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Joyful Noise: Reflections on Applause.

Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands.

Psalms 66:1

... the amazed and stormlike staccato of adulant palms ... William Faulkner, "An Error In Chemistry"

During the partial solar eclipse on May 9, 1994, I found myself standing in a crowd of about two hundred people on the Cornell Arts quad. Dutifully heeding the experts' warnings against looking directly at the sky, we were watching an optical projection of the eclipse on a large white screen. At the moment of complete "annularity," when the silhouette of the moon is fully superimposed on the sun, the thin crescent of light on the screen suddenly became a perfect ring, a breathtaking sight. And at that moment the entire crowd spontaneously burst into applause.

Whom or what were we applauding? We tend to imagine when we applaud at a live performance that the applause is "for" the performers, that its purpose is to communicate our approval to them. But this applause suggested that, in some cases at least, communication is a secondary motive, that applause is first and foremost a way of responding to the elation of a moment. Applause of this kind is itself a performance, not a communication; not, that is, the calculated expression of a preexisting judgment, but the enactment of judgment or response.

Applause is a curious and neglected phenomenon. Problems of aesthetic judgment have been studied by philosophers and theorists in the realms of reading, visual arts, music, film and theater, but this most concrete and quantifiable form of response seldom comes in for discussion. There's something vaguely embarrassing about it, I suspect, particularly to philosophers and critics in love with the purity of abstractions. Applause is real, sweaty, grubby, a kind of bodily secretion rather than (or in addition to) an operation of the sensibility. Moreover applause is a public ritual, governed by elaborate codes and conventions, and as such seems an unlikely source of insight into the nature of aesthetic value. Cultural, social, and economic variables all affect applause, inflating or depressing it, prolonging or aborting it, changing its tone and intensity. In this country in particular the more extreme expressions of approval--whistles, stamping feet, standing ovations--have become tediously predictable. Without them, audiences apparently feel, they're all but admitting they've wasted their evening. Given these corrupting influences, it would seem foolish to claim that applause can offer anything like a reliable measure of aesthetic value.

And yet there are times when applause feels real--when it feels less like a duty or ritual than a physical need, as urgent and visceral as any other bodily appetite or compulsion. This kind of applause--spontaneous, involuntary, impassioned, as opposed to merely "polite"--opens a window on questions of aesthetic value that may help us get beyond or at least refine the various aporias that have generally governed such discussions. Applause may be a crude way to measure value, but it can also show how palpably value is felt to exist by a community whose individual members may differ in all sorts of ways. Precisely because it is so "common," in all senses of the word, it offers the same kind of starting point for serious reflection that everyday idioms and grammatical structures offer to ordinary language philosophers.

Praise, Boos, Laughs, Tears, Standing O's, Silence

I'm considering applause here in its more concrete form, as the audible expression of approval by a group; but in its broadest sense applause is synonymous with praise in any form. Yet the terms applause and praise are interestingly distinct in their resonances. To begin with, praise suggests language, speech, articulation. One cannot praise adequately without singling out or naming specific qualities and features that call for commendation. Applause, in its purest form, is inarticulate, sheer noise, yet it's a noise that carries rich possibilities of meaning. Indeed for the seasoned performer a particular round of applause may become a kind of text, full of details and nuances to be savored, analyzed, interpreted. But applause differs from praise most crucially in the power relations presupposed between performer and respondent. To bestow praise implies a degree of power over the recipient of the praise. Certainly performers make a show of deferring to their audiences--most explicitly in the ritual of bowing--yet when applause is genuine rather than polite it feels less like a favor graciously bestowed than a response forced from us by the importunate power of what we've seen or heard.

In seeking out the quiddity or special nature of applause it may be helpful to set it beside other kinds of audience response. We can begin with that least welcome of responses, booing. On the face of it booing would seem to be a simple obverse of applause, negative where applause is positive, nasty where applause is nice. Yet it's surely significant that booing is vocal, and moreover requires a minimal degree of verbal articulation. The "b" sound is after all crucial to the response's meaning, distinguishing it from the "oooh" of astonishment or admiration that greets certain spectacles. (Confusion is still possible; listening to a live record of Bruce Springsteen it took me a while to realize that the fans were chanting the singer's name.) In short one must think a "boo" in order to produce it.

In a study of booing as a "disaffiliative response" to political speeches and debates, the sociologist Steven E. Clayman finds that booing tends to be more organized than applause:
   Applause usually begins promptly and its onset is coordinated primarily by
   audience members acting independently in response to prominent junctures in
   a speech. Booing is usually delayed and is coordinated primarily by
   audience members monitoring each other's conduct so as to respond together.

