Virtually no other phrase bears within it as much condescension as does the oft-invoked call to “pick people up where they are”. Be it in the media, in politics, or in the cultural sphere, this metaphor has been flogged to a near-inflationary extent. It may be that those who use it mean well—in the spirit of equality between the transmitting and the receiving end, communication on an equal footing, and approaching each other instead of getting dug into positions that do, after all, always have something hierarchical to them. But in culture, this has frequently entailed the museum, the opera, the theatre, or another institution of a city’s cultural life standing over here while the audience, which should consume more or less passively and by no means intervene, stands over there. It’s always rewarding to question this classic division of power, break up old structures, and address the audience more openly and directly.
However, the “picking up” metaphor isn’t really appropriate here. It calls forth images of children forced to wait patiently outside their school until the grown-ups come to take them home. It has pedagogical feel to it. As if it were necessary to take people by the hand and lead them to what they hadn’t previously found interesting. As if they then obviously would become interested. Wouldn’t it be more responsible if artists and cultural policymakers were to ask whether the things they produce year in, year out actually remain in any way relevant to the realities of a significant number of people’s lives? Whether their staged stories manage to touch people, and whether people can still identify at all with the characters on stage or on screen? That would entail actually taking an interest in those people whom they’d like to win over as a new audience. It would be real, honest-to-goodness engagement with each other, true community outreach. And it would change perspectives, be enriching—for both sides.