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This is the text of Hans Abbing’s inaugural lecture on the occasion of his appointment as professor of art
sociology (the Boekman Chair) at the University of Amsterdam in 2005.
From High Art to New Art
(Version EN 060408)
Cover Text: Youngsters and increasingly more older people are turning their backs on classical concerts. This
is not because they do not like classical music or lack the education that enables them to enjoy the music. They
simply cannot cope with the classical concert etiquette anymore and thus they feel increasingly uncomfortable.
The etiquette here has become too formal and too elitist. They prefer the informal concert situations of pop
music where there is more space to move around, people can react to the music, and do not have to be quiet
for the entire duration of a concert.
Our society has been undergoing a fundamental process of informalization since the 1950s. Different art worlds
respond to this process in different ways. The classical music world’s response has so far been one of
resistance and denial. Here the code of conduct has actually become even more formal over the past 50 years.
The current subsidy systems in various European countries enables the classical music world to remain largely
unaffected by change. If this situation continues unheeded, the classical concert will lose more and more of its
Hans Abbing is professor of art sociology at the University of Amsterdam where he holds the Boekman chair.
Among his publications is the book , Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts(Amsterdam,
Amsterdam University Press, 2002).
Dutch Data on Graying Audiences
“Public interest in art is declining and the young are defecting en masse.” Actually, the story is quite
the opposite. Interest in art and in particular the performing arts and art museums continues to grow across
the entire arts spectrum. This holds true for both young and old, although it is probably a little more true for
the older generations. In general, one can speak of a “graying” of the art public but this is solely the result of
the fact that older people are going out more often.
The notion that the art public is graying and that interest in the arts is on the decline is in part true
with regard to the performing arts and art museums because they are usually associated with high art, which
includes classical music concerts, the ballet, and a good portion of theatre, all three of which are heavily
subsidized by the government. The high performing arts and art museums are the most heavily subsidized
and are simultaneously the very genres that are most often associated with a graying public.
Erasmus Universiteit, especial
ly Ton Bevers, Suzanne Janssen, Wouter de Nooy, and Antoon van den Braambussche. Over the years
all of them inspired me. Finally, I thank Bart Plantenga for his translation the Dutch text.
In writing this paper, I must express my gratitude for all the advice I was able to use from, among others, Maks Banens, Hans Onno
van der Berg, Anne van der Eerden, Dos Elshout, Ruben van Hooff, Herman Fluitman, Truus Gubbels, Lucas Hendricks, Johan
Heilbron, Sacha Kagan, Bram Kempers, Jeroen de Kloet, Almut Krauss, Henk van Os, Pieter van Os, Giorgos Papadopoulos, Jeroen
Roscam Abbing, Barend Schuurman, Cas Smithuijsen, Cas Wouters, Olav Velthuis, P.W. Zuidhof, and the students who participated in
the classes I taught at the University of Amsterdam in 2005. I must also thank Andries van den Broek and Frank Huysmans at the
Socio-Cultural Planning Commission who made an exception for me by sending me previously unpublished tables based on AVO data
files. Obviously, the aforementioned people and the SCP bear no responsibility for the contents of this paper. I also thank the
participants of the Klamer seminar, especially Arjo Klamer and Willem Schinkel, and the staff of Algemene Cultuur Wetenschappen at
ute terms, the decline in audience share for classical music concerts is not that dramatic, but
in relative terms, the percentage of total audience share for classical concerts is shrinking rapidly. The
question of whether the tendency to go out among the older generations will continue to increase remains
uncertain. In any case, the increases will eventually level off. This implies that the moment the graying of the
classical concert-going public slows down, the audience figures will begin to fall at a much faster rate than is
currently the case. This basically means that classical music will lead an increasingly marginal existence.
According to Seabrook (2000), the classical music world is gradually turning into one among many other musical subcultures.
Fig. 1. Perce
ntage of adults in 1987 and 2003 who made at least one visit per year
Art museums Cabaret Non–classical
Figure 1 shows the percentages of adults who, in 1987 and in 2003, annually visited at least one of a
wide variety of art institutions. The following analysis is limited to those over 19 years of age; in other words,
generally speaking, adults. This is necessary because of all of the obligatory trips that school children make,
which would result in less-useful figures. Figure 1 also reveals that attendance at non-classical music
concerts has increased by approximately 50%, while cabaret attendance rose by some 30%. Art museums
showed an increase of 20% and professional theatre measured a slight attendance increase, while classical
music concerts experienced a decline of almost 10%. Between 1983 and 1995, classical concerts actually
showed a 20% increase in attendance, but the last 10 years has seen a 20% decrease.
The data in this figure are derived from data in a report produced by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Commission (SCP), Broek,
Huysman et al. (2005), and from additional data supplied by the SCP. While figures for the year 1987 exist for museums generally, they
do not exist just for art museums. Figures for art museums have only been available since 1995. Because CBS (1999) p.45 shows that
the overall visits to art museums during the period 1987–1995 developed similarly to museum visits generally, I assume that the at
least-once-annual visits to art museums developed in a parallel fashion as those to museums in general during the period 1987 –1995.
Fig. 2. Perce
ntage of adults in 1999 and 2003 who made at least one visit per year
Art museums Cabaret Jazz concerts Musical Dance concerts Pop Concerts
Figure 2 clearly shows a continued decline in classical music concert attendance in the period 1999–
2003. In this period, it is the tumultuous attendance increase of musicals that is largely responsible for the
increase in visits to non-classical concerts. In the period prior to 1999–2003, the increase was due mostly to
dance (i.e., techno and house) concerts, which barely existed 10 years earlier. At this very moment, musicals
have already surpassed the combined opera and classical concert attendance figures. Meanwhile, the last
decade has shown that attendance figures at pop concerts have just about leveled off.
Figure 1 shows attendance developments between 1987 and 2003. Based on these data, I have
calculated an attendance increase/decrease per category for the same period 1987–2003. In Figure 3, the
results are represented by the purple bars. On the left, we see that visits to classical concerts and ballet have
declined, while on the right, we see that visits to non-high art forms has increased the most.
