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What Can Arts Organizations Learn from Comic-Con? (Part 1)

High vs. Low Art

One of the things we all know about Comic-Con, the San Diego-based, five-day convention celebrating the popular arts, is that it draws crowds. Those crowds sell out the convention two months in advance, and their members display brand loyalty by walking through the streets dressed as Batman or Wonder Woman. A week after Comic-Con and reflecting on its successes, I started to wonder how one builds such a dedicated fan base. I also wondered if arts organizations had anything to learn from the Comic-Con model, as they struggle to survive in an economic downturn and build new audiences. I consulted three local arts leaders who I knew to be long-time attendees of Comic-Con and asked them to consider the question: What can arts organizations learn from Comic-Con?

The result was a lively discussion between Tyler Richard Hewes, the Executive Director of Orchestra Nova San Diego, Dalouge Smith, the President and CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, and Edward Wilensky, the Director of Media Relations for the San Diego Opera. We talked about what Comic-Con does well and whether those successes might be instructive for the average arts organization (obviously not a direct corollary since Comic-Con is a convention, but nevertheless, there were lessons to be learned). I will present this discussion in three parts. In Part I, we began with the distinctions between high and low art and ended on a familiar Comic-Con topic, the movie "Twilight."

ANGELA: All three of you went to Comic-Con this year, and have gone for many years. It's a convention celebrating the popular arts, yet all of you spend your working lives promoting the "high arts." Do you think there’s a blurring of the lines between high and low art in the minds of contemporary audiences?

DALOUGE: I don’t think the general public categorizes art in the same way arts professionals do. My impression is most people use the “I like it” versus the “I don’t like it” method of differentiating. If an orchestra is playing video game music, then video game lovers will go to the concert. If an orchestra is performing works by John Williams, then fans of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg movies will go. Beethoven continues to be an extremely popular composer. People like his music so they buy concert tickets to go see and hear it performed. If people aren’t familiar with what is being performed, they seem to say to themselves, “I don’t know it, so I don’t know if I’ll like it, so I won’t go.”

EDWARD: That's a good question and I think Dalouge is onto something. Call me naive but I like to call it all "art." Either it speaks to you or it doesn't, and that's what makes it such a unique experience for the individual. What Comic-Con does is present a wide variety of art to pick and choose from, to suit one's own personal interests.

I don't like the term "high art." I think we forget that at one point in time, opera and symphonic concerts were the popular arts of the time. Going to the theatre was a social affair; one where you got dressed up, albeit not like Spiderman or Wolverine, but you got dressed up to be noticed. Fashions, trends and customs were started at the theatre, just as new movies are announced at Comic-Con, or new soft drinks with a TV tie-in are debuted. Theatre was the Comic-Con of its time - a node of popular culture whose influence spread throughout society. Back in the day you ate, drank, flirted, talked and cheered your way through the performance. Actually, in reading descriptions of going to the opera back in the day, it reminds me of the energy one would find in Hall H (the large convention room where blockbuster movie panels are held); the presentations, the din of people coming and going, the cheers from the crowd, the eating of nachos, the clacking of laptops, the ringing of phones, the flirting with woman dressed up as Catwoman and wearing it well (the last one from observation only).

It was the French Revolution and the rise of the middle-class that created this strata of "high art." The aristocracy knew that they could lose their position very quickly so they created a series of codes - by acting a certain way here and a certain way there, they were able to announce their inclusion in a certain strata of the social and cultural elite. Since the aristocracy was able to commission theatre, it became a place for them to gather. This is where we get "high art." But it's really not. There are many operas and comics that share the same exploration of universal human themes.

TYLER: I agree with Dalouge. The majority of the public takes an "I like it" or "I don't like it" point of view on art and that the very idea of "high art" vs. "low art" doesn't really exist, but rather folks will gravitate towards that which they know and already enjoy. I am a fan of opera, classical music, and theatre, but I am also a huge "Star Wars", "Harry Potter" and DC Comics fan. I believe that much of the contemporary audience takes a similar stance. They enjoy a multitude of different arts options. I think it comes down to connectivity - if an art form or a particular work connects with you and resonates within your soul, you are going to respond and return to that piece of art or art form multiple times - it is immaterial whether that piece is "Das Rheingold" or the latest "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" comic. As long as you are drawn to the message and core of the work, the medium is a secondary issue.

