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The Art of Being Infrequent: Erratic Cultural Consumption and the Attachments of Taste

Ana Gross, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick



A number of years ago I conducted research amongst infrequent audiences to the Opera, Ballet and Theatre in London. I was working within the cultural policy arena, looking at identifying the dispositions, gestures and mechanisms which perpetuate infrequent and erratic patterns of attendance to such artforms. By that time, we were focusing the analysis on an understanding of cultural inequalities as being produced by qualitatively distinct social tastes. However, one could also explore such inequalities by trying to understand how they are being actively produced via the implementation of collective techniques, myths and ceremonies of pleasure (Hennion 2001), attachments which can contribute to explain from a micro perspective the quantitatively unequal exposure to culture across different social groups. In this brief piece I explore and hypothesize this approach while I also challenge Antoine Hennion’s notion of (positive) ways of attaching to artistic experiences by describing how certain (negative) arts consumption patterns can also produce erratic, less productive attendance.

I would like to start by arguing that infrequent arts attenders produce a different (and less productive) set of capabilities which actually enable them to configure and realize the value of cultural consumption, albeit inefficiently. I want to here explore how inequalities in the acquisition of cultural capital are not only produced by the (material, symbolical or social) impossibility or unwillingness to access certain types of artforms as a matter of taste, but also by the infrequent deployment of taste in a field in which better equipped and frequent attenders are possibly able to capitalize on culture in a much more effective and (what appears to be) natural and therefore un-normative way. I would like to somehow challenge the notion that the acquisition of cultural capital actually ‘happens’ in the sole act of consumption (in the encounter of well-adjusted habitus and certain fields), and claim instead that an array of mechanisms and devices (both material and immaterial) need to be operating in order for cultural consumption to actually convert into cultural capital, and for cultural experiences to be enacted as a naturally occurring phenomenon, that is, one worth of experiencing frequently.

While Pierre Bourdieu (1979) understands cultural practices in terms of social systems (or fields) and strategies of social distinction via the acquisition of cultural capital (mediated by habitus), Antoine Hennion acknowledges these structural determinants but is much more interested in their boundaries, and works towards understanding the arts consumer field of manoeuvre as opposed to seeing these consumer types as somehow passive victims of external determinants. Hennion considers arts consumers as fully aware of the structural (but productive) constraints they are subject to, and sees them as agents actively working with or against them (Looseley 2006). As a result my analysis seeks to explore and uncover taste as performance (Hennion 2007), always in the making and situated. While Bourdieu’s understanding of the process of reproduction is framed in terms of the different levels of economic, social and cultural capitals with which people act strategically on the basis of their habitus within different fields, the aim is to locate the same processes of reproduction on a different level. It is in Hennion’s pragmatics of taste, in the routines and rituals, the set of conditions likely to trigger and conjure up arts consumption as a pleasurable experience that I aim to understand the relatively reduced frequency of attendance of this particular audience group.

So I depart from the notion that there is not such a thing as a passive infrequent attender, but that infrequency is actively being produced and that ‘taste is not an attribute, it is not a property (of a thing or of a person), it is an activity.’ (Hennion, 2007, 101). The emergence of taste closely depends on its situations and material devices: time and space frames, rules, ways of doing things, recollections, etc. Far from revelling a purely natural or deterministic nature of infrequent attenders tastes, this model points to the importance of specific (individual and collective) attachments which produce infrequency as a particular mode of cultural consumption: I will categorize such forms of attachments as Experience and Normativity.

Experience refers to the recollection of past (possibly unique) attendances and the romantic disposition towards the live performance. It relates to the immediacy and intimacy apparently present in the performing arts which induce a certain state, as if live performance would allow attenders to make themselves sensitized in a different, more authentic and valuable way, whilst memories of first or past attendances seem to create a rite of passage and an ephemeral sedimentation of the pleasures of being lost, being taken away out of this world, or the sense of having a double life. The act of attendance is therefore not the end result of a passion for certain artform, but is a means for reaching certain states and means for suspending and intervening in the temporality of daily life, ‘concerts do not dispense music, they are performances, in the sense that they make something happen’ (Hennion 2001, 13). This form of attachment is what Hennion refers to as the secularization of the sublime, that is, ‘the gradual formation of a specific, highly sophisticated ability developed collectively to attain through music, in an orderly, non-self-indulgent, risky fashion, states of emotion and moments that are sublime’ (2001, 11). Immediacy however is not so easily accessible but paradoxical result of a lengthy, laborious and un-spontaneous sequence of mediations, mediations which can also limit or disrupt cultural consumption.

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