In aesthetic contexts as well boos are rarely isolated responses. Individuals seem to need the protective cover of a group to give vent to hearty disapproval. What Clayman calls the "asymmetry" between applause and booing as modes of social behavior points to what may be a much deeper imbalance between delight and distaste. The neurological circuits that link feelings of pleasure, admiration, appreciation with their bodily expressions appear to be more direct than those connecting negative responses with their expressions, perhaps because the latter are more likely to place us in an adversarial relation with others.

Applause also needs to be distinguished from more localized responses like laughter and tears, which tend to greet particular moments within a performance or event. Overt weeping in audiences has become an increasingly rare phenomenon in our cool, ironic, postmodern age, but there were times of yore when the sound of collective sobbing threatened to drown out performances of The Drunkard or Uncle Tom's Cabin. (As recently as fifty years ago performances of Death of a Salesman reportedly met with audible sobs from men as well as women; not surprisingly, its recent Broadway revival failed to elicit that response.) By contrast laughter depends not on identification but on distance, and has therefore become a much more prevalent response in contemporary theaters. Indeed a common complaint today is that younger audiences tend to laugh nervously at moments of high pathos, as though unable to surrender to a represented emotion or regard it without irony. Whether or not these responses occur in sync with a given performance, they have a purely reflexive quality that separates them from applause, which entails at least a minimal degree of aesthetic judgment. Perhaps this is to say that applause is an incipient form of language, as laughter and tears are not.

On the other side of applause we encounter that ever more ubiquitous demonstration known as the standing ovation. Ostensibly an audience's way of making its approval visible as well as audible, standing O's may look like a natural extension and intensification of applause, but in fact mark a fundamental shift in the dynamics of response. Where traditional applause is infinitely elastic, capable of registering, however subtly, thousands of individual modulations in rhythm, volume, and zeal, a standing ovation is essentially a binary code--it's either on or off, up or down. Of course it sometimes happens that one or two especially enthused spectators will leap to their feet only to find that no one is joining them. Far more common, however, is the tediously predictable and subtly tyrannical progression from a few isolated standers to scattered perpendicular patches and clumps that spread steadily outward, until finally even the most tepid of spectators feels obliged to join in the general uprightness. (Then there's that ambiguous phenomenon we could call the "phantom standing ovation"--the kind where half the people getting up are already putting on their coats in preparation for a hasty exit to the lobby.)

Why are standing ovations so coercive? Perhaps because once they achieve a certain critical mass anyone who stays seated feels like a spoilsport. Your dissent becomes painfully obvious in a way it never does when you simply aren't clapping as loudly as everyone else. Indeed to keep one's seat in the midst of a wildfire standing O seems to convey a distinctly negative judgment rather than a merely less positive one. However loudly you may clap, cheer, whistle, your very failure to stand acts as the equivalent of a boo, a thumbs down, a churlish withholding of enthusiasm.

The standing ovation has become especially prevalent in America. The jazz critic Gary Giddins derisively refers to the "GASO" or "Great American Standing Ovation" that's routinely awarded to singers who belt out a few high notes, dog acts, high school productions of Our Town and just about everything else. The sad truth is that standing ovations have become an audience's way of certifying its own wisdom, of collectively driving up the value of its monetary and aesthetic investment. Something like the phenomenon of grade inflation in American colleges seems to be at work, crowding the range of acceptable responses into the upper end of what was once a much more capacious scale. The real shame of this trend is that a truly spontaneous standing ovation--the kind where every person in the hall leaps up at the same instant because all know they've just seen something extraordinary--can be an exhilarating experience, one less and less available as the standing O becomes more and more de rigueur.

The true antithesis of applause is of course silence. It's no accident that the Zen tradition makes silence audible by asking us to hear "the sound of one hand clapping." To seasoned performers the sound of no hands clapping must surely be more thunderous than any ovation. In his novel End Zone Don DeLillo writes of "the phenomenon of anti-applause--words broken into brute sound, a consequent silence of metallic texture." For DeLillo the chronic illness of our culture is epitomized by its propensity for various modes of "white noise," amplified silences that implicitly substitute themselves for the polychrome din of the human body and voice responding to what it sees. A few brave souls may still applaud at the movies, but no one applauds his TV or computer screen.

