Voyeuristic, Virtuous, Vicariouscthe Consumption of the Performing Arts?

ABSTRACT - This paper focuses on the consumption of the performing arts. Preliminary thoughts suggest that an apt description is 'voyeuristic, virtuous, vicarious’. In the spirit of marketers’ enthusiasm for 'mnemonics’, these three terms are used to create a framework in which literature is examined to generate deeper understanding. It becomes apparent that considerable differences exist between products within the category and that each product can be multifaceted and consumed at different levels by different consumers. Certain personality variables are also identified as having potentially explanatory and predictive power with respect t consumer responses. The paper concludes that the three descriptors offer only a partial description. Finally, it outlines directions for future research.


Mary Caldwell (1998) ,"Voyeuristic, Virtuous, Vicariouscthe Consumption of the Performing Arts?", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 133-138.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 133-138


Mary Caldwell, University of New South Wales, Australia

[The author wishes to thank her doctoral supervisor for his continuing support and useful advice in the preparation of this paper and her research in general.]


This paper focuses on the consumption of the performing arts. Preliminary thoughts suggest that an apt description is 'voyeuristic, virtuous, vicarious’. In the spirit of marketers’ enthusiasm for 'mnemonics’, these three terms are used to create a framework in which literature is examined to generate deeper understanding. It becomes apparent that considerable differences exist between products within the category and that each product can be multifaceted and consumed at different levels by different consumers. Certain personality variables are also identified as having potentially explanatory and predictive power with respect t consumer responses. The paper concludes that the three descriptors offer only a partial description. Finally, it outlines directions for future research.


"Voyeurs truly delight in the human scene. However, those of a less lascivious nature also take pleasure in watching others perform. By definition, performing arts patrons consume human performances. But unlike voyeurs, their participation in the vicarious pleasures of the flesh, enjoys widespread acceptance. Once framed in the context of "the arts", all human activities lay claim to virtue. What is taboo, erotic, can become part of a publicly approved aesthetic. Destruction, depravity and deceit is frequently considered as fascinating as atonement, morality and truth. The consumption of the performing arts, therefore, could be considered a kind of "virtuous voyeurism". However, this seems a very limited view. Certainly, it is "voyeuristic" i.e. people observe others and derive pleasure from it. But the consumption of the performing arts involves a far wider variety of performance practices and consumer responses compared to voyeurism. The question therefore remains: What distinguishes the consumption of the performing arts?"

The preliminary thoughts sketched so far suggest that the consumption of the performing arts could be regarded as: 'voyeuristic, virtuous, vicarious’. In the spirit of marketers’ enthusiasm for 'mnemonics’ (as evidenced in the 4P’s, and more recently the 7P’s and 11C’s), these three terms are embraced and used with poetic licence to create a framework in which literature drawn from the social sciences is organised and examined so as to generate greater understanding of the topic [Due to space limitations of this paper, referencing is kept to a bare minimum and only a selected bibliography is supplied. An extended version of the paper, in which all sources are acknowledged, is available from the author on application.].


The consumption of the performing arts is an aspect of consumer behaviour which remains relatively unexplored. There are reasons that it deserves further investigation. First, there is increasing evidence that consumers purchase products not only for their functional outcomes but also to derive pleasure during usage (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). The performing arts product category is a case in point. In this instance, gratification is a result of an array of responses experienced during the consumption of the core product ie. human or human-like performances intended for display, as well as that of the augmented product eg. merchandise, atmospherics, social interaction. Furthermore, as a generally 'companionate activity’ enjoyment is often derived from close interpersonal interaction with a fellow consumer or consumers as well as that derived from being part of a larger social gathering (Gainer 1995). How and why responses are generated in this context is not as yet well undersood.

Second, awareness has increased amongst performing arts managers that an understanding of marketing and hence consumer behaviour is critical if their organisations are to survive and prosper. This trend is paralleled by another. There is a tendency for upper socio-economic groups in the more affluent western countries to be less interested in ownership and exhibition of tangible goods, and more in products that facilitate unusual experiences and provide evidence of a moneyed lifestyle. Information generated by sound research into the performing arts could promote the formulation of more effective marketing plans and hence the success of organisations involved in the marketing of the performing arts and products of a similarly experiental nature.

