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.

Normativity refers to certain cultural consumption attachments which are produced as constraint and in restrictive manner rather than as sublime. The loss of control needed to reach sublimes states can be actually deterred by such (negative) forms of attachment. Attending these artforms ‘unnaturally’ entails deploying certain dispositions which relate to the tediously described activity of performing the right mood in order achieve sublime states. For this type of arts attenders, performing the right mood involves either making an effort to attend or knowing in advance what the performance is about (storylines, production details, etc.). This is a point of departure from Hennion’s analysis in that these ways of attaching can be understood as regressive rather than progressive stages in preparation for the sublime.
Infrequent attenders declared having to make an effort to attend the performing arts, and saw this effort as a negative aspect which deterred them of attending more often. The ‘effort’ involves a range of activities: getting ‘dolled up’ or making sure ‘I don’t have any rips in my jumper and stuff’ (G2, R6), readjusting the attention span and rhythm of daily life, pretending to be someone else, queuing up, journeys to and back home. And on a more general basis, it implies Normativity in its most literal sense in that cultural consumption is felt as something infrequent attenders ought to do as opposed to a pleasurable experience, or as one infrequent attender put it: ‘It’s the same with olives and champagne. The first time you have them you don’t like them, but you hope that you acquire the taste.’

On the other hand, knowing in advance (what to see, what versions are displayed, what the story is about and in which language is performed) and being able to relate the arts performance to any elements in ‘real’ life (a film or CD, a piece of classical music played on a TV advert) appears to be a relevant albeit limiting form of attachment as well. This too represents a point of departure from Hennion as the proliferation of new mediums and devices (and consequently occasions of listening or viewing) is not necessarily understood as producing a consequent increase in the access to lived arts experiences, but here it is considered as producing a contrary effect, that is, it produces supposedly mediated experiences (such as listening to a concert via a CD) as natural and effortless but it positions supposedly unmediated experiences such as live performances as out of the ordinary. Arts attendance is therefore enacted as un-natural by a set of dispositions and materialities as opposed to naturally felt ways of attaching to other leisure activities (independently of how highly orchestrated and ritualised these might be).
In relation to value as a form of normative attachment, the value equation which is being formulated by infrequent attenders assembles the price of the tickets with the risk associated with the product and the seats they can afford to pay. Achieving elated emotions is seen as risky enterprise in that the act of attending a performance (and preparing for it) does not necessarily guarantees ‘states’. This brings back the notion that creating the right mood for passion must be taken seriously, and that although (felt) and constructed as a naturally occurring and cuasi-spontaneous states, passion needs to be caused and carefully planned. If any of the elements in the passion production chain fails, then Experience does not occur. In this sense (and contrary to cultural policy in the UK which sees the reduction in the price of tickets or special promotions as a means for increasing arts attendance) one of the mechanisms by which infrequent attenders secure the production of Experience is by accessing good seats (which are usually the ones more highly priced). As less trained passion experimenters, all the aspects (both material and subjective) need to be assembled and in place in order for having better chances of Experience actually taking place.
I also want to briefly look at what could be described as hybrid devices of attendance. I understand these as mediators between attenders and Experience and which might ultimately have an influence over frequency. In particular, Special Occasion is a particular way of attaching to the performing arts and it is here defined as an hybrid insofar as it triggers attendance but at the same time it detracts attendance of being more frequent. It basically consists of a series of mechanisms and interactions by which attendance is actually enacted as special occasion and not an ordinary or natural phenomenon or otherwise. Here again, taste is not a direct cause of attendance. In doing Special Occasion, infrequent attenders seem to perpetuate and reproduce their limited attendance pattern in that doing Experience on a frequent basis would eliminate the special elements of the occasion in question: ‘I always make an effort. People go very scruffy to the theatre. Maybe I’m old fashioned but I think it’s a shame. I think it’s an occasion and you should make it an occasion.’
I would like to conclude by making reference to what Callon (2007) has described as ‘unequal calculating capacities’ in the economic field but which could be also translated as ‘unequal experiencing capacities’ in the artistic field, capabilities which are inscribed in particular anthropological programmes of performativity. Bourdieu should be brought into the equation again, by reintroducing reproduction not from a social deterministic perspective, but for allowing us to think of cultural consumption inequality as tournaments of ‘experiences’ where stronger, better equipped agencies better perform the very world in which they are more likely to thrive, or in Bourdieu’s terms, where certain agencies perform the realisation of cultural value in a way which better facilitates the accumulation of cultural capital (and therefore its further investment). In this way, we can think of infrequent attenders as being equipped with unequal or less effective experiencing capabilities which are both the product of and the cause of their erratic arts consumption pattern. In this way, inequality is brought back into the equation but without dismissing the appropriate description of taste as an active, performative process.