The Other Columbus: Better live audiences make for better public art

Scott Woods
A person uses a cell phone

After attending a concert in Nashville where the audience was distractingly inattentive to the world-class musician on stage, an acquaintance publicly mused, “I don't think there are a lot of music lovers in Music City. I think there are a lot of entertainment addicts.”

Ouch, right? And this was in Nashville, where I would have assumed everyone kind of knew the deal when it came to public art: Sit back, relax, and let’s enjoy this experience on which we’re about to spend a week’s worth of groceries. And yet.

I am not like the people she describes, but I know their kind: Talking during concerts, complaining if it isn’t family friendly despite its apparent subject matter, noses in phones the entire time while sharing nothing about the performance online. People who generally treat the world like they’re still on their couch everywhere they go. No doubt about it, we are not the audiences we used to be.

Of course, audiences today aren’t the worst audiences ever. No one is throwing tomatoes at actors for dropping lines (though that may have to do more with the lack of vegetables in the American diet than criticism). In every year prior to the mid-1700s audiences were situated on English stages and “participating” as a matter of course. And there are lots more reasons for this disconnect with the modern live experience than bad manners.

Technology is the largest slice of the pie by a long stretch. The minute one could talk, photograph, livestream, comment and report in real time to everyone they know with a phone, art was destined to intersect with less-inclined people, turning even fans into mere spectators. The infantilization of public art — not in an attempt to genuinely educate new generations of concert-goers so much as to attract as many bodies as possible and meet arbitrary funding metrics — has also served to make a lot of art that less engaging in an attempt to cater to as broad an audience as possible.

Audiences could take a cue from Ohio State tailgaters here. Football fans commit to the experience of the live game. Everything they pack is meant to enhance the experience, bringing them as close to the action as possible: wardrobe, face paint, dedicated dens, a stadium-approved menu. When an OSU football game is happening, Columbus shuts down — a phenomenon so fulsome that even haters spend the same three hours complaining about how they’re not part of the experience instead of doing almost anything else, sequestered on Twitter like people who didn’t heed a hurricane siren and are waiting out the storm.

If I had one resolution I could impose on people who experience art in our city in the coming year, it would be to embrace the moment. How many hours of live concerts and “once in a lifetime” instances waste away in our phones months after they have occurred? Enough of us must break through the ironic or nostalgic walls we have erected and develop an appetite for true appreciation of fully intact art experiences. I’ll settle for a good start: An awareness of when we’re contributing to the problem.

In 2020, let’s shoot for fewer livestreams and more in-the-moment experiences. Your art scenes and attention span will thank you.