The data in this figure are derived from data in a report produced by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Commision (SCP), Broek,
Huysman et al. (2005), and from additional data supplied by the SCP. The Social and Cultural Planning Commission has, since 1999,
begun asking respondents about four subgroups in the fairly all-inclusive category of non-classical concerts. The SCP, for instance, has
no separate categories for opera and cabaret. The opera falls under the category of classical music concerts while the sizeable
audiences that cabaret attracts are spread across a variety of other genres. Also overlooked are those who attend the increasingly
popular poetry and literature events. The SCP does ask about cinema and discotheque attendance, however. I will not at this time
discuss these last two categories because my results would otherwise lose some of their significance for a portion of the readership.
(Prior to 1995, the SCP did not specifically inquire about visits to art museums as a separate category; they only inquired about museum
visits to all museums together. Because CBS (1999) p.45 shows that the actual number of visits to art museums developed similarly to
that of overall visits, I assume that in this figure that the change in the number of at-least-once-per-year visitors during the period 1987–
1995 corresponds with the overall change.)
Fig. 3. Developm
ents in Visits and Graying 1987–2003
Art museums Cabaret Non-classical
Increase/decrease index Rel. juvenilization/graying index
In its investigations, the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Commission, obviously also requested
the ages of the respondents. Based on these data, I have created a juvenilization/graying index corrected for
the relatively stronger average rise in attendance for older people compared to youth. The grey bars in
Figure 3 represent this graying index. At the left side the audience for the classical concert and the ballet is
graying, while there is net juvenilization in the other categories.
The 1969 so-called Tomato Action by a group of young actors and directors who shook up the
conservative Dutch theatre world precipitated a trend toward juvenilization in this world. But in the process,
the theatre lost some of its audience share. Since then the theatre-going public has remained relatively
young, while, more recently, attendance figures have begun to rise again. (Radical renewal always causes
initial losses, but: nothing ventured nothing gain.) The rise however, is almost exclusively due to the
increases in unsubsidized productions. The market share of subsidized theatre has fallen by half over the
past eight years.
The data in this figure are derived from data in a report produced by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Commision (SCP)), Broek,
Huysman et al. (2005), and from additional data supplied by the SCP. Increase in non-classical concert attendance = 1.0. Graying in
classical music = 1.0. Average juvenilization/graying = 0.The latter implies that the index has been corrected for the existing net graying.
The increase in the inclinations of people over 50 to visit performing arts and museums has been considerable. Without the correction,
the average would have been +0.125 (instead of zero). In calculating the index, I counted adults under 50 as “young” and those 50 and
over as “old.” The graying of the non-classical concert audiences is than it would have been, if it had been possible to split this category
into the separate categories pop, musical, dance, and jazz. Because attendance figures for musicals grew very much during the period
1987– 2003, this has lead to a distortion of the overall outcome. Given the additional data for the period 1999–2003, it is plausible that
the pop music audience has also been graying a little, Meanwhile, the jazz audience has grayed considerably, while the audiences for
dance and musical have remained fairly stable with regard to age.
Fig. 4. Subsid
ies per Visitor
Figure 4 shows an index with red bars that represent the average amount of subsidies per category
that the various governmental agencies contributed per visit in 2003. The high arts on the left receive
considerable amounts, while cabaret and non-classical music received almost nothing.
Source: for total subsidies per category, Smolenaars and Ministerie van Onderwijs (2002) and VSCD (2005); and for visits per
category, Broek, Huysman et al. (2005). Similar to the previous figure, a visitor is someone who over the last 12 months visited at east
once a performance in a category. The amount of subsidies per visitor of a classical concert = 1.0. I did not include accommodation
subsidies or indirect subsidies. I also did not include museums because at the moment it is currently impossible to gauge what part of
overall subsidies is spent on conservation and what on exhibitions.
Fig. 5. Visits and Grayi
ng Developments 1987–2003 and Subsidization
Art museums Cabaret Non-classical
Increase/decrease index Rel. juvenilization/graying index Subsidy per visitor
Figure 5 combines the three previous figures. I have added flowing lines to the graph as visual
support, which run through the tops of the bars. The figure shows that graying goes hand in hand with
audience share losses and with high subsidy levels. That is very clear in the instance of high performance
arts, especially classical concerts and the ballet, as well as typical non-high performance arts such as
cabaret and non-classical concerts. These performance art genres show a graying of their respective
audience shares with increases in subsidy levels.
It is impossible to blame this on coincidence. Concerning the first two, it is logical that a continuing
long-term trend of above-average graying will lead to both audience and market share losses.
But what is
the relationship between these two and subsidy levels? Are subsidies in part responsible for graying? At the
For sources see previous notes. The lines serve as visual summaries of the indexes. (To enable the software to construct a line for the
subsidy index, I have also added a subsidy index also for the art museums in such a way so that the line has the same form as it would
have had in Figure 4.)
Audience and (financial) market shares correspond with one another, but the nature of this correspondence can vary per category of
performance arts and art museums. Nevertheless, I suspect that the audience shares shown in figure 2 are a good indicator of market
shares except in the cases of art museums and smaller performance arts such as ballet and jazz. The latter two supposedly have larger
shares than indicated in the figure. While that of the art museums is actually lower than indicated because they charge an average
admission price that is significantly lower than the others. I arrived at this conclusion because the larger performance arts in Figure 2
with respect to size do not differ that much from each other. This is because, unlike in figure 1, none of performance arts represented
are a collection of important, but very different, sub-genres and because Broek, Huysman et al. (2005) show that the visitation
frequencies do not diverge very much from each other and because this is also true in the case of admission prices.
end of this le
cture, I will attempt to provide an answer to the question of whether there is a link between the
But first I’d like to clear up a persistent misunderstanding. Many people continue to believe that it’s
people with higher educations who attend high art presentations, while the non–high art categories on the
right side of the figure are more commonly attended by those with a lower education level. This is totally not
the case, however, as is shown in Figure 6.
Fig. 6. Overrepresentation of higher-educated people among performing art and art museum visitors in
Art museums Cabaret Non-classical
This index offers a measure of over-representation of higher educated visitors (with Dutch HAVO,
VWO, or MBO degrees).
