see and appreciate an amazing story told in two minutes, is it any wonder we don’t want to sit through a mediocre story told in two hours?  This isn’t to say we can’t or we won’t sit for two hours appreciating a work – whether this be a feature film, a play, a piece of music – but perhaps today’s youth have been afforded the choice to demand more.

I’m a big proponent for the support of small-scale art and art events: art which is specifically compiled for a small group of people, but which occurs within a framework where many many pieces of this scale are created.  A system which appreciates that not everyone can be boxed into the same box, and instead of trying to make people awkwardly fit into the large art structures, creating small structures in response to the people themselves.  In short: a mimicking of the individuality of expression which can be found through the world wide web.

The types of work seen in the TheatreSpaces report covers work made for a variety of audiences.  Moth and Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, new Australian works produced by youth focused organisation Arena Theatre Company, are going to ask for and illicit a different set of emotions and responses than classic Australian script The Removalists programmed on the STC mainstage, or Shakespeare’s King Lear on Belll Shakespeare’s mainstage.  This isn’t to say older works can’t have an impact on the new generations, but how does the creation and presentation of work change when it is created for the “youtube generation”, instead of the traditional subscriber?  To create on going relationships with the young people attending art, do we need to show them art which is made for them, or art which explores the greater themes of our world?   How aware, even, are theatre-makers, of their audience?

As a preliminary report, there is little done to create an overview of responses to different works: a comparative look at differing interactions with works and with theatre spaces.  Theatre demands live audiences at a specific time in a specific place; without these demands people creating web-based content can be free from thinking of activating a particular audience.  Do art makers find a connection because of a knowledge of audience, or despite of it: freed from consideration.

The TheatreSpace report, puts forward several reasons perceived as discouraging theatre attendance.   Theatre is a “risk” which may be “boring, irrelevant, or inaccessible”.  The current monocultural make-up of theatre programming in Australia doesn’t represent multicultural young Australians.  Feeling unwelcome as an audience member is hardly conducive to return visits.  Barriers are finical and logistical – how can you see art when you can’t travel to the venue?

Despite these issues, the report is overall very positive when reporting on young people and the theatre: partially theatre which is contemporary, intimate, innovative in form, and challenging.  It places an emphasis on families, teachers, access and equity programs to get young people to the theatre in the first place – and to keep them there.  They note young people want to be able to discuss the work they are seeing – I think I can vouch pretty strongly for that one.

Norway’s continuous culture is a large, perhaps burdensome, perhaps welcome and needed, prop of old culture, even against a generation which is perceived as moving away from these art forms.  Australia is a country which has constantly shifted its make-up over the past 220-odd years, a make-up which will continue to change.  We are a country in flux, almost more easily defined by what we are not than what we are.  Our youth are multicultural and connected internationally in more ways than ever before.  Our culture is most likely completely undefinable.  Maybe we need to stop looking for boxes to create, market, and show art in.  Maybe we need to let the youth redefine what culture is.  We can’t decree its loss forever.  Maybe we need to stop looking at the internet – at youtube – as a destructor of cultural definitions, and try and find from that medium what young people want from art.  What they connect to.  Whose stories they want to see.  Whose voices they want to hear.  What collectives they want to participate in.

In yesterday’s Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture “In Praise of Nepotism”  (available for download from Currency House), Katherine Brisbane spoke of an “audience left behind”: the youth, the vibrancy, the exuberance, the Australianness, the independence of the New Wave theatre movement in Australia has been lost to structure, rigour and focus on heritage art forms in funding bodies.   While artists and community were once linked, she speaks of the widening gap: “demolition of a culture of inclusion that could never be reconstructed.”

But can we reconstruct this?  Can we allow a redefinition of culture?  A definition which is inclusive, which is flexible, which is exciting, which is responsive?

Theatre, and indeed all live art, has the incredible power of place and collectives of people.  It exists in a world and a temporal state that youtube never can. The risks are bigger because the pay-off can be much much greater.  We  – young people, arts workers alike – need to find a way to create art and a dialogue around art which embraces and encourages these risks – from artists, from audience members – while still appreciating the art which can exist in two-minutes online.

Through listening, through allowing a redefinition, imagine what is possible.  For young audiences, and for art itself.  Every day the arts don’t step forward, they are moving backwards.

Let’s step forward.