Why we shouldn't be so precious about the fine arts

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One of the biggest challenges around bridging the fine arts knowledge gap is the concept of “dumbing down.” Have you heard that term used before? People who work in the fine arts use it a lot to describe bad attempts at arts education for the public. They’ll say a presenter or article or video “dumbs down” a great work or era or technical concept.

One of my greatest joys is explaining just about anything. I was perhaps the most talkative child you’ve ever met, and I can still be ridiculously chatty, especially if the topic is something I can teach or explain. Breaking down complex topics is what I enjoyed most about law – even the most outrageously complex cases or principles can be taken apart and communicated in basic principles and analogies. This skillset led me to my corporate position, where my job was basically to explain complex investment topics to very important lay people.

Which brings me back to “dumbing down.” When people with a high level of knowledge try to break down complex topics for “lay people” (i.e., people without little to no knowledge of a subject), the most common mistake they make is starting too high. They jump in at mid-knowledge, which turns half the crowd off the topic entirely. But they do this to avoid “dumbing down,” for which their colleagues might look down upon them.

The reason people with a high level of knowledge (including many fine arts professionals) often show disdain for “dumbing down” is that they know how amazing their topic is. They want to stay way up at the level they’ve obtained, with the context and the nuance and the interpretation, because it’s so good, so fascinating, so rewarding. So it irks them profoundly to hear only the soundbite about a piece of music, or a painting, or a ballet. They’re thinking “god, there’s way more to it than that!

But that makes us all be awfully precious about the fine arts. Knowing how good something is when you really understand the technical workings, the cultural context, the controversies, and the historical meaning – that makes us look at great works of art and revere them, rather than teach them. But that does an enormous disservice to people who don’t know where to start. All they know is that the people who do know about that stuff seem to be in awe, so they fake awe until they’ve convinced themselves they kinda sorta get it too.

Dumbing down is the bad version of starting from scratch. It’s when someone isn’t going to take a listener or viewer or reader on a learning journey – they’re just going to give them the picture book version of something and leave them. And dumbing down assumes your audience is, well, dumb. The key is actually to acknowledge that your audience knows absolutely nothing about what you’re talking about, but they do know a lot about other things. That way you can break down, not dumb down, your topic, and meet them at the levels they already understand – at fundamental principles, understandable metaphors, and well-known reference points.

Unfortunately, to do all this, you can’t be precious with the fine arts. It’s a lot easier to say, “I have an advanced degree in this art form, and you can’t possibly, truly understand it without years of study… but I’m sure you can still enjoy it.” It’s a lot easier to scoff at a simple explanation of a great piece of music. It’s easy to criticize someone’s narrow understanding of a famous painter. But that’s being precious. The great works of art aren’t meant to just live on a pedestal – they’re meant to be enjoyed. And if you’re too precious with them, people will never get there. And that’s not dumb.