The differences between the various categories here are negligible. It is revealing
that the average visitor to the currently very popular cabaret presentations is better educated than those
attending classical concerts and that among non-classical concerts, dance concert audiences are as highly
educated as classical music audiences, and generally higher than those attending jazz or pop concerts. In all
of the categories of the performing arts as well as the museums, those with lower educations are strongly
under-represented. The cultural diffusion programs of the 1960s and 1970s did little to change any of that.
The data in this figure are derived from data in a report produced by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Commision (SCP))
report, Broek, Huysman et al. (2005), and from additional data supplied by the SCP. This index stands for the over-representation of
higher educated visitors (with Dutch HAVO, VWO, or MBO education). Ballet = 1.0. A position on the horizontal axes implies no over-
and no under-representation.
The strong over-representation of the higher-educated visitors corresponds with a strong over-representation of higher income
groups. Pommer and Jonker (19994) p.73.
Due to the increase in the rise of general education levels, the percentage of higher-educated people has increased. Therefore,
interpreting cultural diffusion in a limited sense, there has been some diffusion since the 1960s.
The Role o
f Upbringing and Education
The question is: Why has the interest of the higher-educated visitor shifted from the high to the non-
high or less-high performing arts?
It is certainly not related to prices. Thanks to the ever-increasing levels of subsidies since the
1960s, the prices of high performing arts and art museums have risen just as much as those of the non-
Is all of this somehow the result of one’s upbringing or lack of education? It is true that more and
more people are no longer receiving the proper cultural education they need to fully enjoy the higher
performing arts and art museums. But this is not due to a lack of formal and informal training with
respect to the artistic conventions associated with the traditional high performing arts and art museums.
Research on this topic by Bonita Kolb for the prestigious British Policy Studies Institute, concluded that
the level of knowledge among both young and old is still quite adequate to be able to enjoy the high
performing arts and art museums such as ballet and classical music.
The main explanation for this shift and the graying phenomenon has to do with the gradual dwindling
of a particular kind of capital which has little to do with the content of the artworks. People increasingly lack
the knowledge and understanding of the behavioral conventions involved in the consumption of high art
performances. In my opinion, the composition of the cultural capital of the large majority of young people has
changed; so much so that they no longer participate with any degree of ease or pleasure in any of the usual
formal ways of consuming high art events. This is a result of both informal and formal education. Sitting still
does not come natural. It is taught by parents and teachers. 1950s children were required to be quiet during
their lunch periods and at school they were taught to remain quiet and sit with their arms folded. Going to
church also helped. However, it has been some time since kids have been taught this kind of discipline.
The headline in the press release of the aforementioned British research report published in 2001,
declared “Excessive Formality Blamed as Young Turn Backs On Classical Concerts.” It continues: “Classical
music is in danger of losing whole generations of young people, who are turned off by the formality and
elitism associated with its live performance…”
Formality regarding conventions doesn’t only bother the young. An Increasing numbers of older
visitors also lack the education to participate with ease in these formal situations. They often end up trying
very hard just to fit in with the old-fashioned conventions, but with less and less success. A side effect of this
is the coughing phenomenon – a growing problem area. This is similar to the phenomenon of portions of
traditional theatre audiences now beginning to sigh much earlier during a performance than before.
Informalization and Changing Conventions
To clarify my position concerning changing conventions and capital, I will now present a thought
Abbing and Kagan (2007).
Imagine a p
rimitive man who has never seen much of the modern world. He goes to a classical
concert at the Concertgebouw and right after goes to a pop concert at the Paradiso.
What does he
see? At the classical concert, he immediately notices the silence in the hall. There is little noise before
and after the concert or during intermission; people here talk more softly than they would in normal
everyday situations. (The director of the Boekman Foundation, Cas Smithuijsen – no primitive himself –
has written extensively about the increased levels of silence one experiences during a classical concert
as well as the development of concert etiquette.)
Our primitive man also notices that the audience barely exhibits any physical reaction to the
music or to one another. There is no humming along or tapping one’s feet to the music, let alone people
dancing. He does, however, notice that when people fail to abide by the accepted norms there is an
adverse reaction. The transgressors are warned by means of special signals that they are disturbing the
enjoyment of others with their behavior. (Of course, such signals cannot but disturb others as well.) And
finally he notices that people applaud at distinct moments in a seemingly ritualistic manner. He notices
that people find this enjoyable and relaxing.
Meanwhile, at the pop concert he immediately notices the general liveliness of the audience. He
sees many people dancing. He sees few people sitting and even fewer places to sit. He notices that
there is no one single way to dance, that the dance styles are highly varied, and are noticeably
influenced by the music’s beat. People react strongly to each other and to the music. Sometimes people
utter or produce their own sounds, by, for instance, clapping or singing or howling along to the music;
sometimes they are even encouraged to do so by the musicians or DJs on stage. During the course of
the concert, people come and go, buy drinks or strike up a conversation at the bar.
Our primitive man considers the general lack of movement by the audience during the classical
concert strange. But the behavior he encounters at the pop concert, which he perceives as
unpredictable and chaotic, he finds even weirder. Because he is used to rituals that follow certain
patterns, the experience at the pop concert is actually further from his reality than the experience at the
classical concert. This makes sense literally because pop concert etiquette or rather, the pop concert’s
social codes of interaction are not as old as those of classical concert etiquette.
The difference between the two codes of conduct is indeed related to the progress of our times and
the evolution of human beings. The West has seen a relaxation of these codes since the 1950s, while
Westerners have simultaneously become, in common parlance, more “social.” This deviation from behavioral
norms can be found everywhere across the board from Amsterdam to Hong Kong. Depending on the lifestyle
of those involved, theses processes experience their ups and downs, but the long-term trend is unmistakably
one of increased informality.
It is not easy to fully appreciate the significance of contemporary cultural developments, but I am
convinced that Cas Wouters is correct in his analysis of the informalization process as a deeply embedded
process that has an impact on every aspect of society. There is not one single social theory concerned with
The Paradiso and its counterpart, the Melkweg (Milky Way) are Amsterdam’s main concert halls where, on average, higher-educated
Dutch people and foreigners go to hear pop, rock, rap, or dance music. The Melkweg also offers theatre, film, art exhibitions, and poetry
rious social developments – including, for instance, Richard Peterson’s theories, which are
concerned with genre-omnivorism in art – that can avoid touching upon the theory of informalization.
