Reaching the Right: What Is Arts and Culture Doing Wrong?

A Donald Trump supporter films outside the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. Photo: Flickr user Justin Norman.

Much energy is being expended in the cultural sector right now on the terrible things happening in Washington, DC, and why Donald Trump is unfit to lead. Those of us who attend the theater, musical performances and art exhibits can get worked up to a quivering level of righteous indignation about the current state of affairs. And now we also have Michael Moore on Broadway, ready to fire up all of us East Coast progressives. But what good is that? Should we care if art if it doesn’t reach the people who might learn something, reconsider a point of view, or see the dangers of a current value or belief? The New York Times, in an article dated July 26, suggested he might not reach all of the right people:

Why take his act to Broadway? If it’s true that he preaches to the choir — as his detractors on the right and the left say — speaking to a self-selected group of New York theatergoers seems to restrict his message to a rarefied bubble. What does Mr. Moore, who is known for a biting, sarcastic politics of outrage, think he can do differently, talking to about 1,000 people who have paid as much as $149 a seat?

Not surprisingly, there’s little research on arts participation by political affiliation. But some work has been done. The following pair of charts comes from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Research Report #59, entitled: “When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance.”

When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance​, 2015.

The two pie charts show that levels of participation as well as interest in participation is significantly higher among Strong Democrats and Democrats (37% attending, 41% interested) than Strong Republicans and Republicans (25% attending, 20% interested).

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An article in the Los Angeles Times explored a recent Nielsen survey on patterns of entertainment consumption. In it, they note:

The survey also explored music preferences broken down by political affiliation, with Democrats scoring higher than the general population in money spent on club events with DJs (124% more than average) and small live music sessions (+54%). Republicans, meanwhile, spent more on comedy performances (+65%) and sports events (+35%).

It’s worthwhile to also look at our current cultural divide in terms of urban vs. rural geographies and levels of educational attainment. The following table comes from the NEA’s “A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012.”

US adults choosing arts and non-arts activities at least once in the past 12 months, by metro or non-metro residence, in 2012.

A recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “How the Election Revealed the Divide Between City and Country,” makes this clear, suggesting that we are returning to a political landscape reminiscent of 1920, with rural voters expressing “the same fear of a chaotically pluralistic society.”

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Aren’t these fears and views something we should tackle? Even if we are doing our best, why isn’t it working? I find it amazing today that so much popular entertainment is based on finding ourselves in a dystopian future, often the result of man-made disasters. But there does not seem to be any evidence that these stories inspire changes in individual behavior that might help prevent the end of civilization as we know it.

I would propose that there are three problems we have to solve.

  1. We are not telling stories that seem relevant and compelling to many Americans.
  2. The people who are telling those stories are different than the people we’re trying to reach, and therefore just not relatable to those receiving these stories.
  3. We cannot expect prospective audiences to come to our urban temples of art. We have to take the work to them, in the places that they live, work and play.

I’ll attempt to address these three challenges next month. Any thoughts in the interim will be gratefully received.