Sunday, May 28, 2006

Culture: for the Price of Admission

Ever wonder what exactly you are buying when you purchase a ticket to the symphony (or any other cultural event)? What appears as a very simple transaction is complicated by exploring what you get for that “purchase.” When you buy a car, there is a clear exchange of value—money for goods; for the lawyer, the exchange is for a service. This holds true for the symphony as well. It is a service. But, the motivation, the real value is in the ephemeral experience, transcendent or otherwise.

When you buy the ticket, you are purchasing the right to be in a particular seat on a particular day to hear a published program. That same ticket provides no other rights, unless, for example, there is a rain rescheduling. The ticket does not provide a right to expect or hear a brilliant performance, only the right to be present for it.

From an economic standpoint, the cost of the ticket is your share of the financial support needed to allow the philharmonic service to continue to be provided to the wider community. After all, the conductor and musicians need to be paid in order to be able to bring their considerable gifts to rehearsals and performances. The hall needs to be built and maintained. Your ticket purchase provides for the physical (earthly) needs of the orchestra as your need to attend for aesthetic pleasure is being met.

It is fair to assume that expectations come with the purchase, especially if the orchestra has a great reputation. Given the right to be there for the performance, given that the musicians are there to perform, it is a sure bet that you will have an experience. The ticket purchase cannot guaranty the quality of the experience. Instead, the terms, value, and meaning are determined solely by you. How you absorb the music and carry it in memory into the future is particular to your biography. The quality of the experience, that which happens performa, is in the nature of a gift. It is certainly not a thing; it is the result of a transpersonal (performers-audience) event. It defies any conventional economic measurement since the performance is simultaneous and nearly congruent in space for the whole audience, yet its effects operate outside of time and space for each individual present.

The price of admission to a cultural event is complex since the end of the transaction is not really economic, but rather experiential or spiritual if you will. One test of this is to observe how much gift money has to be raised to meet the true cost of operating the symphony orchestra. If the true cost were reflected in the price of admission, very few people would be able to afford to attend, and thus, lame the broader cultural value of the performance and the mission of the music. However much one winces at the cost of attending a performance, the ticket at least guarantees you the right to attend, provides for both your and the orchestra’s economic needs, and is to be celebrated not as a charge against your income but rather as a gift in support of music and culture.

John Bloom © 2006


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