Music, Theater, Sports, Politics

"The poem is the cry of its occasion," Wallace Stevens proclaimed, and the same might be said of applause. No two ovations sound exactly the same: the dynamics of applause vary broadly depending on the kind of event it greets or rewards. The purest form of applause follows music. Sound answers sound, and the sensory continuity makes for a seemingly natural, organic relationship between performance and response. Yet even here a wide range of cultural and generic conventions interpose themselves, shaping the way applause is given. Indeed our assumptions about what and when to applaud turn out to be surprisingly arbitrary. As Frederick Stocken points out in an article for the BBC Music Magazine, "because applause seems so natural to us, we tend to assume that its methods and conventions have remained constant throughout history." Not so; Stocken proceeds to list some of the more significant variations in the practice, beginning with Nero's insistence on being applauded by the "Alexandrian" method, a blend of hollowhanded and flathanded clapping overlaid with loud humming. Less exotic are more recent customs such as applauding between movements of extended works, which only became obsolete in the twentieth century (though not in the opera house, where it's still kosher to applaud big arias). Stocken notes that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was even customary to applaud specific moments within a piece--e.g., a fortissimo passage or a brilliant cadenza. In the pious atmosphere of the modern concert hall such behavior would be considered criminal. To applaud before the final note has sounded feels like a violation of the integrity of the Work. This assumption is no doubt as arbitrary as any other, but it reflects a basic shift in the way we understand and respond to musical performances.

Of course not all music gets the same treatment. Jazz aficionados routinely applaud after solos, reflecting not only the special recognition due improvisers but the more paratactic grammar of jazz, in which the coherence of the whole is often less compelling than the intensity of the parts. But here an interesting dilemma can arise: the more enthusiastically one applauds the last soloist, the less one hears of the next. Applause becomes a kind of feedback, entering into and distorting the performance itself, in some instances leading the soloist to play deliberately "throwaway" passages knowing that they won't be heard. (An analogous case might be the comic actors' trick of looking natural while waiting for laughter to die down so the next line can be delivered.) The spectator often feels a double pressure: to reward a soloist for a fine effort and to stay the hell out of the way of the music. This kind of applause therefore tends to be brief but highly concentrated. Recently some jazz fans have been agitating to abolish applause for solos entirely, but I doubt this will ever happen. A good jazz solo feels too much like a work in itself to be completely subsumed within its setting.

This brings us to rock. Here the line between performance and applause gets even more porous, in part because the massive amplification used in rock concerts ensures that at least something of the music can be heard through even the rowdiest of responses. Large rock audiences can therefore keep up a continuous din that usually swells to a roar at the end of songs but never subsides completely. Clapping becomes just one of many forms of response--shouting, singing, dancing--that allow the spectator to feel intimately involved with the performance. Applause loses much of its character as a vehicle of aesthetic judgment, a marking of distance and reflection, becoming more Dionysian than Apollonian. Having recently attended a Bruce Springsteen concert, I can attest to the amazing power of a great rock performer to knit even the most casual fans into a seething, roaring mass of hips, palms, and throats. On such occasions applause gets dissolved within a larger experience of communal ecstasy--one that under the wrong conditions can verge dangerously close to communal rage (e.g., Woodstock `99).

Applause at the theater is a rather different beast. Here audience reaction gets mediated or modulated by character and plot, by specifically narrative desires, pleasures, and pains. The most naive form of such modulations are the cheers for heroes and boos for villains customary at old melodramas. Even in more sophisticated settings, however, theatrical applause never simply expresses a judgment of the performance. Elements of identification, catharsis, and gratified or thwarted desire are always involved. Shakespeare understood and played on the dual nature of dramatic applause brilliantly in the epilogues to A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. Each coda is spoken in character, and each transforms applause from a mere expression of aesthetic approval to an active exercise of moral power. After suggesting that spectators offended by what they've seen on stage can merely imagine it was all a dream, Puck playfully cries "Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends," punning on hands as instruments of both reconciliation and applause. More somberly, Prospero calls on the spectators to supply the magic he has himself foresworn, thereby freeing him from his island prison:
   ... release me from my bands
   With the help of your good hands.
   Gentle breath of yours my sails
   Must fill, or else my project fails,
   Which was to please.

(The reference to breath suggests that for Shakespeare vocal acclamation was as integral to applause as clapping.) It's surely no coincidence that Shakespeare's two most supernatural plays end by explicitly invoking a magic that rests solely in the spectators' hands. Both speakers are magicians or enchanters appealing to a power beyond their own, asking to be pardoned for their abuses of that power. Applause here becomes a metaphor for the audience's share in the work of creation, a way of completing and so releasing the play and its inhabitants. A more theatrical instance of this device occurs in the stage version of Peter Pan when Peter begs the audience to "clap if you believe in fairies," thereby reviving a fading Tinkerbell. In all these cases applause signifies an active reciprocity between play and spectator, based not on critical judgment but on imaginative participation.

