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Essay on building audience for the humanities

Humanities as Spectacle
July 30, 2013

It’s been a few weeks since "The Heart of the Matter," the congressionally ordered report on the state of the humanities and social sciences, was issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And while there is little to object to in the actual text, which brims with veracities on the importance of education and good citizenship, the smarting hasn’t stopped.

In The New York Times alone, we heard from three pundocratic naysayers. David Brooks, a member of the commission, bemoaned the collective suicide of the humanities professoriate, Verlyn Klinkenborg lamented the decline and fall of the English major, and Stanley Fish excoriated the report itself for its "bland commonplaces" and "recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia" (and as a Miltonist, he knows that’s not the world we live in).

There have been valiant attempts to parry this latest volley of gloom regarding the "crisis of the humanities."

But even if "our classrooms remain packed," that still leaves the population at large. And there, a basic contention remains unanswered: the, by now, self-evident truth that the humanities are a "public relations failure" (Fish ventriloquizing Klinkenborg). Humanists are just no good at explaining why their work matters. No wonder, then, that the public has little use for their efforts.

The marketing problem is such a commonplace in the debate, it goes virtually unremarked these days. But to me, it raises a very basic question: why is it the job of a humanist to be her own advertiser? Other creative types have managers, agents, and publicists for that task, to say nothing of film studios, theaters, galleries, and museums – infrastructures, in other words, that allow them to focus on what they do best.

What would such an institution look like for humanists? As it happens, I help lead one. The Chicago Humanities Festival, which I serve as artistic director, is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. In fact, we were name-checked as such in "The Heart of the Matter," praised for our success in "inviting academics and artists to share their passions and expertise with new audiences."

We’re in our 24th year of doing so. Our annual fall festival features about 100 events, always organized around a theme. Attendance is around 50,000, with hundreds of thousands more consuming our content digitally. Not your average public relations failure, we like to think.

But how do we do it? How do we get thousands of people to come out to hear humanities professors lecture?

It’s really quite simple: we treat our presenters as stars and our events as performances.

It’s probably best to think about this mode of operation in contrast to your typical university programming. Sure, those lectures are free and open to the public. But how would that public even know? Dreary leaflets on campus bulletin boards aren’t likely to draw general audiences. Nor would such crowds feel particularly engaged by often dry and specialized presentations. (I should hasten to add that in my other life as a university professor, I can get quite excited about an earnest announcement circulating on a listserv; but then again, I’m already sold on the product.)

Everything we do at the Chicago Humanities Festival is designed to break those kinds of barriers. We write tantalizing copy for our events, place our ads in all the local media, and hustle for coverage in those same publications.

And we make sure that our featured talent appears in the best light possible. We think about stage sets and backdrops and fuss endlessly with our sound systems. Even more importantly, we spend a huge amount of time thinking about the best way to showcase a speaker. Is the great Harvard historian we invited known to go on and on when lecturing? No problem, we feature him in conversation with that gentle, yet firm journalist who has a deep passion for his subject. Is there worry about the density of a speech on continental philosophy? We coach the presenter in the joys of multi-media.

When it all works out, we get big, expectant audiences who, after basking in the erudition of our speakers (and asking sometimes stunningly insightful questions), can’t wait to come back for more.

This isn’t so different from the way other cultural organizations operate. Let me take an example from the world of opera, another domain whose utility could seem suspect in the glare of neoliberal scrutiny. When soprano Anna Netrebko was scheduled to make her Chicago debut in the 2012-13 season, it brought shivers of anticipation to local opera fanatics. But for a good chunk of Lyric Opera’s patrons, she was just a Russian-sounding name. It was the task of the company to create the appropriate excitement for her bow as Mimì, to say nothing of providing her with all the theatrical props needed for an optimal performance. The result: a sold-out run and something approaching collective hysteria (of the good kind).

Why should it be so different for humanists? Sure, in the academy we recognize folks like Julia Kristeva, Frans de Waal, and Maria Tatar as stars (to mention three of the speakers who will join us for this fall’s festival on Animal: What Makes Us Human). But just like your average opera diva, they need a bit of professional marketing and a decent production to find and captivate their audience. As a performing organization in the humanities, that’s our job. And after 24 years, we know how to do it.

Imitators wanted!

Bio

Matti Bunzl is artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois. 

 

 

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