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July16, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 16


Group therapy

Why we all need the live performing arts

By Lawrence Goldman *69 *76
Published in the July16, 2008, issue

Catherine Meurisse

Lawrence Goldman *69 *76, president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, received Princeton’s Madison Medal at Alumni Day this year. This essay is an excerpt from his Alumni Day talk about the way the arts can change individuals, cities, and society.

How many of you out there have laptop computers? How many have BlackBerrys? How many text message? How many check your BlackBerrys at meetings? While you’re pretending to listen? At dinner? At concerts? At bedtime?

It would be absurd to argue that these huge technological innovations have not, in some ways, made life easier for us. But don’t you think that these devices of instant communications also can be isolating, dehumanizing? That they represent the antithesis of living in the moment?

To me, e-mail is often not real human communication. It is a veneer of information exchange posing as human communication. Just ask somebody who’s met his or her date through the Internet whether the electronic foreplay was an authentic representation of the actual person. Text messaging may be worse — faux communications, like prehistoric grunts communicated through the Ethernet.

iPods: Someone listening to music through an iPod not only cuts himself or herself off from the world and retreats to an inner, isolated sanctum, but the quality of what they’re hearing is not even very good. Digital compression has seen to that. So what the home stereo does to diminish the live concert experience, the iPod does to the home stereo.

What is happening, in my view, is that convenience is defeating quality. We see it all over. Next time you’re pleading, “Do you hear me now?” and “You’re breaking up,” think of the good old AT&T phones of the 1950s and how clear everything sounded.

But worse than the compromise of quality is the diminution of the communal experience. Imagine the fanciest, most expensive home-entertainment center: surround sound. Plasma screen. Big speakers. Remotes that seem to reproduce like amoebas, all over the place. TiVo to program mainly what is comfortable, familiar. You sit alone, or with one or two others, and soak it all in.

Now think about the obverse of this experience, attendance at the live performing arts. The progression is important. You dress to suit the occasion. A rock concert: jeans. Classical music: maybe a tie, maybe slacks and a blazer (it should still be jeans if you want). You arrive at the theater or concert hall. Now you’re increasingly in a crowd, it’s probably dark or getting dark, the marquee is lit, there’s a buzz. The crowd thickens — you squeeze into the lobby. You see the line at the box office, you check out who else is there, you begin to feel a heightened expectation. An usher welcomes you. You pass from the congestion of the lobby through a series of sound and light locks and emerge into a vaulting, majestic, breathtaking space. A public space, a space for the public, a gathering space for a communal, civic activity. You take your seat. You look around, your voice lowers, finally the lights go down, and now you may — for a moment — feel alone. Just you and what is beginning to happen on the stage.

But then that changes. There is laughter, applause, possibly tears, groans, audible gasps of excitement and surprise. There is, in short, a collective energy, a common shared public experience. It’s as if audience members have agreed to rip out the earbuds of their iPods and assert that they are not disconnected, isolated individuals with hand-held electronic devices, but living, breathing human beings — part of a polity, sharing their feelings, their emotions with their fellow audience members, with the performers on the stage, in what is one of the few remaining collective experiences in modern life — the town square of the performing arts.

What has happened, if the performance is good and the audience is right, is that we have allowed the performing arts to interrupt the rhythm of our preprogrammed days and weeks and to stimulate, as Aristotle said, emotions like joy and pity and fear and sympathy — emotions that lie just below the surface of routine lives, but that sometimes need a little nudge to get out in the open where these emotions can be aired and shared.

Why, if this is such a great and possibly cathartic experience, don’t more people take advantage of it? Why do fewer than 10 percent of the American population regularly attend the professional performing arts? The answers are many. The arts are expensive. They are not convenient. There is a reduced amount of leisure time in our lives, and an even more radical reduction in the perception of leisure time. It’s been said that in 1973 the average American had 26 hours of leisure time per week. By 1997, that leisure shrank to 17 hours. A Ringling Brothers marketing executive reported that in 2005, after subtracting time spent on sleeping, working, child care, chores, commuting, and exercising, only nine hours of weekly leisure time remained.

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CURRENT ISSUE: July16, 2008