The objective of this paper, therefore, is to take a preliminary step towards understanding the consumption of the performing arts. The paper draws on the consumer behaviour and marketing literature and also works found in the other social sciences; notably anthropology, art theory, aesthetics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, semiotics, communications, leisure, and drama studies.


In a landmark article, Deighton (1992) notes that the central feature of the performing arts product category is 'dramatistic performance’. This is defined as a witnessed event, which the audience perceives to happen in relation to an obligation and holds to a standard. Hence, unlike many other consumption practices, observation is not incidental to the consumption of the performing arts, it is absolutely necessary. This analysis suggests that at least two factors warrant consideration: (i) the observer and (ii) the observed.

The Observer:

During the consumption of the performing arts, consumers can have a variety of experiences, many of which are prime motivators for attendance. These experiences can be described as follows:

*    Sensory Activation: Due to their sensory receptors being activated by external stimuli, performing arts patrons have sensations. For instance, they can experience a tingling down the spine during a moving passage in a symphony or a cold draught in an empty concert hall. Sometimes spectators are simply overwhelmed by sensory stimulation. Consider the effect of the dazzling sets and costumes often featured in a Broadway musical. At other times, patrons may suffer from sensory deprivation and are bored or annoyed as a result. Many times people are aroused simply through the immediate presence of others. If their companions are performers, factors such as fame, physical attractiveness and admiration for high levels of skill may enhance this sensation (Wilson 1991). If it is their co-patrons, it may invole a sense of belonging, identity or the warmth of a shared experience. Significantly, people’s ability to pay attention may also be influenced by a remarkable factor: the more people there are in an audience, the easier it is to pay attention (Wilson 1991). [This partly explains the giving away of free tickets when theater attendance is predicted to be low. The other reason is that performers find it easier to perform to fuller houses.]

*    Emotional Arousal: Audience members can experience numerous "feeling states", which can be pleasant or unpleasant and have varying degrees of intensity. For instance, one listener could be transported into a state of bliss by a pianist’s rendition of Mozart while another could find it mildly irritating. Emotional arousal is often greater when it is experienced in the context of an audience, being "magnified in proportion to the number of people present" (Wilson 1991, p. 62). 'Emotional contagion’, which occurs when emotions are transmitted between members of a group, can also 'spark off’ emotional arousal during performances (Wilson 1991).

*    Cognitive Stimulation: People can generate a variety of thoughts during performances. Typically, they engage in extensive interpretation, relying on stored information and the ability to make associations. This may involve generating images internally such as (i) recalling a prior event ; (ii) creating a solely imaginary image; or (iii) be a combination of both (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982). Consumers may also be trying to work out what is happening next, evaluating the skills of the players, assessing if their expectations are being met, deciding whether or not they are enjoying themselves etc. They might also have thoughts that bolster their self concept or feelings of group membership (Gainer 1995).

*    Physical Response: Consumers physically respond to performances. This can involve changes in the speed and depth of breathing, pulse rate, perspiration, adrenaline output, emission of body fluids and the alertness of the brain (Apter 1992). It can also involve a variety of physical activities such as sitting, standing, clapping, swaying, dancing, singing, chanting, laughing, screaming, 'moshing’ ['Moshing' involves people being carried horizontally above audience members' heads, generally during rock concerts.], coughing, eating etc. These activities can: (i) reduce tension e.g. dancing wildly at rock music festivals to release pent-up aggression; (ii) increase arousal levels e.g. executing 'a Mexican wave’ ['A Mexican Wave' involves members of an audience creating a human ripple around an auditorium by standing up and waving their arms upwards.] for amusement themselves; or (iii) be expressive e.g. opera fans cheering to show appreciation. It is noteworthy that the performing arts often provides a convenient context for laughter, as few people laugh when alone (Wilson 1991).

Obviously these experiences do not occur in isolation. They often happen simultaneously, 'bouncing off’ one another. For example, an emotion can trigger off a memory about a prior event, a physical action can activate an emotion. These experiences can require considerable effort on the part of the consumer, often due to the symbolic nature of performances. It is also worth noting that as consumer energy varies over time, so too the experiences extracted from the performing arts (Gould 1991).