That sense of participation becomes much more literal when we move to the realm of sports. Diehard fans believe they can actually affect the outcome of a game with their cheers, and in close contests they may well be right. Coaches and players often speak of the value of "home cooking," the special chemistry that results when a team plays before its own fans. What most distinguishes sports applause from its more aesthetic cousins is, of course, its thoroughly partisan flavor. Applause becomes inseparable from rooting, the vocal encouragement of one player or team over another. No sports fan worth his or her salt would think of applauding a play by the opposing side, no matter how spectacular. (This principle does vary with quieter, more aristocratic sports like golf and tennis, though even in those games one can detect a difference between merely polite applause and all-out cheering.) In fact there's little clapping per se at large sports events; audience response instead ranges from stamping and whistling to bawling and shrieking. Even at home, watching a close game on TV, I've often felt the impulse to whoop or yell, an urge I have not always successfully resisted. (Shortly after writing this sentence I was watching Game 2 of the 1999 WNBA Finals, New York versus Houston. Upon seeing Teresa Weatherspoon's incredible last-second shot from half court that won the game for New York I let out a yell that brought my wife and son running in alarm.) The pure presentness of sports, the sense it gives of an absolutely unpredictable series of events unfolding in real time before one's eyes, seems to call forth a corresponding need in the viewer to hail the miraculous moment as noisily as possible.

Finally there is politics. Applause for and during political speeches might seem to be a purely cognitive rather than an aesthetic response, a way of signalling agreement rather than appreciation. Of course the line between politics and aesthetics has never been a clear one, and in an age of photo ops and focus groups it's blurrier than ever. These days so-called applause lines are written into speeches with complete confidence that they'll elicit the desired reaction. Indeed in a skillful piece of political oratory rhythm, pace, and cadence are at least as important in dictating audience response as content. If theatrical applause tends to assume a certain moral weight, political applause usually marks the point at which moral assent and aesthetic pleasure coincide. Yet precisely because it occurs at the intersection of form and ideology, political applause can take on surprising rhetorical force. To take a recent example: an unmistakeable edge of derision could be heard in the fierce clapping from the Republican side of the aisle for certain lines during Bill Clinton's 1998 State of the Union Address, delivered shortly after the Monica scandal broke--e.g., "A strong nation rests on the rock of responsibility."

Pleasure, Rage, Love, Power

What exactly does applause do, and for whom ? In the crassest sense applause is a kind of money. (Not so crass, perhaps, if we remember Wallace Stevens' adage that money is a kind of poetry.) The most transparently economic motive for applauding is to elicit an encore. Such applause acts as a bribe or tip, meant to coax special services from its recipient. These days of course encores are almost always fully programmed and rehearsed, and so the ritual exchange of prolonged applause for additional performance time has become routine, part of the basic transaction between audience and performer rather than a mark of extraordinary favor. We've lost a certain freedom and spontaneity predicated on the possibility of negative as well as positive gestures--boos or simply silence on the spectator's part, a refusal to go beyond the minimal program on the performer's. In economic terms one might say that the paradigm governing applause and encore has shifted from a gift-exchange or potlatch to a strict payment-for-service model. Modern audiences are now felt to "owe" performers a certain amount of applause, just as performers "owe" their audiences an encore.

If we remove encores from the equation, applause serves as a simple reward for what's already been given, an act of requital or "quiting," a cancelling of the debt incurred by a pleasureable performance. Such payment might seem purely symbolic in nature, though it has obvious financial implications--performers who get lots of applause tend to get lots of bookings, etc. But subtler benefits may also accrue to the recipient, as the poet A. R. Ammons observes:
   Applause is a shower
   to the watertable of
   in the downpour
   the watertable's irrelevant
   but after the shower passes
   possibility takes on
   an extensive millimeter.

In Ammons' ingenious metaphor applause doesn't simply disappear once it's been bestowed, but gets channelled into a kind of narcissistic reservoir (or to revert to the monetary analogy, a psychic bank account) that in turn enhances the artist's residual sense of "possibility."

I'm less interested in what applause does for its recipients, however, than in what it can do for its givers. Applause satisfies a need or appetite as profound, I would insist, as the appetite for the aesthetic experience that elicits it. Applauding for a good performance can itself be a pleasure of the highest order. Anticipating a trip to see the famous actress Berma, Proust's Marcel compares himself to a "battery that accumulates and stores up electricity," and this trope nicely captures the temporal character of aesthetic experience generally. Attending a play or concert is essentially passive, receptive. We take in stimuli and store them, letting them build in pressure until they eventually demand to be released. The sexual analogue is inescapable; if art produces a kind of pleasurable friction or excitation, then applause is the orgasmic discharge that dispels the accumulated tension. (Other forms of bodily relief may also be apposite; consider the phrase "Hold your applause," with its faint evocation of a full bladder.) Traditionally catharsis or emotional release has been located within the bounds of the aesthetic experience proper--at the denouement of a tragedy, or in the harmonic resolution of a symphony. Yet in a real sense the process has not been completed, the gathered energy spent, until mind and body have been able to expel something commensurate with what they have absorbed. "Dazzling and tremendous, how quickly the sunrise would kill me," chants Whitman, "If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me."