I agree with Ed's analysis about the idea of "high art" being a relatively recent construct. Opera, ballet, theatre, the symphony were all the broad entertainment of their day - no different in cultural relevance to their contemporary audiences than the most recent blockbuster, video game or popular book.

EDWARD: Also, comics in their earliest form - I guess we can call them proto-comics - were not popular art. I'm talking Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes, tapestries -- all works that tell narratives through sequential images - these were things reserved for rulers and the wealthy. It was the invention of the printing press, and moveable type, that allowed the modern comic to develop. But these were still for those who could afford to buy books and could read them. It was the Industrial Revolution that made comics something for the masses.

So yes, that line blurs but I think the line is still there for many in the form of a price tag. And that aristocracy is still around, but instead of looking down a monocle at someone who's clapping before the overture is finished, they're walking around carrying "'Twilight' Killed Comic-Con" signs.

ANGELA: Ed, just to clarify your last paragraph for readers, you’re referring to a contingent at Comic-Con for whom the film "Twilight" (which is wildly popular with a mainstream audience of women and teenage girls who attend Comic-Con for the "Twilight"related events) has somehow ruined Comic-Con. In other words, cultural snobbery happens within any art form?

ED: Yes, that's what I mean. But I also want to add: Comic-Con hasn't been ruined. At least not the Comic-Con I've been going to for 20 or so years. It's still there but there is all this other stuff as well. I went into Hall H for the first time this year to see Terry Gilliam, my first non-comic panel in my 20 or so Cons. It was also one of the first lines I ever waited in. One could argue that the inclusion of TV and movies ruined Comic-Con, but it didn't. It gave it a sense of validity, of importance. It made Comic-Con the place to be. I think we can learn from that. How do we make our art form the perceived place to be? Of course, we need to deliver on that promise as well.

TYLER: I think that the stratification of art (into high and low) has been, in no small part, due to the pricing involved for the consumer. Let's say you are just starting to show an interest in comic books. You can put together a very decent collection for less than $200 - between TPB, reprints and the bargain bin at the local comic shop - and you can read decades worth of stories. Now let's say you are just starting to show an interest in opera - to attend just one opera - in fair to good seats - it can cost you that same $200. With the advent of technology, it becomes a bit easier (downloading opera recordings from iTunes, seeing a broadcast from the Met at a movie theatre), but the joy and amazement of seeing a live opera can't be matched and so to really get the operatic experience, it's going to require an investment that may be difficult for a neophyte to justify. This is how art falls into high vs. low or haves vs. have-nots - those who can afford to attend a symphony concert or a theatre performance vs. those who can afford to go to a movie and buy some comics. I think this goes to the core of why we in the traditional arts are having such a hard time growing our brand, while Comic-Con continues to grow. At the Con, there is a level for every wallet - you can hit up the dollar bins at the comic booths or you can drop $500 on a Lego Death Star (something I came DANGEROUSLY close to doing this year). While we in the "high art'" world have introductory prices and occasional discounts, there will always be a perception that we are out of the price range of most casual fans. For the price of one decent concert ticket to a symphony performance, you can see 4 movies.

On the "Twilight" issue, I think there are multiple threads of conflict within the Con community in regards to that property. There's the adolescent male rejection of what is essentially a love story for adolescent girls, the breaking of current vampire lore and mythos within the "Twilight" series itself, and the sense of misogyny that some have identified in "Twilight." And, it's really easy to make fun of a brand that takes itself so seriously. The best t-shirt I saw at the Con said "...and then Buffy staked Edward. The End."

Join us here tomorrow for Part II of the series, "What Can Arts Organizations Learn from Comic-Con?" We'll discuss opportunities to grow new audiences by looking at the tremendous growth of Comic-Con and its use of social media.

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