22. The Role of the Audience

The only concrete common denominator among the activities called “the arts” is that they are all carried out to be seen and/or heard by others. And, obviously, audiences in the arts are not like cameras that passively record whatever their lenses see and their microphones hear. In addition to being the signifying party, their relationship with the event is reciprocal, they hold sway over the meaning of the communicated subject matter.

Humans continuously search for stimuli and wish them to be novel but, at the same time, they fear that the “new” may end up being something harmful. Life can be seen as a balancing act between boring but predictable (therefore, secure and guaranteed) redundancies and surprises that trigger the cheerful dopamine compounds in the brain. (Ratey, 116-118)

I agree with the view that the arts are essentially “play” and that they came into being as a medium where the “new” could be safely searched for, found and experienced. They form stopovers in daily life where one can freely experiment to satisfy one’s curiosity and creativity without worrying about the consequences. 

Some refer to this conceptual territory in the performing arts as “carnivalesque,” using the adjective borrowed from Mikhail Bakhtin which he based on the carnivals during the Renaissance. Bakhtin referred to them as temporary and exclusive mediums of communication: open, equal and free meetings among people from all ranks and castes who normally didn’t come together, where words and behaviors which normally were considered to be inappropriate could take place without censure or punishment. (Bakhtin, 10; Becker, 47-48)

Can one say that the audiences in our day go to live performing arts events to step out of the “normal,” to “play together,” to participate in a “game” that is open to unpredictability? This may be a primal need and one may be able to detect such subliminal motives in the standard performance- and concert-goings. But, due to the fact that the performing arts have transitioned (since the late eighteenth century) from being a social participation environment into a social consumption environment, the nature of the “game” has changed. It has changed from being “out of the ordinary” to “ordinary,” from the ruleless carnivalesque to a ruled regularity that is organized and controlled by the unwritten regulations embodied in the established social frames.

Social frames are a necessity. To be able to have a predictable social living and to continue to interact with each other, we have to map out and define our “neighborhood” and set some rules of behavior. For instance, the word “restaurant” brings a certain environment and forms of behavior to mind. We go to a restaurant expecting it to be in the order as defined and we act and expect others at the location to act in accordance with the established codes. If we looked at it from Bakhtin’s point of view, we would think that attending a performing arts event should be significantly different from going to a restaurant, but, in our day, there happens to be not much of a difference between the two. 

The reason behind attending a performing arts event seems to lie in the known information about the work more than the curiosity about things unknown. The prospective spectator uses the information to make certain that s/he is investing his/her time, effort and money in an experience which consists of a game s/he will play along with others, in accordance with the rules that all participants will know and follow. The spectator wants to make sure that the product will be as anticipated.

For instance, let’s imagine the announcement of a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: It will state the name of the company, the name of the director, the names of the leading actors, the dates and hours and the duration of the show, the number of intermissions, the address of the location, a few blurbs by critics, and, if announced on social media, comments by people who have seen the show. Moreover, the majority of the spectators will already be familiar with the basic story of this popular play. 

Doesn’t this information drastically lessen the probability of anything surprising? Wouldn’t it make one feel like having watched half of the performance by the time s/he enters the lobby? How much desire to see something “new” could be left after all this information?

To repeat, the audiences go to performances to play their role in a game of which rules they know. Here is an example to describe the “role” of the audience: Let’s assume that an actor representing a rich person on a theater stage is wearing a big diamond ring. This object, at the initial level, signifies a big ring. At the second level, it points at the wealth of the character. And, at the third level, it is a stage prop. The rule followed by the audiences tells them to focus on the first and second dimensions and ignore the third one, the fact that the ring is nothing but a cheap accessory imitating a diamond ring. (Bogatyrev, 34)

Similarly, the audiences have learned and accepted the rule that every movement and object in the environment labeled as “theater” ought to be perceived as a theatrical sign. That is why there are so many stories about actual mishaps happening on stage that were perceived as “part of the play” by the audience.

