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Coughing And The Meaning Of Art

Musical instruments wait for the arrival of the orchestra during the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12.
Mark Ralston
AFP/Getty Images
Musical instruments wait for the arrival of the orchestra during the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12.

A few years back, I attended a Keith Jarrett solo piano recital at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. The hall, which seats nearly 3,000 people, was sold out.

The first time an audience member coughed, Jarrett stopped playing and commented on the excellent timing of the cough. As others coughed, he expressed concern about possible contagion, wondering aloud why it was that people always got colds at his shows, noting how surprising it is that he never gets colds at his own shows. Before long he was berating the audience, challenging them to shut up and comparing this San Francisco crowd to anti-American audiences in Europe in the 1970s.

The audience was enraged. "Just play, will you!" men shouted. People stormed out.

This was not the first time I saw an artist freak out about coughing on stage. Back in the 1990s I attended an evening appearance of performance artist Karen Finley (of NEA controversy fame) at the ART in Cambridge, Mass. The hall was packed.

As I recall, Finley was enacting her experience of her brother's death by AIDS. She addressed the dead brother as though he lay there dying and she was at his bedside.

A member of the audience coughed uncontrollably. The coughing wouldn't stop.

Finally, visibly enraged, Finley walked to footlights, peered out into the gloom and angrily defied the offending individual to leave.

I remember that the audience felt ashamed for her. After all, for all she knew, the person in the audience coughing was sick. Maybe he had AIDS.

Which brings me to today's theme. Most people attending live performances are not sick. But then why is there so much coughing at live performance?

I've seen articles in theater programs suggesting that the cause is bad posture and urging audience members to readjust their posture if they feel a fit of coughing coming on.

But this can't the right explanation. Nobody coughs at the movies, and everybody slouches at the movies.

I learned recently that the director of one large musical forum is convinced that the problem is humidity levels. By raising humidity levels, he believes, he can eliminate the epidemic of coughing that breaks out during shows.

I find this entirely implausible. After all, if the coughing were brought on by an environmental condition of this sort, wouldn't the musicians cough too? And as Keith Jarrett bemoaned on stage that night in San Francisco, he never coughs at his own concerts.

Actually, Jarrett's remark points us in an interesting direction. Jarrett doesn't cough when he's playing because, after all, he's busy. He's got something to do. His attention is absorbed (more or less!) in the task at hand. Not so the audience. It isn't easy to be a live audience. It's your job to sit there, be still and silent, and pay attention.

Paying attention is hard. It requires knowledge. Just what are you supposed to be paying attention to? And it requires skill. In my view, one of the sources of art's value is that it gives us an opportunity to pay attention and perceive what, after all, may require quite an effort to make sense of or appreciate. Art is an opportunity to cultivate in ourselves the ability to comprehend and perceive what is going on.

Jarrett's and Finley's outbursts remind us that even the performers have trouble staying focused. This brings out what is all too obvious — namely, that the audience too is performing, and that the audience too is on display.

Surely that's the big difference with the movies. You are not on display as you sit in the dark at the cinematic spectacle. You are gone. You are invisible. You are transported.

It's never that way at live performance. And precisely because the performers are in the room too, with you, and, as we have been considering, they are aware of you and responding to you.

So why do people cough at live performance? Well, one answer is clear. They are uncomfortable. They are uncertain. They are, very often, bored out of their minds. And they are under pressure not to cough.

That's a recipe for bringing out the scratchy throats. This also explains why paying attention to your posture might help you stop coughing, even if bad posture isn't the cause of the coughing in the first place. It gives you something to do, after all.

So one way to get the audience to stop coughing would be to make the performance more movie-like — louder, brighter, bigger — or more like a sporting event. The soccer great Zidane has said that when he plays before a crowd of 80,000 people, he doesn't even know they are there. He is in his game.

But performance art is not like the movies or a sporting event. The point can never be to pretend that the audience is not there.

So the only alternative is to embrace the audience, and embrace their need to make noise and be heard. Artists and audiences both need to acknowledge that this discomfort is not a bad thing. In fact, it's what the audience is paying for. Coughing at shows is not a problem.

Back to my evening with Keith Jarrett in San Francisco. Once the audience had thinned out, we were left alone with a piano player who had now put fully on display just how fragile were his own powers of concentration, just how delicate his own ability to make the event happen. At one point, he had laid his head down on the keys and explained that the coughing had made him settle for an ending that disappointed him.

And then something remarkable happened. Everything changed. The audience's anger at the self-indulgent performer transformed itself into a sense of love for the artist who was, after all, right there, on the stage, before us all, trying to make himself into someone who could make it happen. He was struggling.

Jarrett went on to play for hours. There were five encores. And no one noticed if people were still coughing.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter:

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.
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