It would be a mistake to imagine that applause springs entirely from unalloyed pleasure and gratitude. One adverb frequently applied to clapping, after all, is "furiously," and surely an element of rage may be detected in fervent applause--rage at the world for failing to achieve the splendor of what we've witnessed; rage at other spectators for corrupting the intimacy of our encounter; rage at ourselves for not having made the thing we've seen; above all rage at the artist or performer for imposing his or her will on us so completely, leaving us so empty and exhausted. Applause is, among other things, an act of violence. What could offer clearer evidence for the theory of art as sublimated aggression than the urge to strike our palms together repeatedly upon seeing or hearing something beautiful? Some of that violence is probably agonistic or competitive, driven by the need to outdo one's neighbors in acclamation; there are famous stories of warring claques at La Scala and other great opera houses, each applauding its favorite tenor or diva while hissing the other's. Some of it may be purely Dionysian: once during a performance of "The Rite of Spring" I felt a powerful impulse to pound on the bald head of the man in front of me. Luckily the piece ended and I was able to clap instead. But passionate applause also possesses a distinctly masochistic tinge. We punish our own palms, an act of self-flagellation designed to show our humility in the face of another's strength. You know you've attended a great performance when your hands are still throbbing long after you've left the hall.

Flesh on flesh: the formula works for love as well as hate. As Juliet says, "palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss." Applause also stages within a single body the rhythm and passion of erotic touch. Anne Sexton's poem "Two Hands" makes applause a metaphor for sexual union:
   From the sea came a hand,
   ignorant as a penny,
   troubled with the salt of its mother,
   mute with the silence of the fishes,
   quick with the altars of the tides,
   and God reached out of His mouth
   and called it man.
   Up came the other hand
   and God called it woman.
   The hands applauded.
   And this was no sin.
   It was as it was meant to be.

The poet Carol Muske offers a more literal account of the primordial link between applause and eros. In her poem "Applause" she imagines a prehistoric woman dancing at night, unaware that she is watched until she hears a strange noise:
   She looked up. It was not the slap of bare feet
   on stone, not the bones of the dead in the wind, but a bearded
   ugly appreciator she would come to call by name. He was saying
   with his hands: I am looking at you and you are my delight
   and this sound makes clear who I am. I am the one watching
   you and saying it is good, making my two hands the collision of
   love and power.

Love and power, aggression and desire are the twin engines that fuel applause. Muske's scenario feels vaguely ominous in its alignment of male sexuality and power with aesthetic appreciation. Notice, though, that the political force of her story depends on the one-on-one encounter between performer and spectator. In most real life situations, of course, spectators greatly outnumber performers, which paradoxically makes the givers of applause less individually powerful, more anonymous and fractional than the recipients. Still, Muske is surely right to suggest that applauding is fundamentally sexual in its will to mastery over the object of admiration. Unable to touch the body we see before us, we touch our own body, over and over, with increasing ardor, until our passion is spent.

Judgment, Grammar, Display, Interplay

Whatever applause's psychic functions may be, its most basic purpose is simply to express an audience's judgment. In this respect applause stages in a highly concentrated, localized way the communal, dialogic, and performative processes of value-making that occur over much wider ranges of time and space as well. Applause, in other words, offers something like a hothouse version of aesthetic reception, radically condensed and accelerated yet not fundamentally different from the kinds of judgment that govern the long-term evaluation of art and literature. By studying applause, its dynamics and dialectics, we can gain insight into the way aesthetic value gets measured and established through a complex interplay of individual and collective responses.

One of the best ways to understand what applause means for aesthetic judgment is to consider the case against it. Perhaps the most powerful argument against applause has been advanced by Glenn Gould, who besides being one of the greatest interpreters of keyboard music in this century was also a brilliant essayist and aesthetician. Gould was notorious for his aversion to live performances and the exhibitionistic ethos he felt they bred; hence his early retirement from concertizing in favor of studio recording. In a provocative piece entitled "Let's Ban Applause," Gould lays out the aesthetic principles behind his rejection of the stage:
      I have come to the conclusion, most seriously, that the most efficacious
   step which could be taken in our culture today would be the gradual but
   total elimination of audience response.