Wouters has written three important books on the subject of the process
of social informalization, in which he examines various areas of everyday
Unfortunately, however, he has not yet investigated the performing
arts. I hope to be able to give him a helping hand in this regard.
The emergence and success of a new social code among the new audiences
and the simultaneous graying of the audiences who attend high performing arts and
art museums is mostly the result of this process of informalization. As I mentioned
earlier, the youth of today, not to mention as more and more of their parents, can no
longer cope with the formal etiquette codes that were once considered normal and
pleasant. . This has had the consequence that they – both young and old – have
abandoned the high performing arts and art museums.
Because the informalization process works in a surreptitious manner and thus
may be easily overlooked, I would have, given more time, loved to have been able to
provide you with some examples, which would clearly show the importance of this
informalization process. I can, at this juncture, only show you a few images and have
limited myself to one example of the informalization of behavior; an example I have
deliberately chosen from outside the world of art.
I sit and work an hour or two per day, in the Haarlemmerdijk branch in
Amsterdam of the Coffee@Company, a Dutch version of Starbucks. (I also often sit
and work an hour or so every day in Café Floris on the Brouwersgracht, where unlike
the Coffee@Company, they play only classical music.) The Coffee@Company’s
hallmark is the placement of a long table in the middle of the café.
This is almost the
only place to sit. The Coffee@Company opened its first branch in the Netherlands
seven years ago and has since opened a total of 10 branches in Amsterdam. The
latest plans include new branches in other Dutch and European towns.
Is it possible for someone to just sit at this long table reading or typing
away without being disturbed by others? Yes, as far as mobile phones are
concerned; they no longer bother me or anybody else in the café. But this is not
Society has become more
People have changed
Teachers have lost their
blurry introspective gazes
and have become more
Cf. Peterson and Kern (1996). Peterson (1997) is aware of Riesman’s work concerning informalization, but does very little with the
findings. The same goes for Janssen (2005) who in her empirical research attempts to test Dimaggio and Peterson’s theories with
regard to cultural classifications for Europe. For the relation between informalization and omnivorization, see Abbing and Kagan (2007).
Wouters (1990), Wouters (2004) and Wouters (2006/7).
Other details about the Coffee@Company concept that come to my attention is their music and service policies. The staff – just two
per location – are not just encouraged to be polite but also informal with their customers, but also to “have a good time” among
themselves. It is striking that the music policy here encourages the staff to, within certain parameters, choose their own music that is
played at a relatively low volume with the condition that they don’t play popular hits and certainly no oldies but goodies, i.e., pretty much
the opposite strategy employed by super markets and department stores, who prefer to focus on a “feast of familiarity” when it comes to
their background music.
It’s not easy to pin down the extent to which informalization has influenced any one specific area of our private lives. Perhaps the
presence or absence of long Coffee@Company-style tables can serve as a proxy variable in our attempt to measure the influence of
informalization on our everyday private lives when it concerns relating to other people in more or less public spaces. It is possible that
when it comes to the informalization of daily life, the Netherlands has now surpassed the United States to lead the world in the level of
informality of everyday human encounters.
s the case. There will always be some incidental disturbances, like people
who are talking too loudly or others who want to strike up a conversation. But
these kinds of nuisances can for the most part be satisfactorily mitigated with a bit
of negotiation. I use the word “negotiation” to call attention to a 1979 article by
Abram de Swaan, who writes about a shift from a top-down order-giving
household to one based on negotiation.
This article can probably be considered
as the catalyst for an increased interest in the notion of informalization among
That I feel at ease sitting at the long Coffee@Company table is basically
due to the fact that by now I am fairly well educated in the art of negotiation. If a
somewhat boisterous economics student sits next to me, for instance, and
informs me that he too types with two fingers, and meanwhile tries his hardest to
engage me in conversation, I consider this an inconvenient predicament at best.
In one way or another – there are countless behavioral options available as far as
my reaction is concerned – I almost always succeed in striking some sort of
compromise with my over-communicative neighbor, which usually results in him
making several more comments, more than I want, but certainly less than he
would have liked. (Had my neighbor been a young gym teacher then I may well
have chosen a different approach.)
Ten years ago, I would have never thought that I would ever be seen
regularly writing at a long café table with total strangers all around me, some of
them chatting away on the phone or with one another. Back then, for instance,
whenever I took the train I would seek out one of the since-then done-away-with
work train compartments. But people change and not only when they are young.
This kind of ongoing – and for the most part – automatic negotiating process
is also typical of the newer performing arts and art museums. It is pretty much the
case for both consumption and production, as much as these are distinguishable any
more. One example of this is the conduct of audiences during brief silent periods in a
piece or during quieter passages at various concerts.
Dance styles have changed
Behavior in public spaces
has also changed (Queen
Beatrix with rapper Ali B)
Another example: If someone is taking up too much room on an over-crowded dance floor in the
Milky Way, for instance, others dancers will request, most often in a friendly manner, that he tone it down just
a bit. This results in an almost automatic social negotiation process that generally results in a compromise,
whereby the transgressor agrees to restrain himself, but is at the same time allowed a little more room than
the average dancer. If, on the other hand, someone at a classical concert begins to noticeably hum along
with the music and after a warning from his neighbors continues his humming, there is no room to negotiate
and no compromise. Sooner or later he is forced to leave the hall.
By the way, these types of rigid etiquette rules are relatively new. Although less than 120 years ago,
some rigid rules did exist in the classical concert setting, there was no rule that demanded absolute silence.
For instance, on more than a few occasions, drinks were served during a concert. In the course of the 20th
ry, the demands for silence and non–moving have become increasingly stricter, while the rest of society
has become increasingly informal.
There are many rules of etiquette associated with a classical concert, the ballet, or a more traditional
concert, which if not abided by, do not necessarily lead to physical exclusion so much as some degree of
social exclusion. If the youths in Kolb’s research fail to have a good time because they are unable to follow
the codes, they are not physically expelled, but suffer ostracism of a more symbolic kind.
