An audience with stupidity

Which art form can boast the stupidest audience? The question is prompted by the experience, last Sunday, of attending the Red Hot Chili Peppers' concert in Hyde Park and encountering the carefully tutored imbecility of a rock concert crowd.

I'm not talking about the drinking - though many were tackling their consumption as though it was a competitive event and as a result you could sense the collective IQ dropping like a stone. And I'm not talking about the baffling conviction, shared by a startlingly large number of those present, that it would add to people's pleasure to have a half-empty beer bottle arc out of the sky onto their heads (the bottles were plastic, which ruled out serious injury or hospitalisation, but even so it must have hurt a bit on impact).

What I really have in mind is the kindergarten biddability of the crowd when addressed by their heroes. James Brown played the warm-up set for the Chili Peppers, and he did so with a performance of what struck me as entirely mechanical charisma, heavily dependent on pointing at a section of the throng and getting them to go "oohhh".

Then he would point at a different bit of the crowd and get them to go "ooohhh" louder. Then he would shout "London" and demand an all-out "oohhh", express his dismay at our lack of civic pride and make us do it again, only better.

Not only did almost everybody comply, but they gave every sign that this kind of thing was among the reasons they'd queued in the rain in the first place.

It's easy to put a positive spin on this kind of thing. Biddability, after all, is just another way of saying that the crowd is willing to meet the performer halfway, and I don't think there's much doubt that, in respect of self-abandonment and collective dis-inhibition, the rock audience really can't be beaten. They're much better at getting out of their heads than a Glyndebourne audience. But, once they're out of them you are left with a sense of echoing vacancy when it comes to matters such as fine discretion and aesthetic judgement. If they're this easily pleased by pantomime call-and-response, can their applause really be trusted?

And as you watch them walking out, cheerfully peeling off large-denomination notes for the T-shirts and the souvenir booklets, you can't help but thinking of them as babies from whom you don't even have to take the candy. They throw it.

If they're the stupidest audience, though, then which art form can boast the most intelligent? There's no straightforward correlation, for instance, between the nature of the art and the discernment of its fans. Watch an opera audience getting into a really competitive bout of booing and brava-ing and it's clear they are capable of being just as infantile as rock audiences (and of forking out just as much for merchandise).

Personally, I've always found Glyndebourne something of a hazard too, because of the almost toxic levels there of self-congratulation. But broadly speaking the audiences for opera and classical music are capable of looking past the event at the art work. They're interested in niceties of delivery and interpretation which - by and large - pass the rock audience by. And they're often studiously informed about technique.

The audiences for dance and jazz - art forms with a relatively small but dedicated fan base - are probably even better informed about the theological distinctions between styles. The only problem is they end up committed to dogmas, which are just another form of stupidity.

The audience for contemporary visual art might look like a candidate -- given that conceptual thought is pretty much the price of entrance these days -- but the recent boost in interest in art has brought with it a proportional increase in audience gullibility. An intelligent audience isn't one that appreciates everything it encounters, but one that knows how rare it is that appreciation can be offered without any kind of inhibition.

In fact, if you were to define audience intelligence as the ability to match your response precisely to the quality of what you're watching, you probably couldn't do much better than the television audience. This might sound counter-intuitive, when you think about the figures Big Brother has been getting, but all those millions aren't sitting at home whooping adoringly every night, lapping up everything that's offered.

They're talking among themselves, mocking what they're viewing and disappearing from time to time to do something more pressing. In rock terms they're a terrible audience - but at least they decide for themselves when to cheer.