Various individual characteristics have been cited as useful in explaining and predicting te consumption of the performing arts (See for instance Hirschman 1982). However few of these constructs have been confirmed through empirical research. The following are exceptions:-

*    Social Class: There is overwhelming empirical evidence that performing arts consumers tend to be higher in income, educational attainment and occupational status (See for example: Bourdieu 1984; Lynch and Veal 1996; RSGB 1991; Semenik 1987). This applies to the more elite forms eg. ballet, opera, symphony concerts rather than those commonly considered as mere entertainment eg. stand up comedy, cabaret. Bourdieu (1984) convincingly clarifies this situation. He explains that people drawn from different social classes are likely to prefer different forms of the performing arts because such activities are used to maintain and communicate social status.

*    Involvement: Gainer (1993) has demonstrated that involvement is a mediator for certain individual characteristics with respect to frequency of attendance at the performing arts. Feminine gender identity is shown to have a direct effect on involvement while sex affects involvement indirectly as a result of childhood experience. This research is supported by the leisure literature in which it is reported that females tend to choose more passive pastimes (Apter 1992) and that childhood experience in a leisure activity is positively related to participation as an adult.

*    Age, Sex and Attitude Towards the Past: In a series of experiments, Holbrook and Schindler (1994), provide evidence that consumers tend to form enduring preferences towards certain cultural products during sensitive periods of their lives. They also show that attitude towards the past may moderate this tendency and that in some instances sex may play a causal role. To increase the generalisability of these findings, additional research is required.

While the above variables seem useful, they do not appear to offer sufficient explanation. In recent times, certain personality variables have emerged that seem to offer promise in better understanding consumption in this context:-

*    Rational and Experiental Information Processing: Two different ways of processing information are proposed by Epstein (1985), which can be described as follows:

Rational: analytic, based on what is reasonable, ruled by logic, behaviour is moderated by conscious appraisal of events, reality is encoded in abstract symbols, words and numbers, justification is via logic, with proof required.

Experiental: holistic, pleasure-pain driven, makes associations with past events, uses "vibes" from past events to assess information, encodes reality as concrete images, metaphors and narratives, emotion-laden. [It is worth noting that females on average tend to be more experiential than males. This may be due to evolutionary processes; females may have traditionally needed to read the non-verbal messages of neonates and small children.]

People tend to think in one way or the other, although across people there is probably a large variance in the degree to which this is the case. Work by Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein and Jarvis (1996) supports this idea, suggestng that some people are remarkably more motivated to engage in cognition than others. There may also be situational influences at play; people may adopt either mode depending on the task at hand situation or switch between modes during the task. It is obvious that these two different ways of processing would result in very different experiences during the consumption of the performing arts. For instance, those who are more rationalist may analyse the work based on rules of logic, describe it in a literal way and denude it of emotion [The expression, "death of the author", found in literary theory, encapsulates well what rational analysis can do to an art work.]. In contrast, experientalists may make associations with past events, readily identify and decode symbols and experience a broader range of emotions.

*     Sensing-Intuiting: This is a dimension of personality which also concerns how people perceive the world: (i) 'sensing types’ "admit to consciousness of every sense impression...they are observant at the expense of imagination"; (ii) 'intuitives’ "admit fully to consciousness only of the sense impressions related to current inspiration, they are imaginative at the expense of observation" (Briggs Myers 1980 p.63). 'Sensing types’, therefore, may be more likely to notice and enjoy the tangible or obvious aspects of the performing arts e.g. stage design, costumes, scenery, physical appearance of performers, action etc. rather than the less obvious, perhaps more symbolic aspects. 'Intuitives’, on the other hand, may be more likely to enjoy a wide variety of performances as they are able to use their imaginations to produce their own images, feelings, and ideas during consumption. They may also be more attracted to certain forms of the performing arts than 'sensing types’ because of their tendency to indulge in a world of fantasy.