An important corollary to the differences between the social codes of those who attend high art
concerts and those who attend new art concerts is the difference in the nature of their feelings of
togetherness. So-called sociological diary and memory research has shown that people attending their first
pop concert were impressed by aspects that can be included under the denominators “we-ness” and “new-
From the very earliest ages, the young have been listening to pop music on the radio not only
among themselves but also with their parents and there was much discussion about what they were listening
to. Meanwhile, the parents’ initial aversion to the music quickly turned to interest in, and sometimes even
enthusiasm for, the new music.
For that matter, the attraction of live concerts is always grounded in the experience of togetherness.
This applies to both high art and new art concerts. Moreover, togetherness often results in both pleasure and
annoyance. Annoyance can, however, strangely enough, actually intensify one’s pleasure. I am convinced
that if an audience was totally quiet during a classical concert, the experience of the individual concert-goer
would be less satisfying.
Nevertheless, the nature of the experience varies. The difference lies in the goals of the various
concert-goers. In a high art situation, the visitor is chiefly interested in an individual aesthetic experience. He
wants to experience the artistic artifact alone and individually, whether it be a specific painting or a specific
performance. He or she is seeking a “we-less I” (or Waldhoff’s “wir-loses Ich”) experience.
In the new concert situation as well as the musical and new theatre, dance, and museum situations,
the audience is generally much less interested in this aspect. This individualistic or isolated experience is
replaced by one that strives for a situation that is characterized by a more communal sharing of the aesthetic
experience. Sharing often increases one’s levels of concentration and intensifies the aesthetic experience.
This has pretty much always been the case for the genres of cabaret, operetta, and vaudeville.
I deliberately placed my primitive man in two concert situations that on the surface appear to be quite
different from one another. In Figure 2, overall music attendance is high at the two extremes: that of the
classical concert and that of pop and dance concerts and the musical. Evidently, in music, there is a clear
dichotomy, which corresponds with, on the one hand, formality and on the other, informality.
This does not mean, however, that there is no overlapping of these informal and formal audiences,
but this is a relatively small group. This group is thus not only omnivorous with respect to genres but also
with respect to formal and informal consumption situations. At the same time there is also a small but
growing group of musicians (and an even larger group of theatre actors) who can relatively easily and with
This means that most outsiders have to deal with a prohibitively high “social price.” For the notion of social price, see Abbing and
Jokinen and Saaristo (2005).
Cf. Wouters (2004).
asures of pleasure perform in both the formal and informal situation, sometimes even with the same
I think that in the case of music, the term “dichotomy” is even more appropriate because the majority
of classical concert-goers look down at the music of choice of the other concert-goers and are more likely to
believe that this other group’s music is not “real” art. It is striking, but fairly understandable, that the disdain is
At first, it seems that it matters for the analysis whether audiences have
seats and pretty much remain seated for the duration of a performance or
whether people are standing – or even more dramatically – are standing on
their seats, as was the case for the first large jazz concerts in the Netherlands in
As a 10-year-old boy, on my way to my weekly recorder lessons, I
would bicycle past the Houtrusthallen in The Hague, which I watched with some
excitement. That’s indeed where it was all happening: Whatever that “it” was, it
was supposed to be scandalous, but for me it represented potentially more
freedom and less claustrophobia.
Het Parool, 26 March 1956
“Lionel Hampton once again stirs
the crowd to a frenzy”
“This has nothing to do with jazz”
Therefore, the level of formality or informality is neither dependent upon whether the audience is
seated nor whether there are other restrictions of movement in place. In May of 2006, Sonny Rollins will
perform in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. It will be a concert with seating, but I guarantee you that the
ambience will be informal and certainly appealing to both young and old alike.
It would also be inaccurate to measure the level of formality or
informality solely on the audience’s outward expressiveness. One can usually
find a chair to sit down in, in the balconies of the Paradiso and Milky Way. And
whether it is a pop, techno, or punk concert, today’s audiences in general do
not stand on these chairs. It is just not done. This demonstrates that
contemporary concert codes of conduct are also based on more generally
Dancing in a restrained manner
The recent exhibition of Rineke Dijkstra’s extraordinary video art at the Stedelijk Museum is a good
example. Two separate screens show images of teens dancing to electronic dance music in front of a white
backdrop. It appears that she pretty much grabbed the teens right off the dance floor and instructed them to
just go on moving as if they were still out there on the dance floor. These teens can be seen moving in an
exceptionally restrained manner and that has next to nothing to do with the camera itself. These teens are
merely conforming to the conventions of their peer group or subculture. Nevertheless, the way they control
their bodies differs fundamentally from the way that classical concert-goers control their bodies. The bodies
of the teens are anything but rigid or inert. In fact, the video reveals a broad range of conduct and
movement. Each of the teens, within a certain range of acceptable movements, still manages to find
dramatically unique movements, which undoubtedly have a lot to do with individual character differences.
This is common among musicians who perform World music. I have two examples from my own experiences that illustrate this. I
once saw the Kronos Quartet at the Concertgebouw and then a second time at Panama, an Amsterdam dance club. I also saw a
performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream produced by the British theatre group TNT at the Milky Way and then a
second time in the Amsterdam Stadschouwburg (City Theatre). For me, they were two totally different aesthetic experiences.
This level of variation a
nd the bounded freedom of choice are typical of the informal character of this type of
The art museum’s browsing public and the seated audience of the cabaret and musical performance
as well as of a growing number of seated concerts in jazz and pop also restrict the audience’s overall range
of acceptable movements not unlike those experienced by the teens in Dijkstra’s video. At the same time
however, the consumption can be characterized as basically informal.
This also holds for an increasing
part of the theatre as well as the more folkloristic performances of classical music, such as the concerts of
What I also noticed about the teens in Dijkstra’s video and what I have seen with my own eyes at
various techno and rap concerts in the Milky Way, is the wide variety of dance styles out on the dance floor.
These dance styles are somewhat determined by what group or subculture the dancers belong to. Many of
these subcultures have more or less attained global status. It is interesting for sociologists who study forms
of inclusion and exclusion at this point in time to witness the phenomenon of how members from very
different socio-cultural groups with distinctly different subcultural behavior patterns agreeably and quite
peacefully share the same space at new art concerts. One notices that at this micro-level the processes of
identification and (dis)identification (or discrediting) go effortlessly hand in hand.