      I am disposed toward this view because I believe that the justification
   of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not
   its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not
   the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the
   gradual, life-long construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Through
   the ministrations of radio and the phonograph, we are rapidly and quite
   properly learning to appreciate the elements of aesthetic narcissism--and I
   use that word in its best sense--and are awakening to the challenge that
   each man contemplatively create his own divinity.

"Aesthetic narcissism" is a loaded phrase, despite Gould's wry insistence that he means it in the best sense. Presumably the aesthetic narcissist cannot tell the difference between the work of art and "his own divinity," and so applause for him is superfluous. Solitary contemplation or communion is Gould's model of the ideal encounter between work and viewer or listener. Such solitude was once reserved for readers, but with the advent of high quality recordings and broadcasts it has become available to music lovers as well, a development Gould celebrates. He blithely proceeds to dispatch possible objections to his stance:
      "But surely," some may counter, "applauding after a performance is as
   natural to a listener as sneezing at the sun on a windy day." I reply that
   one may listen to a recording of a Beethoven symphony alone or in the
   company of friends and, though deeply moved at its conclusion, experience
   no more urgent need than a quick trip to the icebox for a soda water. And
   if we concede, then, that it is the law of the herd that governs the
   response of an audience to a performer, can this response be further

      "Democracy, the rule of Majority," someone argues. "Why should the
   paying customer be deprived of the right to voice his opinion?" Well, apart
   from the fact that the other paying customers did not subscribe to hear his
   opinion, one must take into account the peculiar laws of acoustical
   psychology, whereby a strategically placed rooter or detractor may, by
   applying the proper vocal leverage at a judicious moment, enlist the
   bellowing echo of many hundreds of his fellows.

For Gould applause manifests little more than a herd instinct and so stands at the farthest remove from authentic judgment. It's worth recalling that Gould's own musical tastes were notably idiosyncratic; he took a perverse delight in trashing Mozart and Beethoven, for instance, along with most of the nineteenth century piano repertoire. His aversion to applause thus reflects a more general disdain for established or collective opinions, an insistence on the absolute autonomy of the self and its responses. For Gould genuine aesthetic experience only occurs through a complete identification between auditor and work, a communion in which, as T. S. Eliot puts it, "you are the music while the music lasts." Since the noise of other people responding to the music one has just heard threatens to disrupt that identification, it's easy to see why Gould resents it. Yet the desire to have the work of art all to oneself, without the distraction of other minds' responses to the same stimuli, ultimately leads to solipsism, a more extreme version of what Gould calls "aesthetic narcissism."

The solitary communion that Gould advocates has an undeniable appeal, but the special intimacy with one's fellow spectators that arises in the presence of a great performance has much to recommend it as well. What allows a collection of separate individuals to feel and speak as one? Here a brief foray into classical aesthetics may be useful. In the Critique of Judgment Kant writes that all genuine aesthetic claims adopt a "universal voice." The peculiar and defining feature of such judgments is that while we know them to be subjective, they must be presented as if they were true for everyone. An act of faith is therefore involved in every aesthetic judgment--faith that the qualities, powers, or values we apprehend in a given work or performance are there for others too. One reason applause can be deeply satisfying is because it confirms the deep-seated intuition that our own aesthetic responses are not simply perverse or idiosyncratic, but find an answering chord in other minds. Splicing Kant and Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell suggests that the difference between genuine aesthetic judgment and mere opinion or preference can best be characterized as grammatical. One superficial sign of that difference is the choice of first or third person statements--e.g., "I liked it" versus "It was good"--since in Kant's analysis true aesthetic judgment always involves a predication of the work's innate properties rather than its effects on a particular viewer. Yet we also recognize a grammatical difference between a sentence like "It was a good performance" and a straightforward factual assertion like "It was blue." In effect aesthetic statements obey a special grammar distinct from but inflected by both first person subjectivity and third person objectivity. That grammar might be described as performative, even magical in its claim to wed perception and reality, to bestow an objective or universal status on a private experience.