*    Openness to Experience: This is a broad dimension of personality seen in (i) vivid fantasy, (ii) attraction to art and beauty; (iii) depth of feelings (iv) variety in activities; (v) intellectual curiosity and (vi) flexible value systems (McCrae and Costa 1985). It is proposed that people who measure high on this dimension are more likely to have and seek a wide variety of experiences during the consumption of the performing arts compared to low scorers. In particular, they are likely to be less conservative and hence enjoy more progressive art forms. It is also suggested that an individual’s scores on any of the sub-dimensions could be predictive of experiences related to it. For instance, people who score high on 'tendency to fantasise’ might be more likely to generate vivid fantasies during consumption of the performing arts.

*     Extroversion/Introversion:- This dimension of personality concerns how people physically interact with the world (Costa and McCrae 1985). Those who are more extroverted have a preference for social interaction, particularly in large groups. They also crave excitement and stimulation. Obviously these types may have a preference for performing arts products which provide such experiences. Their social aspect may also be afforded greater importance in choice. Those who are more introverted may behave in an opposite manner. Andreasen and Belk’s research (1980) lends credence to this assertion. They note that attendance at symphonies is high amongst people who can be classed as socially active as well as those who can be regarded as heavy attendees of culture.

Obviously these personality variables will interact with the aforementioned variables. For instance you may be an extrovert, but have a strong masculine identity, extensive experience in sport as a child and conventional tastes; extroversion in this instance may not predict frequent attendance at the performing arts. Of course all of this may be confounded by a partner who has a passion for baroque music recitals! The way in which these variables interact needs further investigation.

Other factors they may influence attendance can be found in the leisure constraints literature (Jackson 1988). The effect of these constraints on the consumption of the performing arts, which can be temporary or more permanent, is as yet not well recognized. They include such factors as social isolation, the availability of like-minded companions, family life cycle, place of residence, physical disability etc.

The Observed:

As already suggested, the core product of the performing arts consists of performances intended for display. These performances can be viewed in various ways. For instance, they can be manifest in different art forms such as opera, ballet, modern dance, symphony, chamber music, drama theater, choral singing, puppet shows, jazz concerts, rock concerts, folkloric dancing, country and western singing [The lists given here are obviously not exhaustive.]. They can be executed in a variety of styles such as light, serious, traditional, avant garde, old fashioned, contemporary, comic, narrative, etc. Furthermore, numerous activities can be involved including: singing, dancing, acting, mime, playing a musical instrument and so on. 'Performances for show’ can also form part of the augmented product. The services marketing literature points out that the box office staff, programme sellers, ushers, cloak room and candy bar attendants all perform services that can be viewed by consumers. There is also evidence that patrons themselves perform (Gainer 1995). They often use attendance as a means of making statements about themselves to fellow patrons as well as members of the broad social milieu to which they aspire.

There are different types of display associated with performance which can be described as follows (After Beckerman 1990):

*    Shows of Surface: The external appearance of people, animals, things etc. is emphasized. This relates to physical beauty, costumes, make-up, props, sets, music etc.

*    Shows of Skill: The key factor is 'showing off’ or 'calling attention to’ technical skills. An example is a ballet dancer executing a series of difficult steps and awaiting a round of applause.

*    Show and Tell: 'Story telling’ or 'narrative’ is the main focus ["Narrative" in this instance refers to any sequence of events to which meaning can be attached and has a beginning and an end. The term narrative can therefore apply to pieces of music and dance etc. as well as theater and literature.]. Theater and cinema are often archetypal examples.

*    Shows of Illusion: In this case, performers appear to transcend human limitations. For instance, a magician performs an ingenious trick or an actor plays a part convincingly.

The 'shows’ described above are not limited to the performances which form part of the core product. The physical aspects of the places in which the performing arts are held also impress consumers. Consider the impact of a sumptuous interior decor on an evening at the theater. Or the difference between watching 'Opera in the Park’ perched on a picnic rug sipping wine and listening to a similar performance in a barren auditorium.

The different types of display named above can have a variety of qualities which impact upon consumers’ experiences:-

*    Sensory: This includes features of performances such as light, color, contrast, size, sound, temperature, smells, movement, duration, scheduling, dynamism, geographical position, spatial layout etc.