Characteristics of High Art and New Art
The term low art is seldom used anymore. Therefore, I used the term non–high art. From now on,
however, I will call non–high art “new art” and this is with the implied purpose of introducing it as the
successor to high art. The question is whether this is anything more than a rhetorical exercise. Does it make
Table 1. Common characteristics of high and new art
T NEW ART
Emphasis on authenticity of artwork and the individual
person as an authentic artist.
Same, but to a lesser extent. More emphasis for
Particular attention paid to the notion of original. Less emphasis on originals.
Focus on the unique qualities of the artist and the notion
of the artist as genius.
Same, but to a lesser extent. More emphasis on
stars and producers.
Inclination to reject new techniques. Open to new techniques.
Inclination to reject commerce and the market. Same, but to a lesser extent.
Emphasis on complexity and essential prior
Same, but to a lesser extent.
Product variation is limited and concerns details.
People in museums, for instance, seldom walk exclusively along the walls, moving from one painting to the next but Increasingly they
can be observed moving freely through the halls, crossing at odd angles to observe something else, etc. Loer (2005). Even the way a
show is displayed has become more varied, with the order being less often chronological and more often associational or thematic.
Swaan (2000) discusses the process of (dis)identification with its sometimes disastrous results.
est in innovation. Innovations of outsiders
are considered threatening.
More interest in innovations and outsiders.
Formal consumption practices.
Informal consumption practices.
On the left-hand side of the table you will see a number of characteristics that are often – but not
always – associated with the kind of art many people regard as high art. Within each category it is
mostly an issue of more or less. Moreover, not all social groups and groups of experts agree on what
genres of art should be considered high art. But even if they were to all agree, there are many different
combinations of characteristics that may end up determining whether a work of art is high art or not.
Thus, although the characteristics more or less typify or characterize high art, there are always
exceptions when it comes to any one particular characteristic and thus, the presence of any one
characteristic is an inadequate condition for the existence of high art.
A fairly typical characteristic of high art is the relative importance both the consumer and
producer place on the notions of authenticity and the artist as genius. Another typical characteristic of
high art is the importance both consumer and producer place on the idea of the original, by which we
mean, the artifact, the composition, or the performance itself. These types of qualities are related by
what Maarten Doorman calls the “Romantic Order.”
This is related to how the world of high art places relatively more importance on products that
differ only ever so slightly in their various elements. This is certainly the case with classical music where
the experienced audience notices the very slightest variations in the performances of a piece of music.
At the same time, there is little attention or respect for drastic re–workings or innovations, even less so if
they are produced by outsiders. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion. That is why, in the Netherlands,
translations of Schubert by Lennie Kuhr singing in a “normal” voice as well as, until recently, opera lyrics
translated into Dutch by Jan Rot were soundly criticized or, even worse, simply ignored. The same can
be said for classical music elements in pop music.
Meanwhile, other art worlds place less emphasis on differences in detail. The production variety
is larger and both consumers and producers place more importance on dramatic innovations as well as
innovations introduced by outsiders. The enthusiasm and eagerness with which the established modern
art world embraced the graffiti of street artists is an example of this acceptance. The differences
between the high and new art worlds are also highlighted by the fact that, until recently, almost no pop
musicians ever graduated from music conservatories. (Although current figures show some increases,
the numbers are still low compared to the number of students and graduates in the classical
departments at the conservatories. Pop students remain extremely under-represented especially
considering the total number of pop musicians who are currently performing for remuneration compared
to the number of classical musicians who get paid for their performances.
) In practice, pop musicians
were forced to take expensive private music lessons. It is a remarkable fact that many successful pop
Abbing and Kagan (2007).
cians since 1950 have also had the benefit of studying at a visual arts academy on some level.
Apparently this is where they picked up their artistic attitudes, which purportedly have had some
influence on their success in the market. The visual arts world is evidently less scared of newcomers
and outsiders than the classical art music world.
Furthermore, high art is fairly typically characterized by a general rejection of the introduction of
new techniques in the creation and production of art by consumers and producers alike. High art also
customarily rejects commerce, which goes together with the common practice of artists and art
institutions applying for donations and subsidies. This rejection is often closely associated with a certain
level of anxiety and, not unrelated, to a certain level of contempt for the market and technology. At the
same time, the consumer and producer emphasize the importance of an artwork’s complexity and the
need for prior training.
Another typical high art characteristic is that both producer and consumer
relatively easily attain a certain level of prestige through their associations with high art.
The difference between high and new art characteristics is, indeed, a question of more or less.
In this context, it is worth noting that the producers and fans of electronic dance music and rock music
also value the alleged authenticity of a work and the maker as a unique author. Moreover, producers
and consumers in the world of new music also acquire prestige by association, not least of all by
showing contempt for commercial “pop–pop music”. However, on average these aspects are weaker
than they are in, for instance, the classical music world.
And the collaborative aspect in creation or
production is less veiled than it is in high art.
It is interesting that the world of “pop-pop music” – as opposed to that of the rock world – has its
stars but that these stars are usually not regarded as authors. I think that nowadays people who
participate in new art genres, not only in music but also in theater, for instance, acquire less prestige
from their associations with their art form than is the case in high art.
Whether this is related to the
possible transition to a post-modern age depends on the meaning of this not-always clear term.
anyway expect that in the future, participation in the production and consumption of art will likewise offer
less and less distinction to its participants than is currently the case.
It is my contention that of all the characteristics, the one regarding the formality of the
consumption practices of high art is the most universal of the many characteristics associated with high
art. (Personally, I am not aware of any important exceptions.) And because this quality is, more than any
of the others, to a great extent dependent on the passage of time, I find it justified and quite desirable to
call the non-high arts new art.
Abbing and Kagan (2007).
The emphasis on complexity in relation to cultural participation can also be found in the works of sociologists such as Ganzeboom
(1989). Wilterdink (1990) and Alexander (2003) reveal that upon close examination, an artwork has an infinite number of qualities that
can more or less be perceived as complex. People attach value to an artwork’s perceived complexities, so that every measurement of
its complexity must be based on a subjective and socially determined choice to be able to be measured accurately.
