In our great works of art is the best exploration of what it means to be a human being. And if you don’t have the tools and skills to engage meaningfully with those great works of art — to place yourself in them, to find a way in — you are deprived of an important expression of humanity.
I’m a theater person. I got my degree in theater from Berkeley. And when I first started attending dance concerts, I would completely freak out. Somebody would come on stage and they’d dance, and I said, “Okay, I can see that.” And then another person would come on, and pretty soon the stage was filled, and I would freak out. I would think, “I don’t know where to look. I’m doing it wrong. I’m watching the wrong thing.”
It took some very dear friends and beautiful teaching artists to say, “Look at where your eye is drawn. What are you interested in? Then, ask yourself why you’re interested in that. What do you see? Because what you see and what you’re interested in is your experience, and that’s what matters.”
I’m the director of artistic literacy at Cal Performances. I like to say that I’m the only director of artistic literacy in the country, because it’s true. We are the education and community outreach branch, the community service branch, really, of Cal Performances, reaching both current audiences and new audiences, and people who don’t know that they should be audiences by trying to break down some of those barriers to engaging with the arts.
For us, artistic literacy is just like any other literacy. We see artistic literacy as on par with linguistic and numerical literacy, as essential to making meaning in our lives, to figuring out what it means to be a human being in a relationship to ourselves, to each other, to our environment. We believe that artistic literacy is a core human right — that everybody has a right to engage meaningfully with the arts in their community. That’s actually an article in the Declaration of Human Rights that the U.N. put together in 1948.
If literacy is essential to communicating across cultures, across experience, artistic literacy is right up there with it.
With accessibility, people talk about access barriers initially — Berkeley is the great home of removing accessibility barriers. There’s physical access — just being able to get into a place. There’s price access, so you have to be able to afford it. There’s information access — if you don’t know about it because it’s only shared in limited pockets.
Even after all those accessibility issues are addressed, then there’s the one of invitation. Do you actually feel like you’re invited, that you belong there? So artistic literacy is also an invitation. Yes, you belong here. Once you’re inside, and you’ve accepted the invitation, you feel comfortable, or at least not alienated, in the lobby. You find your seat, you sit down, the lights go down.
The last barrier to accessibility is: How do you watch what’s on stage? And if you’ve never had an introduction to the layers of live performing arts, it’s easy to just shut down, to be overwhelmed, to even be angry. Like, “Why did you invite me here if you’re speaking to me in a language that I don’t even understand?” Each of the performing arts is a language.
In our society, we tend to privilege spoken language or written language, but the very existence of the performing arts makes it clear that expression in these languages is such an important aspect of being a human being. So that’s the main barrier we try to address: the artistic literacy piece.
There is both a real and perceived elitism that gets in the way of people coming to see works that would change their lives if they knew they were invited, if they knew that they had a way in. And it’s important to continue to fight against that elitism.
This is part of a series of thumbnail sketches of people in the UC Berkeley community who exemplify Berkeley, in all its creative, scrappy, world-changing, quirky glory. Are you a Berkeleyan? Know one? Let us know. We’ll add your name to a drawing for an I’m a Berkeleyan T-shirt.