All of which raises an interesting question: What is the grammar of applause? Do we applaud in the first person singular ("I liked it")? First person plural ("We liked it")? Second person ("You were good")? Third person ("It was good")? Clearly applause can't be reduced to a single grammatical mode; rather, it stages the slippery, ambiguous grammar of aesthetic judgment itself, the becoming-objective of subjective response through the mediation of Kant's "universal voice." As individual handclaps merge into a homogeneous roar, so the separate responses of audience members merge into what feels like a shared judgment, a consensus. Applause is a great leveller, flattening out peaks and valleys of appreciation, smoothing highs and lows, averaging particular responses into a single measurable quantity (literally measurable--think of those quaint devices called applause meters). What happens to the individual in the crowd? Where do his claps go? Even the applauder usually can't distinguish her own noise from that of her fellows. Yet each person claps at a slightly different rhythm, pace, pitch, volume. In this respect applause is less like a chorus singing in unison than an ensemble of instruments playing a counterpoint so dense the separate lines can't be made out. This is why the practice of synchronized clapping common at classical concerts in Europe seems profoundly wrong to me, as coercive in its way as the Great American Standing Ovation or that other spectatorial display known as The Wave. Applause may muffle individual voices, but the freedom of each spectator to make exactly the noise he or she deems fit is crucial to the ritual's legitimacy.

There are of course various ways to set oneself apart from the crowd, or to make oneself heard above its din. Two famous images of non-conformity come to mind: the great shot in Citizen Kane of Charles Foster Kane fiercely applauding his wife's appalling operatic debut long after the audience's polite patter has died down; and Charles Addams' classic drawing of a stricken audience dabbing their eyes at some invisible scene of high pathos while a lone spectator grins ghoulishly. More conventionally, audience members may individuate themselves by whistling, yelling, stamping, or indulging in other demonstrations that depart from the anonymity of clapping. Cries of "bravo" are only partly expressions of high approval; they are also particular spectators' means of displaying their own discernment, the way their enthusiasm exceeds the collective rumble. There may be a special prestige associated with being the first person to yell. One often hears a note of urgency in the "bravo" that breaks the silence at the end of a long symphony or opera, as though the shouter were hellbent on establishing the independence of his (invariably his) adulation.

A step further we find the more tangible practice of bouquet-tossing, ostensibly a reward for extraordinary brilliance, though one wonders if a spectator who has gone to the trouble of bringing flowers would have the discipline to withhold them should the performance of his chosen diva not come up to par. Recently Harper's Magazine reprinted a fascinating letter from a devoted opera buff and inveterate bouquet-tosser addressed to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, members of whom had apparently protested after being struck by floral missiles. The letter climaxed with this moving plea:
      ... I have always thrown flowers to Mirella Freni (I tossed two bouquets
   to her for her Madame Sans-Gene in Zurich last week, I will be tossing a
   bouquet for her Boheme in Chicago, and I expect to toss for her Tatyana in
   Turin in February), and I intend to continue tossing bouquets to Mirella
   until the end of her career. But if Mirella has not retired before she is
   scheduled to return to New York, I will refrain from tossing a bouquet to
   her at the Met (even though fifteen of my sixteen bouquets around the world
   last season landed within three feet of the spot where they were aimed). It
   would break my heart and leave me totally crushed if I failed to toss her a
   bouquet at the Met, particularly if that is where she ends her career.

The man's anguish is palpable in his shifting grammar; one moment he's announcing his intention to "refrain" from tossing at the Met, the next he's declaring it "would" break his heart not to do so. The most extraordinary sentence may be the next one: "It is difficult to enjoy an opera if one will have to stifle one's enthusiasm at the end." To this man the prospect of holding back his bouquet represents a tragic denial of aesthetic gratification (not to mention athletic prowess). For the true fan, applause and bravos are not enough; only a gesture that marks one out from the group, however fleetingly, will do.

Not everyone feels this anxious need to declare his aesthetic independence. Much of the pleasure of applause comes from the almost miraculous sense of amplification it gives. Your own paltry claps return to your ears multiplied a thousandfold, like bread cast upon the waters. One applauds while hearing others applaud: this is a simple yet crucial fact. No self-respecting clapper simply follows the crowd's lead, yet the awareness of a collective response distinct from one's own can influence the timbre and volume of one's applause in complex and subtle ways. Thus if the general ovation seems too tepid one may clap a little harder or faster, adding a few more drops to the ocean, perhaps raising its level a millimeter. Conversely if the crowd's enthusiasm seems excessive one may dampen one's applause a bit in protest. But the relation can be more symbiotic as well, the individual's appreciation feeding on and into the group's. As thousands of separate sounds spread in ripples from each body they create complex patterns of interference and reciprocity that swirl back around their sources and alter them, adding or subtracting volume, changing rhythm or pace, cooling or firing intensity.