Kloet (2005) reveals how the emerging “art scenes” in China and Hong Kong place more value on the purported higher level of
authenticity of rock music as compared to that of “pop-pop” music.
Cf. Bourdieu (1979), Swaan (1986) and Peterson and Kern (1996).
I will now on
ce again turn to Figure 5. For me, the order of the categories from left to right
indicate a decline in formality, or if you will, an increase in informality, or in other words a shift from high
to new art. However, because each of the categories is comprised of a number of sub-categories that
are more or less formal, the precise sequence is open to further discussion.
You may have noticed by now that none of the basic qualities associated with high art refers to
the qualities of the artifact, or the composition or performance of the work itself. These qualities are
“value-free,” i.e., they have no value.
It is only through human intervention that these qualities give the
work its meaning. In other words, they only become meaningful as artworks through “the social”.
In this respect I agree with Howard Becker that the artwork moves through time all the time
changing its shape.
These shapes can be experienced as complex or simple. The artifact as such is
not complex or simple. Whether the art work in its specific shape is experienced as complex depends
upon its social setting.
The relative inertia of high art and its concomitant lack of innovation is related to the numerous
aforementioned qualities commonly associated with high art.
Due to forms of social monopolization,
the inertia and its perpetuation are more intense in the classical music world than they are in other art
Moreover, social, cultural, and economic factors all play their roles as well. In our book Moving
Art, Sacha Kagan and I will delve deeper into these factors and their relationships.
When it comes to
the classical music world we point to, among others, the relatively high degree of social monopolization,
which is enforced by the various social networks of art “officials,” to borrow Becker’s term. Officials like
Von Karajan and, currently in the Netherlands, Reinbert de Leeuw have given and continue to give de
facto leadership to effective social monopolies – monopolies that, much like in other industries cause
inertia and dearth of innovation.
The Limited Effect of Art Subsidies
As noted earlier, the high performance arts and art museums that appear on the left side of
Figure 5 are the art forms most commonly associated with graying and dwindling audience shares.. This
is because the young are less and less interested in these art forms, while at the same time, these forms
continue to receive the lion’s share of government subsidies. In the present context, I cannot discuss
factors that explain the increases in subsidies per visitor, usually by hundreds of percent, in the period
1950–1980 nor the ways these increases were encouraged by the various art worlds or “sold” to the
Cf. Smith (1988).
This "value-free" point of departure in art sociology is not an expression of reductionism. To the contrary. I think that the present
criticism of the art sociological approach, for instance Coleman (2004) and Doorman (2004), is unjustified. The approach is sound. What
at times could be criticized, however, is that some sociologists have an insufficient level of knowledge of their chosen topics – in our
case art. Depending on the issue, however, basically, those who peer down from the 10
floor may not always be seeing enough. As in
any science, good research is a combination of, on the one hand, commitment and participation and, on the other, of being able to keep
a critical distance to produce accurate results.
Cf. Becker (1995). As the economic historian Baudet (1970) long ago demonstrated, there can be no innovation without diffusion.
Abbing and Kagan (2007).
“man in the
street.” In this context, De Swaan’s theory regarding the double morality with respect to the
diffusion of high culture is of particular significance here.
In the present context, I am interested in the existence and nature of a possible relationship
between the level of subsidization and inertia. As noted, among highly subsidized art worlds there
continues to be a great deal of inertia, especially in classical music. Considering the current relationship
between subsidy levels, graying, and loss of audience and market shares, the obvious conclusion would
be that subsidies contribute to graying and loss of audience and market shares.
I think this conclusion is wrong, however. In the period 1950–2003 the high art visitor in the UK
has received less than 50% of the subsidies received in the Netherlands and other European
Nevertheless, UK attendance figures during the period 1950–2003 are no lower than those
on the mainland and, according to experts, the quality of the average concert was also no lower.
Furthermore, the graying and decline in audience share in the UK were approximately the same as in
the Netherlands. Plus, in the UK, as elsewhere, those with higher educations continue to run the show.
Although the prices on average are somewhat higher in the UK, this has not led to a decline in
This makes it reasonably safe to conclude that subsidy levels have little influence on attendance
figures or quality. I suspect that if the Netherlands had had lower subsidies in the period 1950–2003
comparable to the level of those in the UK, the situation in the classical music world would not be all that
different from the situation that currently exists with its much higher subsidy levels.
However, it is also true that, because of lower levels of subsidization, the UK’s high art
institutions pay more attention to markets and their developments and presently are better aware of the
problems of graying and declining audience shares. That is why we currently see a great deal of
experimentation with new products in the UK and people are much more conscious of the excessive
formality in the consumption of art. The British government as prominent patron, seems to be more
concerned about these developments than the Dutch government. That is why it financed Kolb’s
research. As a consequence, the English classical music world is better equipped to deal with recent
developments than their Dutch equivalent. (At the same time, the UK seems to be undergoing a
hardening of viewpoints, which probably has to do with the present attention for the growing problems. In
any case, there can be no improvements in health without first being sick.)
How does the coming decade look for high art in the Netherlands? Well, it is highly likely that, in
one form or another, part of the performance art world which is presently regarded as high art will
survive and will continue to be called high art. But, then again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this
part of the high art performance world will be identified by the same characteristics or combinations of
characteristics that it is today. Moreover, the current split between high and new art will probably
gradually begin to disappear. The currently very museumified classical concert scene will end up
following the strategy that museums have been assuming for some time already. Thus, audience
O'Hagan (1998) p.139. In this respect, it is worth noting that the donation levels in the UK are higher than in other European
countries. In the near future I intend to do a more detailed comparative study on these matters.)
Abbing and Kagan (2007).
r will continue to become increasingly informal and more varied, the same as production
methods. I predict that within the next five years or so most, but not all concerts, spectators will be able
to watch the faces of conductors and musicians on large video screens, something that home viewers
long ago grew accustomed to and have grown to value.
Because classical musicians who are worried about losing their jobs will increasingly sound the
alarm, I expect that the art lobby will become less conservative, which will in turn precipitate reasonably
rapid changes. We will also witness the emergence of a new generation of culture entrepreneurs, who
will start presenting classical concerts in various new formats without the aid of government subsidies.