*    Symbolic: The performing arts often incorporate symbols which can be defined as "anything that stands for or represents something else". There is evidence that patrons consider performing arts products as expressive and hence treat more of their features as symbolic than if a similar activity appeared in another context. This is what Winner (1982, p. 7) calls "relative syntactic repleteness’’. At times, it may be as extreme as Eco (1977; p 112) suggests: "The very moment the audience accepts the convention of the mis-en-scene, every element of that portion of the world that has been framed (put on the platform) becomes significant." Decoding all of these symbols is not for the faint-hearted; it is oftentimes arduous work. For many people, this activity takes any possible relaxation out of (and dare one say fun !) the consumption of certain forms of the performing arts.

*    Abstract: Performances have certain theoretical dimensions such as structure, novelty, complexity, familiarity, unpredictability and "cognitive synergy" [Cognitive synergy involves two opposing things being experienced at the same time which causes arousal through perceived contradiction. Eg. a man dressed as a woman i.e. the masculine as feminine; a puppet imitating a human i.e. an inanimate object seeming alive.].

It is obvious from the preceding discussion that products that can be categorized as 'performing arts’ and their associated behaviours are extremely diverse. Not only are there great differences between products, but each product can be multifaceted and consumed at different levels by different consumers. It seems that the next step in understanding this broad domain of consumption behaviour would be to create a means of categorizing these products that would promote greater insight. It could provide a platform for additional research, in particular regarding the investigation of the relationship with certain characteristics of the audience at different stages of the decision-making process.


To claim that something is 'virtuous’ is to claim that it has some kind of moral authority. While the artistic elite often seem inclined to make this claim for 'high art", there are difficulties in accepting it even within this limited sphere. The difficulties become even more severe when the broad concept of the 'performing arts’ in general is considered. As argued earlier in this paper, the diversity of activities that can and are thought to be part of the performing arts make the application of any a priori general claim very risky indeed.

Traditional definitions usually place the performing arts as a sub-category of the arts, involving performances that lack utility, being valued for themselves alone (Bjorkegren 1996). Important components of these definitions are public display, and that the performer has, as a central aim, self expression. Unfortunately, these criteria are not very helpful (After Winner 1982). Obviously the performing arts, by definition, involve performances; the 'dramatistic performances’ previously described are clearly a case in point. However, public performances other than the typically conceived performing arts are equally lacking in utility. For instance, baton twirling majorettes before a football match and the performance of chefs in a Teppenyaki restaurant. Furthermore, a political speech, a sermon, even a lecture on consumer behaviour, can all be regarded as acts of self expression which are put on show to the public.

The most distinguishing feature of the performing arts is that they are considered within the context of the arts, or more specifically 'art’. But herein lies another source of concern. There is often little agreement as to 'what art is’, other than that it is whatever someone wants it to be. This lack of agreement is thrown into sharp relief whenever artists (or performers) attempt to present work that is atypical for its time. Further, the evidence of public opinion surveys provides empirical support for the idea that there is little community consensus about the value of particular kinds of performance; a rock concert can be an inspirational experience for one person while being seen as anathema by another. There is also evidence that some men may devalue the consumption of the performing arts because they associate it with an unacceptably effeminate image.

Significantly, it is in the late twentieth century that the diversity of views appears greater than at previous times. Obviously, this suggests, within the context of seeking to understanding consumer behaviour, the need to catalogue consumer perceptions of the distinguishing features of the performing arts; in full awareness that the market will be heavily segmented.

Despite the problems associated with defining the performing arts, it is, still possible to discern broad trends in community beliefs about their general value. Research consistently shows that people in Western countries (where most of the research has been conducted) are of the opinion that the performing arts make a valuable contribution to society. There is a pervasive belief that a healthy arts community does much to maintain cultural identity, promote social cohesion and provide evidence of a sophisticated culture. Consumption of the performing arts also sits well with certain post modern values such as personal expression, leisure, and exposure to new experiences. It has also been suggested that it promotes mental health because for adults it may be one of the last socially acceptable outlets for mental play and fantasy (Wilson 1981).