In the end other people's responses matter to us, not because we want to keep in step but because we want to feel all there is to be felt. Our sensibilities are porous, not insular; our initial judgment of a performance or work can be modified simply by the force of another person's enthusiasm or contempt. During applause these modifications are tinier and less visible, but they happen all the same. An intricate mesh of sonic filaments connects every person in the hall to every other, whether the audience numbers a dozen or three thousand. We're probably most conscious of our immediate neighbors' reactions--gasps, giggles, groans, muttered wisecracks--which may or may not echo or reinforce our own. But every member of the audience exerts a slight pull on us, and we on them. Ultimately of course our response to any work of art must be our own and no one else's; what applause underscores is that no response occurs in a vacuum. Pace Glenn Gould, aesthetic experience is inescapably social. Even when we read or listen to music in solitude the ghosts of other minds never leave us completely. One of the most loving questions we can ask another person is "How did you like it?" Applause is a way of asking and answering that question simultaneously.


At its most intense and spontaneous, applause verges on religious ecstasy. We feel ourselves merging into a collective body, yet we also feel that the body is ours, that we stand at the source of the storm, that the roar we hear is an emanation of our own wills. Two years ago I attended a performance by the magnificent young tap dancer Savion Glover and his troupe. One number in particular affected me beyond words. It was a duet between Savion and his percussionist, who played assorted hand-held instruments--triangle, tambourine, etc. The fluid patterns of give and take, call and response, challenge and counterchallenge between the two performers were extraordinary, Glover's feet repeating and augmenting every rhythm his partner could play. As the rhythms grew more and more rapid and complex, the sheer exhilaration of the performers more palpable, I could feel vicarious waves of pleasure welling up in me, rising from my legs to my abdomen to my chest and throat. The number wasn't particularly dramatic or elegant, it didn't have the emotional content of other numbers in the show, it was just pure virtuosic exuberance pushed to its limits. And when it ended I leaped to my feet and yelled, along with nearly everyone else in the theater, not because I wanted to but because I had to, because if I hadn't I surely would have strangled or suffocated or exploded. (A year later I went back to see the same show in the same theater, and when the same number came on I had exactly the same response. If a videotape ever comes out it may have to be treated as a controlled substance.)

Of course many of our most powerful aesthetic encounters occur in private, or in circumstances where applause is not an option. Reading a poem or a novel, looking at a painting or a statue, seeing a film or listening to a record, we may feel frustrated at the absence of some formal outlet for the accumulated energies, some ready way of bringing closure to the experience. In such situations we're forced to improvise: by muttering to ourselves, raving to a friend, closing our eyes, leaving the room, eating a banana, etc. At its purest, criticism is simply another substitute for applause, an elaboration and articulation of the sound of someone responding to a work of art. In a certain sense even art is a form of applause, a way of answering other works of art that have left their imprint on the artist. All human experience is governed by the rhythmic alternation of sensory input and motor discharge, a fundamental binarism that achieves wondrous sublimations in the aesthetic realm. In its simplest form the law of stimulus and response dictates that when we feel something we must do something, and applause is the place where that doing first takes on an irreducibly aesthetic form. When babies clap their hands in delight at something they see, they are discovering the pleasure of applause.

I would like to conclude these scattered reflections by turning to a text that contains no obvious reference to applause. Elizabeth Bishop's great poem "The Moose" traces a bus journey from Nova Scotia down through New England. At the end of the poem the bus is stopped by a moose who emerges from the woods to stand in the middle of the road.
   Some of the passengers
   exclaim in whispers,
   childishly, softly,

   "Sure are big creatures."
   "It's awful plain."
   "Look! It's a she!"

   Taking her time,
   she looks the bus over,
   grand, otherworldly.
   Why, why do we feel
   (we all feel) this sweet
   sensation of joy?

   "Curious creatures,"
   says our quiet driver,
   rolling his r's.
   "Look at that, would you."

This moose is no Maria Callas, yet her presence calls forth a kind of hushed reverence that bears a family resemblance to applause. The childish exclamations directed to no one in particular, together with the driver's more gregarious "Look at that, would you," reflect a general impulse to share this vision, to make each witness's awe a measure of the whole. (The closest thing we get to actual applause is the strange detail of the driver "rolling his r's," as if forced to emit some kind of sustained sound in response to the moose's grandeur.) But the central utterance is Bishop's question: "Why, why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?" Buried in those parentheses is a poignant conjecture of commonality, based on nothing more than the fragmentary evidence of a few voices in the dark. Bishop's insistence that the sweet sensation of joy is not hers alone takes us to the heart of applause, where our faith in the likeness of other minds meets our will to make a noise in the presence of beauty.

ROGER GILBERT teaches American poetry at Cornell University. Two anthologies of walking literature that he co-edited with Anne Wallace and Jeffrey Robinson, The Walker's Literary Companion and The Quotable Walker, were published last year by Breakaway Books.
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Publication:Southwest Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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