There is a potentially huge audience waiting for this type of production. Some of these entrepreneurs will
feed into the already lucrative trend, which I call the folklorization of classical music. At the same time, I
expect the emergence of passionate cultural entrepreneurs, comparable to the Dutch cultural
entrepreneur Joop van den Ende, who will appear on the classical music scene not to add folklore
concerts but to breathe some new life into the museum branch of the classical concert world. They will
certainly and gratefully exploit the trend of more old people going out more frequently, and thus fill a hole
in the market, which the current inert classical music world has ignored till now.
Those free classical concerts and opera productions will find a production formula that will
distinguish them from the current subsidized productions. By using long-term contracts with local and
thus less-expensive soloists, the booking of larger halls and longer runs the cost per spectator will no
doubt decline significantly. The use of electronic amplification will increase and the present practice of
secrecy in this regard will gradually disappear.
(There is, in any case, currently already far more
electronic amplification in classical concerts than the producers are willing to admit. For example, it is
fairly common that the voices of more and more classical singers are being amplified these days. The
same has already been the case for some time for orchestras performing in large halls in the US, or in
spaces like the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. But today’s regular concert-goers, armed with their
general disdain for electronic amplification, don’t want to hear any of this.)
This has in general been going on for a long time already in the museum and visual arts worlds.
This is not unlike what used to be common practice in the classical music world prior to the twentieth
century. The classical music world will necessarily develop again a keener interest in more
contemporary music productions, which would include everything from new classical to techno. There
will in any case be a large increase in cross-over festivals from what is presently available. In such
festivals classical, contemporary, and cross-over music formats will be presented on a variety of stages
together. The paternalistic and thus counter-productive practice of presenting some new works at the
end of a classical concert to an audience that is interested mainly in the great masters, will certainly
come to an end.
The very nature of the subsidy system will inevitably change as well. Structural subsidies will be
reduced and there will be more money for temporary or one-time projects. If such policies precede rather
than follows the changes in the classical music world, and if the new subsidy system is implemented in a
All these changes show the limited value of the cost disease theory which is popular among many cultural economists and
policymakers. I think that this theory is obsolete and to apply it is irresponsible, not only because of the ever -changing nature of the
performing arts, but also for methodological reasons, Cf. Abbing (2002) and Abbing and Kagan (2007) – for a draft version of the
chapter on the cost disease: see www.hansabbing.nl.
what abrupt way, it is bound to contribute to the revitalization of classical music. (In this context it is
worth noting that my earlier position about the limited long-term effect of subsidy levels does not count,
or at least less so, when looking at the short-term effects of fairly large and abrupt changes in the
What I do not expect – but would nevertheless very much recommend – is that Dutch
dignitaries, whether they like it or not, begin to openly express appreciation for contemporary new music
from pop to techno through their own channels. This has been and remains a fairly common situation in
countries like France and the UK. By 1965, Queen Elizabeth had already honored the Beatles at
Buckingham Palace in full view of both the British and world press. In 2006, it remains totally unthinkable
that the Dutch government would ever request Queen Beatrix to officially honor DJ Tiësto with
knighthood in a public ceremony as she did some time ago with classical conductor Bernard Haitink. (I
know this is only part of the story, but it is worth noting that considering Tiësto’s sizeable contribution to
the Dutch gross national product he is certainly contributing more to Dutch export figures than the
Beatles were in 1965.) That Queen Beatrix takes great pleasure in hugging rapper Ali B in public is a
nice touch, but this has nothing to do with honoring a person’s contribution to the arts.
But even without a significant change in the attitudes of the Dutch cultural-political elite, I expect
that the aforementioned scenario will eventually end up revitalizing the classical music world in the
Netherlands. The dichotomy in music will gradually fade away, which will ultimately help prevent a major
hiatus in the musical canon.
All’s well that ends well.
But then again, maybe not totally. Everything will be fine when it comes to music. But the fact
that the current musical dichotomy in the Netherlands is larger than it is in both the UK and France, is
not a separate, unrelated issue. It is intertwined with a cultural split in society in general, a split that
exists in every Western country, but seems to be more pronounced in the Netherlands.
Successive Dutch governments have proven to be generous when it comes to handing out
money. Although the pop music world receives proportionately very little money in the Netherlands it still
receives far more than their equivalents in France and certainly in the UK do. More importantly,
community art projects – such as those supported by foundations like Kunstenaars&Co, for example –
also receive more money than their equivalents in many other European countries.
Thus, it is those who live on the underside of Dutch society, who, when it comes to money, are
treated relatively well. This means that the general preference of Dutch politicians to keep both friend
and foe happy by offering them financial support has resulted in a distribution of income that is less
unequal than in most other European countries. But this is not necessarily the case when it comes to the
distribution of respect in this country once ruled by regents. (Sociologists such as Goran Therborn are
now placing more and more emphasis on the sometimes very unequal distribution of respect and I think
they are right in doing so.
In another realm, Nooy (1996) has managed to emphasize the relatively large effect that changes have on the way funders distribute
subsidies among artists. Systemic changes shake things up. In my terminology I would say that these systemic changes more or less
help break up local social monopolies.
Cf. Kempers (2000) en Doorman (2004).
Therborn (2005) and Sennett (2003).
I think that in cou
ntries like the UK and France, despite, or possibly even because of their
aristocratic pasts, the apportionment of respect is actually less unequal than it is here in the
Netherlands. In the relatively informal Netherlands, we don’t often express our feelings of superiority
but in a somewhat veiled way the behavior of the elite is paternalistic and people have little
respect for the cultures of others (including that of the young) and their inherent qualities. This posture
carries with it certain risks, especially in the case of young immigrants.
One final note. If we can classify television and semi-public spaces like the Coffee@Company as
street, then the material necessary to do innovative social science research in the area of art and culture can
literally and figuratively be found in the street. The street however, often appears to be a fairly distant place
for the average scientist doing research in this area. I mean this figuratively as well. Many of them it seems
have an innate fear of street culture. This makes it all the more difficult to get a better perspective on this
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