Saturday 28 September 2013

The uses of literacy


The US National Endowment for the Arts have just published their report “How a nation engages with art”. It is very much what you would expect from such an enterprise, in that it is worthy, somewhat humourless, and slightly pretentious. A nation “engages” with art. It does not just go to the movies or watch TV. It “consumes” art rather than going to the theatre or art galleries. The study will be “cogent” to arts organizations, arts funders, and cultural economists, and will “inform their understanding” about arts audiences or help them gauge public demand for “specific arts experiences”. I detect the malign influence of a committee of public arts officials. If there is anything worse than a Cromwell prohibiting people from dancing round the maypole, it is a Committee encouraging it.

For those who truly believe that a picture is worth a thousand words, then I must report the following: the frontispiece picture is of girls doing Mexican folk dancing; two European boys doing the same dance in Mexican hats; a mixed African American and European group doing the minority activity of ballet; an iPad showing a Hispanic young man, an Asian looking guy searching for books and two young African Americans playing classical string instruments. These photos are repeated at various stages. Possibly the pictures were chosen at random, but if they are intended to tell the story of arts consumption, then they are unrepresentative. Arts consumers tend to be older, whiter women. There seems to be general agreement that this group is not cool, and is best air-brushed out of pictorial existence.

Doing arty things is considered to be Good. It “rounds” the personality. So does numeracy. I know that many families have a child who wants to write poetry and dance for a living, but why should anyone spend time indulging their exhibitionism? However, Art gets an indulgent press, regardless of quality. Perhaps there is wisdom in this: folk dancing, weaving and pottery represent assurances that the participants are not currently engaged in theft or violence. One must be grateful for small mercies, even including ballet. Here is an overview of the participation rate for various activities.




Consumption is the commercial word for enjoying oneself. Literacy comes under the “art” rubric, as far as this worthy endowment is concerned. Voluntary reading is any reading done outside prison. (In fact it refers to “reading for pleasure” rather than reading documents at work or at school).

Percent of U.S. Adults Who Read at Least One Book (Any Type), by
Selected Demographic Variables: 2012
all adults                                       55%
Male                                              45%
Female                                          64%

Hispanic                                       36%
White                                           61%
African American                       46%
Other                                           49%

Women are disproportionately the readers on whom authors rely, with white readers ahead of the other groups, particularly American Hispanics. By way of comparison, this pattern holds true of visits to art galleries and museums.

Hispanic                                  14%
White                                      24%
African American                   12%
Other                                       21%

Retirement provides more time for leisure reading, as seen below, though the oldest group seems to be tiring of the activity. Perhaps they have begun to recognise the plots.

18-24                                           52%
25-34                                           55%
35-44                                           53%

45-54                                           53%
55-64                                           57%
65-74                                           61%

75                                                 52%

As always, there is a strong monotonic between reading and education, which is also, as we know, a link with intelligence. (Incidentally, this link with intellect is found in many of the other cultural activities in the survey).

Highest Level of Educational Attainment
Grade School                  22%
Some High School          28%
High School Graduate    41%
Some College                   60%
College Graduate             73%
Graduate School              82%

What do people “voluntarily” read?

Fiction       23%
Both          58%
Nonfiction 19%

At this point the summary stops. Of course, I would have been interested in more detail about the non-fiction readers, but we may have to wait until their later and more detailed report. It would also be interesting to rank the activities by popularity, and then look at the age and ethnic discrepancies. A simple prediction would be that these would diminish for the rarer activities, since they would attract the most devoted adherents, probably the uniformly brighter ones. There is partial confirmation of this hypothesis in that electronic media art users show high participation rates for all ethnic groups. Hard core is hard core, and it does not matter how many have (proportionately) dropped out on the way.

Now, some irritations aside, this publication is not all bad. At 35,000 the survey has a healthy sample size, and since it is part of the US Census it may be possible to link it with detailed demographic data. They discuss the limitations of the data in a clear and honest way. The data is publically available, with a proper data guide. A fuller report will come out next year. I am not proposing that anyone should be asked to resign, nor to make a public apology. It is just that I would have liked an artistic publication to have shown a little more evidence of artistry. They could have chosen as illustrations some of their favourite paintings of the year, identified some up and coming artists, and displayed their numeric results in more appealing ways. It reeks too much of a corporate report in which all divisions have reached their five year plans for “a stunning plurality of art forms, genres, venues, and events and activities”. It manages to transmit this feeling even when it is reporting significant drops in participation in many cultural activities.

Above all, they could have made some true confessions, and linked their explanatory photos to their basic findings. Most of art “consumption” comes via television and the internet, and the core of literary consumption is older white women visiting galleries and reading books.

1 comment:

  1. I've always been a reader, but thereafter:-

    I find museums over-rated.

    I long ago stopped going to concerts, having decided that the only music that gains from being 'live' is Opera and Jazz.

    I spent every Sunday afternoon one winter, when I was seventeen, going to a film club to see superior European films. All I can remember is that I enjoyed one called Bicycle Thieves.

    I do enjoy theatre. I still remember an Othello I saw when I was about sixteen, ditto a She Stoops To Conquer at about fifteen. But then I'd liked panto when I was little.

    There was a spell when we lived in Edinburgh when we went to poetry readings. That was tremendous fun - maybe we were lucky in the generation doing the reading.

    Some art, in the sense of paintings, I find very pleasurable. I know nothing about it, but it delights me. A few sculptures too.

    I know I loathe ballet, though strangely the only two I've witnessed were a great pleasure. Odd that.