Some interesting ideas about the performing arts, which are pertinent given an inclination to focus on the consumer perspective, are found in the research into sacred and profane consumption (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry, 1989). This research suggests that many consumers afford special value to the consumption of the performing arts because it offers people experiences that transcend everyday life, facilitates the celebrtion of values other than 'making a quick buck’ and allows for the preservation of certain aspects of culture. Some, performances could be said to reflect the moral high ground of the community. So given the previous discussion, 'virtuous’ is a term that should be used carefully with respect to the consumption of the performing arts.


One reason that people enjoy the performing arts is the process of identification or self substitution which allows the viewer to share the experience of one or more of the performers. This can be the source of vicarious pleasure. To illustrate: A ballet dancer gracefully executes a series of steps and members of the audience gain a similar sense of movement. If a spectator has participated in the particular form of performing art then obviously the identification process may be easier. Sometimes identification may be therapeutic. For instance Cole (1975; p. 5) suggests that "theatre is an instrumentality by which we are able to explore experimentally a dilemma that otherwise we could pose conceptually. "

Apter (1992) suggests that 'vicarious pleasures’ are possible when people occupy 'the detachment zone’. In this zone, the individual no longer interacts significantly with the 'real’ environment; instead action occurring in a 'constructed environment’ is observed and used as a source of stimulation. The important point is that in "the detachment zone ipso facto one always feels oneself to be experiencing the world from the vantage point of complete safety" (Apter 1992, p.60). Thus, when people are in the detachment zone they can 'enjoy’ a wide range of emotions, both positive or negative, without the risk of serious harm. This explains the popularity of horror movies, fire-eating, the flying trapeze and of course pornography (Voyeurism lurking once again ?).

Obviously, self substitution is not the only way performing arts patrons 'get their kicks’. It is evident from the earlier discussion that other processes are involved and these processes occur over an extended period. However, there is little if any literature concerning the observation process during the consumption of the performing arts. From the consumer behaviour literature it is obvious that expectations and motives will play key roles. A promising starting point for this research appears to be recent work on goal constructs in psychology. It classifies motives ie. "desired consequences" into "within person" and "person environment" and then provides lists within these classifications which appear to exhibit sufficient generality as well as exhaustiveness (Austin and Vancouver 1996). This could be supplemented by research into motives in the arts conducted by Cooper and Tower (1992).

From the services marketing literature, it is also apparent that consumers act as co-producers, particularly during the creation of the core product. This may involve certain cultural norms. For instance, Deighton (1992) notes that most patrons know what reactions are expected and hence control themselves. Often their responses are critical if a certain dynamic is to be maintained during a performance. Consider the role of audience co-operation during the performances of magicians and hypnotists. Other times spectators know that certain reactions will please or displease the performer/s and/or their co-patrons. Conformity can also strongly influence their responses. For instance, a few dominant audience members can exert sufficient presure and suddenly everyone is responding in a similar fashion (Wilson 1991).

It is obvious that much additional research is required. An introspective approach as practiced by Gould (1991) may useful, or that which incorporates a multi-participant perspective as used by Arnould and Price (1993).


This paper began by suggesting that the consumption phase of the performing arts might be characterized by the '3V’s’. It seemed that these three terms might capture those aspects of the process as it is often discussed in the media and lay conversation. However, as appealing as the '3V’s’ might be as a mnemonic, an analysis of the process shows that they don’t provide an accurate and comprehensive description of the consumption phase of the performing arts. While there often is a strong sense of voyeurism involved, there are difficulties ascribing virtue to the process. Rectitude is not an automatic consequence of framing something as art. And "vicarious" only points to one of the many processes which underlie consumer responses to the performing arts.

Nevertheless the discussion of the consumption of the performing arts within the framework of the 3 V’s has yielded some useful results. It has suggested directions for further consumer research, notably the need to:- (i) create a taxonomy of performing arts products reflecting consumer perceptions and motives, (ii) test the explanatory and predictive effect of certain personality variables; (iii) address the impact of leisure constraints and (iv) further explore the different processes which underpin consumer responses to the performing arts.


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Mary Caldwell, University of New South Wales, Australia


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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