Is Chautauqua Thinning?

For Every Season Is There A Season?

Back in the early 60s the historian and social observer Daniel Boorstin was asked to participate in a symposium on advertising in America.  Others also invited, such as the CEO for Batten Barton, gave thoughtful, informative talks about how the process of consumer persuasion worked.  Boorstin, fresh from the triumphant publication of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, had other ideas.

American society was "thinning out," he began.  Technology and other forces had eliminated much of the difference between being here and there.  One could experience a sports event by staying home, and see close-ups of the game that would be missed by actually attending the game.  Distinctions between being in one part of the country or in another were vanishing because franchised retailers and chains were offering the same products and services, and the same tastes and flavors, regardless of where consumers were located.  Mass media were imposing a uniform English speech so that there was no difference between being in one place or being elsewhere.

And, he continued, technology made it possible to eliminate differences between winter and summer, or inside and outside.  Efficient heating made winter indoors similar to summer outdoors, and air conditioning eliminated any trace of temperature variation.  We were establishing a life that was thinning and increasingly closed to variations, i.e., devoid of contours and extremes.  Therefore, advertising a product involved highly creative and persistent work coming up with a message that would separate the product from the others, to make it stand out.  Advertising needed to show that owning this thing would make the consumer better, and make her life better, in a culture where natural differences in reality were eroding.

What has Thinning Got To Do with Chautauqua? 

In a way, any trend in our society has a lot to do with Chautauqua, since it is linked to in a million ways.  We know that the Institution does reflect the rest of America, and that at the same time it has a tradition of resisting uniformity and flatness.  By definition, Chautauqua embraces the traditional, the new, the different, and the open.  A "verdant grove" with a panoply of unique architectural styles is no suburb confronting a thinning out of its culture.

Until about four decades ago Chautauqua was virtually immune to the sameness and erosion of differences that Boorstin warned his audience about. A prosperous postwar middle class expanded and with it the use of conveniences and technology, much of it driven by growth in personal income, media and telecommunications, marketing, and the “outer-directed” consumer described in Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd.” Americans became more comfortable, and as this comfort progressed, the facilities in the verdant grove evidently – to some – needed to be overhauled.

As a result, is there some thinning inside the Gate?  Consider the changes on the grounds since the 70s that challenge the important parts of the Institution's definition, of tradition, of simplicity, and of openness.  For example, the steady influx of condominiums (whether brand new dwellings or retrofitted rooming houses) and the corresponding disappearance of hotels, rooming houses and restaurants brings a uniformity and eliminates the difference between here and there. Is there any distinction between a condominium at this end of the Grounds versus that end?

The Risk of Thinning Manifests Itself in Other Ways.

Consider air conditioning as a standard "upgrade."   Certainly air conditioning makes sense to a lot of people on a 92 degree, muggy afternoon. 

But there is another side to this addictive piece of equipment.  As our friend Boorstin would find, it assures Chautauquans while in their condos that the heat of summer weather is thinned out of their day - until, of course, they walk outdoors.  It has the effect of eliminating the range of weather in July and August by providing an artificial weather that is not Chautauqua's reality.  Hence the span of daily existence that previous generations of visitors lived out each season is not merely diminished;  it is eliminated.


Sounds trivial?  Let's put the a/c in context:  Chautauqua now offers an ever larger market of housing that is undistinguished, with suburban upgrades that eliminate the difference between living on the grounds and living in a middle (or upper) class condo in a metropolitan area anywhere in America.  Not merely air conditioning, but televisions, and Internet access. Outside the home, the Smith Memorial Library is offering wi-fi access for computer users, and even the Institution's archives are being digitized and put on-line. Will we prefer to visit the archives digitally rather than eyeball the collection in reality? 

A purist can argue that over scores of seasons past Chautauquans got along fine without air conditioning, suburban upgrades, and underground parking. Although there is a limit to drawing comparisons between yesterday’s assemblies and today’s, the surrender to suburban amenities in a special town like Chautauqua raises a fair question. Think about it: it is unfair to condemn modern comforts because visitors lived in tents on platforms in the 1890s, but it is also unfair to assume that Chautauqua is unaffected by the signs of the thinning of its life style.

Comfort-bringing upgrades that make one place on the Grounds the same as any other spot, particularly residences, come with the risk that they push the Institution and the community one step closer to the sameness of the life outside the Gate. There should be no thinning of the distinction between “here” and the life “there,” the one we defer when we come “here.” Thinning this distinction can ironically confer upon Chautauqua places a suburban kind of privacy that the openness of the Grounds rejects. Distinguish, in this context, a concert at Lenna Hall with one at the Amphitheater. Being sealed inside an air-conditioned recital hall has its charm in 90 degree weather, but there is a compromise.

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