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Are the Arts Irrelevant to the Next Generation?

New research from Norway finds a steep drop in interest in art, literature and classical music among college students between 1998 and 2008.
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Are you concerned about the future of the fine arts? New research from Norway suggests you have every right to fret.

A study just published in the journal Poetics suggests art forms such as literature and classical music “are becoming increasingly more irrelevant for most students’ cultural lives.” This points to “an increasingly precarious position for traditional highbrow culture,” according to a trio of researchers led by the University of Bergen’s Jostein Gripsrud.

Gripsrud and his colleagues conducted two surveys of students enrolled at the major institutions of higher learning in the Norwegian city of Bergen: the University of Bergen, the Norwegian School of Business Administration, Bergen University College, and the National College of Art, Bergen. The first survey, conducted in late 1998 and early 1999, produced responses from 1,113 students.

The second — designed to closely replicate the first, with some added questions regarding use of digital media — was conducted exactly 10 years later, in late 2008 and early 2009. In addition to the four schools from 1998, the Norwegian School of Business Management was included. A total of 1,223 students responded.

The surveys were lengthy and detailed (93 questions in the first, 97 in the second). Both featured a mix of yes-or-no questions (“Have you heard of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter?”) and open-ended ones (“Name some authors or books you think are very good.”).

The researchers found “a marked decline in interest and use of almost every form of culture that is identified with traditional legitimate taste.” They note that “the most marked drops in popularity were often in the oldest and supposedly most legitimate genres, including classical music, opera, and literature.”

“The proportion of students who have visited an art gallery in the last 12 months; or say they are interested in classical or avant-garde theatre; or have been at a performance of one of these art forms; or claim interest in the culture sections in the newspaper … are all decreasing,” they add.

The data points to a “general shift of emphasis towards the popular cultural mainstream,” in the words of Gripsrud and his colleagues.

“Whereas fewer are interested in classical theater in 2008, more students now claim an interest in musicals,” they write. “Fewer attend jazz and classical concerts, but more students go to pop/rock concerts. Fewer students say they are interested in reading older or contemporary serious literature, but the numbers for crime/suspense novels have risen. And so forth.

“This turning away from traditional legitimate culture is particularly noticeable in terms of the students’ cultural knowledge,” the researchers add. “Far fewer say they are familiar with major artists from classical music and traditional folk music. Their familiarity with canonical visual artists is considerably reduced.”

The researchers note that this drop in interest has obvious implications in terms of popular support for public spending on culture. Art, they note, is “a real resource” that helps our “understanding the world and one’s role in it.” But if the trend they identified continues, it may become a resource recognized and accessed only by a small cultural elite.

"Class differences have become significantly more pronounced," Gripsrud added in an e-mail exchange. He noted that students raised by highly educated, culturally aware parents are now "clearly distinguishable from the rest, since they continue to include the high art and avant-garde genres in their repertoire, and remain quite knowledgeable in these areas. They also are considerably more active, not least as producers/contributors in the digital realm."

On that topic, it's not surprising that the 2008 students — members of the Internet generation — were far more likely to consume cultural products at home than the counterparts of a decade earlier. This means that, with the exception of pop concerts, communal participation in cultural events is declining. Forty-six percent of students in 1998 went to the cinema at least once a month; only 23 percent did so in 2008.

If there is any good news here for people convinced of the continuing value of the classics, it is that “a certain reverence for the value of ‘high’ culture remains strongly embedded in students’ minds.” However, this high regard appears to be more theoretical than practical. Baroque music is one of the top three genres students said they were interested in, but they seldom mentioned any performers who specialize in that form.

Bergen is just one city, of course; perhaps similar studies done elsewhere would produce different results. But these are certainly sobering. “The question that remains,” the researchers conclude, “is how marginal practices of supposedly legitimate culture can become before they lose their relevance for the population in general.”

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