The definitions and rules of the game contained in the social frames surrounding the event determine the spectator’s behavior as well as his/her perception of the work. The “performance-watching” game of the spectator begins when s/he comes across the information about the event and decides to attend. In addition to one’s knowledge of the general conventionalized frames, the announcements, advertisements and reviews about the work enable one to mentally picture and position oneself within its context. Using this information, the spectator develops “interpretive strategies,” as famously termed by Stanley Fish. If we look at the event as a “text,” the “reader” prepares to “write” the text in accordance with the information. (Fish, 171)

[Stanley] Fish argues that readers … belong to “interpretive communities” which are “made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.” These strategies, he points out, exist prior to the act of reading and therefore “determine the shape of what is read.” (Key Theories of Stanley Fish)

The interpretation, that is, the signification of the text is never objective, it follows the conventionalized rules. For instance, the announcements about a performance may mention awards won by the leading actors. The purpose is basically to attract more spectators. Why does this out-of-context information help to fill the house? The logic is very simple: If some people have found some work, say, by an actor worthy of an award, then that actor’s performance in the new work should be worth watching. The identity of the awarders, the nature of the awarded works, the reason why they were found award-worthy are often not questioned. Such conventionalized information does not only motivate the spectator to attend the performance, it also prompts him/her to watch the actor’s performance more attentively, acceptingly and appreciatively. 

For example, the appearance of lead actors and actresses in cinema tends to be in forms considered to be “handsome” and “beautiful” in society. This is the case even in movies that claim to be highly realistic. We do not run into such people in the streets that often – if we do, we use the expression “like a movie star” to describe them. Many movie stars are employed by the fashion and advertisement industries in connection with their looks. Yet, when we watch them in a movie, we think and talk about their acting abilities, as defined by the rules. “A very good actress” often happens to be a euphemism for “a very attractive woman.” The rules ask us to ignore the fact that a person who is not good looking cannot become a movie star.

Balloon Dog (Orange), Jeff Koons (307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm) Sold for $58,400,000 at Christie’s auction in November 2013.

For example, in recent years many visual artists have been building three-dimensional pieces in unusually large sizes which, naturally, can be exhibited only in very large spaces. Curiosity about the look of the object (which one may be able to see in photos) is usually not the main reason why people visit such exhibitions. The chief motives tend to be the boldness and audacity of the artist in building a piece at a huge size and the allocation of a large (usually reputable) space for its exhibition. Yet, the rules of the game dictate that such aspects are not “artistic” and valid, that one goes to exhibitions to view works of art and the size is a matter of artistic preference, not a trick to attract attention.

The control of the social frames and standardizing conventions over audience perception has probably been the most important topic discussed in the avant-garde performing arts. I see three main viewpoints:


Some defend that conventionalized definitions and rules (the system) are inevitable, even a must, as in every organized social activity. They focus on “what” is being shared with the audience, asserting that innovations and change take place within the confines of the “content.” 

For example, in this view, performing on a proscenium stage in a standard theater hall does not form an impediment to the presentation of new content. The content can be presented in novel formats, if necessary, within the borders of the stage. Similarly, a painter may not be bothered by the designation of a painting as a painted square or rectangular canvas made for exhibition on a wall. What is important for him/her is what is done within the frame.


Some others claim that the physical environment of the presentation plays an important role in the recognition and signification of the content. Use of alternative spaces for theatrical performances can be a good example of this approach. To go back to the painter example above, here the painter paints or manipulates the surfaces of irregular objects as opposed to square or rectangular canvasses.

Practitioners of this approach do not seem to object to the social frames around the presentations. That is, the standard practice of theater- or concert-going remains as is and the unusual presentations take place within the usual borders of the performance space. One reason for this “measured” radicalism is obviously feasibility and finance. Another reason which I notice is somewhat theoretical: If there is a critical, contrarian approach, then what is “criticised” has to be known. In other words, the “new” can be new as long as the “old” is “visible” as the point of reference. For example, the painter who works on the surfaces of irregular objects may assert that they need to be shown at spaces where traditionally shaped artworks are exhibited, so that his/her antithetical approach can get across through comparison.


A third view argues that definitions, rules and ritualized behavior are against the nature of all art forms, including the performing arts. Social frames call for standardization and repetition and, thus, limit the degrees of novelty and freedom. Practitioners of this viewpoint aim at free experimentation, rejecting all customary boundaries. This approach at times comes quite close to Bakhtin’s “outside the normal” idea which I described above. Certain forms of performance art, “happenings” and, more recently, social art, which take place at unusual locations, times and durations, are the products of this point of view. A painter who paints the surfaces or objects in the streets, sometimes together with others as a communal project, can be an example.